“A MAJOR TALENT.” —John Lescroart
“AMONG THE BEST.” —San Diego Union
“IN RARE FORM.” —The New York Times Book Review
THE UNKNOWN SPY
Officially, Thomas Laker is an employee of the NSA. His real employer, known as the Gray Outfit, is not listed—anywhere. When a Washington, D.C., insider is killed in a bomb explosion, Laker teams up with cryptographer Ava North on a desperate search for clues. The only thing certain is that another act of terrorism is imminent. Delving into the dangerous past when America was drawn into global conflict, they discover one of history’s greatest—and deadliest—secrets. In the wrong hands it can unleash unimaginable destruction. Now, to keep his homeland from plunging into its darkest hour, Laker will have to defend everything he believes in . . .
“LUTZ OFFERS UP A HEART-POUNDING ROLLER COASTER OF A TALE.” —Jeffery Deaver
About the Author
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Try to look into the NSA, and you see only yourself.
The thought struck Laker as he drove up to the headquarters of the National Security Agency, a big cube of black glass. In it he saw the reflection of the row of flags in front of the building and the cars in the parking lot, including the one he was driving, a white van from the motor pool.
The mirror effect would seem ironic to members of the public, especially those who valued their constitutional right to privacy, and thought the NSA didn't. But members of the public couldn't get this far, couldn't even get through the gate.
Laker had only driven over from another building in the complex. He was one of the NSA's own. The agency's possible abuse of its considerable powers didn't worry him.
Shouldn't worry him, anyway.
She was waiting at the curb in front of the main doors, right where he'd been told she would be: a slender woman of thirty, in the sort of dark pantsuit favored by federal employees. Her auburn hair was gathered in a knot at the nape of her neck. Rather casually gathered, for tendrils were floating in the breeze. She was a classic beauty, as he'd also been told. Oval face, long, straight nose, wide-set dark eyes. She looked at the approaching van and didn't recognize it. Looked at the tall man getting out, in a blue suit, with dark hair and neatly trimmed beard, and didn't recognize him, either.
"Ava North?" he asked.
As he stepped onto the curb in front of her, she unconsciously fell back a little. People often did. Laker had played college football and still looked as if he were wearing shoulder pads. He tended to loom. Then there was the way he turned his head a bit to the left and looked at people askance, as if listening hard to what they said and not believing any of it.
In fact, he was only favoring his good ear. He was mostly deaf in the other one, the result of the IED blast that had flipped his Humvee in Baghdad.
"Bill couldn't make it," he explained to Ava. "Something came up at the last minute. He asked me to drive you. I'm Tom."
Her eyes narrowed. "I'll need more than Tom."
"Thomas F. Laker. I work in the Saltonsall Building." He pointed at it across the parking lot. "Just down the hall from Bill. Want to call him? See my creds?"
He proffered his cell phone in one hand, his wallet in the other, and smiled at her. She didn't return the smile. Only said, "So you're Laker. Well." Then she stepped off the curb and opened the van's front passenger door.
As he got in beside her, she said, "What are you expecting to happen this afternoon, Laker?"
He started up and headed for the gate. "We're going to the Cheltenham Long Term Care Community in Towson, where we'll pick up your grandmother. Then we go to the old family house in Chevy Chase. There's something your grandmother wants you to have. Bill said you just need someone to drive, fetch, and carry."
"Right. That's it. Aren't you a bit overqualified?"
"I'm just a colleague of Bill's who had nothing much on his schedule this afternoon."
She gave an impatient sigh. "Do you really think I don't know who you are?"
Laker stroked his beard uneasily. Ava North was a very junior cryptographer, if a promising one. She had joined the NSA only two years ago, after completing advanced degrees in math and linguistics at MIT. Someone at her level of security clearance wasn't supposed to know who he was. But there was as much shop talk, as many internal leaks, in the NSA as in any other agency.
"Thomas Laker," she said. "One of the best running backs Notre Dame ever had. Expected to turn pro. But you said no to the NFL recruiters in favor of the one from CIA. Served with distinction in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq. Returned to Langley as one of the most talked-about candidates for deputy director. That didn't happen. Instead you are officially just some sort of consultant for NSA. Which I think is totally bogus."
Laker was relieved. She knew only the old stuff. Nothing about his current status. He said, "You're right. My consultant's retainer is practically a pension. I'm semi-retired."
"You're kind of young for that."
"Had a feeling I'd used up my luck."
"I doubt it. And you're in the Gray Outfit."
She definitely wasn't supposed to know that.
"Also," she said, "you have a sometimes nickname. Lucky. Lucky Laker."
"I like the alliteration," he said.
They had reached the gate. Laker was grateful for the distraction, for the opportunity to turn his face away from Ava's keen brown eyes. He lowered the window, handed over his creds, chatted with the guards about the weather as they logged his and Ava's departure on their computer. Then he turned onto the busy suburban street, pressing the button to run the window back up, sealing them in the cool, quiet interior.
"Well?" she said. "Are you going to deny it? Or do you have to shoot me?"
"Neither will be necessary. You know why people call us the Gray Outfit? Because we're a bunch of dull, middle-aged bureaucrats."
"Who report directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security," she said.
"Mostly on our lack of progress. We try to persuade various agencies to cooperate better. Share information more freely. Important work, but very dull."
"That's not exactly what I've heard. What the CIA won't tell the FBI, what the DEA won't tell the NSA, they will tell you guys. Because as individuals you have reputations. And connections. You end up in possession of the hottest secrets in town. Information you can't just sit on. And you don't. You act on it."
"Your informants have overactive imaginations."
She gave him a long sigh. "Laker, just tell me. My grandmother wants me to have something of hers. Maybe it's her wedding dress. Maybe it's a family photo album, I don't know. Why is the Secretary of Homeland Security interested enough to send you?"
"Because your grandmother is Tillie North."
The extended-care facility was as pleasant as such a place could be, a low brick building on a wooded campus. Laker maneuvered the van close to the entrance and stayed with it while Ava went in.
As she usually had during her long career in Washington society, Matilda Brigham North appeared with a retinue. Ava pushed her wheelchair, and orderlies and nurses carried her walker, oxygen tank, bag of medications, purse, umbrella, and overcoat.
Laker got out and opened the passenger door. Ava had told him that Tillie liked to ride in front, a preference that had disconcerted generations of limo drivers. It was a hot July afternoon, but the slight figure in the chair was swathed in sweaters and shawls. Her head was down, and he could see only sparse white hair and spotted scalp. But when Ava introduced him, she looked up. Under the wrinkled skin, it was easy to recognize the bone structure of one of the great beauties of the 1940s and '50s. The blue eyes were keen and bright.
"Ava's told me all about you," she said, in a voice soft but without a quaver.
"Has she?" He suppressed his irritation.
"You're one of Sam Mason's boys." Mason was the head of the Gray Outfit. "Haven't seen him since he was a midshipman at Annapolis. How'd he turn out?"
"Smart and tough," Laker said. He wasn't being loyal, just accurate.
"Nice of him to send his best. May I call you Tom? Or is it Lucky?"
"I'm Tillie." Her right hand emerged from the folds of her shawl, pale and bony and trembling, but her grip was still strong.
Laker slid open the back door to supervise the loading of the wheelchair and other equipment. He hoped there would be room for whatever Tillie was giving Ava. Meanwhile, a nurse and Ava were helping Tillie stand up from the chair, take a step to the van, turn, and settle in the front passenger seat. It took a long time. She was breathing hard when Laker got in beside her.
"How did I get trapped in this old carcass?" she said.
"I'm sorry. It must be hard."
"Well, it's not for much longer." She smiled at him. "Can you help me buckle this belt? Otherwise I'll be fumbling with it for the next five miles, driving you both mad."
"I'll do it, Grandma," said Ava, scooting forward from her seat in the back. They set off across suburban Maryland.
Tillie was quiet for a while. Then she asked, "Has there been a lot of interest in our little errand today?"
The question took Laker by surprise, but then he reflected that Tillie had been making news all her life and was bound to be interested. "Yes. Nothing in the mainstream media but a lot of gossip and speculation, both offline and on. There's even a hashtag, #tillybe-quest."
"A hashtag is —" Ava began.
"I know, darling. Tom, are there that many people tweeting guesses about what I'm passing on?"
"Four hundred twenty-seven, last time I checked."
"Everybody's guessing but Ava," said Tillie with a smile. "She hasn't asked once. You've always been a great respecter of secrets, darling. When you were six, Ephraim said you were destined for the CIA. He wasn't far wrong."
Ephraim North, Tillie's late husband, had been a partner in one of Washington's top law firms. A skillful fund-raiser and fixer, he'd been a boon to some administrations, a bane to others. He and Tillie had golfed with Ike, played touch football with the Kennedys. But relations with LBJ had been strained after their son was killed in Vietnam, and their house in Chevy Chase had become one of the nerve centers of opposition to Nixon as Watergate festered. For decades Tillie had been the hostess whose invitations no one refused, the confidante of everyone who mattered.
Laker couldn't resist. He asked her if it was true that she was the one who had advised Betty Ford to appear on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
She laughed. "Honestly, Tom, I wish I could remember. But when you're as near the end as I am, it's like you're closing the circle. The recent decades fade away. Your far-off youth seems clearer and clearer."
"The Truman years?"
"Even earlier. The war. I suppose it's only people my age who talk like that. Say 'the war' and expect everyone to know they mean World War II."
"The good war," Laker said.
She laughed again, sadly this time. "Well, it wasn't like the war you were in — are in. IEDs. Drone strikes. Hostage executions on YouTube. Going on and on, no end in sight. But I wouldn't exactly call World War II a good war."
"Maybe wars only become good when they've been over for a long time," said Ava.
"And your side won," Laker added.
"You're both right. People have gotten nostalgic about World War II. Silly little things like code names have a cachet. Let me try out a quiz on you, Tom. No jumping in, Ava. You know everything."
Ava rolled her eyes.
"All right," Laker said.
"Fat Man and Little Boy."
"The first nuclear bombs. Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki, Little Boy on Hiroshima."
"Very good. Overlord."
"The invasion of Normandy."
Laker searched his memory, shrugged.
"Code name for the invasion of North Africa."
"Of course. Sorry."
"East Wind, Rain."
When Laker didn't respond, there was an exhalation of impatience from Ava in the back.
"Tell him, darling," said Tillie.
"Japanese code phrase to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor."
"Bobby Soxer," said Tillie.
No word from the backseat. He looked in the rearview mirror. Ava was stumped.
"That would be a Sinatra fan," he said.
"You got it," Tillie said with a laugh.
They were arriving. Laker turned off the road and stopped, his way barred by a tall iron gate between granite posts. A video camera atop one of the posts swiveled to cover the van. "The family that's renting the house is away at the shore, but the staff should be expecting us," Ava said.
They were. Laker spoke through the intercom, and the heavy gates swung open. He drove through an allée of tall pin oak trees, and the house came into view. It was a mansion in the Georgian style, built around 1900, with white columns supporting a pediment and red brick wings that stretched a long way in both directions. Gardeners were at work, trimming hedges, weeding the well-kept lawn, raking the oyster-shell drive.
"The scene of some of Washington's most legendary parties," Ava said.
"I could bore you two for hours," Tillie said. "But let's skip it. Take the turning on the left."
The driveway led around the house, past formal gardens with vine-covered walls and fountains throwing spurts of water that glittered in the sun. They drove by outbuildings and more workmen. Tillie was silent. Laker glanced over, to see her gazing through the windshield, wrinkled face set. Her mood had changed. Seeing her house again must depress her.
"That's the storage shed," she said. "Stop here."
They were a hundred feet away from a small wooden building with a flat shingled roof and boarded-up windows. "I can get closer," he said.
"This is fine."
He stopped the van, got out, and came around to open her door. Ava had gotten out, too. White head bent, Tillie was taking a key from her purse with a shaky hand. Ava reached for it. "You can stay here, Grandma. We'll get it. Just tell us what to look for."
"No, I may have to poke around a bit. Bring my walker."
It took both of them to extract her gently from the car. Five minutes of patient effort and she was standing, leaning on the walker. All of them were breathing hard. She said, "I'll be right back."
Laker and Ava exchanged a baffled look. "I'm coming with you," Ava said.
"Wait here, Ava."
"I'll come," he said. "You're going to need me to carry whatever it is, aren't you?"
"No. It's just an old book."
Leaning on the walker, she slid it slowly forward and hobbled after it. After a few steps, she looked at them over her shoulder. The blue eyes were imperious. "Get in the van, you two. Turn on the air-conditioning. This'll take a while."
They obeyed. He was sweating, and the cool draft from the dashboard vents felt good. They watched as Tillie drew slowly nearer to the storage building.
Ava sat hunched with anxiety. She murmured, "If she falls she'll never recover. But she's so stubborn ..."
"Sure I shouldn't go after her? I hate to think of her trying to move boxes."
"Maybe she just doesn't want to give it — this book, whatever it is — up until she absolutely has to. She's been very discreet. Ever since Granddad's death, people have been after her to write her memoirs. You can't imagine the persuasion agents and ghostwriters have applied. The advances publishers have offered. And of course various professors and archivists have been after her papers. But she's kept her secrets."
Laker gave her a sideways look.
"Before, you said you thought it was a family photo album. But now you think it's something a good deal more, don't you?"
"I don't know what to think."
Tillie had reached the door. Leaning over her walker, she unlocked it and pushed it open. Entering, she was lost from view.
Laker glanced at his watch. "I'll give her a minute, then go offer to help."
"She won't welcome —"
A brilliant flash. The roof leapt up from the building like a cork from a champagne bottle. The boom of the explosion and the shock wave hit them, shaking the van on its springs. Flames burst from the doorway.
"Oh God —" Ava had her door open, one foot on the ground.
Laker pulled her back as shingles and planks rained down on the van, bouncing off its hood and windshield. Ava wrenched free and ran toward the building. Laker ran after her and tackled her. She kicked at him but couldn't break his grip.
Raising his head, he squinted at the building. Already the fire was roaring. Soon its heat would be unbearable. He shouted, "Ava, it's no use."
She ceased fighting him. He lifted his weight off her.
After a moment she struggled to her knees, then to her feet, and allowed him to draw her away.
There had been eight men working on the estate that afternoon, all employees of Waxman Landscaping, Inc. It was their bad luck to be swept into the maw of a major incident investigation.
Local police questioned them on the spot, then herded them into the shade of a magnolia tree to await the state police. Upon arrival, the state police put them in a van and took them to headquarters, where they were questioned again. Their hands were examined for chemical traces left by handling explosives. Results were negative. Their IDs and records were checked. Again results were negative; the four Mexicans turned out to be legal immigrants. Then they had to wait, in case the FBI wanted to question them. But it turned out the FBI wasn't interested.
The whole landscaping crew was a disappointment to the investigators. None were suspects; none were even useful as witnesses. Earl Richardson, the only one who was working close enough to the storage shed to see the explosion, was subjected to more interrogation than the others. When the transcripts were examined, it was noted that his answers were remarkably consistent, if otherwise uninteresting. He was a meticulous man, or more likely, an unimaginative one.
Excerpted from "The Honorable Traitors"
Copyright © 2018 John Lutz.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Love this writer, have read everything he's written. Sadly this falls short for me! I'm sure I will be in the minority but I need to be honest. Sooooo sorry Mr Lutz.
Another great one by Lutz
When Ava North's grandmother makes it public that she is leaving something 'special' to her, no one had any idea that she would be murdered because of it. Grandmother Tilly had been around for a very long time .... personally knowing the past 5 presidents. Was she killed because of what she knew? Whatever the gift was .. it went up in flames when a bomb was leashed upon the storage when she entered. Thomas Laker, somewhat a super agent with a mysterious government agency, teams up with Ava to investigate the death of her grandmother. What they discover is one of history’s greatest—and deadliest—secrets. In the wrong hands it can unleash unimaginable destruction. This thriller is just that ... filled with thrills and chills. The action is nonstop leading to an unpredictable explosive ending. The characters are well defined, if not exactly credible. The bad guy does things that will have you scratching your head. Although a really good writer, this one just didn't measure up to the Frank Quinn series. Many thanks to the the author / Kensington Books / Netgalley for the digital copy of this political thriller. Read and reviewed voluntarily, opinions expressed here are unbiased and entirely my own.
John Lutz's new book, The Honorable Traitors, introduces us to Gray Outfit agent Thomas Laker, who leads us on a fast paced, suspenseful trip into the world of international espionage, ranging in time from World War 11 to the current time. I found it very hard to put down. This new protagonist is just as exciting as all Lutz's previous characters.