I am the traitor, p.1

I Am the Traitor, page 1

 

I Am the Traitor
 


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I Am the Traitor


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  For my brother Jeff

  THIS USED TO BE MY HOME.

  It’s an ordinary two-story house on a suburban cul-de-sac about a mile from Brighton High School. There’s a bed of flowers in a plot in the front yard. There were different flowers in the same spot five years ago.

  The day I left this place. The day I saw my father die, or thought I did.

  I was ordered never to return, yet here I am, sitting in a car, watching the house, and remembering a part of my life I’ve been trained to forget.

  Movement behind me. The summer sun glints off the windshield of a Volvo wagon. I can see one occupant, a female, driving toward my car.

  I start the car, readying myself for evasive action.

  I track the wagon first in the rearview, then in my peripheral, then straight on as it drives past and continues down the road. It does not slow or swerve. There’s no indication that the driver is here for any reason having to do with me.

  But it is a reminder that I am in danger. Every moment I stay on the street, I risk being detected.

  I check the clock on the dash. Three hours until I meet Mike.

  I have not come back to my hometown of Rochester, New York, by choice, but out of necessity. This is where Mike wants to meet, where he will tell me what he knows about my friend Howard’s disappearance.

  Howard was secretly working for me on my last assignment, trying to untangle truth from fiction. I believed Mike killed my father, yet there is evidence to suggest that my father might not be dead.

  Before he could tell me what he knew, Howard disappeared.

  I’ve come to find him.

  It could be a trap. But I am willing to take that risk, because in my mind, I see the path toward my goal.

  Mike. Howard. My father. One leading to the next.

  I should go now, but I lean back in my seat and turn off the engine.

  I am fascinated by this house and unable to look away. My eyes track up the light green shingles, over to the far right corner window.

  That was my bedroom.

  A wave of emotion hits me, so intense that it takes my breath away.

  I give the feeling a name.

  Grief.

  I breathe into it. It’s better to have no feelings at all, but when they come, I’ve learned they do not last forever. They arrive in waves, and like waves, they recede. Eventually.

  I notice two kids walking down the street toward me, backpacks slung over their shoulders. One is around sixteen, the other thirteen. Similar postures and facial structure.

  Brothers.

  I glance at the dash clock. Quarter to three. At this time of day, they’re probably local kids walking home from summer school.

  But they could be Program soldiers disguised as students.

  They approach on the opposite side of the street.

  I watch. I prepare.

  They don’t so much as glance at my car. Instead they turn into the cul-de-sac and head for the house. The older kid takes out a key and unlocks the door, then he and his brother go inside, closing the door behind them. I can tell from their behavior that they’ve done the same thing thousands of times before.

  These are not Program soldiers. They are the strangers who live in the house where I grew up.

  This used to be my home. Not anymore.

  I start the car.

  I DRIVE TO THE UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER.

  My father was a psychology professor here. I walk across campus toward the building where he used to work.

  Summer session is in progress, and the campus is mostly quiet, small groups of students walking among the brick and stone buildings along the river. When I was a boy, my father took me to work sometimes, leaving me to read on the leather sofa in his office while he delivered his lectures. Back then the students seemed so much older than me. Now our differences are less about age than purpose.

  They lead normal lives. I live the life of a soldier.

  The route to the psychology building is ingrained in my muscle memory. I cross the quad, turning left into a three-story redbrick building that houses the psych department and what used to be my father’s office.

  When I walk in, I see a directory with listings for the philosophy, comp lit, and modern-languages departments. No psychology.

  Confused, I head down the hall and tap on the first office door I encounter. A woman in a gray pantsuit looks up from an impressive stack of papers.

  “Can I help you?”

  “Is this the psych building?” I say.

  “Not anymore. They moved about four years ago.”

  She looks me up and down, trying to figure out why I don’t know this information.

  “I’m doing a campus tour,” I say. “I might apply next year. My dad used to be a professor here.”

  “So you’re a legacy.”

  “Should be an easy admit, huh?”

  “Depends. Does he donate?”

  “Every year. With the crappy grades I bring home, he has no choice.”

  She smiles. “I’m sure you won’t have any problems. By the way, where does your dad teach now?”

  Time to change the subject.

  “Could you tell me where the new psych building is?” I ask.

  She spins her chair and gestures out the window behind her, indicating a new structure of steel and green glass in the distance. The building comes to a point like the prow of a ship.

  “Thar she blows,” the woman says.

  “Impressive.”

  “A large, anonymous bequest. There’s an academic center on campus and a research facility downstate in Corning.”

  Corning. That flags something in my memory. My father took me there years ago.

  “That’s a lot of resources for a psychology program.”

  “Lucky them, huh?”

  I see the muscles in her jaw clench.

  Interdepartment rivalry. I may not have gone to college, but I know the dynamic well enough from The Program. People in an organization tend to compete with one another.

  I thank her and turn away before she can ask me any more questions.

  “Good luck with your applications,” she calls from behind me.

  “Thanks,” I say as I head out the door. “I’ll need it.”

  I PUSH THROUGH HERMETICALLY SEALED DOUBLE DOORS INTO THE PSYCH BUILDING.

  I’m hit by a rush of perfectly cooled sixty-eight-degree air.

  I scan the digital directory on the wall near the front entrance until I find the information for Professor Abraham Silberstein, my father’s former research partner. His son Joshua was my best friend in elementary school.

  I’ve already looked up Dr. Silberstein’s schedule online, so I know he’s lecturing today. I use the directory to pull up a map of the building and find the hall on the second floor, then I use the sleeve of my hoodie to wipe my fingerprints off the touch screen.

  I take the stairs two at a time, moving like a student late for class. I slip into the rear of a steeply raked, two-hundred-seat lecture hall about half filled with students.

  Dr. Silberstein stands in the front of the room, his voice loud through the sound system. He’s grown a beard since I last saw him. It’s dappled with gray and makes him look older and m
ore distinguished than I remember. PowerPoint slides float by on a video monitor behind him. The term cognitive dissonance appears briefly before dissolving in an animated transition.

  Silberstein glances up midsentence, his eyes drifting to the back of the hall. He notes me briefly and continues with his lecture, only to glance at me again a second later.

  His eyes widen in recognition.

  “I’m sorry, that’s all we have time for today,” he says, abruptly tearing off his microphone and running from the lecture hall.

  “Where is he go—” the student nearest me starts to say, but I’m already racing out the back door and down the stairs, arriving just in time to see Dr. Silberstein far ahead of me, pushing his way into the stairwell. I hit the doors and fling myself after him, grabbing the banister for leverage and leaping ten steps at a time.

  I catch up to Silberstein at the bottom landing. He’s halfway through the basement doors when I reach out and grab the back of his suit jacket.

  “Get away from me!” he says, clutching the door frame.

  “I just want to talk to you.”

  “Help!” he shouts.

  “Everything okay down there?” I hear a man’s voice above me on the staircase, followed by the sound of footsteps.

  Silberstein uses the distraction to wriggle out of his suit coat and slip through the door, leaving the coat still in my hands.

  A moment later a custodian appears. “I heard shouting,” he says.

  I can calm the situation down or ratchet it up. Which will help me the most?

  “Do you smell that?” I say.

  “Smell what?”

  “I think it’s smoke.”

  “Oh gosh,” he says. “I’d better pull the alarm.” He rushes back up the stairs.

  I push through the stairway doors, pausing for a moment to check the pockets of Silberstein’s suit coat. I find a white magnetic security card in a plastic holder. There’s no identifying information on it, so I slip it into my own pocket, ditch the coat, and step into the hallway.

  A moment later the fire alarm sounds, a high-pitched, pulsing tone that echoes down the halls.

  With the alarm going off, I don’t need to worry about drawing attention to myself, so I break into a trot, racing through the basement until I find an exit that lets out on the side of the building.

  Silberstein is across the quad, running for all he’s worth, sweat evident under the arms of his blue dress shirt. He takes the corner hard, slipping on the grass and almost wiping out before he recovers his balance and disappears behind the building.

  I accelerate, dodging a group of students deep in conversation, and I run after him at full speed through the campus, familiar images from my childhood flashing by faster than I can process them.

  I race around the corner and see the back of the blue shirt disappearing into a residence hall a few yards away. I slow to a jog, relaxing my posture so I appear to be a student who has forgotten something in his dorm and gone back to retrieve it.

  I walk through the front door. There’s no security to question me.

  I imagine Silberstein’s trajectory. He’s weaving his way through the building, trying to lose me and looking for an exit that will send him in a new direction.

  It’s midafternoon, but the dorm is busy, girls crashed in front of TVs in common areas, girls studying with doors open, girls walking back and forth to the bathroom.

  Why are there so many girls?

  I jump through a group of them sprawled out in the hall, bare legs in shorts forming an obstacle course.

  “Is it asshole day?” a girl shouts as I leap over her. That tells me Silberstein was here a minute ago. I move as I think he would move, zigzagging until I find an exit door.

  I wedge my shoulder through the door and pop out the rear of the building.

  “STOP!” A MAN SHOUTS.

  It’s a campus police officer. He stands in front of me wearing black slacks and a uniform jacket, a cap pulled low over his forehead. He has the tight build of a trained fighter, unusual for a campus cop.

  “Are you a student?” he says.

  I decide to play it like an entitled college kid not used to being challenged.

  “What the hell else would I be?” I say.

  “Since you’re coming out of a women’s dorm, you could be a lot of things,” the cop says. “Pervert tops the list.”

  A women’s dorm? No wonder there were so many girls in there.

  I smile, the cat caught with the canary. “I was visiting my girlfriend.”

  “That’s a load of crap,” he says.

  Impolite language for a campus cop.

  The guy grins and pops up the cap to reveal his face.

  “Good afternoon, Zach.”

  It’s not a cop. It’s Mike.

  “What are you doing here? We’re supposed to meet two hours from now,” I say.

  “Way ahead of you,” he says. “Come to think of it, I’m always ahead of you.”

  “You followed me?”

  “Didn’t have to. You’re not as unpredictable as you think you are.”

  I’m trained to be unpredictable in all ways. My movements, my habits, my decisions. Unpredictable and therefore undetectable.

  Am I getting sloppy?

  “I know why you’re here,” Mike says.

  “It was one of my favorite places in the old days.”

  He shakes his head. “Let’s not bullshit each other.”

  “Fine. Why don’t you tell me why I’m here?”

  “You want to find your father.”

  He watches me, seeking a reaction. I don’t give him one.

  “There are no secrets between brothers,” he says.

  I glance at his hands. They are relaxed and by his side, seemingly nonthreatening. But you never know with Mike. He could be preparing to strike, and I wouldn’t know until the attack was already in motion.

  “I guess you’ve got me all figured out,” I say. “What do you want to do about it?”

  “Up to you,” he says. “Do you feel like grabbing a cup of coffee? Or would you rather fight to the death?”

  I know what I’d prefer, but I say, “Coffee sounds good.”

  MIKE TAKES OFF THE CAMPUS COP JACKET AND HANGS IT ON A METAL FENCE POST.

  He slouches his shoulders and in an instant transforms from authority figure to student, almost like an actor getting into character before a performance. I match his energy, and together we head down the stone steps under the Arts Building, where a sign for the Dragon Coffee Shop greets us. “Why don’t you grab a seat and I’ll get us something at the counter,” Mike says, like we’re buddies meeting to hang out together.

  Mike is relaxed, which only makes me more cautions. I am in danger every moment I’m with him. I must not forget it.

  I scope out the coffee shop and I’m hit with a sense of déjà vu. I was in this coffee shop with my father years ago. It had a different name then and different furniture. But there’s no question—I was here.

  I select a table in the back with a brick wall to one side and the counter behind me. It is the most defensible position in the room.

  I turn my chair to the wall and sit sideways so I can watch Mike and the door at the same time.

  There are nine students in the room. I map their locations in my head.

  I look at Mike waiting in line. The students have no idea that a trained assassin stands inches from them.

  A minute later Mike comes over with two coffees and a plate of snacks.

  “Oatmeal raisin cookies,” he says.

  “Did you bake them yourself?”

  “Didn’t have time. But the sign says they’re freshly baked. Do you think we can trust it?”

  “I don’t think we can trust anything in this place.”

  Mike grins and puts the plate of cookies in front of me.

  “Do you still like oatmeal raisin?” he asks.

  Those were my favorite cookies when I was a kid. Mike obviously rem
embers, and he wants me to know it. Is he trying to bond with me, or is it a test?

  “I don’t like or dislike anything,” I say.

  Preference creates patterns and patterns create vulnerability.

  “We trained you well,” Mike says. “But don’t you enjoy a little something every now and again? Secret pleasures? We all have them.”

  “Do you have them?”

  He raises his eyebrows. “I plead the Fifth,” he says.

  I sip from my coffee, and I wait. Mike brought me here, so it’s wise to let him speak first.

  Mike pulls out a seat, its metal legs scraping against the floor. He glances from side to side, making sure we can’t be overheard.

  “Your friend,” he says. “The one who disappeared from your hotel room after the last mission.”

  “Howard.”

  “Is that his name?”

  Howard was working with me in New Hampshire. He risked his life to break into an armed camp and free me. Then he stuck around to search for clues about my real father.

  “Do you know who has him?” I ask.

  “The Program has him.”

  I’d thought so. But now I have confirmation.

  “They have his laptops, too,” Mike says. “That’s the bad news. The good news is they can’t crack his computer encryptions, so they don’t know what he was up to. Yet.”

  “If they have him, why do they need his computers?”

  “That’s the interesting part,” he says. “He hasn’t talked. I guess he’s a lot tougher than he looks. Like a geek armadillo or something.”

  I suppress a smile.

  “You’re telling me they don’t know who he is or what his connection to me is?”

  “That’s right,” Mike says. “So why don’t you tell me what your connection is?”

  I study Mike’s face, trying to determine how much he already knows and how much I can safely give away. I decide to stay as close to the real story as possible.

  “He was helping me look for my father.”

  Mike shakes his head.

  “Your father is dead, Zach.”

  “That’s not what you told me in New York,” I say.

 
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