FBI Special Agent Kim Woodson kicked the wipers up a notch in a futile effort to clear the falling snow off her windshield. The storm was supposed to have been rain, but a five-degree temperature drop turned the predicted New Year’s Eve drizzle into heavy, wet flakes that refused to blow off the glass.
“Global warming, my ass,” she muttered to herself.
“In one-half mile, take exit 11 on the right, then turn right on King Hill Road.” The smooth, dispassionate female voice sounded above the slap of the wipers and Kim reflexively hit the turn signal.
The GPS had been Kim’s sole companion on the arduous two-and-a-half-hour drive from Boston, the extra thirty minutes a result of the deteriorating weather. She’d stopped only once at a rest area on I-89 North to text that she was running late. The immediate reply,
No problem. Just get here when you can. Meet behind the barn.
Kim eased her Toyota Rav4 SUV onto the local road and followed her virtual guide’s directions into the village of New London, New Hampshire.
Unlike Manhattan and Boston, where revelers gathered in Times Square or swarmed the First Night events on Boston Common and in Boston Harbor, Main Street in New London was as quiet as a tomb. The only motion came from the snow swirling through the cones of light created by the street lamps. “Happy New Year,” Kim whispered. “Almost three hours to midnight and this place is deader than a ghost town.”
Not that she would have done anything livelier than drive down a deserted street on New Year’s Eve. Her boyfriend had broken up with her the first of December and she had no date. She told herself if he hadn’t broken it off, she would have. Her first love was her job. And when the text message, Been approached. Nine tonight. 84 Main Street, New London, New Hampshire, had chimed on her phone at six forty-five, she’d grabbed her laptop and her Glock 23, and ventured into the night.
“In two-tenths of a mile, you will arrive at your destination,” the GPS said. “It is on the left.”
Kim checked the rearview mirror. No one was following. She knew she should have alerted a colleague about what she was doing, but it was New Year’s Eve and tracking someone down could have triggered the order she wanted to avoid: “Wait for backup.”
She passed the town square on the right with its bandstand covered in snow. A public library was on the left. Meet behind the barn? she thought. She’d only programmed the street address Professor Walter Milton had supplied in his first text. Was there a farm on Main Street in this little town? Kim assumed the MIT professor might have a home here and was spending the holidays away from the hustle and bustle of Boston.
She’d met him only once, the week before Christmas when she and Special Agent Ron Gibbons had interviewed him on campus about the disappearance of his friend, Dr. Alexander Kaminsky. Milton was a neuroscientist in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Kaminsky was a researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and when Kaminsky didn’t show for a scheduled lunch at the MIT faculty club, Milton went to his office.
An assistant said Kaminsky had left around eleven carrying a suitcase. Kaminsky explained that he’d been called out of town but would return the next day. There had been no mention of a lunch. Milton had told Kim and Gibbons how he’d asked the assistant for a pen and a sheet of paper so that he could leave Kaminsky a note.
Milton had said, “I wrote, ‘How can you work on artificial intelligence when you don’t exhibit any real intelligence yourself?’ I found Kaminsky’s office unlocked and I entered, planning to leave the wisecrack on his desk. Instead, I discovered a plain white envelope lying on the blotter with my name scrawled across it in Kaminsky’s barely legible handwriting. Inside, I read one single sentence. ‘If you’re approached, hear them out.’ Then I noticed the hard drive had been pulled from his computer, and several file cabinet drawers were extended at varying lengths with most of the current folders missing. Something’s happened. He would have told me if he were going away.”
The FBI had been called when Kaminsky didn’t return after two days. Most disturbing was the apparent deletion of all the confidential research and program data dealing with Kaminsky’s work. MIT’s supposedly insurmountable firewalls had been penetrated like soft butter.
The fact that Kaminsky received funding from various government agencies including the Pentagon raised eyebrows in Washington, D.C. The order was sent to have field agents Woodson and Gibbons make the preliminary investigation.
Preliminary investigation, Kim thought, as she neared her destination. Bureau-speak for the right to yank back the entire case and hand it off to senior suits or computer tech specialists. She’d urged Milton to contact her directly if anything broke. She wanted to secure her place on the team. Let them reassign that stiff Gib- bons. He was nothing more than a lawyer with a badge and a gun. Her headlights caught a large sign on the left. The words NEW LONDON BARN PLAYHOUSE encircled a horse’s head wearing a straw hat. A white board mounted on the front of a red barn held interchangeable red letters. Instead of promoting a production, it read, “See You This Summer!” Her destination wasn’t a farm barn but a summer stock theater, a place guaranteed to be deserted the last night of December.
A side street ran along the length of the rambling red struc- ture. Kim made the turn and saw an empty area behind the barn that had to be for parking. Her headlights revealed no tire marks cutting across the newly fallen snow.
She looped her SUV around the lot until she was halfway back to the side road, yet still shielded from Main Street by the barn. She braked to a stop, facing outward in case she needed a quick getaway, and then she killed the lights. She left the engine and the heater running.
Kim took her cell phone from the cradle mounted on the dashboard and checked for messages. No new texts. She’d man- aged to shave some minutes off the arrival estimate she’d given Milton. She preferred being first at the rendezvous point. When Professor Milton arrived, she’d instruct him to get in her car where she could use her phone to record whatever information he had and review the case notes on her laptop.
She reached under her seat, pulled her Glock free of its holster and set it in the pocket of the driver’s door. She felt confident it was all the backup she needed.
The snow fell faster, the flakes smaller and dryer as the tem- perature continued to drop. Kim powered up her laptop on the passenger seat and waited for the FBI logo to appear. Then she entered her security codes and called up the working files she and Agent Gibbons had compiled. The first question on her mind was who had approached Milton? The question that bubbled up from her subconscious was why had he texted rather than phoned?
Suddenly, her computer screen went white and three words appeared in fat black letters: sercxante kaj forviŝo.
“What the hell?” Kim muttered.
Before she could make another keystroke, a hard double rap sounded on the driver’s window behind her.
She turned, surprised that Milton had somehow arrived without her realizing it. Milton’s face wasn’t pressed against the glass. There was no face at all. Kim stared into a black suppressor mounted on the barrel of a Sig Sauer P229 semi-automatic. The sound of the shot would be no more than a cough in the wind.
Over four years later—
Rusty Mullins handed his parking credentials and Prime Protec- tion photo ID to the uniformed security guard at the entrance of the JW Marriott’s parking garage. The officer studied Mullins’ photograph like he was looking for a message spelled out in grains of dust. Then he held it close to the flesh and blood original.
“You going blind, Jake?” Mullins asked.
“Nah. I’ve got perfect vision. That’s why I can’t believe it’s you. You’ve gotten so damned old.”
Mullins laughed and snatched back his creds. Jake Murphy was a retired Capitol Hill cop and the two men had frequently crossed paths during Mullins’ Secret Service stint with the presidential detail.
“You’re one to talk,” Mullins said. “My hair might be gray but at least it’s still stuck on my head.”
The bald guard tapped his temple. “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
“Oh, you can count now?” Mullins drove on before his friend could have the last word.
He found the spaces that the hotel had reserved for his team and parked beside a black Chevy Tahoe. Although Mullins was an hour early, his boss had still beaten him to the assignment.
Before getting out of the Prius, he checked his surroundings, then slid his Glock out of its holster, chambered a round, and returned it under his left arm. He flipped his windshield visor down and angled its courtesy mirror until he could see his face. No food on his chin, nothing stuck between his teeth. He eyed his hair. It was definitely grayer. Approaching fifty, Mullins conceded that soon only old photographs would be proof his head had once been rusty red.
He tilted the mirror to the knot in his navy blue tie. He tightened and centered it, always the last thing he did before “showtime,” as he liked to call it. Not showtime for him, but for the person whose life would be in his hands.
He stepped out of the car and buttoned his suit coat to ensure the shoulder holster wouldn’t be seen. As he pushed through the revolving door, he reviewed the key details from the briefing the day before.
Prime Protection had been contracted to provide personal security for participants in a two-day symposium at the JW Mar- riott on Pennsylvania Avenue. Sponsored in cooperation with Georgetown University, the University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University, the event featured scientists and researchers from around the world who worked in the fields of computer engineering, neuroscience, and bio-technology. Mullins didn’t understand the content, just that the three speakers tonight were tops in their respective fields. Someone on the organizing committee felt the three were more than preeminent scientists. They were potential targets.
In addition to standard hotel security, each speaker would be accompanied by an armed bodyguard while moving through the public areas of the hotel. Registration had been required to attend the evening’s banquet in the Grand Ballroom, a more than 36,000-square-foot space capable of feting over 1,100 guests. The three scientists would then appear on a panel discussing how their areas of research were merging. Mullins would be with a Dr. Oskar Brecht from Germany.
Mullins had scanned his bio and knew Brecht held an endowed chair at the Interdisciplinary Center for Scientific Computing at the Ruprecht-Karls University of Heidelberg. The confidential background dossier included the note that Oskar Brecht had an eye for the fräuleins. Just what Mullins didn’t need—to be a former Secret Service agent caught up in an international call-girl scandal. He would make sure Herr Brecht remained protected from all dangers, lethal and lustful.
Mullins identified himself at the registration desk and picked up a card key to the suite Prime Protection was using for onsite operations. He rode to the twelfth floor, nodded to the guard positioned adjacent to the elevator doors, and flashed his ID. “All quiet?”
“Yes, sir. The German arrived about thirty minutes ago.” “With a new lady friend?”
The guard smiled. “No. Just his security escort from the airport. He’s your package now.”
“And the others?”
“Sitting tight.” The guard checked his watch. “They expect to be contacted at six-thirty to go down for cocktails. That’s in ninety minutes.”
“How about 1247?”
“Your man’s been there since four.”
“Thanks. I’ll check in and then move around a bit. The rest of the team should be here by six if not before.”
Suite 1247 was located in the middle of the hall, equidistant to the rooms of the three scientists. Mullins rapped twice on the door.
“If you’ve got a key, use it,” came the reply.
Mullins placed the black passkey against the lock pad and the bolt clicked open.
Ted Lewison lounged on a small sofa, his stocking feet rest- ing on a glass-top coffee table, his dark suit coat and empty shoulder holster draped over the back of a chair. A Colt M1911 semi-automatic lay on the cushion beside him. The pistol was a holdover preference from Lewison’s days as an MP.
The six-foot-three president of Prime Protection dropped his feet to the floor, sat erect, and placed a half-empty glass of Perrier beside the bottle on the table.
He gestured to an adjacent chair. “Sit down. There have been some changes.”
“Aren’t there always?” Mullins sat.
“You want something from the minibar?”
“No. Bring me up to speed. Then I want to do my own walk- through.”
Lewison nodded. He expected nothing less of his top employee.
Ted Lewison valued professionalism and hard work. He’d escaped the poverty of his neighborhood in Baltimore by joining the U.S. Army straight out of high school. He’d done his twenty, mostly as an MP and later as a chief warrant officer. He’d founded Prime Protection, hired ex-military, and nurtured his fledgling company into the top personal security firm in D.C. But along the way, he’d come to realize the Secret Service instilled traits beyond the normal skill sets of law enforcement. Rusty Mullins always had a plan and several backup options. That’s why noth- ing seemed to rattle the man. And Mullins could read a face like no one else Lewison had ever met. When you had only seconds to identify a potential assailant, that gift meant the difference between life and death.
They worked together so well that Lewison didn’t think of Mullins as an employee. More like a brother from another mother, and he knew he was damned fortunate that Mullins had returned to work after his leave of absence, a leave of absence fol- lowing Mullins’ rogue operation that prevented a terrorist assault on the Federal Reserve and garnered a personal commendation from the President of the United States. Lewison knew Mullins could work anywhere he wanted, and he intended to make sure that place continued to be his company.
“All right, Grandpa,” Lewison said. “First, you’re not on Brecht.”
Mullins cocked his head, weighing the meaning of the “Grandpa” remark. “What? The guy thinks I’m too old to keep up with him?”
“No. Your talents are needed for Lisa Li.”
Mullins couldn’t mask his surprise. “Why? I thought Nicole was on her. Am I supposed to clear the restroom if she wants to pee?”
“How old’s your grandson now?” “Three.”
“Then it might be a stretch for you.”
Mullins stared at his boss. He didn’t know what was going on with the strange assortment of unrelated questions other than Lewison was amusing himself. He refused to give the man the satisfaction of another question.
“Lisa Li showed up with her nephew,” Lewison said. “He’s seven. Nicole has as much experience with a seven-year-old boy as a virgin has with a brothel.”
“So, I’m babysitting?”
“Come on, Rusty. We’re all babysitting. The kid’s here, the situation has changed, and I need you to cover both of them.”
“The boy’s coming to the banquet?”
“Yes. I’m told he’s well behaved. He’ll sit with Dr. Li and the other scientists at the head table. Take up your position wherever you think best.” Lewison rose from the sofa and walked in his stocking feet to a desk by the window. He picked up a manila envelope. “Here’s more background on her.”
“Then who’s covering Brecht?”
“I’m putting Nicole on him. I’ll keep the Pakistani, Ahmad.” “Brecht could try to put himself on Nicole, and you wind
up with a castrated scientist.”
Lewison laughed. “You’ve got a point.” He tossed the envelope into Mullins’ lap. “Look at Li’s background while you’ve got the chance. Maybe you’ll find something in common to talk about.” “Yeah. Probably hemorrhoids. We can compare notes about pains in our asses we have known, present company included.” Mullins flipped open the clasp and dumped the envelope’s contents into his palm. On top were three tickets. He stared at them, speechless.
Lewison grinned. “Did I mention that Li and her nephew are baseball fans?”
Mullins fanned out the tickets. “But these are for tomorrow afternoon. What about the symposium?”
“Li’s not on the program then. Her employer made the arrangements. The three of you will be behind home plate at the Washington Nationals opening game. Unless you’d rather keep your original assignment?”
“I couldn’t do that to poor Nicole. She hates baseball.” Lewison clapped Mullins on the shoulder. “You’re all heart.”
Mullins stuck the tickets in his pocket. “Be sure and put that in my personnel file.”