Authors: Ridley Pearson
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery
ALSO BY RIDLEY PEARSON
The Risk Agent
In Harm’s Way
Cut and Run
The Art of Deception
The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer
(writing as Joyce Reardon)
The Pied Piper
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Red Room / Ridley Pearson.
1. Istanbul (Turkey)—Fiction. 2. Suspense fiction. I. Title.
PS3566.E234R43 2014 2013051019
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
. . . as always, for
Storey, Paige and Marcelle
To get a story from brain to shelf takes more than a village, it takes a patient army. For
the list of soldiers includes: editors Christine Pepe and Genevieve Gagne-Hawes; assistants Nancy Zastrow and Jennifer Wood; copy editors Laurel and David Walters; literary agents Amy Berkower and Dan Conaway of Writers House; film agent Matthew Snyder and CAA; publisher Ivan Held, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
wo men await a delivery van. Nameless men. Professionals. Proficient at blending in. The man with the camera—call him Alpha. The man who stands in the camera’s frame is Beta.
A white FedEx minivan appears in the camera’s field of view. It serves as the starting gun. Alpha eases the Nikon onto his chest. Turning away from the Sisli Merkez Mosque, he is jostled by Istanbul tourists posing for the perfect picture. It’s nearing the end of the day. Slanting sunshine slices through the smog, playing across the mosque’s stone dome and adjacent minaret. Hell of a photo.
Beta, looking so much like Alpha they might be mistaken for twins—each in a navy blue knit cap, black leather jacket, blue jeans—sees the camera lower and moves toward the curb. He cradles a canvas messenger bag beneath his right arm.
The van double-parks in front of a pharmacy, its emergency flashers pulsing.
Alpha walks incrementally faster, entering the pharmacy only seconds behind the FedEx deliveryman. His job is to provide cover. Beta opens the van’s panel door and slips inside. After five days of
surveillance, they know the delivery kid, always in a hurry, never locks the van in this part of town.
. Alpha reaches the FedEx kid and, as if trying to slip past, allows himself to be tripped. He brings down most of the contents of a shelf as he falls. Turns and pulls the deliveryman along with him.
There is shouting as employees hurry to help. Boxes of medicine are spread across the floor, causing the employees to tiptoe as they approach. The delivery package has slid out of reach of both men.
The lens hangs broken from the camera’s body.
“Idiot! You clumsy bastard!” Alpha speaks English with an Eastern European accent. More training. The deliveryman is young, red-faced and unsure. He spouts apologies in Turkish.
the contents of the first of six plastic bins arranged on the van’s open shelves, his fingers flipping through the packages like a collector in a vinyl-record store. He knows exactly what he’s looking for: he has its clone in his messenger bag.
Bin two. Bin three. An internal timer runs. The op calls for an abort at thirty. He’s at twenty-seven when his fingers stop at the air bill listing:
Seven packages. More slowly now. The third shows the sender as a Swiss address. He makes the swap, his for theirs.
Forty-three seconds and counting . . .
No reaction. No adrenaline or concern or anxiety. The lapsed time is merely a statistic to be noted. It’s filed and processed. He stuffs the switched package into the messenger bag and comes out of the van with his back to the sidewalk. He walks the curb like a balance beam. No one has shouted at him. No one has approached. He slips out his phone and sends the text. The signal.
dings at his hip.
“My fault, my fault!” Alpha says. He helps the cautious deliveryman to his feet, making sure to keep the man faced away from the windows. In tourist Turkish, he manages something close to
He inspects his broken camera, trying to force the lens back into place. He and the deliveryman exchange agonized looks. Alpha extends his hand, a peace offering. The deliveryman is delighted by his change of heart. They shake.
Alpha says in English, “All for some toothpaste.” A shared moment of tense humor.
Leaving the pharmacy, Alpha reads the text. It’s a smiley emoticon. Success.
He makes a phone call. Hears a click. No voice. He keys in a five-number string followed by three pound signs. Hears a second tone.
“It’s done,” he says, speaking Hebrew.
NINE DAYS LATER
A veil of fog obscures the steep steel-and-glass-clad marvels that rise out of Hong Kong harbor. From the twenty-second-floor offices of Rutherford Risk in the Chamberlain Tower, John Knox thinks the trolleys and cars look like toys. On the glass, pinpricks of mist collect and join, growing into drops and skidding down the glass in a race, obscuring the view. It’s not raining, but will be within the hour.
Knox steals a look at his own reflection, while behind his image another appears: an imposing figure of a man, older by a few years, unable to disguise a brutal intensity that impressed Knox when the two first met in Kuwait, another Knox ago. David Dulwich still walks with a limp, although his gait has vastly improved since the car accident in Shanghai two-plus years ago. The men embrace.
“This way,” Dulwich says.
Knox notes the lack of small talk, wonders if the brief phone call
that detoured him to Hong Kong was as much of the personal stuff as he and Sarge were going to bother with.
The starkly contemporary offices of Rutherford Risk reflect the tastes of company president Brian Primer, whose warm side only surfaces when a client is present. Knox knows Primer as a calculating son of a bitch who concerns himself with margins and profitability, often at the expense of his assets—like Knox. He treats his clients almost reverently and stops short of tolerating loss of life on either side of the ledger.
Down the corridor, the maple office doors, marked only by a number, rise to ten feet and are a full meter across, ensuring that any visitor, no matter how large, feels physically insignificant.
Primer, a proponent of Frank Wisner’s “mighty Wurlitzer,” required his architect and interior decorator to work with a team of psychologists. Wisner, the first director of the CIA, created front organizations and planted media stooges in order to “play any propaganda tune needed.” Primer can work a meeting.
To Knox’s surprise, he’s led not to Primer’s office but to the secure elevator. It drops thirty stories so fast he feels like he’s floating. He’s ridden it only once before.
Hong Kong high-rises are anchored deeply into the mountains. Lessons learned from mudslides a century earlier have prompted the creation of structures able to withstand both the ground giving way and the pummeling of typhoon winds and rain. Twenty meters below grade, storm shelters and storage rooms are carved into the hillside. It’s here, outside a door marked
, that Dulwich removes anything containing metal—coins, wristwatch, Bluetooth device, smartphone, belt. He places the items in a cubby, turns the lock and asks Knox to do the same. Knox does so and pockets the plastic key.
Dulwich swipes his ID card and admits Knox to a small vestibule,
where they must wait for the door to close before a second can be opened. A body scanner hums. A green light indicates that they are clear.
“The Red Room,” Knox says. “So cloak and dagger.”
Still, Dulwich is silent. The barrier is seven inches of steel and insulating concrete weighing three hundred pounds, yet it moves fluidly, clicks shut and locks electronically. The Red Room is a twenty-square-foot bunker with pale green walls and a strip of exposed overhead lights. The furniture is clear, ensuring that nothing can be hidden inside it. Knox has heard of it, but took it to be company myth.
“I’ve never had the pleasure,” he says.
Dulwich checks his watch. “We don’t have long.” He produces an A4 manila envelope. Knox can’t believe he didn’t see it, marvels at how quickly one can lose one’s edge. He’s been back to import/export for a matter of months; the operation in Amsterdam is still fresh in his memory but apparently not in his skill set.
Dulwich slides the envelope across the table like it’s radioactive.
“Your schedule, not mine,” Knox says. He finds the Red Room claustrophobic. He can handle small spaces; a top-secret facility, impenetrable to all eavesdropping technologies, causes undue pressure.
Dulwich taps the envelope.
David Dulwich is usually not the melodramatic type. It’s one reason Knox doesn’t mind doing the occasional piece of work for him. The rest of his time, John Knox is a trader, traveling the world for rare goods, in business with his younger brother, Tommy. Dropping into a James Bond movie is a little much.
“They’re of you. The pictures. You love looking at yourself, Knox. So go ahead.”
Knox fails to entertain his host. “Why?”
“I have plenty of pictures of myself, all of them stunning.”
An uncomfortable smirk crawls across Dulwich’s lips. “Not like these you don’t.”
Knox suppresses the urge to take the bait. He wants more from Dulwich, who knows that Knox is a reluctant freelancer. His brother, Tommy, isn’t in the best shape—the experts call him cerebrally and physically impaired, autistic, mentally challenged. He is, in fact, highly functional with medication and care. Knox can’t risk leaving him alone on this earth—but he’s attracted to the work Dulwich offers for more than just the money. He has a savior complex that probably bleeds over from caring for his damaged sibling.
Still, he’s in no hurry to screw things up by rising to the wrong fly. Dulwich will eventually play the money card. Knox has been robbed, embezzled from by his company’s bookkeeper. Things are tight. Have been for some time.
But Dulwich doesn’t start there.
“I don’t go in for drama,” Dulwich says.
“This is an in-and-out—a week tops—that can do a lot of good.”
“Good, like Amsterdam?” Dulwich understands which buttons to push.
“No, not like Amsterdam. Not even close. Frog and the scorpion. Open the envelope.”
Knox doesn’t understand the reference but doesn’t want to appear ignorant. He wants to open the envelope—oh, how he wants to; but there’s commitment that accompanies the act, and he can’t bring himself to do it without knowing more.
“Political?” Knox wishes he had hidden the astonishment in his voice. Like all private contractors, Rutherford Risk’s bread and butter comes from U.S. government jobs: guarding convoys of supplies,
providing security details, moving funds, interrupting the Internet, burning drug crops. It’s the occasional insurgency Knox wants no part of.
“Open the envelope.”
“Turns out you’re the only guy, or we wouldn’t be locked in the Red Room.”
“Maybe you should unlock the door.”
“Maybe you should open the envelope. There are good guys and bad guys on every team, Knox. Even good teams have their share of bad apples. But I wouldn’t put you on the bad team. Not ever. Now, goddamn it, look—”
Dulwich takes the envelope back, opens it and slams down a handful of 8x10s. Shot with a high-powered telephoto at a good distance.
Knox can’t pretend it’s not his profile. It takes him several long seconds to digest the look of the café and the apparent location: Bethany, Jordan. That gives him the other man in the photo, a man with Jordanian and Circassian blood, Akram Okle.
“I was never told flat out,” Knox says, defending himself, “that the piece was black market. Every antiquity has passed through too many hands to count. Sometimes that includes mine. I’m offered a piece; I know a buyer. More like a matchmaker. I can see how that might be politically embarrassing, but I don’t work for you, Sarge. I’m not your employee. I’m a contractor. I—”
“You are so off base you’re running around the outfield.” Dulwich flips through the stack of photographs. Three show Knox and Okle engaged in what Knox thinks must be their most recent deal; more troubling are the final two photos, which go back eighteen months earlier. There’s no way Knox has been followed for eighteen
months; he keeps track of such things. So it’s Okle who’s being surveilled.
“Okay, I give up. The frog and the scorpion?”
Dulwich arches his eyebrows as if Knox should know this one. “Frog and a scorpion meet on the riverbank. Scorpion asks for a lift to the other side. Frog says, ‘Why would I do that, you’ll sting me.’ Scorpion says he won’t and they sign a treaty. The frog carries him on his back. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog. As they’re both going under, the frog says, ‘Why would you do this? We’re both going to die!’ Scorpion says, ‘It’s my nature . . .’”
“Akram’s a good client,” Knox says. “I see certain pieces, I think of him first. He only buys the rarest of the rare. There aren’t many people who can afford such things. You go where the market is.”
“He’s a middleman.”
“None of my business.”
“It is now.”