Authors: Grant Blackwood
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #War, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Military, #Suspense, #Thrillers
“Nice digs, Seth,” Jack whispered. “What the hell are you up to?”
Why had his friend abandoned his real apartment for this spartan bolt-hole? According to Spellman, Seth’s mail had been piling up for almost a month. Providing that was when Seth had moved here, what had prompted it? And why had Seth given him the key? It certainly wasn’t so Jack would have an alternative place to lay his head. Seth had wanted him to come here, to find something—most likely whatever was inside that safe.
Jack crossed to the safe, knelt down, and tried the handle. It was locked.
Unbidden, Seth’s final words at Chaibar café popped into Jack’s head: “There’re steaks in the freezer.”
“Clever boy,” Jack muttered.
He stepped out of the bedroom.
At the end of the hall stood a man; he was pointing a gun at Jack’s chest.
“Not a sound, or I’ll put you down.”
• • •
THE MAN’S ACCENT
was American. His face was covered by a balaclava.
Jack thought. Was he dealing with one of Matt Spellman and Raymond Wellesley’s men? If not, this was a hell of a coincidence.
The man held a semi-auto affixed with a noise suppressor the size of a soda can. With a suppressor of that size, a shot would be softer than a paperback book being slammed on the floor. Jack’s heart started to pound.
“Hands up,” the man said.
Jack raised his hands.
The bag of carrots he’d had pressed to his thigh hit the floor.
The man asked, “Did you kill him, that one out there?”
“Bloodied him up a bit, though.”
“Him or me. Friend of yours?”
“Shut up. I ask, you answer.”
If these two men were partners, this one was giving nothing away.
“You got his gun, yeah?” the man said. “Face away from me and pull it out—two fingers on the barrel, nice and slow, put it on the floor.”
Jack turned away from the man and, as he pulled out the nine-millimeter, sucked in his gut, then hunched forward slightly, edging the wallet down the front of his pants. He knelt down, repeating the undulation motion, then, hoping the wallet was out of view, laid the gun on the floor.
“Turn around and kick it over to me,” said Balaclava.
Jack did so. The nine-millimeter spun across the hardwood floor and bounced to a stop at the man’s feet. His own gun never wavering, Balaclava knelt down, picked up the gun, and stuffed it into his waistband.
I’m still alive
. That was both very good news and very bad news. Something told Jack this new player wasn’t the kind of man you wanted to spend any alone time with.
“Listen,” Jack said, “I walked in here and that guy attacked me. That’s all I know. Let me go and—”
The man chuckled. “Not happening, pal. Walk toward me. Careful or I’ll put one in your knee, got me?”
Hands raised, Jack walked down the hall. The man maintained his distance, backstepping until he and Jack were in the main room.
The man stepped to the door and flipped off the overhead light. The room went dark, save what little light filtered out from the kitchenette.
“On your knees, ankles crossed.”
Jack hesitated, considering his options. There was almost no chance he could close the gap. The man could put three rounds into Jack before he took two steps.
“Best not to think about it too much,” the man said. “Do what I say and maybe we’ll get to be friends.”
Jack knelt down.
The man walked to the unconscious figure on the floor, knelt down, and pressed his fingers to the man’s throat.
“Still alive?” Jack asked.
“He is. Good luck for you.”
“Maybe he’s got identification—”
“Damn, man, shut your mouth. You’re not exactly a quick learner, are you?”
“Turn around, face away from me.”
Jack shook his head. “If you’re going to kill me—”
“Nah, see, I’m more of a face-to-face guy. We’re going to have a nice private chat. How you come out the other end will depend on your answers. Turn around.”
Jack’s heart was in his throat. He had no choice. He was going to turn around either of his own volition or because he had a bullet in his knee.
Shit, is this where it ends?
he thought. Again he quashed the impulse to charge the man. Jack guessed this man’s idea of a chat was going to involve a lot of pain and blood, but it might also buy him some time. Either way, at the end of whatever was coming, Jack was going to end up dead.
Play for time, then.
The man groaned, rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on, man—”
He fired a round into the floor before Jack’s knees. Wood chips peppered his thighs. He squeezed his eyes shut.
Son of a bitch.
“—you’re testing my patience. Turn around. Last warning.”
Jack maneuvered himself so he was facing the windows.
Footsteps clicked on the wooden floor behind him.
He felt something slam into the back of his head. Then nothing.
ACK FELT HIS
body lurch upward. His head banged against something with a dull thunk. He opened his eyelids slightly; waves of pain radiated across his head and pulsed behind his eyes. He squeezed them shut again, took several deep breaths, until finally the pain eased. What had happened?
Ambush . . . Balaclava Man
The floor beneath Jack was shuddering, emitting a crinkling sound. Jack’s brain started assembling pieces: He was moving. Inside a vehicle. He opened his eyes again and scanned his surroundings. A small panel van, white walls, tool racks holding spools of wire and hand tools. An electrician’s van.
He was lying on a plastic tarp, feet toward the front seats, his head resting on the driver’s-side wheel well. His jacket was gone, leaving him in only a polo shirt. Jack rocked slightly onto his butt and could feel his back pocket was empty.
They’d taken his wallet, which contained his Virginia driver’s license, personal credit cards, hotel room key card, and his hybrid satellite cell phone. None of these would lead his kidnappers anywhere of value. As did all of The Campus’s operations officers, Jack practiced good digital tradecraft: In addition to having his phone AES-256 password-protected, Jack religiously cleared his call history, discussed nothing over instant messaging or e-mail that was confidential or extraordinary, kept nothing but innocuous contacts in his address book, and aside from Hendley’s main line, there were no numbers on his speed dial; the rest he’d committed to memory. In short, his phone was as gray as could be—as was his room at the Parsian Hotel Azadi. Still, if they realized he was Jack Ryan, Jr. . . . Like it or not, Jack knew he was a high-value target.
The tarp he lay on was a bad sign. It suggested they were going to start working on him here. It wouldn’t do to have the van’s interior bloody. His hands were bound before him with a thick zip-tie, but not his ankles. Better news.
From the front seat a voice said, “Check on him.” Jack recognized the voice: Balaclava.
Jack shut his eyes. Through his lids he sensed a flashlight beam pass over his face. The beam went dark.
“Still out,” came the reply.
This voice Jack didn’t recognize, but the accent was American, a rough New York one. Jack felt certain he’d broken the nose of his assailant in Seth’s bolt-hole, but he heard no trace of it in this man’s voice and his head was covered in a dark wool beanie, which could be covering any scalp laceration. In Seth’s apartment Balaclava had seemed both interested and disinterested in the man Jack had taken out. His kidnappers were American, and Wellesley and Spellman had warned him not to get involved. Was this their response?
“How far?” Balaclava said.
“Two miles. Take a left on this road up here. There are headlights behind us.”
“The ones from the Shomal?”
“I don’t know. Can’t tell. Shit, maybe—”
“Relax. It’s probably nothing.”
After a few moments, Jack heard the soft tick-tock of the van’s turn signal, then felt the vehicle turning. He opened his eyes and craned his head backward. Upside down, through the van’s rear window, he caught a glimpse of the moon; as the van finished the turn, it slid from view. The tires began crunching slightly. They’d turned onto a gravel road. Were they outside Tehran? This, too, was a bad sign: dark, isolated road, hands bound, lying on a tarp-covered van floor.
Jack thought. The name sounded familiar, and Balaclava’s use of
suggested a highway or freeway. Jack tried to recall his mental map of Tehran, but he drew a blank.
he thought. One thing mattered: He had to get out, make a break. If they reached their destination with him inside this van, he was finished. How far would he get, though? The hell with it. Better to die running than lying down.
“Did they make the turn?” asked the American.
“No, it kept going. We’re okay.”
Not so fast,
He curled his legs until his knees touched his chest, took a deep breath, then mule-kicked the driver’s seat. Balaclava lurched forward, his head smacking the steering wheel. The van skewed to the right, wheels thumping on the road’s berm.
“Get him, get him,” Balaclava yelled.
Jack spun on his butt, curled his legs again, and kicked the back doors. Knowing it would take more than one try, Jack kicked again, grunting with the effort, then again and again, until finally the rear doors burst outward. The thrum of the tires and the red glow of the taillights filled the interior. The van veered left. Jack bounced off the side wall.
He rolled onto his side, got his feet under him, and stood in a half-crouch. His head banged against the van’s roof. He felt a pair of hands on his hips, pulling him backward. Headlights flooded the interior. A horn began honking. How close, Jack couldn’t tell. With his eyes squinting against the glare, Jack twisted sideways, broke free of the hands.
“God damn it . . . !” the American shouted. “Get back—”
“Grab him!” called Balaclava.
Jack curled himself into a ball and heaved himself out the doors.
• • •
HE HIT THE ROAD HIP-FIRST.
The impact jarred his spine and knocked the air from his lungs. He barrel-rolled over the road, stones gouging and scratching his arms, his eyesight filled with snatches of dark sky, dirt, tall grass alongside the road, and headlights. Behind him an engine roared. Tires skidding. A gust of air buffeted him as the car swerved around him. Jack felt himself plowing through grass, then down an embankment. He stopped rolling, faceup and staring at the sky. His stomach filled his throat and his eyesight sparkled. He rolled onto his belly, got his bound hands beneath his chest, and pressed himself up, then onto his knees. Down the road he saw the van’s brake lights flash as it skidded to a stop amid a cloud of dust. Thirty feet behind, the trailing car was also sliding to a stop.
Frying pan to fire.
Now he had at least three pursuers to elude.
The van’s driver’s-side door swung open and Balaclava hopped out.
Jack got to his feet, started to turn to run. He stopped.
The trailing car’s engine revved, veered sideways around the van, its nose aimed at Balaclava, who flung himself back into the van. The car plowed into the open door; it tore free and skipped over the car’s hood and roof in a shower of debris. The car skidded to a stop, the reverse lights came on, and it backed up until it was even with the van. As it passed, out the passenger window came a trio of orange muzzle flashes.
“What the fuck?” Jack muttered.
Spewing a rooster tail of gravel, the van surged forward, its rear doors banging open and shut. The brake lights went dark and faded into the dust cloud.
The car kept backing up, picking up speed, then did a J-turn and skidded to a stop across the road from Jack. The car was black, a Mercedes E-Class.
From the driver’s window a female voice shouted, “Get in!”
Jack didn’t move.
“Get in before they regroup and turn around!”
Half stumbling, half running, Jack crossed the road, went around the car’s rear bumper, then opened the passenger door, threw himself inside, and slammed the door shut. A moment before the dome light went dark and the car sped off, Jack glimpsed long black hair, and manicured nails on the steering wheel.
• • •
WITH THE CAR’S HEADLIGHTS OFF,
the Mercedes’s powerful engine ate up the gravel road until they reached the intersection. The woman turned left onto pavement. In the flash of headlights Jack glimpsed a square, white-on-blue sign: a single number
. The woman floored the accelerator and within seconds the speedometer swept past 140 kph.
In silence they drove on, the woman’s eyes flashing between the windshield and the rearview mirror. She was in her mid-thirties, with large black almond eyes, high cheekbones, and an ever-so-slightly hooked nose. She was Iranian, Jack guessed, but he’d detected little trace of a Persian accent, rather a mix of British and something else.
“It’s probably not a good idea to jump out of this one, yes?” the woman finally said. “You would end up a red smear.”
“Everything’s relative,” Jack replied. He glanced over the seat through the back window. There were no headlights.
“They won’t catch up,” she said. “They don’t have the horsepower.”
The question is,
am I better off with this woman?
As if reading his mind, she said, “You’re safe. I am not with them.”
The conviction in her voice was genuine, Jack decided.
“There’s a penknife in the glove compartment,” the woman said.
Jack opened it, dug around until he found the knife, then used it to saw through the zip-tie securing his hands. He rubbed his wrists; they were slick with sweat-diluted blood.
“Your car is going to need some bodywork.”
“I have another. How do you know Seth Gregory?” she asked.
“Who says I do?”
“You went to his apartment building. You had lunch with him.”
This surprised Jack; his countersurveillance skills were solid, yet he’d missed her tailing of him. “How do you know Seth?” he asked.
“Answer my question.” A little steel in her voice.
“We’re old friends.”
“What high school did he attend?”
“Saint Matt’s—Matthew’s—Academy. Your turn: How do you know him?”
“Seth and I worked together.”
Something told Jack this woman wasn’t with Shell Oil.
The woman slowed the car, turned right onto another paved road, then accelerated again. Through the windshield Jack could see the lighted skyline of what he assumed was Tehran.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“We don’t know each other well enough yet.” Jack thought for a moment, then said, “How long did Seth spend in the Marines?”
The woman sighed. “I do not like dancing. In case you’ve forgotten, I just rescued you.”
“Answer my question.”
“He tried to join after college—University of Illinois, by the way—but he wasn’t eligible. He wrecked his knee playing football and had to have it rebuilt. Three times. He still wears a brace and needs cortisone shots.”
It was the right answer. The military disqualification had nearly crushed Seth, so badly had he wanted to serve. In fact, Jack had flown down to Illinois in hopes of cheering him up. It had worked, but only a bit. For Seth, being turned down for service would be a regret he never got over.
“He also tried to join the Coast Guard, but they denied him, too.” She turned toward him and said, “Satisfied?”
While her knowledge of Seth’s background wasn’t definitive proof of their relationship, it would have to do. “I’m Jack.”
“Jack Ryan? Seth has spoken of you.”
Thanks a lot, Seth.
He waited for the follow-up from her—“
Jack Ryan, son of President . . .”—but she only took her right hand off the steering wheel and clasped his in a firm grip. “I’m Ysabel. Ysabel Kashani.”
• • •
HAVING SPENT TIME
in Russia in his early days with the CIA, John Clark had learned his share of Russian. One of his nuggets of teaching wisdom was
Doveryai no proveryai
—trust but verify, a phrase used to great effect by Reagan during INF treaty negotiations. A proverb, Clark had told Jack, that could also be applied to intelligence work.