“Please. Call me Greg.”
“OK.” Tracy smiled. “Greg. Let’s skip the pleasantries. Why are you here?”
Walton opened his mouth to say something, but Tracy wasn’t finished.
“I had a cast-iron guarantee from the Bureau, after I helped them neutralize Daniel Cooper and arrest Rebecca Mortimer three years ago, that my family and I would be left in peace.”
“I understand that,” Greg Walton said reassuringly. “And you will be. You have my word on that.”
“And yet here you are in my kitchen.” Tracy raised an eyebrow archly and crossed one long, slender leg over another.
Greg Walton thought this lady’s quite something. Not for the first time in the presence of a very beautiful woman, he felt relieved he was gay.
“What we need to talk to you about today, Miss Whitney, has nothing to do with that case or with your past. It’s a matter of national security.”
Tracy looked puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
“Perhaps if you listened, you would,” Milton Buck snapped. He was still handsome in a brutish, arrogant way, Tracy noticed. And every bit as charmless as she remembered.
“What Mr. Walton is saying is that we’re not here to prosecute you for your crimes as a jewel and art thief.”
Tracy said, “I should think not as I haven’t committed any.”
“We’re here to demand that you do your duty for your country.”
“Is that so?” Tracy’s eyes narrowed. As far as she was concerned Milton Buck could stick his demands where the sun didn’t shine. Three years ago the bastard would have left Jeff to die, strung up on a cross by that maniac Cooper in the hills above Plovdiv, Bulgaria. It was only Tracy, and her friend Jean Rizzo from Interpol, who had saved Jeff and brought Daniel Cooper to justice. Although of course the FBI had basked in the credit, no one more so than Agent Buck.
“Not demand,” Greg Walton corrected, shooting Buck a dirty look. “Request. We’re here to request—to ask you to help us. The long and the short of it is, Tracy, we need your help.”
Tracy studied Walton’s face distrustfully. She looked at her watch.
“I’m picking up my son at five thirty. You have my attention for the next hour, but after that you must leave.”
Milton Buck looked outraged. He opened his mouth to speak but Greg Walton glared at him. “That’s a deal, Miss Whitney,” Walton said. “Now, let me tell you why we’re here.”
For the next forty minutes, Greg Walton didn’t draw breath. Tracy sat listening to him, leaning forwards over the kitchen table, her coffee growing lukewarm, then cold. Like most people in America, Tracy had seen the story of Captain Daley’s gruesome execution at the hands of Group 99 online. She knew about the controversial raid in Bratislava; how for all the government’s spin it had clearly been a failed attempt to rescue American journalist Hunter Drexel.
What she didn’t know, was that rather than still being in Group 99’s hands, as President Havers had explicitly told the nation in a televised statement, Hunter Drexel was actually on the run, for reasons unknown. Or that a woman, codenamed Althea but believed to be a wealthy U.S. citizen, was not only masterminding and funding Group 99 but had directly ordered Daley’s death.
“Wow,” Tracy said, once Walton was finished. “Havers must be out of his mind. To flat-out lie like that? What happens if Drexel suddenly pops up somewhere, Edward Snowden–style, and holds a press conference?”
“That would be extremely unfortunate,” Greg Walton admitted. “More unfortunate, however, would be a global escalation of violence and murder such as we witnessed with Captain Daley. Kidnappings, executions, bombings. Anything’s possible now that they’ve crossed this red line. We don’t know exactly how large Group 99’s network is. But we do know that it’s massive, and growing, especially in places where the economic divide is acutely pronounced. Like South America, for example.”
“On our doorstep,” Tracy mused.
Tracy processed all this for a moment before turning to Walton.
“This is all very interesting. But I still don’t see where I fit in.”
Greg Walton leaned forward. “This woman, Althea, sent an encrypted message to us at Langley a little over a week ago. In it, she mentioned you by name, Tracy.”
“Me?” Tracy looked suitably dumbfounded.
“What did she say?”
“That she’d outsmarted us just like you did. That only you could unmask her. That Agent Buck here should pay you a visit. She almost made it sound like a game. A competition between the two of you.”
If Greg Walton’s expression hadn’t been so serious, Tracy would have burst out laughing. This had to be a joke, right?
“Have you any idea who this woman might be, Tracy? Any idea at all?”
Tracy shook her head. “No. I wish I did but, no. This makes no sense to me.”
“Listen to this.”
Greg Walton played her the same recording of Althea ordering Bob Daley’s execution that he’d played for MI6 a few days earlier.
“Have you ever heard that voice before?”
“I’m sorry,” Tracy said. “I haven’t. Not that I remember.”
“Think hard. It may be someone from your distant past. From your childhood, even. Or the Louisiana Penitentiary?”
Tracy allowed herself a small smile. The voice on the tape was educated, sophisticated. Nobody from the penitentiary had sounded remotely like that.
“Could she have been a colleague at the Philadelphia Bank?” Walton pressed. “Or perhaps someone you and Jeff knew in London?”
From my days as a thief, you mean? Tracy finished for him. No. I don’t think so.
Hearing Greg Walton, a man she’d never met before, reel off places and people in her life as if he knew her intimately was disconcerting to say the least. But she kept her composure.
“No,” she said. “I’d remember, I’m sure of it.”
“Well, you do know her.” Milton Buck lost his patience. “That much is a fact. So if she’s not from your past, she must be from your present. What prior contact have you had with Group 99?”
“What?” Tracy scowled at him.
There were no words to adequately express her loathing for Milton Buck, a man who was prepared to sacrifice anything, or anyone, for the sake of advancing his career. If Buck had had his way, Jeff would have been left to die at Daniel Cooper’s deranged hands. Tracy would never forgive him.
“Think very carefully before you answer, Miss Whitney,” Buck warned her. “If you lie to us now, any deal we may have made in the past will be off. Null and void.”
“I don’t need to think carefully,” Tracy shot back. “I’ve never had any contact with Group 99.”
“Hmmm.” Milton Buck’s upper lip curled. “You admire them, though, don’t you?” He seemed to delight in pressing Tracy’s buttons. “All that subversive, antiestablishment baloney. It’s right up your street.”
“I did quite admire them once,” Tracy said defiantly. “Before Daley’s execution I was impressed by their techniques. But then so were a lot of people. I mean, there’s no doubt they’re smart. Hacking in to the Langley computers is no mean feat.”
“No. It isn’t,” Greg Walton muttered bitterly.
“They’ve outsmarted governments and intelligence agencies and Big Oil,” Tracy went on. “But, I never shared their views, Agent Buck. Other than their dislike of the fracking industry. And I certainly don’t admire terrorists, or murderers.”
“So you don’t believe in redistributing wealth away from the top one percent?” Milton Buck asked skeptically. “Robbing the rich to help the poor?”
“Certainly not,” said Tracy. “Look around you, Agent Buck.” She gestured to the expensive oil paintings hanging on the walls and the cabinet full of polished silver in the dining room. “I’m part of the one percent. Then again, from what you describe, so is this woman Althea.” She turned back to Greg Walton. “If she’s rich enough to funnel millions to Group 99, isn’t she part of the problem, in their eyes?”
“There’s a lot about Group 99 that doesn’t make sense to us right now,” Walton replied. “A lot of inconsistencies. Together with the British, we’re piecing together a clearer picture of their changing objectives. But what we do know is that their days of peaceful protest are over. We have a hostage out there right now whose life is in imminent danger.”
“I know that,” Tracy said, chastened. “Hunter Drexel.”
“And he won’t be the last. We believe Althea may hold the key to the entire network, Tracy. We need your help to find her. Come back to Langley with us.”
Tracy’s eyes widened. If the situation weren’t so serious, she would have laughed.
“You want me to come to Langley? Right now?”
“We don’t want it,” Greg Walton’s tone was deadly serious. “We need it. You’re our best hope.”
“No,” Tracy said, on autopilot. “I won’t. I can’t. I have a son . . .”
She stood up and walked over to the window. It was totally dark now. All Tracy could see was her own reflection.