“LUTZ OFFERS UP A HEART-POUNDING ROLLER COASTER OF A TALE.”
With the U.S. seemingly linked to a terrorist bombing in a Baltic nation and a Russian troop buildup just over the border, the covert Gray Outfit sends Thomas Laker to untangle the mess. But after a second attack leaves him out in the cold, Laker’s on his own.
Five thousand miles away in Miami, Laker’s partner and NSA codebreaker Ava North is investigating the murder of a fellow agent. When tracks lead to a Cuban-American billionaire in bed with the Jersey Mob, Ava’s superiors want her to lay off. Not a chance. Though oceans apart, Laker and Ava discover their separate missions are tied to one explosive plot. The only way out is to breach all protocol and play by their own rules . . .
JOHN LUTZ IS . . .
“A MAJOR TALENT.” —John Lescroart
“AMONG THE BEST.” —San Diego Union
“IN RARE FORM.”—New York Times Book Review
Includes the bonus short story “Paranoid Enough for Two,” finalist for the Edgar Award!
About the Author
A multiple Edgar and Shamus Award winner—including the Shamus Lifetime Achievement Award—JOHN LUTZ is the author of over forty books. His novel SWF Seeks Same was made into the hit movie Single White Female, and The Ex was a critically acclaimed HBO feature. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, and Sarasota, Florida. Visit him online at www.johnlutzonline.com.
Read an Excerpt
Don't look at anybody.
His trainers had told him that. All of them. He'd been trained by both sides in this war, and considering they were enemies, it was funny how similar the training was. Especially the dictum When you're operational, don't look at anybody.
The danger was that they would look back. Make eye contact with some stranger, and he might remember you. And when he was asked, be able to describe you.
So he kept his eyes on the square of worn linoleum floor, smeared with slush and mud, between his boots. He'd memorized the route, counted the stops, and knew that there was one more stop before his. It wasn't necessary for him to look up at signs.
The tram was crowded. It was one of the narrow, old-fashioned cars they used in the city center to please the tourists. He was one of the standees, holding onto a loop of worn leather, allowing his body to sway as the tram turned left or right, slowed down or speeded up.
He didn't have to look at his fellow passengers to know they were all white. Which meant he was conspicuous. In a country of white people, he was olive-skinned and black-haired. Lucky for him the weather was so cold. He could keep his cap pulled down on his forehead, his scarf wrapped around his mouth and cheeks. His face was almost as well covered as that of a woman wearing a burqa. Only the eyes showed, and he was keeping them fixed on the floor.
A small object wobbled and rolled into his field of view. Bumped into his left boot and lay there. Yellow ring and pink bulb: a baby's pacifier. He suppressed the impulse to look up. No need to do anything about this. In a moment, an arm would appear, as the mother bent to retrieve the pacifier. He would not look up at her.
Seconds went by. The pacifier just lay there against his boot. Without raising his head, he peeked out from under his cap brim. Four paces to his left, a baby was sitting on a woman's knee, a pretty woman with bright blue eyes and cheeks flushed from the warmth of the car. She was wearing a knit cap with a yellow ball on top. The baby was fretting, waving his fat little arms around, but the mother hadn't noticed that he'd lost his pacifier. She was talking with the man beside her. Possibly the baby's grandfather. He had a full white beard, round steel spectacles, and a jolly smile. He looked like Santa Claus. A lot of the old men in this country did.
Someone was looking at him. He could feel the gaze, as palpable as an icy draft. Forgetting his training, he raised his head and looked.
It was a middle-aged woman in a head scarf squinting at him, thin lips pursed in disapproval. She'd noticed the pacifier and was wondering why he didn't return it. Maybe thinking he was going to pocket it. She was going to remember him. She'd be telling her friends, "There was one of those people in the tram, and you know, they'll steal anything."
Maybe she was about to point him out to the other passengers. Or address him, loudly demanding that he return the pacifier. Then the whole car would notice him and remember.
Letting go the strap, he bent and picked up the warm, sticky pacifier. Holding it up with the tips of his fingers to show he had no designs on it, he made his way up the crowded aisle. The child's mother and Santa Claus were laughing and talking and did not notice him, even when he was standing over them. He extended his arm, offering the pacifier.
The mother's cheeks flushed even pinker, and she covered her mouth in embarrassment. Santa Claus took the pacifier and made a show as if he was about to put the grimy bulb back in the baby's mouth. The mother batted it away in mock horror. Both of them looked up at him, laughing, inviting him to share the joke.
He nodded and turned away, moving carefully on the tilting floor. He felt sick to his stomach. That was another reason you tried not to look at anybody. One they didn't dwell on in training. If you started seeing the targets as people, it was harder to carry out the operation.
The tram shuddered to a stop. His stop. The doors folded open, and he stepped out onto the platform, into the cold wind. This was the broad avenue that ringed the ancient center of the city. Spires and domes looked black against the dark-gray sky. It was almost nightfall.
The platform was a bright and aromatic island. It was a large and busy one, because this was where the city and suburban lines crossed. It had a roof with electric heaters hanging from the beams, their coils glowing orange. On long counters, merchants had laid out treats: roasted chestnuts, pastries filled with meat, sausages, smoked herring, fruit, and candy. Funny how the cold air made the smells especially delicious.
On his earlier visit he'd noticed the anti-terrorism precautions. The trash receptacles were just steel rings from which clear plastic bags hung. He couldn't read the notices, but knew they warned people to watch for abandoned parcels. CCTV cameras were perched under the eaves of the roof.
Nothing to hamper him.
He walked around the counter where two women were selling hot chocolate. They had a line of customers and didn't notice as he paused beside the stack of cardboard boxes containing marshmallows. Counting down to the sixth box, he slid it halfway out, inserted one finger in the cut-out from the cardboard flap, and flicked a toggle-switch. Then he slipped the box back in place and walked away. It had taken only a couple of seconds.
Descending the steps to the snowy street, he took from his coat pocket a rectangular plastic object, which he held to his ear. Anyone giving him a second glance would assume it was a cell phone. It wasn't.
He wished that flicking that toggle switch had set a timer counting down. That would have meant it was all out of his control now. He might even be caught in the blast himself. He'd be thinking only about getting away from here quickly.
But the switch had only armed the detonator. The cell phone was really the transmitter he would use to set off the bomb. The planners had told him it had to be done that way, for maximum effect.
No need to look at his watch. He could hear the other tram approaching. The city had excellent public transportation; the trams always ran on time. He glanced over his shoulder. The suburban tram was pulling in. It was newer and sleeker than the one that ran around the city center. The old tram was still sitting on the opposite track, doors open. The controllers always held it so that passengers could switch lines.
He was passing an old church. Ducking behind one of its pillars, he took the detonator away from his ear and rested his finger lightly on the button. On the platform, the doors of the suburban tram slid open. Passengers poured out. People were stepping out of the old tram, too. They'd been enjoying its warmth until the last moment before they had to change. The platform was thronged with people.
But as he was about to press down, a yellow dot caught his eye: the ball of wool atop the cap of the mother. Holding her baby in one arm, she used the other hand to raise the lapel of her coat to shield his face from the wind. The old man limped behind her, a shopping bag in each hand.
He lifted his finger from the detonator. In a few seconds they would be aboard the new tram. The doors would close. Steel and safety glass would protect them. If he just gave them a couple of seconds.
He fought off the wave of weakness. Turning his back, he pressed the button.
A brilliant flash made the snow sparkle. The pillar at his back shielded him from the shock wave, but the roar of the explosion hurt like ice picks thrust into his ears. He was deafened, but only for a moment. Sooner than he wanted to, he could hear the screams.CHAPTER 2
"How would you like to go for a Sunday drive on Rock Creek Parkway?" Laker asked.
Ava put her book of crossword puzzles on her lap and looked at him. "You sound almost indecently smug. This is no casual invitation, is it?"
"You finally finished the Mustang?"
"Congratulations. I mean it. I was afraid you'd never get it done."
He was proud. Restoring the 1964 Ford Mustang had consumed all his free time for the last year and a half. But with Ava one had to be precise. "It's not quite done."
"You're inviting me out in an unsafe vehicle?"
"She drives like a dream. Brakes, steering, drivetrain, suspension all working beautifully. Only one thing. The top is stuck."
"In the up position?"
"Um — no."
"Laker! I'll freeze to death."
He looked out the row of windows that ran across the front of his loft. The Washington Monument glistened in the sunshine against a cloudless, pale blue sky. "Just look. It's spring."
"Just listen. It's March."
The wind was rushing around the old building, rattling the window sashes, whistling through the cracks. "I'll lend you the fur hat my friend on the Montana Highway Patrol gave me," he offered.
"I don't think so."
She picked up her book and a pen. She was one of those people who did crossword puzzles in ink. Did them quickly. And always in foreign languages, today French. She told him it was a way to build her vocabulary. He wasn't sure how that worked, since he'd never seen her pause to look up a word.
His cell phone pinged as it received a text message. It was sitting on his desk, on the other side of the vast loft, and was barely audible over the wind.
"I didn't hear anything," Ava said, without looking up.
With a sigh, he pushed himself up from the sofa and headed for the desk.
"I wouldn't, Laker. Suppose it's your boss?"
"Maybe he'll want a ride in the Mustang."
"Ha. Only one reason he calls on Sundays. To destroy our weekend."
Laker picked up the phone and looked at the screen. It was his boss. Samuel Mason didn't care for most technological innovations, but he loved text messaging. It saved him many a phone call. Mason didn't like to waste time talking to people if he could help it.
"It's Mason, but our weekend is safe," he called to Ava across the loft.
"What does it say?"
"'My office Mon 0730. Bring your toothbrush.'"
"I'll be going directly from the briefing to the airport."
"Couldn't he tell you where you're flying to? How're you supposed to pack?"
"He doesn't give unnecessary information over cell phones."
Ava put the book down and tucked her pen behind her ear. Or he assumed she did, because it disappeared entirely behind a heavy curtain of auburn hair. When she went to work at the NSA, she gathered it in a no-nonsense bun, but on weekends she allowed it to hang free to just below her shoulders. Laker liked to look at it. Liked to look at her face, too, her long straight nose and wide-set brown eyes. She had heavy, arched, expressive eyebrows, and at the moment they were signaling concern. Laker hadn't been out of Washington on assignment in two months, but now their lucky streak was ending.
She said, "Laker, wherever they send you, whatever the job is, look for a bear under the bed."
He returned to the sofa and stood looking down at her. "I love it when you go all cryptic and portentous."
"I shouldn't be saying anything at all. I've been reminded many times that at the NSA, committees issue cautious, well-supported recommendations. Individuals keep their opinions in the building."
"But your opinion is?"
"The Russians are planning something big."
He sat down beside her, with his left ear toward her. He'd lost most of the hearing in his right ear due to an IED blast in Iraq.
"There've been interesting developments in sigint, concerning the FSB," Ava began.
Sigint was signals intelligence, and the FSB was the Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, which had inherited all its parent agency's ruthlessness and duplicity. Laker got that much, but when she plunged into the complexities of cryptography, he was quickly lost. He held up a hand, palm up. "Please. No more stochastic progressions and algorithms. Tell me in baby talk."
Ava leaned forward, eyes alight. She loved her work. "Moscow sent out a message to all stations worldwide. Things that general are usually low security. Junk mail, really. But this one was in a new code. Innovative and much denser than any we've seen in a while. I talked the committee into cracking it, even though it took hours and hours of expensive supercomputer time."
"And you were right. It turned out to be a vital message."
"I was wrong. It was a memo to all employees not to shop online using their office computers."
But he was clearly missing something, because she was now perched on the edge of the sofa, eyes wide and glistening, full lips parted in a half-smile. Ava looked particularly lovely when she had a hunch. "It wasn't a waste."
"You mean you've cracked the code. You'll be able to read other messages."
"No. They changed it right away."
"You'll have to explain, then."
"It's a phenomenon that sigint experts call downcreep. Codes that would normally be used only for top secret messages are extended to lower levels of importance. That makes it harder for code breakers to spot the important messages, because they're hidden in the stream of low-level stuff. When you see downcreep at an agency, you should assume they're preparing a major operation. Frequent changing of code is another sign."
"I see. But this is not the official recommendation of the NSA."
"Not yet. I sent a memo. Hope somebody will read it."
"Okay. I'll look for the bear under the bed, wherever they send me, even if it's Las Vegas." It would not be Vegas. But he didn't want to think about that until tomorrow morning. "Sure you won't reconsider the ride in the Mustang? As our hours together dwindle to a precious few?"
"If they're dwindling, I want a nice warm shower. With a nice warm you."
She stood up and began to unbutton her blouse. The movement dislodged the pen, which fell to the floor.
Laker didn't notice.CHAPTER 3
While the CIA and NSA had sprawling suburban campuses, the Gray Outfit was small enough to fit into a Victorian-era row house on Capitol Hill. Its chief, Samuel Mason, had his office in a converted top-floor bedroom. The front windows looked out over neighboring rooftops to the Capitol dome. It seemed huge from so close at hand. You got a clear view of Freedom, the twenty-foot tall statue standing atop the dome, sword in one hand, laurel wreath in the other. As Laker set down his suitcase and took his usual chair in front of the desk on Monday morning, he found himself staring at it. Even though Mason himself was a riveting sight.
He had a large bald head, short thick neck, broad sloping shoulders. Sitting behind his desk, he resembled a mountain with a necktie. In an enemy attack on the Outfit last year, he'd lost the sight in his left eye. He wore a black patch over it, the straps crossing his bare, gleaming scalp above the ears. He also had a natty gray-and-maroon glen plaid patch, which he wore sometimes, just to discomfit people. It amused him to see whether they would compliment him on it or not. Mason had a strange sense of humor.
As usual, he skipped the small talk. "You heard what happened yesterday in Tallinn, Estonia?"
"A streetcar platform was bombed. Fifty-two killed, at last count, and more than twice that number injured. Last I heard, no claim of responsibility."
"Death toll is up to fifty-four now. Still no claim."
"Unusual. If it was ISIS or some other Mideast terrorist organization, they'd be boasting about it."
"Maybe it wasn't."
Laker considered. "I was thinking, after the Muslim extremist attacks in Belgium and France — "
"Estonia's not like Belgium and France. It's small and rather isolated. Has little contact with the Mideast."
"Then who are the top suspects?"
"It may not be an organized group. Just a couple of crazies. That's the thinking in Tallinn, I hear. Estonia has a sizeable minority of ethnic Russians, who immigrated when Stalin occupied all the Baltic states after World War II. They've never assimilated. They claim the Estonians are prejudiced against them."
"Not surprising. The Estonians didn't ask to be part of the USSR."
"They were sure happy to regain their independence when the Soviet Union broke up. Tensions between the natives and ethnic Russians have gotten worse since then. There have been recent incidents. Vandalism of patriotic sites and churches. Street brawls. Demonstrations turning into riots. But nobody had been killed. If this bombing is the work of the ethnic Russians, it would represent a major escalation."
Laker smiled bleakly and muttered, "Look for a bear under the bed."
"Something Ava said."
"About the general world situation these days. She thinks the Russians are getting ready to flex their muscles."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Havana Game"
Copyright © 2019 John Lutz.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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