Dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who, this day, suffer in North Korean gulags.
New Kent County, Virginia
Tony “Red” Harmon scratched his coarse copper beard, gazing at unrepaired holes from automatic weapon fire that had stitched a neat line in the beige siding beneath his neighbor’s second-story window. Several inches shy of six feet, he gripped the top rail of a cedar privacy fence and hoisted himself up, stretching his neck to see over. Sunlight glinted from the cracked glass in a first-story window, busted by the same shooter.
“What ya lookin’ for, Dad?” Jackson, his five-year-old, called from behind him. “Mom says it’s not nice to stare.”
Red’s forearms burned as his grip grew weary. He dropped to the ground.
Was he getting out of shape? No. He was tired of the constant burden of an unknown enemy gunning for his family. The wet team had attacked them in their suburban home three weeks ago. Neighboring houses had received collateral damage. That night, the facade of safety had been shot to hell as bullets flew through their middle-class neighborhood by the mag-full. The rounds had been 5.56 millimeter copper with a hardened tungsten steel core, tipped with a coating of polytetrafluoroethylene. Cop killers, as the media called them, rendering most Kevlar vests useless. Armor piercing, in Red’s vernacular. One projectile from the attackers’ initial salvo had even passed through three walls and shattered picture glass in his four-year-old Nick’s room while the child slept.
Red turned from the fence and stepped onto the pitcher’s mound, now nothing more than a bare spot of dirt where a dog had peed and burned the grass. He flipped a Wiffle Ball from his palm to the back of his hand.
“Batter up!” he called with a glance to Nick.
His boy knelt in the batter’s box and tied mismatched black and purple laces. No matter. He’d be tripping over them again in minutes. But the kid
2 • David McCaleb
just had to have real sneakers, no Velcro. He switched to the other foot, fingers gripping the 550 paracord. Red could almost read his son’s mind as he made the loop. Around the tree and through the—
Red jerked his neck at a flash of movement off to the side. A different neighbor snapped shut white-lined curtains with a blue-scalloped hem, tugging the edges so they sealed tight. Couldn’t blame them. A couple of rounds had hit their home as well. Probably thought Red was a Mafioso. He scratched the back of his fist, irritated.
He stepped off the mound while Nick finished with his laces, and gazed around. It was Sunday, and quiet as a Mexican town when the drug lords passed through. Maybe he shouldn’t have brought his family back here after all, not even for this quick visit. He should be more protective. But he’d promised the kids a last good-bye to their home, because that’s what this house had been for the last six years. He’d been jerked all over creation when he was Nick’s age, whenever his father had been assigned a new station.
Not Red. He was going to give his kids the stability he’d never enjoyed. At a minimum, the family would have a proper farewell.
Penny, his nine-year-old, tossed her head to clear stray blond strands from her eyes. “Here’s another!” she called and wound up. She threw a second Wiffle Ball in his direction, this time necessitating a jog outside third base. He stifled a contented laugh as he stooped and picked it up. She had been all ballet and Barbie dolls for years, but now her arm was a .50 cal. Get some accuracy and college was paid for.
“It’s getting late, kids. We need to go.”
Her shoulders slumped. “Daddy…we just got here. You promised.”
You promised. His princess’s trump card. To her credit, it usually worked. “I promised you could say good-bye, not play a ball game. One more pitch.”
Nick stood over a yellow Frisbee, home plate, his thick orange plastic bat slung atop his shoulder like a hobo’s bundle. This would be quick. Jackson, one year Nick’s elder, eyed his younger brother warily, then squatted as catcher.
Red’s arm drew back in a slow arc, giving his boy plenty of forewarning. Nick pounded the disc with the bat like Bamm-Bamm from the Flintstones, closed his eyes, and swung. A hollow tunk and the ball flew between first and second. He stood motionless.
Penny slapped his calf. “Run, dork!”
Nick hesitated, then turned toward third base. Jackson shoved him toward first. The boy looked down at his feet as if expecting them to decide, then started pumping in a half trot, flinging the bat back toward
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Penny. The ball smashed into a holly hedge against the privacy fence and dropped out of sight behind the prickly green shrub.
Nice hit. Best ever for the little man. Red raised his arms and shouted, “Touchdown! We’re done. Inside.” Wrong sport, but who cares.
“But what about my ball?” whined Nick.
“I’ll get you another.”
“But it won’t be a home run ball!”
Red stomped over to the bushes. Dandelions rubbed his cheek as he searched under the branches on hands and knees. Dandelions that wouldn’t die no matter what chemical he sprayed. Dandelions he no longer cared about, now that the wet team’s welcome had pushed new identity to the top of the family’s to-do list.
A chill needled his spine as he recalled the helplessness of that night. Not even playing with his kids could save him from the memories. Even now a heat burned his chest, a familiar sensation as if he was being watched. He forced it from his thoughts.
“I can’t see it,” he said. “It’s not under here.”
“There it is!” Nick exclaimed, kneeling beside him. He pointed toward the back of the holly row, near the bottom of the fence.
Red followed the line of Nick’s index finger, hand still scented with citrus from the orange his wife, Lori, had peeled for him on the ride over. The fruit was the two boys’ favorite treat. “Come on. Not even Br’er Rabbit could wriggle in there.”
Penny’s nose wrinkled. “Who’s Briar Rabbit?”
Red gasped. “You mean I never…we’ve never… Oh, forget it.” He couldn’t believe he’d never read Br’er Rabbit to the kids. He lay on his belly and stretched an arm under the hedge. Stiff twigs pushed up his sleeve and leaf barbs clawed at his wrist. His hand was still a couple feet short. Muttering curses, he ducked again and low-crawled underneath, breathing in damp, partially decayed leaves. Why was it that simple tasks required such effort? A brown wolf spider sprinted out just below his forehead. He closed his eyes and shoved in a few more inches, the sharp leaves now scoring his neck. His fingers landed upon the plastic orb. He hooked two into the holes and squirmed out backward.
The ball caught on a branch and popped off. He shoved a hand back in after it and hit something else—cold and hard like metal. A beer can from a summer barbecue? No, heavier. The ratchet he’d lost a couple years ago? How’d it get way out here?
He wrapped his fingers around the thing and it fell into his palm, like the familiar tool it was. No ratchet.
4 • David McCaleb
* * * *
Red sat in the back seat of a supercharged white Chevy Suburban, courtesy of the CIA. He straightened his back so as to not appear too much shorter than Lori, who sat next to him. A red plaid wool jacket rested across his lap.
She glanced in his direction, and a corner of her mouth seemed to curl upward. Resting her hand on his knee, she gave it a squeeze. “Thanks for letting us come back. Even though it was a short visit, it meant a lot to the kids.”
Red’s heart began to hammer. In their decade of marriage the couple had developed an unspoken code, and the knee squeeze was the mother of all good signals. Tonight would be an especially good night.
Her lips drew flat again and she stared out the window. Shit. Was she still mad? She’d been brooding over a week and he’d not been able to figure out why. Had he misread the knee squeeze?
A stoplight turned green and the force-fed engine gulped air, singing a muffled high note. The crew-cut driver, the family’s constant minder since the attack, rolled a shoulder back as if his holster was chafing. Steering with one hand, he weaved between cars like he was dodging potholes. He pressed a phone to an ear with the other, speaking in hushed tones.
The truck weighed almost twice what it had coming off the assembly line, heavy now with bulletproof glass and armor plates hidden inside the body panels. The first day in this vehicle Nick had managed to empty a juice box onto his leather seat, while Penny had dropped her bubble gum on the carpet. Bulletproof.
The driver’s attention diverted elsewhere, Red lifted the nearest corner of the jacket toward Lori.
“What is it?” she asked, glancing down. A blond lock fell from behind her ear and twisted till it almost poked her eye.
He turned to look at the back seat. All three kids were strapped in, heads down, each thumbing some small electronic gadget. The driver was still mumbling into the phone. “A pistol,” Red whispered.
She rolled her eyes. “Of course. I meant, where’d you get it?”
“Under the hedge out back.”
She held a breath. “What type?”
The tendons between her jaw and temple stretched tight. She was gorgeous when angry. Sometimes it even—
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“Not in the mood, damn it.”
He whispered, “German, P08 Luger. Stamped 1941 on the barrel.” Her one visible eye was rimmed in red, with dark flesh puffy beneath it.
“Wasn’t trying to piss you off.”
“Just comes naturally.” She leaned back but kept her voice low. “We’ll talk about it later. Not in front of the kids.”
Jackson made boom-boom-boom noises behind them, imitating gunshots. Lori flinched when he yelled, “Got ’em!” A little touchy, even for her. The two young boys hadn’t desensitized her to sudden noises yet. Wait till they turn sixteen, Red thought. Having endured a childhood in the company of two raucous older brothers, he would need more than kids’ games to rattle him.
He inched closer to Lori. “It needs to get to your guys.” By that he meant the CIA, Lori’s employer. She held down a chair somewhere in a big building with lots of other chairs that seemed to fill the intelligence bureaucracy. Her job was to investigate…stuff about money. She didn’t talk much about it, thank goodness. Sure, the government needed financial analysts to combat terrorist funding, but he’d prefer eating glass to sitting behind a desk. And since she’d been a target in the attack, the CIA had been the agency to investigate.
Lori frowned. “You should’ve left it under the hedge and called forensics. FBI Evidence Response Team Unit was the one we used to process the scene.” She glanced up at the distracted driver.
The scene? It had been their home. “They missed it the first time. Haven’t turned up anything for three weeks. No one is getting it. The more time passes, the longer whoever took a shot at us has for a second chance. I’m tired of waiting. We’ve got to get this to someone who knows what to do with it.”
Her nostrils flared and she shoved a hand beneath the weapon. “See this scar?” She tapped an indentation at the bottom of the grip. “This was shot out of the guy’s hand. The round hit here.”
“A guy. How do you know it was a man?”
“Right-handed, at that.” Her tongue pressed the corner of her mouth. She wasn’t kidding.
“Seriously, how you figure? They teach you that in money school?”
She tucked the stray blond bangs behind her ear. The dull redness seemed to fade and a glow of interest lit her eyes. She rubbed her fingers over the retracted toggle. “The slide is locked open. He emptied the entire clip. More concerned with quantity than quality.” An accusatory glance. “A guy thing, obviously.”
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“You’re straying from the subject.”
Lori held the handle toward him, displaying a brown crust across the butt. “Also, it hit near the bottom, yet the round drew blood. It’s stained into the wood. So the shooter had big mitts. Again, probably male.”
“But why right-handed?”
“Look at the scar. The round hit and ricocheted that way. If he’d been left-handed, the projectile would’ve hit him square in the chest. Then you’d have found a body instead of just the gun.”
Red squinted. “How do you know all this?”
She glanced at the kids. “Not now, dear.”
To hell with that. Ever since the attack, it’d seemed this woman he’d married was morphing into someone else. She hadn’t retreated into herself, but instead had slowly, as if unwittingly, disclosed traits that were aggressive. As if discovering the real Lori were obscured by fog. A shadow still indecipherable. But moving toward him nonetheless.
His chest warmed again. Was she the threat he felt? Even so, the scent of Extatic drew his nose closer to her neck and he left a kiss there.
“Gotta do something with it,” he whispered. “Your folks may have asked FBI for help, but CIA was the cleanup crew for this mess. Get it to someone who will know what the hell it means. Your side deals with it.”
She leaned close. “They won’t care. They’ve already closed the file, reassigned personnel. In their minds, taking us off the grid will fix all this. They’ll run forensics on it, then stick it in an evidence warehouse. The weapon won’t be traceable. They never are.”
She looked him in the eye and her shoulders drooped. “You do it.”
What? That made no sense. Red was a military operator, not an investigator. His special ops background was mottled, spanning two different military branches, including a stint in Force Recon, the US Marines special operations. But now he drew an Air Force paycheck and was commander of a unit called the Det: Detachment 5 of Special Operations Command. Calling the Det a unit was misleading. It was a motley crew. A fusion cell on steroids. A battlefield where the cooperative members shared intelligence, assets, and efforts for the common good. These coops consisted of three-letter agencies, the Department of Defense, and sometimes select foreign governments. No single co-op owned the Det. That was the nature of a fusion cell. But its physical headquarters were located inside a huge aircraft hangar on Langley Air Force Base. And upon the recent death of his predecessor, Red had been appointed commander
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of this ghost organization. It was a thin line to walk. But one directive was clear. The Det never operated autonomously.
Red slipped the weapon back under the coat. “The Det can’t do that.”
“You guys have access to the same intel, maybe even more. The National Security Agency is a co-op. You get info faster than we ever could. Just tell them you need it for mission planning.”
“We’re operational. That’s part of the deal with the co-ops. Someone else figures out who owns this thing. We just, you know—kill ’em.”
“Just?” she snorted. “What if the owner of that pistol is on our side?”
“Above my pay grade, dear. We’re the gorillas. Someone else plays detective. Give me an investigation and I’ll screw it up. Hell, I wouldn’t even know where to start. We don’t have a clue who’s after us or even if they’re still trying. With my occupation, the list of enemies could be long. Or maybe they’re after you or the other bean counters.”
The Suburban slowed at a stoplight, pausing next to a green Honda Odyssey. Paint peeled on the hood. A woman with gray-streaked hair gripped the steering wheel, yawning. A bald man’s cheek pushed against the passenger window, his breath fogging it in rhythm, eyes closed. Two car seats with snoozing toddlers were belted in back.
“That’ll be us in few days,” she said. “New identity. No more escort. Be nice to get back to normal.”
“Hmm,” he muttered. In whose world was this normal? Being an operator felt natural as an alpha wolf leading a pack, marking territory, sniffing out rivals, hunting mule deer. But when the op’s over, you’re supposed to be safe. Obscured by the Det. “You think this guy is a danger to us? Or the kids?”
Lori crossed her arms. “Someone’s after at least one of us. Or who we work for. Reinserting us on the grid will only delay them discovering us again. Maybe not even much.”
“So I’d better figure it out.”
She lifted her hands. “Red, it’s only one piece of a puzzle! One in a box on a shelf in a warehouse full of a million others. The only way it’ll get opened again is if something actionable comes up. That’s not gonna happen, not with the agency spread as thin as it is. This is our new reality, even in a new home. We’ve got to accept it.”
“But if something actionable turned up?”
“Then maybe the powers that be would let you gorillas out of the cage.” Her slender fingers brushed his cheek, pulling his face to hers. “Honey, look. This may be something we just can’t fix. You’ve got to be OK with that. Once information is out, it’s like a virus. It spreads fast. Secrecy is our only ally. We may even need to hop the grid again sometime.”
8 • David McCaleb
Like hell. Red pulled the jacket close to his belly and leaned in to her ear. “But intel is stored. Maybe on a computer, or on paper. Or just in someone’s head. I’ve fixed all that stuff before. Sniff out the trail, back to the source, then kill it.” He winked. “I’ll take it. Our kids may have a normal childhood yet.”
She gaped. “What’re you saying?”
“I’m going to bend the rules. I know a bloodhound.”