I Am the Traitor, page 3
“Right, so how would she react to that?”
“She’d take me off the active list until she could find out the truth. But she wouldn’t want me to suspect anything.”
Mike nods agreement. “It’s not safe for her to send you on assignment until Howard cracks.”
“If I were her, I’d stall for time. And I’d try to find out if my operative was loyal or not.”
“How would you do that?”
“I’d set a trap.”
“Break it down for me.”
“Guilty people do stupid things,” I say. “The pressure of guilt drives people to expose themselves. So if I were Mother, I’d keep things positive, maybe even make overtures of friendship and loyalty. I’d try to increase the person’s guilt. That’s what Mother was doing on this call. That’s why she broke protocol and said I was her favorite son.”
Mike smiles. “Very perceptive,” he says.
“So I’m correct. Mother is setting a trap.”
I watch Mike’s expression. It does not vary.
“You think I’m the trap?” Mike says.
“If this was a trap, it’s already been sprung. You admitted to me that you knew the kid. You admitted he was working with you. That’s enough information, isn’t it? Enough for me to report back to The Program and for Mother to issue a kill order.”
“It’s enough. I agree.”
“But here we are. And you are alive and well.”
“Here we are.”
“This is not a trap,” Mike says. “It’s an opportunity to clear your name.”
I lean back in my seat. It’s my turn to close my eyes.
“This is kind of nice,” I say.
Mike doesn’t speak. I’m guessing he’s perplexed by my statement.
“I mean being on a mission with you, Mike. Reasoning it out together.”
“What can I say? We’re Program brothers.”
I open my eyes and look at Mike. My former best friend and greatest enemy. Perhaps there’s another chapter in our future.
Could we be brothers?
Mike says, “Let’s talk about how you’re going into the house. I assume you have a plan.”
“I have two plans. One with you and one without.”
“You’ll have to do it without me. That’s not a problem, is it?”
“Are you kidding? I work best alone.”
I take Mike through the plan that’s been forming since I arrived in town. He asks what I might do in different scenarios, and he makes a few suggestions that are helpful.
But there’s only so much planning we can do. When it comes down to it, I’m breaking into a secure house with a long list of unknowns. Usually on a mission like this, I would leave nothing to chance.
But in this case, I have to make chance my friend.
MIKE OPENS HIS BACKPACK.
He takes out a black automatic pistol.
“I don’t use guns,” I say. “You know that.”
“Things don’t always go according to plan. You might need it as backup.”
“I thought you were my backup,” I say with a smirk.
I open the car door.
I say, “Keep the gun, and I’ll see you in half an hour.”
I ease out of the car and silently close the door behind me.
I start toward the holding house, keeping myself in the shadow of the forest.
It’s my first time alone after spending half the day with Mike. I play back the unlikely events of the last few hours. Mike told me that my father is dead. Can I believe him?
I look at the house, thinking about what I’ve been asked to do.
I imagine Howard inside, alone and afraid, not knowing what’s happening to him. It’s my fault that he’s in this situation.
I stop this train of thought.
Feelings of guilt don’t belong on a mission. They are a distraction, and distracted people make mistakes.
That’s what happened in New York after I opened myself to the mayor and got betrayed by Samara.
It happened again when I was exposed to Francisco’s madness in New Hampshire.
Feelings have created nothing but chaos for me, so I set them aside and instead do what I’ve been trained to do. I clear my head and bring myself into the here and now, my senses aligned with the world around me.
I focus back on the house. It is deceptively normal, a quiet home on a large and private lot on an isolated street.
I start toward it, probing for security devices that might protect the location from intrusion. I’m within a hundred yards when I spot the first one, a small metal box at the base of a tree, likely a seismographic device designed to pick up vibrations in the woods. I scan the area and spot a second device.
My plan requires adjustment.
I take out my phone, set up a voice filter, then dial 911 to report a house fire at this location with people trapped inside. That should get the authorities moving.
It takes eight minutes before I hear sirens in the distance coming closer. Soon after, I see flashing lights as two fire vehicles approach the house. The small truck pulls halfway down the driveway while the larger engine parks across the street. Firemen pour out, several of them split off and head toward the front door.
Two athletic men come jogging out of the house fast, serious expressions on their faces as they meet the firemen. A conversation begins out of earshot.
If there are two men outside, there will be at least two inside. Maybe more.
It’s time for me to go in.
With alarms being triggered inside the house, one more is unlikely to attract notice, so I walk right past the seismographic devices and into the backyard until I arrive at the side door.
It’s locked. But only for a moment.
IT SEEMS LIKE A NORMAL KITCHEN IN A COUNTRY HOUSE.
I walk across a wood floor, past a rack of expensive-looking cookware and through a breakfast nook arranged with a small table and wicker chairs.
Within seconds I know that something is wrong.
A normal house makes noise—floors groan when you put weight on them, windows rattle in their frames, walls shift and creak.
But this house makes no noise. It is dead silent inside, like the house where I first encountered The Program as a boy.
I move quickly through the kitchen, turn the corner, and find a man in the hallway, gun drawn, watching the front door. I come at him from behind. A pincer move on his neck drops him into unconsciousness before he knows what’s happening. I take the gun from his hand before it can hit the floor, and I place it in a basket where it will be out of sight.
I move into the hallway. It’s empty, doors set at strange intervals on both sides. I try the first and find the knob does not give at all. It’s not a real doorknob, more like the handle on the outside of a locked prison cell.
I try a second door and find the same thing.
I double back to the fallen man and search his pockets until I come up with a set of keys. I retrace my path down the hall, quickening my pace.
I pause at each door, listening, but they are thick and prevent any sound from escaping. I examine the door handles for traces of skin oil. If there is a prisoner here, his cell will have been opened multiple times in the last few days. Sure enough, one doorknob is marked up more than the others. I slip the key into the lock and feel it turn with a satisfying click.
I steel myself for what will come next.
If I’m lucky, Howard will be asleep, and he will never know what happened to him.
But if he is awake?
I will assess, and act. I will not speak or look into his eyes. It will be better for both of us that way.
I disengage the lock, and I open the door.
I see a figure sitting on a cot in front of me.
“Who are you?” a girl says.
There is someone else in the room.
I spin arou
Howard stands, his body tense with fear.
I see two cots on opposite sides of the room, two young people in front of them, both disoriented.
“What do you want?” Howard says.
I do not meet his eyes. I keep my vision at midlevel, just high enough to be sure he does not present a danger to me.
“Why don’t you bastards leave us alone?” Howard says.
He doesn’t recognize me.
Howard quickly moves toward the girl. He stands in front of her, blocking my path. He’s acting bravely, but I can see that his legs are shaking. Typical Howard, taking a stupid but courageous action.
I do not want to think about this. I do not want to remember Howard or the friendship we shared.
Two people. One is my target, the other a stranger.
I hear the front door opening. Voices outside. The men in front of the house are talking to the firemen, assuring them there is no emergency, and trying to sort out the situation. It’s likely that another man is searching the woods, checking for what might have set off the perimeter alarm.
How much time before they realize someone called in a false alarm to the fire department? How much time before they rush back into the house with guns drawn, ready to take on whatever threat has appeared in their midst?
I focus back on the room.
One target has become two. I should take them both out now. Quickly. Without any more thought. It’s preferable not to have collateral damage on a mission, but it happens.
This is not collateral damage. It’s Howard. He’s my friend.
I look up for the first time and meet Howard’s eyes. He’s looking back at me without recognition.
“Howard,” I say. “It’s me.”
He rubs his eyes, trying to focus. It seems like he’s under the influence of some kind of drug, maybe given to him as part of the interrogation.
“What do you want?” he says.
He doesn’t know who I am, yet he steps in front of the girl, foolishly risking his life to protect her when he can’t even protect himself.
Mike sent me on this mission to kill Howard and secure my place in The Program.
I look at Howard and I know I can’t kill him. I could never have killed him.
“I have to get you out of here,” I say.
“I don’t know you,” he says.
“You can’t remember right now, but we’re friends.”
“He was in the black room,” the girl says to me.
“The black room?”
“That’s where they question us. It takes a while to get normal after.”
She seems awake and clear, unlike Howard.
“Who are you?” I ask the girl.
“Are you a friend of Howard’s?”
“Sort of. We’re both prisoners.”
I look into her eyes. It feels like she’s telling the truth. But she is not my mission. I can’t help her.
“Let’s go, Howard,” I say.
I extend my hand, but he doesn’t take it.
“What about Tanya?” he says.
“I don’t know Tanya. I only know you.”
I don’t know her, and I don’t trust her.
But I won’t say that to Howard.
“We can’t leave her here,” Howard says.
Tanya stands in the corner, her face defiant, like she couldn’t care less whether we take her or not. She’s trying to act tough, but I can see it’s a bluff because her lower lip is quivering.
More noise from the front of the house. Agitated voices of the men standing near the front door, probably waiting until the fire trucks are out of sight.
“We have to go now,” I say.
“I’m not leaving without her,” Howard says.
I hear the front door close. I’m out of options.
“Both of you,” I whisper, “follow me.”
Howard gestures to Tanya and they come forward. I take the lead, pushing the two of them out of the room, then guiding them quickly back through the kitchen to the door where I entered.
Without a word, the three of us slip out of the house.
I EDGE FORWARD, MOTIONING HOWARD AND TANYA TO FOLLOW.
Suddenly the door flies open behind us and a Program soldier leaps out, practically running into Tanya. He reacts in a flash, seizing Tanya before I can get to her.
Tanya screams, whirls around, and kicks him hard in the shins, looking like a pissed-off girl at recess. The guy howls and hops on one leg, losing his grip on her. I leap forward before he has time to recover and aim a ferocious open-palmed strike to his throat that crushes his voice box, cutting off his oxygen and disabling him.
This soldier is a witness, so I have to finish the job. As he falls, I plant a vicious kick at chest level, hard enough to crush his sternum and the heart beneath it.
The man gurgles and drops to the ground, dead.
Tanya stares at me, shocked by the violence unleashed an inch from her face. “Is he—?”
“He saw us,” I say. “I couldn’t leave him alive.”
“Who are you?” she says.
“A friend,” I say. “I’m here to help Howard.”
I glance over at Howard, and he’s frozen in place, his finger pointing behind me.
I turn to find another Program soldier emerging from the woods, drawn by Tanya’s scream. He stands between us and potential escape, a heavy black pistol aimed at my chest.
I can tell by his stance that he is a professional shooter. He is focused and still, even after having seen his fellow soldier put down a second ago.
I move slowly and the gun moves with me, targeting my center mass. He does not shift the pistol from one person to another like someone untrained and afraid. He knows he cannot shoot all of us at the same time, so he will take us out by level of threat, highest to lowest.
“What do we do?” Tanya whispers.
“I have to pee,” Howard says.
“Stay calm,” I say. “And no peeing.”
I’m searching for options but not finding any. I note the soldier’s face, and I can see he’s working through his own options. Shoot first or ask questions?
If it were me, I’d shoot.
He hesitates. That’s his mistake.
I dive forward and down, hoping he will get distracted and lose his first shot.
A shot rings out, but I feel no pain. I look back to Howard and Tanya and find them unharmed.
I steal a glance at the soldier and see him blink twice, then fall to the ground, dead.
Mike is behind him, gun drawn, body set in a perfect modified Weaver shooting stance.
Mike had killed the soldier before he got a chance to fire his weapon. Now Mike’s gun is pointing in my direction.
He looks from me to Howard and Tanya. I feel Tanya stiffen beside me.
“They’re innocent,” I say.
Mike glances at Tanya and sighs.
“That’s the difference between you and me, Zach. I follow orders, not my feelings.”
Before I can speak again, another Program asset comes tearing out of the house behind us. Mike fires without hesitation, and the guy goes down in a sprawl.
Mike is killing Program soldiers. What orders is he following?
Sirens in the distance now, returning to the house. I imagine the firemen barely left the scene before they heard the shots and came racing back. It won’t be long before the police join them.
“God damn you,” Mike says. “I have to clean this up now.”
Bullets slam into the tree by Mike’s side, and he dives for cover. Another asset has come out of the house behind me, and he’s shooting at Mike, assuming he is an attacker and automatically directing his fire at the first man he sees with a weapon.
This is our chance.
“Go!” I shout to Howard and Tanya, pushing them forward.
A fusillade of bullets rips up the ground at Mike’s feet. He curses and returns fire.
I use the distraction to lead Howard and Tanya through the woods, racing back to the Accord. I’ll have time later to figure out why Mike didn’t shoot us, but now we have to get away.
I put Howard in the back of the Accord with Tanya, then I get in the front and start the engine. When I’m sure there are no police vehicles on the road, I pull out and speed away.
We are safe. At least for the moment.
HOWARD AND TANYA ARE IN THE BACKSEAT.
I glance in the rearview mirror and see their heads pressed close as they whisper, conspiring together.
I back my foot off the gas, making sure to stay within the speed limit.
“What are you guys talking about?” I say.
“What happened outside the house?” Tanya says. “Who was that man?”
“That’s a story for another time,” I say. “We’re safe now. That’s the important thing.”
“I don’t feel safe with you,” Tanya says.
They are terrified, and they don’t know if they can trust me. I need to project a sense of calm.
“You’re safer than you were in that prison cell,” I say, keeping my tone modulated.
“He’s got a point,” Howard says to Tanya. “So what’s going to happen next?” he asks me.
It’s a good question. And I don’t have an answer.
I didn’t plan on being out in the world with two kids. Now I have to deal with them, try to guess what Mike’s next move will be, find a way to keep The Program off us long enough to—
To find out the truth about my father. That’s primary. Keep us safe until I can find out what Howard knows.
I glance back at Howard, checking his eyes. He’s still not focusing, his eyes flitting from side to side. Not so with Tanya. She’s watching me, her gaze steady, waiting for me to answer Howard’s question.
“I got you out of the house,” I say, “but the people who put you in there will want you back. I have to make sure they don’t get you.”
ALLEN ZADOFF SERIES:
Other author's books:
- I Am the MissionMy Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies
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