Authors: Alan Jacobson
“This is where I say good-bye.” Vail glanced at Richter, giving him one more chance before the hungry lions were unleashed.
“Don’t let the door hit you in your very
ass on the way out,” he said, leaning in his chair to get a look.
Asshole. I tried to save your life.
OUT OF RESPECT FOR VAIL, DeSantos waited for the door to close before continuing.
“I’m sure you’re well schooled in SERE,” he said, referring to the Pentagon’s “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape” program that trained its soldiers how to repel efforts to extract vital information under duress. “And I’m sure you know that I’ve been taught how to get what I need in situations like this.”
DeSantos examined the pliers. “See, the thing is, Vince, when I was in the SEALs, we also had rigorous training. Just about every scenario you can imagine, in impossibly tough physical and mental conditions. But like so many of the guys who came before and after me, no one knows how he’ll react when he’s put in the situation he’s trained weeks, months, years for. He doesn’t know if he’s really going to be any good at it, how his brain will respond to the fear, the intensity, the life-or-death pressure. But once the bullets start flying, when the adrenaline’s surging, that’s when you find out what you’ve got. And how good you are.”
DeSantos sat down at the table and waited, studied Richter’s face. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation like this out in the field. I have, and it was probably one of the worst times of my life. I still have the scars to show for it. Physical. Mental.” He rested the pliers on the table in front of him, inches from Richter’s fingers. “But, see, that’s what makes me so good at what I do.
“So, Vince. From one man to another.” He leaned forward. “From one killer to another. Tell me where I can find Hussein Rudenko.”
Richter stared at DeSantos a solid two minutes. DeSantos was on the verge of abandoning his last attempt at using reason when Richter cleared his throat.
“Rudenko’s got a flat rented out under the name of Bassioni.”
DeSantos lifted his brow. “Where?”
“Lambeth. Stangate apartments.”
“I hope you’re being honest with me, Vince, because if not…” He let that thought ride on the air and walked out, closing the door behind him.
“Searching databases for those names,” Carter said as he struck the onscreen keyboard of his tablet.
“I know the Stangate,” Reid said, huddling with Carter over the screen.
“Let me know as soon as you have something,” DeSantos said as he made his way up the winding stairs to the main house.
DeSantos pulled out the CLAIR communications device that Buck had given him. There was no reception, most likely because of the stone walls. DeSantos did not fully understand the technology behind the CLAIR, but he knew that sometimes handsets like this, at extreme distances, required either satellites or relay towers to transmit the signal, or some other method of reamplifying it.
He headed for the front door and then stepped outside, where Vail was pacing.
“Normally, I need a couple weeks to establish rapport, do it the right way,” she said.
“And to do what I’d normally do, those ‘enhanced’ techniques, there’s a method, a process to them. They require time to work, too. Time we don’t have.”
“Considering the circumstances, I think we got some potentially good info. The stuff he said seemed truthful. Organizations like Rudenko’s operate like traditional terrorism cells, insular and separate. So that if one person gets grabbed up, he can’t damage the entire org—”
“Yes, Karen, I know.”
“And if he’s only a contractor—”
“Yes, Karen, I know.”
“You weren’t in there very long. Did you get anything else from him?”
DeSantos walked in front of their car while examining the CLAIR’s screen. “We’ve got service.” He started tapping out a message. “He gave us a potential location of Rudenko. Lambeth. Assuming he wasn’t jerking my chain.”
“Did you—Forget it, I don’t want to know.”
“No, I didn’t. But he understood what was going to happen if he didn’t cooperate.”
Let’s hope that won’t be necessary.
A light breeze ruffled her hair. “Freaking cold out here.” She hugged herself and walked in place to get her blood moving. “Are you asking Buck to confirm what Richter gave us?”
He shoved the device back in his pocket.
“A borough in south London.” His answer was short, his voice taut.
Buck’s reply came through surprisingly fast. “They’re sending CO19 over to those locations,” DeSantos said. “We’ll know in a few minutes if the info was good.”
“A few minutes? How—”
“CO19 units are mobile, located all around London. When a situation hits, one of them’s never that far away.”
Vail thought a moment, then said, “We haven’t given them much to go on. How’re they gonna be able to verify whether or not these guys are there, or if it’s all just a bullshit exercise?”
“It’s all we’ve got,” DeSantos said.
“What do you want me to say, Karen? I’m doing the best I can.”
“I know.” Vail turned around and stared into the darkness. A light drizzle began falling and tickled her face. Judging by the freshness of the air, she had a feeling the surroundings were lush and picturesque. But it was so pitch dark that she might as well be staring at a concrete wall.
“You don’t have to wait out here with me. Go inside, get warm.”
“I’m fine.” She turned around to find DeSantos pacing. He could’ve been cold or nervous, but Vail sensed it was something else. “What’s bothering you?
He kept walking, hands shoved in his pockets. “I’m not sure. Something. Something’s not right.”
Vail trusted his intuition, so she started replaying the interview with Richter in her mind. Everything appeared to have been above board. He answered truthfully, she thought. She didn’t pick up anything out of the ordinary. Where he held back, she called him on it.
Fifteen more minutes passed. Her toes were getting numb and her hands, even though they were tucked away in her pockets, were starting to lose feeling, too. “How much longer do—”
The CLAIR vibrated.
DeSantos pulled it out and read the display. “Checked twenties for Hagel and Walker. Negative on Walker. There’s no one in the back room of the house—hasn’t been rented out for two years. It’s filled with junk.” A second later, another message arrived: “As to Hagel, the flat mates at that location are all college kids. Haven’t shared the place with a middle-aged guy. Just in case, CO19’s doing a general sweep of the building, but so far, negative. They need more time.” He looked up from the device as the front door opened and Reid emerged.
“No records of these guys where he said. No records of anyone by those names living in those boroughs.”
Vail blew on her hands. “Aliases.”
“Possibly. Ethan’s checking, but where the hell do you start with that? It’s a long shot.”
This whole thing’s a long shot.
“Between a records search and visuals, we should have a pretty decent idea if the info’s good,” DeSantos said.
“We don’t even have a physical description of these guys,” Reid said. “They could be looking right at both of them and not know it.”
“They were given a general description,” DeSantos said. “Caucasian males, between thirty and fifty. Anyone residing at those locations who fell in that category was to be questioned.”
Reid rolled his eyes. “It’s a shitty way of going about this. Assuming Richter told us the truth, it’s easy to miss the prize. We can’t be back there searching ourselves, and we can’t trust anyone with the Met or MI5 with full information because we don’t know who’s the mole and we can’t let ’em know what’s going down.” Reid shivered, then pulled up his collar. “Cold out here.”
“Really?” Vail asked as she stamped her feet. “Hadn’t noticed.”
The CLAIR vibrated again. DeSantos read the display. “The Rudenko lead’s bogus, too. They’re questioning the Stangate landlord. No one living there matching the description. No tenant by the name of Bassioni. They’re showing around a photo array of Gavin Paxton that Buck pulled off the Turner Gallery security camera footage. They’re doing a door to door, but it’s a big building. Gonna take a while.”
“And there’s no record of a renter with the name of Bassioni or known aliases,” Carter called from the doorway. “Not in the Stangate, or anywhere in Lambeth. Unless we’re missing something, it looks like Richter was making us butcher’s fancy a fool.”
I have no idea what he just said, but I’m sure it’s not good.
DeSantos looked hard at Vail.
“Look,” Vail said, “like you, I did my best with what I had. But I’ve been over it in my head, and it didn’t look to me like he was hiding anything.”
“Oh, he was definitely hiding things. And it looked to me like he was downright lying.”
“What makes you say that?”
“His body language, his eyes, his hands, his—It was a combination of things.”
DeSantos let his shoulders drop. “Like rubbing the palms of his hands on his legs when you asked him where the ricin was. I knew then that there was a good chance that at least some of the stuff he was telling you was suspect.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because it’s very difficult to accurately conclude that someone’s lying based on nonverbal clues. In retrospect, you realize you were right. But it’s far from foolproof.”
How could I have missed these behaviors?
She again played the interview through her mind. “I don’t remember seeing anything that...Wait a minute.” She thought a moment, then grabbed DeSantos’s arm and pulled him aside. In his ear, she said, “Richter called you ‘DeSantos.’ But you’re only known here as Cruz.”
DeSantos locked eyes with Vail for a moment.
“Christ.” He ran back toward the house, headed for the subbasement.
ichter was grinning as they entered the interrogation suite.
“The asshole knew he gave us a load of bullshit,” DeSantos said.
Vail moved in front of DeSantos. “Forget that. How could he know? How’d he know your name?”
DeSantos did not acknowledge her. He was locked in on Richter’s face. Finally he turned around and went over to the toolbox.
“Hector,” Vail said, grasping his arm from behind, “don’t do this.”
“Let go,” he said, shaking her hand loose. “I’ve had enough. We don’t have time to waste with this jerk-off.”
He started toward the room but Vail grabbed him again. He flung her aside and she slammed against the glass wall behind her.
DeSantos yanked the door open and went inside.
Vail gathered herself and took a step toward the room, but Carter and Reid stopped her. “We tried it your way. Now it’s our turn.”
THE DOOR SWUNG WIDE, the rubber stop slamming against the opposing pane of glass. DeSantos’s chest was heaving and he was hyperventilating.
He had to calm down. Breathe. Think.
Richter did not flinch. He did not cower—but he did start laughing.
“You finally figured it out, Hector
. Took you long enough.”
“Too long.” As he stood there, studying Richter’s smug face, he decided that they had given the man enough opportunities to make things right. He had made his choice.
“I want answers.”
“And I want to walk out of here, but that’s not going to happen because you’re not gonna get your answers. See, here’s the problem, my friend. You’re gonna kill me anyway, revenge for your partner’s death. I get that. So why would I tell you shit?”
DeSantos slapped both palms on the table in front of Richter. “Because I’m not going to just kill you. I’m going to make you hurt. But—you give me the right answers, and I’ll make it quick. No pain. That’s where we’re at, that’s the place you’ve come to. This is how you’re going to spend the last minutes of your life.”
“I knew it’d come to this eventually. I’ve had a great life, I’m in a good place. Do what you need to do.”
This was not how DeSantos pictured this moment going. He took a deep breath. He had to focus, forget about his vendetta. He had to do his job.
He cleared his throat, more in control—but just barely. “How do you know my name?
“After Scarponi found out who we’d killed—and who Brian Archer was—he got a message to us. He knew the score, so he set up a simple warning. Anyone comes around asking for Vince Richter, he’s looking to off us. You and Vail came looking, so—”
“But that’s your name. I don’t get it.”
“My legal name’s Vince, but no one calls me that.
I go by Cam. Get it now, Hector?”
Oh yeah, he got it. Scarponi wasn’t merely giving him names when he questioned him. He was setting him up, using “Vince Richter” as a code word, a booby trap. Brilliant move for Scarponi. Blatantly stupid for DeSantos. How could he not see this? What the hell was wrong with him?
“Yeah,” Richter said, “I can see you’re starting to put it all together. Take another minute, and maybe you won’t need to ask me anymore questions.” He laughed, a raspy chuckle.
DeSantos was, in fact, putting it together: those mercenaries by Aldwych and Strand weren’t working for Rudenko. They were Scarponi’s men.
DeSantos took the pliers and swung them, slicing a jagged gash across Richter’s forehead. He fell off the chair, shook his head, and laughed. “I thought you were gonna use those to pull out my fingernails. They work a whole lot better that way.” He got back on the seat and slapped his cuffed hands on the table, splaying the digits wide. Daring DeSantos to do it.
DeSantos tightened his grip around the tool, wanting desperately to inflict unending pain on this man. For Brian. For himself.
He raised the pliers and jabbed them through Richter’s hand into the wood table.
The scream was deafening.
esus Christ.” Vail started for the room, but again Reid and Carter held her back. She turned and punched Carter in the jaw and was about to hit Reid when DeSantos yelled, “Enough!”
Richter, writhing in pain but unable to extract the pliers because of the flexcuffs, whimpered loudly in the background.
DeSantos set his jaw. “Get her the hell out of here.”
Carter, sporting a red blotch over his cheek, was a bit rougher than Reid as they took Vail by the arms and dragged her back toward the staircase.
“Hector,” Vail said, “don’t do this. You’ll regret it later. You’ll have to live with it.”
DeSantos stopped them and approached Vail. She stood quietly in their grasp.
“I’ll have to live with it?” He snorted. “Do you know the pain that I’ve lived with since they killed Brian? The pain of knowing his beautiful young daughter’s growing up without her dad? That Brian never even got to meet her?” He closed his eyes. “We had an agreement.” He sighed, looked up at the ceiling. “That’s what kept us going, knowing that if one of us went down during a mission, the other would make things right. When you’ve been through the kind of shit Brian and I have been through, a pact like that means everything. It makes it possible to complete your mission. Our whole team operated that way.” He shook his head. “I can’t expect you to understand. But yeah. You bet I’ll have to live with it. I’m counting on it.”
For the first time in a long time, Vail had nothing to say.
DeSantos turned and headed back to the toolbox.
THEY SHOVED VAIL THROUGH the wood door and onto the wet grass. Carter disappeared back inside the house. Reid remained there with her.
“This is wrong, Reid. You know it’s wrong.”
“Richter’s scum. Why do you care what happens to him? He admitted being a murderer. To your face.”
“That’s not the point.”
Am I more concerned with Richter’s well-being, or Hector’s?
I shouldn’t have been there to begin with. I should’ve left when I had the chance.
Vail sat down on the stone curb by the front door. She knew the human mind, she understood what DeSantos felt—but she was unconvinced he would feel better after he settled his score. In some ways, yes. But in practice, things aren’t always what you think they’ll be.
Vail looked up and realized Reid was waiting for her to elaborate. “I’ve been on the edge, I’ve threatened offenders at gunpoint to get information. I know what it feels like, being out of control, willing to kill for your loved one. I get that. I know that look in Hector’s eyes because I’ve had it.” She collected her thoughts a moment. “It changed me, affected me in ways I never could’ve appreciated if I hadn’t lived through it.”
Reid looked out into the darkness. “I’ve been there, too.”
Vail waited for him to explain. When he didn’t, she asked, “On the job?”
He pulled a lighter and cigarette from his pocket and set it aflame.
He leaned back against the stone column of the entryway. “Only in times like these.”
I can understand that.
She thought about asking for one but decided against it.
“That picture you saw in my car, of Brant? None of what I told you was true. Well, except the divorce.”
“What the hell? Why lie to me?”
“To give us something in common. To gain your trust. We have a file on you, Karen. We know about Jonathan.”
Vail shuddered, and it had nothing to do with the chilly air. She felt violated. “We? MI5?”
Reid took a drag and then launched the smoke into the damp air. “Brant was real. He was my son. Murdered in the park by a gang. He found himself in the wrong part of town with a group of friends on holiday. He wouldn’t give up his iPod. It was his Christmas present, and—and it was my idea to get it for him.” Reid gathered himself, fought back a tear. “He was stabbed.”
“I went down there to East London every day, working that case. Until I found the fucker who killed him.”
Reid stopped and fell silent. He examined the butt, watching it burn through the edges of the paper.
Vail could make a pretty good guess about how that story ended. Deciding it was best to change the subject, she said, “I’m not convinced that torture is going to get the information Hector wants. Richter can’t give us what he doesn’t have. And I can’t stand by and let it happen. My oath as an FBI agent—”
“Stop right there.” He pushed away from the stone column. “You operate by a different set of rules than someone like Hector does. He’s a black operator. What he does…one of the rules he lives by is that there
no rules. Mission success is the only acceptable result, because if he fails…he or people in his unit will die. People he’s there to save will die. There is no safety net, and usually very little margin for error. The only option is to win, at all costs.”
Vail looked away.
“Don’t be so hard on him. I can tell he’s a good man—because he cares. You may think the killing doesn’t affect him. It does.”
“You talk like you know firsthand.”
Vail regretted saying it the moment it left her mouth, for fear that he was talking about Brant’s death. But he surprised her.
“I’m a spook. Always have been.” Reid shook his head. “I’ve said enough.”
Vail sighed deeply and realized she had some thinking to do before DeSantos emerged from the basement.
DESANTOS CONSIDERED EACH of the devices arrayed in front of him.
He lifted a syringe of clear liquid and looked at Carter for explanation.
“We got it off the Russians, so it doesn’t have the Security Service’s fingerprints on it. Or the CIA’s, for that matter.”
DeSantos looked at Richter, who had stopped writhing. He was pounding his free fist on the table, no doubt trying to take his mind off the pain.
“Go remove the pliers,” he said. “I’m going to use the drug.”
“It’s old,” Carter said. “It’s been here for years. Don’t know how effective it’ll be. Heck, it could kill him. And then we won’t get anything, if there’s anything to get.”
DeSantos knew that SP-117 was a Russian invention, a potent psychoactive medication used to obtain information from unwilling participants. It was, in effect, a truth serum.
Although there was no US law that prohibited the use of such drugs, international law considered them a form of torture. Oddly, however, psychiatrists could use the pharmaceuticals legally on psychotic patients. A convincing argument could be made that Vince Richter was indeed psychotic. But DeSantos was not concerned with legalities. Masses of people were in danger of being killed by the release of a deadly toxin, and if he had to drug a guy to find out where the ricin was being held, or where the attack was going to occur, he had no problem with doing that.
Carter joined him, bloody pliers in hand, and said, “Smug asshole’s not laughing anymore.”
“Pain has a way of doing that.”
DeSantos walked into the room and then folded his arms as he leaned against the glass door. “How ya doin’, Vince? Or should I call you Cam?”
Richter drew himself up in his chair, cradling his swollen and bloody right hand. He wiped the saliva from his chin with his other shoulder.
“I’m going to show you some mercy. Why? No goddamn idea. Vail guilted me into it, I guess. Whatever the reason, it’s your lucky night.” DeSantos chuckled. “Then again, maybe ‘lucky night’ is a poor choice of words.” He held the syringe up to the light and examined the fluid. “Years ago, a defector from the KGB’s biological weapons directorate gave the CIA a truth drug codenamed SP-117. He claimed it had been used as a remedy to break down one’s defenses. Officers of the directorate used it to check the veracity of their own agents on assignment in foreign territories.”
DeSantos stepped around the table to Richter’s right. “I’ve never actually used this stuff, so I’m curious to see how effective it is.”
He jabbed it into Richter’s neck and pressed the plunger part way. He had no idea what the proper dosage was, and he didn’t want to overmedicate him. He’d either have a heart attack or fall asleep. Better to start with a lower dosage and increase it if needed.
Richter cringed. “Bastard.”
“I’ve been called a whole lot worse,” DeSantos said matter-of-factly. “By people a whole lot tougher than you.”
He recapped the needle, placed the syringe in his pocket, and then joined Carter outside the room.
“Any idea how long I should give it?”
“Never used it. Too many variables. And that’s assuming it’s still got some potency left.”
“I hope it works. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly enjoy inflicting pain to get information. I’m good at it. And I’m good at selling it—I have to look like I get off on it, so they believe I’ll do whatever needs to be done. They have to buy that I’m a sadistic nutcase who’ll chop off their hand.”
Carter shrugged. “It’s a tool. I can take it or leave it. Depends on the bloke, I guess. I won’t say I never enjoy it. I tuned up a child molester in my sister’s neighborhood a few years back. The law failed and they cut him loose. I felt I had to do something. So I did.” He fiddled with the metal instruments in the drawer. “I quite enjoyed it.” He looked up at DeSantos. “I’ve never told anyone that.”
“I imagine you’ve never lost any sleep over it.”
“Not a wink.”
DeSantos gave his shoulder a slap. “I’m gonna go see how helpful our friend is.”
He reentered the room and sat down. Richter was sitting there, staring ahead. His eyes followed DeSantos’s movements.
“Cam, I need to know about the ricin. Where’s it being stored?”
Richter blinked twice, tilted his head back a few degrees, and said, “I’m not sure.”
“Why don’t you tell me what you know.”
“It’s in three different places. Two have the liquid drums. The other, it’s got powder, that’s the big one. But I—I never saw it myself. One of the guys I was working with, he told me.”
“Wally-D, or something like—”
Richter nodded animatedly. “That’s it.”
Shit. That’s the asshole I killed in Rudenko’s flat.
“And where did Waleed say it was being stored?”
“On a ship somewhere, on the Thames. But that one they may’ve moved. Where, I don’t know.”
“One’s in storage somewhere.”
“That’s not very helpful, Cam. Storage, where?”
“I didn’t ask.”
DeSantos clenched his fist. Based on his lack of distress-based hand and facial movements, DeSantos believed Richter was being truthful with him. The drug appeared to be working. But that kind of nondescript answer was not going to help them. “Where else is the ricin?”
Richter giggled. “It’s a good one.”
DeSantos had to restrain himself from reaching across the table and shaking him. “How good? What church?”
Richter laughed again. “St. Paul’s.”
“Exactly, right? See, I told you it was a good one.”
DeSantos knew that St. Paul’s cathedral was one of the most recognizable landmarks in London, having been around for centuries. He had only been there once, but lavish did not begin to describe its grandeur. There might be other significance to storing the ricin there, but at this point it did not matter.
DeSantos wanted to run out and send a secure text to Buck, but he had to finish this interrogation while the drug was still effective. He had no idea how long it would last.
“You and your buddies—Hagel and Walker. You work for Anthony Scarponi or Hussein Rudenko?”
Richter blinked a few times, and his head swayed a bit to the side. “We’re loyal to Scarponi, but, you gotta understand, he’s indisposed right now. How long, who knows. So we take contract jobs, yeah. But Rudenko offered us the kind of money you can’t say no to.”
“You’re part of Rudenko’s crew?”
“Where can we find Rudenko?”
After asking the question, DeSantos detected the first hints of resistance. Richter’s pupils quickly dilated, and then, in the next instant, constricted.
“I don’t think I should tell you. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“That’s totally understandable. But I need to know, Cam. I need you to tell me where Hussein Rudenko is.”
Richter bit his lip.
DeSantos removed the syringe from his pocket and uncapped it. He squeezed off another few cc’s of the drug into Richter’s arm and sat back in his chair. Richter asked why he was giving him “medicine,” and DeSantos told him it was to make him feel better.
Five minutes later, DeSantos tried again.
“I’m trying to find Hussein Rudenko. He’s an old friend and I want to grab a beer with him. Where is he?”
Richter’s eyes darted around the room, and his movements were slow, exaggerated. DeSantos was concerned he had overdosed him.
“Where can I find him?”
“He has a few places. One in Soho—”
“I know about Soho. Where else?”
“Woodford Green, and, uh…Battersea.”
Battersea was a dead end. Unless the area was genuine and the specific flat he had given them earlier was bogus.
DeSantos placed his elbows on the table. “Addresses. I need addresses, Cam. Otherwise I won’t be able to find him.”
Richter looked DeSantos in the eyes. “I don’t know the addresses. I never went to these places. I just know because of Wally-D. What he told me.”
“I’ve also got some money for Ratib Morsi and Emir Fiqar. Any idea how I can find them?”
“Nope. Don’t know ’em.”
“They’re friends of Nikola Hačko. And Malik al-Atah. Do you know either of them?”
“Never heard those names.”
DeSantos intertwined his fingers, squeezing, trying to control his building frustration. “When are they going to release the ricin?”
“Soon. I asked when, but that’s all he said.”
Rudenko did not exhibit any tics indicating distress or deception, so DeSantos pressed on.
“What are the targets?”
“People. Lots of people. Crowded areas.”