The End Game

The End Game

The End Game 15

  His young handler in Atlantic City had evidently convinced him that Zahir always followed through, so he had come. Mr. Subtle was looking around furtively, as if he was afraid someone would jump out and slap handcuffs on him.

  Kill you, maybe, but no handcuffs. Mr. Subtle slithered into the diner, saw Zahir nod at him, and slinked over, slid into the booth. He looked scared and wary. “I’m here.”

  “Of course you are.”

  Mr. Subtle slid down in the booth, as if it would hide him and his paunchy belly. Zahir flicked a hand toward the waitress, mouthed Coffee.

  Woody Reading looked at the man opposite him, the beaked nose, dark hair and eyebrows, not a handsome man, mid-thirties, the man his handler, Aziri, had said would not kill him easily and fast if he didn’t bring him the blueprints, he would gut him like a fish, then he would destroy his reputation and his family. He knew Aziri believed it to his soul, and so did Woody.

  Zahir was amused and pleased that the man was looking as if Zahir would strike like a snake if he said the wrong thing. Good. A frightened man tended to do what he was told.

  The coffee was delivered. The waitress didn’t linger. She wasn’t stupid; she could smell the fear roiling off the man in his silly trench coat—and the other man, the dark one who looked sexy until she’d looked into his eyes and felt her flesh crawl. Dead eyes. Dead eyes.

  “Aziri told me to bring you the blueprints or you would kill me.”

  Zahir only smiled, nodded. “At the very least. So you have them under your trench coat?”

  Mr. Subtle leaned forward to whisper, “Yes, but please, won’t you reconsider? I know what you’re planning, but believe me when I tell you that the FBI is closing in. I don’t want to be caught.”

  “After what you’ve already done, you’re only now considering you could be caught?”

  “Look, I gave the Bishop the plans for the plane, even backup plans for Bayway. But now it’s getting too hot. People aren’t stupid. My company will be targeted soon, then they’ll fix on me. Won’t you reconsider? I could still return the blueprints, no one the wiser. Do you really need them?”

  Ah, Matthew and his ridiculous moniker—the Bishop, bestowed by Ian several years before like a crown on his head. Zahir laughed low, and Woody jerked back, nearly upending his coffee. “That is none of your concern. You are well paid. You need know nothing more. Give me the blueprints.”

  Unspoken, but quite clear, was: Give me the blueprints right now or I’ll slit your throat and walk away before the first drop of blood splashes in your coffee cup.

  “Listen,” Woody said, desperate now, “surely you realize everyone’s on edge after Bayway. I thought the explosion was only supposed to disable the refinery. I didn’t know you were going to kill a dozen workers. Since the Bishop has always told me he didn’t believe in collateral damage, it was you, wasn’t it, who pushed the button, not the Bishop?” He stopped himself, looked over his shoulder. No one had heard, but it didn’t lessen his fear. He leaned across the table. “My superiors are asking questions. There was a security briefing this morning, about COE. I don’t know how much longer I can stay off their radar.”

  Zahir took a sip of his coffee. “You never had to accept the first payment made to you, did you? You never had to buy that rather flamboyant house on the cliffs in Saint Bart’s. You never had to give your mistress diamonds. And you’ve continued to steal and lie and savor the money given to you.

  “So, Mr. Reading, this is not a negotiation, nor do I owe you any explanations. Give me the blueprints. Now. Or we’re finished, and you won’t ever see me again until late one night when you are sound asleep with your arm around your mistress and the knife slips between your ribs.”

  Zahir began to stand, and in his hand was a small stiletto. He felt the tube nudge his leg under the table. He pulled it up and clipped it inside his jacket.

  “Smart decision.” Zahir threw a ten-dollar bill on the table, smiled, noting the sweat on Mr. Subtle’s face as he slid an envelope across to him. “The amount agreed upon. Do you know, Mr. Reading, I’ve never been a patient man, and you surely tried my patience this morning. Never go against me again or you won’t enjoy what happens. Nor will your whore or your wife or your three children. Your cushy job will go up in smoke and everything you hold dear will burn around you.”

  He rose. “We do thank you for your cooperation.”

  Zahir left Silver Corner to the sound of an envelope being ripped open. As he walked away, he tapped the tube to his leg, pleased.



  Interstate 95

  Matthew couldn’t shake the vision of her, on her side, legs drawn up. He saw the blood flowing into her hair, the strands turning black.

  She was dead. Ian was dead and he’d chosen Vanessa over him. His friends, his only friends, so close to him, like family. Yet Vanessa was a lie. Who had she been working for? Some government agent, the CIA maybe, since she’d first hooked up with him in Ireland. And that meant they knew who he was, who all of them were, yet they hadn’t come after COE.

  Why hadn’t she simply walked him into a police station at gunpoint? Obvious answer—whoever she worked for had heard talk about his gold-coin bombs, and they wanted his technology so much they were willing to let him continue his bombings. No doubt they’d tasked Vanessa to get the coins, having her infiltrate COE as a bomber. But he’d never let her near the coins, always kept them hidden, after that first time in Belfast he’d shown them to her, to impress her. Well, before he’d had to kill her, she knew how powerful his bombs were, realized in that moment before death that she’d failed.

  He wondered what would have happened if he had shared the coins with her. Well, he hadn’t been that stupid.

  She was nothing more than a traitorous bitch. She wouldn’t get them now, and neither would her bosses.

  Andy started to moan again.

  It was too much. “Shut up, Andy! The bullet only grazed your leg, went right through, didn’t bust it up. I put an antibiotic on it and taped it. I even gave you the last of the pain meds. So stop your infernal whining. I’ve got to think through how we’re going to deal with Yorktown.”

  Still Andy moaned, like he were dying. “We shouldn’t have gone back to the apartment, Matthew. It was a huge mistake.”

  “Yeah, like it’s my fault you forgot the bag of memory sticks with the counter-codes. And all we got for our efforts was your leg shot through by that agent’s bullet.”

  “I didn’t think we should go back, I told you that. I mean, who cares if we can’t stop anything now? You’re planning on following through on that deal you made with Darius, right?”

  “It was insurance,” Matthew said, as he pulled in behind a big eighteen-wheeler. “The counter-codes were my bargaining chips with the Feds if everything suddenly went into the crapper. I told you that. Stop whining.”

  Andy moaned again, kept ragging on him, blaming him, not letting up.

  Matthew said very politely, never taking his eyes off the road, “If you don’t shut up, Andy, I’m going to shoot you, kill you dead. You deserve it for being so stupid.”

  Shocked silence, but it didn’t last. “You rattled me, man. I mean, you killed Ian and Vanessa and then you ordered us out of there.” He added, in a sulky little boy’s voice, “You used my own gasoline mixture but you didn’t even let me torch the place.”

  Matthew remembered thinking if he’d given Andy the gasoline can he’d lose it and burn down the neighborhood. It had been a stupid decision on his part to go back. In all that wet rubble, how had he ever expected Andy to find the memory sticks? Still, there was a possibility. It was rotten luck that had those FBI agents come waltzing out of that old lady’s Laundromat. No one could have foreseen that. Bad luck, mistakes. He knew he couldn’t afford any more.

  It hit him again like a fist to the gut. Ian was dead, by h
is hand. He blocked out Andy’s moans, and saw in his mind that first time he’d met Ian, his oldest friend, his only friend, really, after his family had been murdered by those terrorists in 2005. He saw himself again in that little bar near the Ponte Vecchio. He’d felt lost and alone, so filled with rage and impotence he’d wanted to kill himself. And then this beefy Irishman had swaggered in and started a monologue about the football on the bar TV he was looking at, but not watching, he was too miserable. He remembered it was Manchester versus Italy.

  “You rooting for our Manchester boys, not those Italian pussies, right?” Matthew didn’t give a crap, but he checked the score, saw Manchester was losing, said, “I am, sadly.”

  “Well, glory hallelujah, a man with a brain, and the good Lord behold, he’s a bleeding American to boot.”

  The Irishman was a man somewhere in his thirties with sandy brown hair sticking out in all directions, a sunburned nose ready to peel, and wearing a Manchester United jersey.

  COE—Celebrants of Earth, the name had been Ian’s brainstorm, he’d believed it sounded highfalutin and righteous, and all of it had started by sharing a pint in an Italian pub with a blue-eyed fanatic Irishman who’d shared Matthew’s hate of radical Islam, whipped him up since his own hatred ran deep as well.

  Seven years and a lifetime later, it had ended in a stinking apartment in Brooklyn. It still seemed like a mad dream—Ian dead, burned up, Matthew the one who’d killed him. And Vanessa, lying dead not two feet from him.

  No, he would have no guilt, no regrets; he’d done what he had to do. They betrayed him, they deserved death. So why didn’t he feel cleansed, whole again, since he’d meted out the proper justice, done the only thing he could? He felt nothing. All he knew was he was alone again, except for bleeding, whining, crazy Andy next to him, and Darius, and only God knew where Darius was. All Matthew knew was what Darius had told him—he was getting the final pieces together for his part in their big score.

  Of course Darius wasn’t his real name. Matthew had no idea who he really was, but like Ian, he’d looked at the vast amounts of cash Darius had brought to him and listened for hours to him speak fluently in his upper-class British accent about how the world had to change, and how Matthew would be the one to do it. He’d given Matthew renewed focus, given him greater purpose, showed him a wider vision of the world, and he’d demonstrated with Bayway what it would take for Matthew to truly make himself the world’s savior, how he could truly avenge his murdered family and rid the world of the vermin that threatened to take it over.

  He thought about his family, dead, too, a decade now, not enough of them to bury after the bombs blew them apart.

  Ian and Vanessa, their bodies burned beyond recognition. What he was doing, buying into Darius’s plans—was it worth it? He thought of the codes Darius had helped them buy from that German hacker, the codes that were in his control, the codes he couldn’t now undo because of the memory sticks lying sodden in the ruins of the burned apartment.

  Screw insurance. It was his final big act. He was ready. “Yes,” he said aloud, “I’m ready, more than ready. No going back now.”

  Andy turned at his voice. “Going back? Why would we do that?”

  Matthew laughed.



  Washington, D.C.

  Carl Grace climbed into his car in the hospital parking lot, pressed his forehead to the steering wheel, and cried. Nessa could die, and for what? It would mean he’d let down his brother and not kept her safe. Who would have ever believed Vanessa would want to follow in her father’s footsteps so literally, getting herself shot while undercover? And now she might die, just as her father had died.

  Nothing was worth her life, nothing. Certainly not those stupid gold-coin bombs Matthew Spenser has created. He should have pulled the plug, pulled her out, but he hadn’t. His boss, Temp, had been adamant that Vanessa stay active in COE until she could get her hands on the bombs. Now she could die and all he knew was Spenser had disappeared and there was an assassination coming. Who?

  And it was his text that had broken her cover. He’d never forgive himself if she died because he’d decided to screw Temp and he was trying to warn her to leave.

  He swiped at the tears, straightened, and looked blindly around him at the staff pouring out of the hospital. Shift change. No, Nessa couldn’t die, she couldn’t. He simply couldn’t imagine what he would do if he lost her. She’d been going above and beyond the call of duty for two years now, working undercover in Europe, then the UK with the IRA, now infiltrating that mad group, Celebrants of Earth—COE. He hadn’t slept decently for weeks, constantly worried about her, and the stress was beginning to take its toll.

  He didn’t want to leave her, but he had had no choice. He had to stop Matthew Spenser, put an end to COE.

  His phone rang as he pulled out of the parking lot. “Yes?”

  A female voice said, “The DI wants to see you now.”

  “Good, I want to see him, too. I’ve got vital information he needs. Tell him I’ll be there in fifteen, Gladys. I’m off-campus.”

  “Hurry. When he got back from a meeting at Tango Two’s place, he was on the warpath. I’ve never seen Temp like this. It’s something big, Carl, really big.”

  “So is my news.”

  He knew about Trafford’s meeting with the other muckety-mucks and the vice president, not surprised Callan Sloane was now loaded for bear, given the explosion at Bayway.

  Ten minutes later he parked in the orange lot on the CIA campus and hurried toward the new headquarters building, not even glancing at Kryptos—Jim Sanborn’s encrypted, elusive cypher-sculpture. When he passed the wall of stars, all he could think about was seeing Nessa’s name on that wall, a single star to show her worth to the Agency. Like her father’s star.

  When he stood in front of Gladys, with her double strand of pearls and gray silk blouse and ladylike pumps, he smiled. All the analysts liked her; she was always in their corner. She said immediately, “Is Vanessa all right?”

  It hurt to say the words. “It’s still uncertain” was all he could manage.

  “All of us are praying for her. Now go in, Carl.” As he walked past, she handed him a folder. “I don’t know what it’s all about, but like I told you, it’s big. Good luck.”

  Director of Intelligence Templeton “Temp” Trafford stood in the window overlooking the CIA campus. A light rain had begun to fall, and the window was misting. Trafford was always impeccably dressed, but this morning, meeting with the VP, he was more formal than usual. Carl recognized the silk tie and polished presidential-seal cuff links Trafford kept in his lower drawer, next to the Grey Goose vodka.

  Trafford turned. “Is Vanessa okay?”

  Stiff back, stiff voice. “She’s back in surgery. Her doctors—they don’t know, or won’t say.”

  “How did Spenser find out she was a spy?”

  “A text from me. Spenser heard the phone ding. He lost it, shot her. Look, Temp, she managed to tell me about an assassination attempt before she coded, but not the target, or targets, not the where. Do you know anything about this?”

  Trafford said, “Yes, partly. We’ve received word of a major assassination threat, so maybe it’s the same one, I’m not certain.”


  “The vice president, Callan Sloane. Possibly others as well, still unidentified.”

  Carl couldn’t believe it.

  Trafford drew in a deep breath. “I imagine her buddy in the Mossad tipped her off. It gets worse. The assassin is Zahir Damari.”

  Carl whistled. “Damari. Who put out the contract?”

  Trafford said, “Mossad believes it’s Iran, so that means it’s probably Hezbollah, since they’ve been threatened by her from the beginning—a vice president of the United States dead set against them and all they preach, and a woman to boot?
br />  “As for Hezbollah, they’re particularly dangerous, since they have no desire for a peaceful world, only chaos and destruction and anarchy in the West, well, and the world, if they could pull it off, and the takeover of Shia.

  “Callan has always preached no nukes in Iran, so obviously they would want deniability. Her ties to Israel aside, all the terrorist states also are well aware of her disagreement with the president on the peace talks. To have her eliminated, they’d cheer.”

  Carl said, “But if it’s proved they paid to have her assassinated, don’t they understand the president would be forced to retaliate? Big-time?”

  “But retaliate against whom, exactly? Don’t forget, Carl, Hezbollah gives them plausible deniability. So the president hits Lebanon, so what? Tehran gets off scot-free and without their biggest roadblock.

  “In addition, we’re nearly certain now that the man calling himself Darius is Zahir Damari. The photos Vanessa took of him match body type, height, and skin tone, plus the timing’s right. Did he change his face when he went to Matthew Spenser? We don’t know, so that makes the facial parameters sketchy. And as you know, Damari is a quick-change artist.”

  Carl said, “Well, if Darius is indeed Damari and he managed to get himself embedded in COE, the FBI can nail him with this recent photo. Their guys Savich and Drummond have been working on a supplement to the NGA database.”

  Temp said, “Before Bayway, Spenser never killed anyone. Why the sudden change? I think Damari changed it, somehow spurred Spenser to more violent, more dramatic action, using one of his own coin bombs, or perhaps only a small portion of it, if all the hype as to its power is true. There’s more. Unverified from the Mossad is that it’s not only Callan who’s targeted by Damari, maybe even someone more important.”

  “The only person more important than Callan Sloane is the president.” Carl was frankly disbelieving. “No state would dare assassinate a president of the United States. The fallout would be catastrophic.”