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By Greg Rucka
Read by John Glouchevitch
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Still recovering from traumas both physical and emotional, Jad Bell is tasked with bringing in the Uzbek, principal organizer of the terrorist attack that nearly cost Bell his ex-wife and daughter. But the Uzbek’s just the beginning: his employer, the Architect, has already set in motion another, even more devastating attack.
At the center of it all are two women under deep cover. One, as beautiful as she is deadly, has just been dispatched on American soil to execute the Architect’s deadly plans. The other is an American just emerging from a complex web of lies, whose intel may be the only hope Bell has to stop the assault before it begins. But after years of pretending to be somebody else, can she be trusted?
“YOU LOOK TIRED,” she says, moving out of the doorway to let him inside. “Do you want to talk about it?”
The soldier enters, moves his cover to his hands, holding the hat in a way that makes him feel half her age, though he’s most of the way through fifty and she’s not seen the edges of thirty yet. He doesn’t speak, doesn’t move as she shuts and locks the door behind him, comes back to put a gentle touch on his elbow. She looks at him curiously, concerned, then shakes her head in such a way that her hair shifts and gently sways, exposes bare neck from collar to jawline. He sees her skin, feels an almost magnetic tug, an immediate urge to wrap his arms around her and inhale her scent. He’s too old to believe that doing so will make it all better, but it’s what he feels. He thinks about the fact that he should’ve waited before coming here, before talking to her. He thinks that he doesn’t have a choice.
“Jamieson’s dead,” the soldier says.
She nods slightly, a touch of sympathy in her expression, in the movement, and he thinks it’s for his sake, and not for the dead man she has never met, hardly even knew.
“I’ll make you a drink,” she says. “I’ve got some of that rye you like.”
He nods, moves into the large front room. Floor-to-ceiling windows that would show the gleam of the capital at night, but the curtains are drawn, the way they always are when he arrives. He’s never seen them open, never seen the view out of her condo here in the West End. This town, he knows, keeps a secret like a four-year-old at a birthday party. When he visits, he visits at night, drives straight into the underground lot, takes the spot that’s always open. Normally, he changes out of uniform before coming here.
Tonight is not normal.
The soldier takes a seat, sets his hat beside him, loosens his tie and his collar. When she comes back with the drink, he takes it from her hand, sets it aside. She raises an eyebrow.
“You don’t want a drink you should’ve said so.”
The soldier pulls her to him, meets her mouth with his own. She kisses him back with full hunger, uncaged; it’s what she’s been waiting for.
When they reach her bedroom, he keeps much of his uniform on, at least for a while.
Afterward, embracing every cliché, she lights a cigarette and shares it with him, resting on her elbow, the ashtray balanced on his sternum. He stares at the ceiling. It’s the lost hours, between three and five in the morning, and the only sounds are the hum of the air-conditioning and, just beyond, the muted tick of the clock on the bedside table. He can feel her gaze, studying him. Her patience is unnerving, and he cannot stop his mind from spinning into questions. He knows what she’s waiting for.
“He can name his price.”
She sucks on the cigarette, exhales toward the ceiling, places the filter back between his lips. He swears he can taste her on it.
“I’ll tell him that,” she says.
“I want to talk to him this time. No middleman, not like it was with Jamieson. I want to deal with him directly.”
She shakes her head slightly. He knew she would.
“We bought a service,” the soldier says, recalling her own phrasing. “It didn’t execute.”
“You knew there was an element of risk. You embraced that when you told me what Jamieson and the others wanted to buy.”
“It didn’t execute.” He puts the cigarette out in the ashtray, feels the sharp point of heat of the cinder dying on the glass against his skin. He moves the ashtray to the nightstand, and when he rolls back, she is exactly as she was before. “We’re no better off than when we started.”
“I’ve seen the news, baby. We both know that’s not true.”
“It’s not enough. It’s not what we wanted.”
She shrugs, and it’s as elegant as every other movement she makes. He wonders, not for the first time, what she was before she was this. He used to think she was as American as he, but over time he has revised that theory. There’s an Eastern European touch to her beauty, to the dark hair and dark eyes and almost too-fair skin. When he’s tried to look into who she really is—carefully, very, very carefully—all the answers come back entirely plausible, the banal lies of espionage that he has come to recognize from thirty years of service. When he’s asked her, her response has always been the same.
“I am what you need me to be.”
She’s been a lot of things for him. She’s been an ardent and eager and skilled lover. She’s been a woman who has made him feel adored and strong and potent. She’s been a comfort, laughing at the right time at the right jokes, asking the right questions when he needed to talk about himself. She’s been a confessor, listening to secrets he has no right to tell anyone else. She’s been the gateway. When the soldier and Jamieson and the others concluded what they needed to do to save their country, she heard the edge of conspiracy in his voice, and she offered the way to the means. It was she who told the soldier she knew a man who knew a man who could provide the terror they wanted. It was she who put Jamieson and the Uzbek in the same place at the same time.
She’s been all these things, but right now, he needs her to be something else. Right now, he needs her to be a rope, he needs her to keep him from drowning. Right now, the soldier needs her to tell him that what he’s done, what they’ve done, cannot come back to harm them, and that there is still a way forward.
She moves against him, lays her head against his chest. One hand finds his, laces fingers.
“Tell me what you want,” she says. “Tell me what you’re offering. I’ll speak to him, and I’ll tell you what he says.”
A sudden, sharp anger bursts in him. He resents her patience, resents what feels like condescension from this woman so much younger than he, who makes him hard despite himself, who has secrets he cannot uncover. He grips her wrists and rolls atop her, pins her arms over her head, and the way she yields only makes him that much more frustrated and aroused. She’s looking up at him unafraid, that same expression, as if anything he might do to her now is what she wants him to do, or, worse, what she expects from him, that he is entirely predictable to her. She pushes against his grip, but only just. She opens her legs.
“We want what we paid for,” the soldier says.
She arches, receiving him, makes a sound that thrills him.
“Yes,” she says.
“You tell him that. You tell him that.”
“You tell him…oh…goddamn it…”
“…damn you, goddamn you, woman…”
“…we want the war we paid for!”
After a time, his hands leave her wrists, and she wraps her arms around him, and the silence returns, the air conditioner, the ticking of the clock, the racing of his pulse. Her lips brush his ear.
“He’ll want something in return.”
BELL IS THE penetrator, first through the door, Chaindragger nuts-to-ass on him. Steelriver follows tight on Chain’s heels, sweeping up at the back, making sure nothing comes up on their six.
They enter noisy and hard, hydrocharge blasting hinges from door frame, wood and brick splinters that shower the hardwood floor of the entry hall. Steelriver sends the first flashbang in its wake, the grenade’s detonation turned from deafening to dull behind their ear protection, and then they’re out of the night and into a new darkness, NVG compensating with all the ambient light it can steal. Outside in the back, Cardboard opens up on the house with his grenade launcher, dropping more bangers onto the roof, through the windows, peppering the building with noise in an attempt to sow mayhem and confusion, all while maintaining his overwatch.
They know their positions and their duty the way they know their names, ranks, and serial numbers. The flight into country was spent going over the terrain, a JSOC windfall of intelligence gathered from who knows where, examining blueprints, memorizing faces on digital displays. Then the gear prep, each man attending his loadout, then finally sneaking what sleep they could. Now they have sacrificed stealth for speed, a heavily armed footrace to claim an unwilling prize.
Down the hall, Bell counting steps not quite subconsciously, taking in details with the same ingrained assess-and-discard, moving to target. Door, left, he passes without pause, leaves it to Chaindragger to clear. Hears the next grenade’s dulled thump, feels the vibration as he drives ever forward. In Bell’s mind’s eye, the floor plan is a cross between some high-tech heads-up display and, oddly, a treasure map, parchment-aged and ragged-edged. It’s one of his mnemonics, some part of the boy’s adventure fantasy that has endured through his nearly forty years. It may be the only childhood illusion he has left.
Just short of the end of the hall, the shock-entry is beginning to wear off. Between the blasts from Cardboard’s rain, Bell can now hear muffled shouting, the alarm rising in near hysteria, voices yelling in Russian and Uzbek. He imagines the clatter and scramble of hasty movement and breaking panic. Bell’s seventeenth step brings him to an intersection, and he throws his first 9-bang, corners as it detonates, his carbine high and ready. A man staggers into view, disoriented from the roughly 180 decibels that have deafened him, the white flash that has blinded him, a weapon in hand. He blinks, useless, in Bell’s direction, and Bell puts two suppressed shots into him without breaking stride. The man drops. At his back, Chaindragger fires again, new target, one Bell has skipped. They keep moving.
They have been inside for six seconds.
Following the route, the map in Bell’s mind never wavering, the absurd X marking the imaginary spot on the floor above. Behind him, far enough back that it must be Steelriver, he registers more shots, suppressor muffled, the sound of a body collapsing, deadweight. Passes another door, and Chaindragger hits it, pops the banger while hugging the wall, follows the blast with a pivot and a burst of gunfire, then resumes, stacked tight on Bell.
Still counting his paces, and Bell has reached the bottom of the staircase, sweeps his barrel upward, tracing his line of ascent. He hates stairs; stairs are dangerous, and to prove him right he sights movement, fires twice, and is rewarded with an ownerless assault rifle clattering down the stairs toward him. Bell notes the gun is an AK, the same way he notes that Steelriver has turned, giving their back full cover. More shots, these unsuppressed, and that means it’s not one of Bell’s doing the shooting but rather the opposition, and then it cuts off as abruptly and brutally as it began. An instant of silence, and then a voice dulled by ear protection begins screaming in pain and fear, then that, too, is lost as another of Cardboard’s grenades detonates, the bombardment continuing.
Bell throws his second banger of the op, lofting it up the stairs to the landing, and another grenade arcs after the first, this thrown by Chaindragger. Each detonates within an instant of one another, concussion vibration they can feel in their torsos, light flaring, the NVG filters compensating a fraction of an instant behind the blasts. The explosion is still ringing through the house as Bell ascends, reaches the top, the treasure-map X looming closer, the room that the blueprints identified as the master suite. Two men here, still reeling, one wide-eyed and dumbstruck, the other flat on the floor, hands covering his ears. Bell takes the one in his quadrant, Chain shoots the second. The door to the room they want is dead ahead, and Bell moves to it with the confidence of a man who knows that no one is going to take his back by surprise. He knocks the goggles up out of his eyes, back to his helmet, and Chaindragger follows suit, waiting the word.
Bell gives the go sign, and they’re crashing through the second door.
It has taken seventeen seconds.
For the master bedroom of a master criminal, the room is remarkably restrained, something Bell registers without realizing he’s doing so, the same way he also concludes that this makes perfect sense. This man they’ve come for, this Uzbek, has been anything but ostentatious, even in the face of crimes that are both audacious and extravagant. It has been seventy-two hours since Bell and this same team—with the exception of Steelriver—prevented a terrorist takeover of one of the biggest theme parks in the world. It has been less than seventy-two hours since Bell himself stopped the detonation of a dirty bomb in that same park, a device that, upon recovery, had been constructed to appear as though it were manufactured and supplied by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This is the home, this is the bedroom, of the man Bell and his masters believe to be responsible for these things.
This is the home of Vosil Tohir.
Briefed on the flight into Tashkent, again in the SUV speeding from the staging point at the airfield to this house, Bell wondered what this man, this Uzbek, would be like. His audacity notwithstanding, the takeover of the WilsonVille theme park had been expertly done, cleared of fifty thousand guests in a matter of minutes, then held for hours before Bell, Chaindragger, Cardboard, and the currently absent and convalescing Bonebreaker had managed to shake the Uzbek’s men loose. Bell still feels the aches and pains earned that day, physical and emotional; the soreness in his lacerated palm still knitting itself back together; the betrayal in the eyes of his daughter, Athena.
When all was said and done, only then did the trail lead to Vosil Tohir.
Putting the name to the man in turn put the man in a place, and that is why four very deniable shooters, trained by the United States Army, are here, in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. They have come for Vosil Tohir.
Because Vosil Tohir has a lot of explaining to do.
Two figures in the blue darkness, the bed between them and Bell, a man and a woman. The man is kicking open a door that was not on the blueprints, and Bell knows it was an aftermarket addition. Vosil Tohir has a bolt-hole, and he is almost through it. Bell sees this in an instant, just as he sees that both are half dressed and both have go bags in one hand and a weapon in the other.
The mission is to take Vosil Tohir alive. The gun he is raising at them is therefore problematic; the gun that the woman is raising less so.
Chaindragger’s carbine spits, a single suppressed shot, and the man seems to pirouette before collapsing on his side. Bell, through the window of the EOTech sight on his rifle, already has his reticule on the woman’s face, his finger is about to slap the trigger, and it is then he registers what she is shouting at him, sees her hands rising, empty, weapon and bag falling to the floor.
Bell stops himself from killing her.
“Biplane.” The woman is breathless. “The word of the day is biplane.”
Bell takes two uncounted steps forward, face-to-face with the woman. He hears the sound of metal sliding over the floor as Chaindragger kicks the dropped guns away, hears the man on the floor’s chopped breathing as he struggles to keep from vocalizing the pain that comes with a bullet shattering the hip. Bell, who has been shot four times in his almost twenty years of service, can imagine quite easily how much it hurts. He feels just a moment’s sympathy.
The woman doesn’t move, but she doesn’t look away, meeting Bell’s gaze. She stands straight, proud; closer, Bell sees that she is beautiful, which he expected, but unafraid, which he did not. Her hands are still raised, but her elbows are bent, giving her surrender an insolence.
A flash of light, a brief moment of illumination as Chaindragger checks the man on the floor against the digital copy on his smartphone, the same photograph all the shooters carry. The sound of a zip tie being ratcheted around the target’s wrists.
“Verified,” Chaindragger tells Bell.
“Biplane.” When she says it this time, the corner of her mouth turns to smirk.
Bell punches her in the solar plexus.
THE SOLDIER HASN’T been sleeping well, and that’s why he’s awake when his phone rings, the special one, the one that ties him to everything and everyone under his command back at the Pentagon. He’s sitting in the living room of his home outside Chevy Chase, Maryland, in the almost dark, just the light from the dining room bleeding all over him. He’s been staring into the cold dead pit of his fireplace in August. If it were winter, he’d have something burning and take comfort in the dance of the flames, but it’s not winter, it’s summer, and even with the air-conditioning cranked he couldn’t justify lighting a fire, because that would be stupid, wouldn’t it? Until a while ago he’d been working on his laptop, but now it’s forgotten, awake but screen-locked, a black monitor displaying the ubiquitous star field that hides all the top secrets within. He’s thinking about work but he’s not, because he’s thinking about that woman in the West End that he cannot get enough of, that he cannot ever get enough of, and he’s thinking of the man who has mastered her and who isn’t him.
He hates that man. Sincerely, deeply, utterly, purely hates him. He would kill him with his hands, something that he did once to the enemy many many years ago, a moment and a sensation he has never forgotten. Different from taking a life with a gun and a thousand times removed from drone strikes or overseen ops in the far corners of the world. He remembers that battle, that desperation and savagery, and the wound in his left leg awakens with sympathy, aching again. He fought for his life, and he won, and poets and writers and better men than he have tried to put into words what that moment is like, the triumph of survival, the ecstasy and elation of victory, the sorrow that follows. The soldier used to wonder if all who survive feel the same way. Then he decided it didn’t matter.
When he thinks of that man, though, the man he hates, it all comes back. That man with no name, and with no name no identity, no country, no motive, no reason. That man whom he has never seen and thus has imagined; younger than the soldier, and more handsome, and always well dressed, like those fey male models that used to be all the fashion. That man, the soldier has decided, wears glasses. That man, who maybe had Jamieson killed, maybe was trying to tie off a loose end, to keep his precious anonymity and his terrible secrets.
That man whom the soldier has come to think of as the Architect, because it fits, because calling that man a cocksucking goatfucker is too much of a mouthful, even if he never says it aloud, and because he’s an officer who wears stars, and officers who wear stars don’t use words like that in polite company. That man, as reported by the Bravo-Interdict operator code-named Blackfriars via her control, Captain Abigail Heath, and who has been designated target: Echo. So he is called Echo on paper, but still, in the soldier’s mind, he is the Architect.
Joke’s on you, the soldier thinks. We’re closer than you know.
Just not close enough. Not yet.
Then the phone rings, and the soldier learns how wrong he is.
He stabs the button on his phone with the angry haste that comes when silence is disturbed. The soldier’s wife is asleep upstairs, and even though he knows it won’t, he’s afraid the sound will wake her. He answers it angry, because when he gets a phone call he isn’t expecting at five of five in the morning, something has gone very wrong indeed.
“Brock,” he says.
It’s Heath. “I’m sorry to disturb you at home, sir,” she says. “Blackfriars is about to be blown.”
For a moment, the soldier genuinely cannot speak, suffers the extraordinary feeling of being punched in the gut through words alone. He’s a rational man, but this feels like witchcraft, as if the Architect, wherever he skulks and hides, has reached across miles and matter and pulled the prize straight from the soldier’s mind. His thoughts jumble, trying to remember, but he’s sure he’s never so much as whispered a word of Blackfriars, never even mentioned the name to the woman in the West End. She had everything he could give her, but he never gave her that.
He registers the tense Heath has used, says, “About to be?” He hears the stress in his voice as he speaks, wonders if Heath can hear it, too.
“Conops for an Indigo capture op in Tashkent, targeting Heatdish, just crossed my desk,” Heath says. She’s speaking quickly, and the soldier realizes that any stress in his voice must sound like harmony to what he’s hearing in hers. “They were boots-on-the-ground as of seventeen minutes ago. They have to have the jackpot by now unless they were stopped at the breach.”
Heatdish is the code name used for Blackfriars’s primary target, the man she’s been working, an Uzbeki national named Vosil Tohir. It is Vosil Tohir who ties everyone in Brock’s deceptions together, from the woman in the West End to Jamieson to the events at the theme park in California. It is Blackfriars who leads to Heatdish, who leads, finally, to the Architect, and until this moment, Brock has held faith that he is the only one aware of this connection.
“Jackpot is Heatdish, confirmed?”
“By the conops, yes, sir.” Heath pauses for a fraction, it’s barely there, but it’s what the soldier is thinking, too, and he hears it. “Sir, if it’s a parakeet op, they’ll kill Blackfriars before she can identify herself.”
Heath puts him on hold, and the soldier gets to his feet, wedging his phone between ear and shoulder. He takes his laptop with him, moves it to the dining room table, and the motion awakens the screen, and the machine demands to know who he is. He types his passphrase, then his password, then his second password in quick succession, turns to the bottles of liquor on the sideboard, shifts the phone to his other shoulder, his other ear. Pours himself a glass of whiskey and brings it back to the laptop. He never told the woman in the West End about Blackfriars. He never gave that up, he’s more certain than ever.
So this is something else. The price of asymmetrical warfare fought with a Special Forces sword and shield. Everything happens fast, sometimes too damn fast to track all the elements.
Heath comes back. “Sir, I have Colonel Ruiz.”
There’s a hiss, and then all three of them are sharing a line.
“General Brock,” Ruiz says. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Danny, what’s this about you running an op in Tashkent?” the soldier, Brigadier General Emmet Brock, asks. “Why didn’t I see a concept of operations before this went green?”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but I wasn’t aware Indigo operations needed your approval.”
“They fucking well do when I’ve got an operator in theater. Jesus Christ, Danny, where the fuck did this even come from? Your men go through the door, they’ll drop her on the way to target. I’m ordering you to abort.”
“I can’t do that, sir.”
“I am anxious to hear why not, Colonel.”
“They’re on egress to exfil staging,” Ruiz says. “It’s done.”
Heath swears, certain her agent is dead, and the soldier, Brock, wants to swear, too, but for different reasons. Blackfriars dead means his best reach for the Architect is now gone.
“You have communications with your unit?”
“Due for a sitrep from them in…four minutes.”
“Captain Heath,” Brock says. “You will stay in contact with Colonel Ruiz, and you will inform me immediately on the disposition of the operation. Colonel, the captain is Blackfriars’s handler. You’ll need her to verify that your men just killed one of our operators.”
Brock hangs up before either Ruiz or Heath can acknowledge him. He drops the phone on the table beside his laptop and his whiskey, takes the glass and brings it to his lips, anxious to drink, but stops. Blackfriars had been the reach to the Architect, but if the operation has been a success, there’s still hope, maybe even a better hope for reaching the man. Maybe the Indigo shooters have killed Blackfriars, but it doesn’t really matter, because Blackfriars became irrelevant the moment they went through the door. If they have Heatdish, if they have Vosil Tohir, that’s a tradeup.
He thinks about the woman in the West End again, the woman he knows as Jordan Webber-Hayden. She put Jamieson and Tohir together, albeit indirectly. When Brock asked her about Tohir, about this contact Jamieson was dealing with, she’d claimed ignorance. He’d never mentioned his name to her, hadn’t wanted to reveal how much he knew for fear of it getting back to the Architect. Now he has to wonder what she might know.
PRAISE FOR ALPHA:
"Alpha is hands down, the most exciting, adrenaline-pumping, butt-kicking novel I've read in years. Rucka is the real deal. If this one doesn't make you stay up late rooting for the good guys, you don't have a heartbeat. Highly recommended!"—Christopher Reich, New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Deception and Numbered Account
- "Read Greg Rucka. It's that simple. Open one of his books and what you've got is a fistful of dynamite."—The Cincinnati Enquirer
- "Rucka gets his new series featuring Ex-Delta Force Master Sergeant Jad Bell off to a smashing start with this pitch-perfect thriller. This lean, mean thriller with just the right amount of character development and unexpected complications will appeal to all who enjoy this genre but particularly to readers who like a strong hero along the lines of Lee Child's Jack Reacher. Highly recommended."—Library Journal (starred review)
- On Sale
- Jul 22, 2014
- Hachette Audio