The quick slap of a runner's stride against asphalt broke the late-afternoon hush of Vienna's Prater Garten. Vanessa Pierson tensed, catching a flash of blue and white in her peripheral vision. Lean legs encased in a warm-up suit, slightly scuffed running shoes, rhythmic breathing — an athlete training for Vienna's annual marathon? She exhaled as he passed, but the knot behind her solar plexus tightened, her body's message that she'd moved way beyond normal operational adrenaline.
But there'd been nothing normal about this op from the beginning.
Her Iranian asset had sent her a private message embedded within the careful content of the e-mail that prompted this meeting. He'd used the code they'd agreed on the last time they met in person. A phrase that told her the meeting was so urgent it warranted the risk entailed. "Although my conference schedule is extremely busy, I'm hoping to visit the Klimt paintings in the Belvedere Palace."
And now you're forty-two minutes late, Arash.
Fear for him whispered through her. What if he'd been detained, arrested —
She forced her mind away from the worst-case scenarios.
Screwed-up Agency commo plans were legendary — the most intricate and carefully arranged meetings blown by someone forgetting whether to move the clock forward or back by one hour or two. She'd played tourist for the last ninety minutes, strolling the main avenue, circling the park's ornate lake to feed the raucous ducks, the burn phone in her pocket pressing against her hip.
Only one person had the number: Chris Arvanitis, her boss at the counterproliferation division, the only one at CIA Headquarters who still had her back.
Now, retracing her steps, she followed the path to the amusement park, where the Riesenrad, the Giant Wheel, spun ponderously against a low gray sky. When Arash arrived, he would head toward their landmark.
They hadn't had any contact since their last meeting in Copenhagen, almost two years ago. For a few minutes they'd walked through Tivoli Gardens, the last gleam of sunset reflecting off the lake. As a swan stretched its gray wings, sending ripples over the water's metallic shimmer, she'd pressed a flash drive into his damp palm, squeezing his hand gently. To calm him, she quietly joked, "For one of your colleagues at Natanz who enjoys the soft porn of Game of Thrones. Leave it where it will be used often and shared."
He had offered a faint smile, but the skin around his dark eyes tightened and Vanessa read the spike of fear. He knew better than to ask what the drive contained — he would put the pieces together easily enough, even before the story burned through the international press and the virus contained on the flash drive irrevocably changed the nature of covert war. Knowing she would not see him again soon, if ever, she'd walked away without looking back. Almost whispering the silent request: Be very careful, Arash Farah. Stay safe, my friend.
The Riesenrad groaned to a halt just as the lights sparked on in the amusement park, a small rainbow glowing against fading sunlight. A handful of laughing teenagers stumbled from a carriage on the huge wheel, and a small, screaming boy of about four tugged desperately on his mother's arm. But Vanessa focused on the solitary male pedestrians within sight. No Arash, but a pale, dark-haired man turned away from her gaze abruptly.
The first glimmer of the icy panic rose. A panic that had dogged her since the shit storm from Prague and Jost Penders's disappearance.
Even when the pale man waved to an elderly woman shepherding twin boys of about ten, the fear remained, irrational now.
She reined herself in, but all her instincts pushed her to move. Turning in slow motion, scanning the amusement park and the green tree-shaded park beyond, marking: the teenage neopunk fan, noise leaking from his earbuds; the tourist family; the fraught woman with the noisy toddler.
A group of college students brushed past her on their way to the biergarten, voices rising over the groan of gears and piped music. She sidestepped them, abruptly brought back to ground.
She would give Arash ten more minutes.
"Komm schon! Vorwärts! Venez-vous! Come on!" The barker at the faded shooting gallery beckoned, calling out in assorted tongues, Come on, pretty lady, three shots for a euro!
She flashed a smile that didn't reach her eyes — the open booth offered an easy view of the Hauptallee; at the same time, its proximity to the Riesenrad meant Arash would spot her quickly. She stepped up. "Nur drei?"
"Ordnung, drei, ja," the barker offered with a dodgy wink. He took her money and handed her a scuffed target rifle.
Pushing strands of her dark bobbed wig behind one ear, Vanessa set the butt of the rifle squarely to her right shoulder. She took a breath and began the slow squeeze on the trigger. Four shots, four targets blown apart.
The barker fanned his forehead with his hand and whistled. She powered through her next shots, annihilating four new marks, refusing another go — "Nein, nein" — abandoning the target rifle on the counter of the faded green booth.
Even if it was a timing mix-up, Arash should have been there by now. She had to move and — damn, the screaming toddler was dragging his mother her way.
Vanessa pivoted toward the main avenue, with its green canopy of chestnut trees, catching a glimpse of her distorted image in the mirror of the adjacent fun house, her jeans, boots, and jacket melding together, her slender body twisted to a freakish cipher.
Still the child screamed, a sound capable of shattering glass.
"Sie gewinnen!" The barker thrust a huge red plush panda into Vanessa's arms just as she saw a familiar figure in a black overcoat in the near distance: Arash walking briskly along the Hauptallee, the recognizable hitch in his stride, his coat flapping slightly in the breeze, a tuft of blue-black hair falling over his high forehead, five-o'clock shadow emphasizing his softening jawline.
Relief at the sight of him surged through her, its intensity catching her off guard.
Vanessa handed off her prize to the tearful child. She barely registered the mother's surprised thanks because she was already moving to meet Arash. She quickened her pace to reach him while he was still on the main avenue.
Abruptly, a small shock ran through her body — the burn phone in her pocket vibrating.
Arash was no more than ten meters away, and he pulled up straighter when he saw her. His step lightened.
With her fingers pulling the phone quickly from her pocket while she tensed reflexively, she glanced down to read one word: Ephesus.
Abort, Vanessa thought — code to call off the operation.
No fucking way. Headquarters didn't have eyes on this op, so why were they calling her off? Why was Chris calling her off? Had something gone seriously wrong? Or was it overcaution on the side of Headquarters?
But she was too damn close now to abort. Arash had always brought her solid intel. She shoved the phone back into her pocket, pressing forward even as Arash slowed for an instant. Had he seen her hesitate?
She strode the last few paces, close enough to read his face — strain, exhaustion, the flush of urgency. But still he managed a twisted half-smile.
She slipped her arm through his and whispered, "Am I glad to see you. Now look happy, I'm your girlfriend."
Arash gripped her hand, almost stumbling as he tried to match his step with hers. "I didn't know if you'd still be here."
"I'll always wait for you as long as I can — but what happened? Why are you late?"
He shook his head. "The Sepah watch me; they watch us all. I had to wait until I could get away."
Sepah — literally, "army" — was the term used by many Iranians to refer to Iran's Revolutionary Guard without expressing loyalty to the Regime. "Are you positive you weren't followed?"
But he'd hesitated a second before answering.
"I was very careful. I did everything you taught me."
"All right, that's good." But she pictured Arash as he hurried toward the meet: vigilant, pausing anxiously to glance into shop windows, looking for familiar reflections, stepping inside shops to force a shadow to pass and backtrack, all of it along a route he'd no doubt studied on a map. What must have been a very rusty and rushed surveillance-detection routine. Was that enough? Was she putting him in harm's way?
As if he sensed her doubts, he tightened his grip. "Yes, it's good. When I found out they were sending me here, I knew we had to meet, whatever the risks."
"Then tell me what you've got, because we don't have much time."
"What I've got . . . it's very important," he said, slowing almost imperceptibly. "How much will your government pay?"
"The usual transfer to your account." She shook her head, impatient now, steering him away from the avenue, into the park and the neat rows of chestnut trees. It wasn't like him to ask about money. "You know there's no time for renegotiation, not right now." She eyed him sharply. "Arash, tell me what you know that's so important."
"Do you remember your promise? If anything happens to me, you will take care of my family."
"Of course I remember. And I promise, I swear, I will keep them safe."
They were following a neat gravel path. She knew the small yellow pavilion in the near distance offered privacy as well as a vantage point. They would be able to see but not be seen.
"You have been looking a long time for the weapons facility that you suspect Bhoot, your ghost, is operating."
Vanessa tensed internally at the mention of Bhoot. She'd been hunting the phantomlike arms dealer and nuclear proliferator for three years, since the first rumors of his existence began surfacing in international intelligence communities. She'd come close to a new lead last year in Prague. "Bhoot?" She forced herself to breathe normally. "Yes. We've been looking for an Iranian weapons facility linked to him."
"Well, I have seen it," Arash said, his voice gone flat.
From Blowback by Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett. Copyright 2013 by Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett. Excerpted by permission of Blue Rider Press.