“My instructions come from Mrs. Schmidt,” Karen shouted back. “She made it perfectly clear that . . .”
“I SAID DON’T TOUCH HIS THINGS!” Jeff roared.
The Realtor’s eyes widened. Who was this guy?
UPSTAIRS JEFF SAT DOWN on Nick’s bed, too exhausted to cry.
Why did Tracy run?
Why wouldn’t she see me?
He didn’t even know what had happened, not really. A car accident. A head injury. Tiny fragments of fact, with no context, no explanation. An empty room and a cupboard full of clothes. That was all that Tracy had left him.
Jeff was angry.
A dirty t-shirt lay crumpled on the floor. Nick must have dropped it there before the accident.
Two days ago. Two days ago he was alive. How was that even possible?
Jeff picked it up, pressed it to his face and closed his eyes, inhaling the scent of his son. In a day or two, the smell would fade. In a week it would be gone altogether. Then there would be nothing left.
Clutching the shirt, Jeff ran downstairs, passed the Realtor, and out of the front door. He didn’t stop till he got to his rental car.
If Tracy had run, it was because she didn’t want to be found. Jeff Stevens had spent half of his adult life trying to hunt Tracy Whitney down. He couldn’t go through that pain again. Not after this. He wouldn’t survive. But he couldn’t let his son down either.
He would find out the truth. The whole truth.
He would lay Nick to rest.
Turning the key in the ignition, Jeff drove back to the airport and caught the first flight back to London.
He fell asleep over the Atlantic, with Nick’s t-shirt in his arms.
SITTING BOLT UPRIGHT AND wide awake on another plane, Tracy read the message on her phone for the hundredth time.
“May have information related to your son. Please contact us. G.W.”
Greg Walton had provided a secure number at Langley for Tracy to call.
Tracy hadn’t. What could Greg Walton possibly have to tell her about Nick?
How dare the CIA try to toy with her at a time like this? To play on her grief for their own cynical ends?
Boom! The plane suddenly slammed into turbulence so violently it felt as if they’d hit a wall. Tracy’s phone flew out of her hands. All around her drinks were spilling and bags were tumbling out of overhead bins. A number of people screamed as the aircraft dropped suddenly, losing hundreds of feet of altitude in a few seconds.
“Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts.” Even the Captain sounded agitated. “Cabin crew, take your seats now please.”
Tracy watched the flight attendants exchange frightened glances. The woman beside her, eyes closed and fists clenched, was muttering furiously.
Praying, Tracy thought, pityingly. There’s no God, you know. Nobody’s there.
A profound sense of calm washed over her as the plane jerked and shuddered through the storm. She felt detached and warm. Deeply at peace.
Nothing mattered now.
GREG WALTON WOKE UP late on Christmas morning.
His partner, Daniel, was away for the holidays this year, taking his elderly mother on a Caribbean cruise. Daniel was Jewish, so he didn’t do Christmas anyway. Greg was Presbyterian, and on prior years had made an effort, trimming the tree, attending the carol service at Western Pres on Virginia Avenue, a stone’s throw from the White House, and cooking a turkey for the two of them. But truth be told it was mostly out of guilt, or some misplaced sense of tradition. Christmas was for children. There was something weird, something forced and discordant, about two nonbelieving gay men pulling crackers, eating overpriced pecan pie and singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” just because everyone else was doing it.
This year, Greg had their beautiful, historic house in Georgetown to himself. He intended to spend the day on the couch watching trash TV and eating chocolate and trying to put Group 99, Bratislava and Hunter Drexel out of his mind.
Greg was under no illusions. President Havers had put his balls on the line by ordering the raid in Bratislava. If they didn’t find Drexel, or Althea or the butcher Alexis Argyros, soon, Havers was going down. And if Havers went down, he would take Greg Walton with him. Nobody cried when the CIA took a hit. We’re the guys everyone loves to hate, Greg thought bitterly. Then again, he knew what he was getting into. Greg Walton had been a spy all his adult life. And this was what intelligence agencies did—saved all the lives and got none of the glory. Took the fall for politicians and the army, even for stupid-ass, attention-seeking journalists like Hunter Drexel. As for the British, their so-called “staunch allies,” Greg Walton knew he wouldn’t see them for dust if Havers failed to turn this around, to pluck some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat.
But as of today, they’d got nothing.
Tracy Whitney had been the Great White Hope. Althea’s fascination with Tracy was the one solid lead they had. Tracy had a link to Group 99, an important one, whether she knew it or not. But, despite Greg’s threats, Milton Buck had utterly failed to get her to cooperate. Once again, the FBI does not deliver. Now, with her son in the morgue, Whitney had gone off grid completely. Greg Walton had been with the agency long enough to know that if Tracy Whitney didn’t want to be found, she wouldn’t be. He’d texted her directly in desperation. But, as he expected, the radio silence had been deafening.
Merry Christmas to you too.
Greg showered, made himself some eggs, and rearranged the cushions in the formal sitting room. Then he lit a fire and the imported Italian scented candles, the ones he and Daniel had discovered in Venice, that smelled of oranges and cloves and incense and cinnamon, all intermingled in a delicious spice bomb. Finally he put on music, carols from King’s College, Cambridge, letting the pure boys’ voices soar through the house, as if hosts of angels were singing.
With the scene set, he settled down to his guilty pleasures—a Kurt Wallander DVD and a packet of Reese’s Pieces (cheap chocolates were always the best)—when to his intense annoyance, his doorbell rang.
Really? On Christmas Day?
Clicking on his iPad, Greg scanned the images from the twelve CCTV cameras surrounding the property. He and Daniel had discussed it when Greg took the top job at the agency, and they’d decided to decline the offer of a 24/7 physical security presence. Yes, there were always crazies out there. Always risks. But technology could go a long way towards providing protection, without the intrusion of a permanent human presence. The cameras were only one part of a comprehensive system that included a panic room, bulletproof windows and bomb detection software. It wasn’t perfect, but it left Greg and Daniel with some semblance of privacy, and the feeling that they lived in a home, not a fortress.
The figure on Greg’s iPad screen was no terrorist, however.
A lone, white-haired woman stood forlornly on the stoop. She looked frail, hunched at the shoulders, and was possibly confused. This Greg inferred from the fact that she carried no bag, kept looking around her as if she weren’t quite sure what she was doing on his doorstep, and wasn’t wearing a coat, let alone gloves or a scarf, which was borderline suicidal in a DC winter.
I’ll have to ask her in, he thought resentfully. Try to reach her family. Or social services. Really, people ought to keep a closer eye on their own elderly relatives, especially on Christmas damn Day.
He opened the door. “Hello there. Can I help you?”
“Yes,” the woman said, a tiny handgun emerging miraculously from the inside of her cardigan sleeve. “You can tell me the truth, Mr. Walton. The whole truth. Or I will kill you.”
Greg’s eyes widened. He stifled a gasp. “Tracy?”
The white hair wasn’t a wig. It was real, just like the weight loss. Tracy Whitney must have aged twenty years in the two weeks since he saw her last.
“Inside,” she commanded. “Slowly.”
“YOU CAN PUT THAT down, you know,” Greg Walton said, closing the door behind them and walking calmly back into his living room. “We both know you’re not a killer, Miss Whitney. I’m so sorry about your son.”
“You wrote me that note,” Tracy said, still pointing her pistol firmly at Walton’s head.
Greg sat down on the couch. “Yes.”
“Why? You can’t possibly know anything about Nick’s death.”
“No. Nick’s death was an accident.”
Greg Walton thought, Is she trying to convince me, or herself?
“It may have been. It may not have been. Either way, Miss Whitney, I’m not sure what you think is to be gained by shooting the messenger.”
Tracy hesitated. Her head throbbed and her body ached. She hadn’t slept properly in two weeks and she’d barely eaten either. She’d come to Walton’s house in a fit of anger, convinced he was the enemy. In her grief-addled state, that had made sense. Walton and Buck had come to the ranch. Blake and Nick had been killed. Now Walton was trying to lure Tracy to Langley. In Tracy’s mind, those three events had merged into a sinister chain. But now that she was standing here, looking at Greg, doubts overwhelmed her. To her embarrassment, and intense surprise, she found herself starting to shake uncontrollably.