I am the traitor, p.5

I Am the Traitor, page 5

 

I Am the Traitor
 


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  “The person on the phone wasn’t your brother, was it?” Howard says.

  “No.”

  “Was it that guy outside the house?”

  “His name is Mike,” I say. “He’s a dangerous individual.”

  “I got the idea when he shot those three men.”

  As I stand up, I wrap the blade of the steak knife in a napkin and slip it into my pocket.

  I don’t like knives, in general. But I’ll use one to save a life if I have to.

  Or to take one.

  Howard follows me to the front door, where we intercept Tanya.

  “Who was on the phone?” Tanya asks Howard.

  “A bad guy,” Howard says.

  I wave thanks to the waitress, indicating the money is on the table. She gives me a thumbs-up.

  “Follow me,” I tell Howard and Tanya. “Stay close.”

  I GET US AWAY FROM THE DINER, AWAY FROM WHERE WE HAVE LAST BEEN SEEN.

  I drive fast, but there’s no way to outrun electronic tracking, and the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that’s how Mike found us. I scan the horizon, looking for a place to pull over. Upstate New York is filled with deep gorges and elevated crests, geographic features that are remnants from the last ice age. When I find the right place, I pull off the road fast, driving up a steep hill, then down the other side, stopping at the base of the valley where a combination of thick trees and hillside might interfere with a satellite’s ability to pick up a tracking signal.

  I screech to a halt and ask Howard and Tanya to get out of the car.

  I start with the interior on the passenger side. Mike could have easily slipped a GPS device into a door handle, in between the seat, under the mats.

  Tanya watches me.

  “Now’s not a great time to clean the car,” she says.

  “He’s not cleaning,” Howard says. “You’re looking for a tracking device, aren’t you?”

  “You got it.”

  “I can help,” he says.

  “How can you help?” Tanya says.

  “I’m kind of a tech whiz,” he says.

  “Kind of is an understatement,” I say.

  Howard and I pull the car apart, starting with the interior, then moving to the engine block, the wheel wells, any place where a device could be hidden.

  We don’t come up with anything.

  I stop and rethink my approach. If Mike didn’t plant a device, then who did?

  That’s when I remember something Mike said. I asked him if The Program knew where we were.

  Not unless I want them to, he said.

  At the time, I thought he meant he was tracking us, and he could give them the information. But there’s another possibility, a more ingenious one.

  The Program could be tracking us, and Mike could be intercepting their data stream.

  “I have to search both of you,” I say. “Howard first.”

  He looks at me like I’m crazy.

  “Were you dressed the whole time at the house?” I ask.

  “They took my clothes at first. Then they gave them back to me.”

  “That’s what I thought,” I say.

  I motion for him to hold his hands above his head. I pat him down from neck to feet, checking the seams of his clothes, his belt, every possible place The Program might have planted a device. But I don’t find anything.

  I step back and look at him.

  “His sneakers,” Tanya says.

  “Good idea,” I say.

  Howard takes off his sneakers and hands them to me. I pull out the insoles and check beneath them, finding nothing. I examine the sneakers, and I notice an imperfection in the Adidas label at the back of the heel.

  I pull the steak knife from my pocket.

  “What the hell—” Howard says.

  I use the point of the knife to dig behind the Adidas label. It looks as if it’s been slit open and reglued. I search inside and come up with a small metallic disc.

  Howard whistles.

  “What is it?” Tanya says.

  Howard holds out a hand and I drop the device into his palm.

  He says, “It’s a miniaturized GPS beacon.”

  “That’s how they found us,” Tanya says. “So we can go now, right?”

  She opens the car door and gets in.

  “Hang on,” I say. I grab the door before she can close it. “It’s your turn.”

  “Why me?”

  “You were at the house, too.”

  She sighs and gets out of the car.

  “You want me to take my clothes off?” she says.

  Howard’s eyes widen.

  “How about we start with your shoes?” I say. She removes her shoes and passes them to me. I check them over, but I don’t find anything.

  “Maybe I don’t have a beacon?” she says.

  “Maybe not. But I’ll have to search you to be sure.”

  “That’s fine,” she says. “But I have to warn you I’m a little ticklish.”

  “I promise I’ll be gentle.”

  “Who said anything about being gentle?”

  I feel heat bloom in my cheeks. It’s rare for me to lose my cool around women, but Tanya seems to have that effect on me.

  I start at her head, running my fingers through her soft blond hair. My hand snags on a hair clip.

  “I’ll get it,” she says.

  She takes out the clip and hands it to me, hair spilling down around her shoulders.

  “I need a haircut,” she says self-consciously. “The salon in the prison really sucked.”

  “Your hair is fine,” I say. “I’m going to check your clothes now.”

  “What are you guys talking about?” Howard asks.

  “Your friend’s about to feel me up,” Tanya says.

  “Believe me, my intentions are purely professional,” I say.

  Tanya grins and raises her arms above her head.

  I glance back at Howard. He’s standing by the car, watching us. I make a signal for him to turn around.

  “No fair,” he says.

  “Howard—”

  “Fine,” he says, and he turns his back.

  I begin, feeling the collar of her shirt, then her shoulders, moving over her arms, pausing to check the friendship bracelet on her wrist before patting under her arms and down her ribs. She shivers.

  “Are you okay?” I ask.

  “Why wouldn’t I be?”

  “Because you’re ticklish, remember?”

  “I don’t feel ticklish right now.”

  I run my hands across her belly and I sense her muscles twitch under my fingers.

  I reach behind, checking the pockets of her black jeans and tracing the seams across her butt and hips, then down her pant legs.

  “Did you find anything?” she says.

  “Nothing,” I say.

  I stand up. Our faces are close now.

  “You didn’t check everywhere,” she says.

  “I was being polite,” I say.

  “It’s just professional, right? That’s what you said.”

  “Of course.”

  “Then don’t be polite. Do whatever you have to do.”

  I follow the outline of her chest, moving my hands to the sides and underneath, checking the fabric of her bra. Her breasts are soft and heavy, the breasts of a woman, not a girl.

  “You killed that man outside the house, didn’t you?” she says. I run my hands up her shoulders and across her bra straps. “He was already knocked out, but then you went further and killed him.”

  “He saw us. If he survived, he’d be able to identify us. And they’d know who to look for.”

  “Because they know you?”

  “Yes.”

  “So it was him or us,” she says.

  “That’s right. And I chose us.”

  She nods like she understands.

  My fingers brush against something in the lining of her bra.

  “I need you to take your bra off,” I say.

/>   “Personal request?”

  I smile. “Still professional.”

  She hesitates. “I like to know a guy’s name before I take my shirt off. Call me old-fashioned.”

  “My name’s Zach.”

  “Do you mind turning around, Zach?”

  “Not a problem,” I say, and I give her some privacy.

  I hear the rustle of clothes. A moment later she places a bra on my shoulder.

  “For you,” she says.

  It’s a blue-and-white-striped sports bra. Still warm.

  I pat it down, moving to the side where I thought I felt something. I take the knife and cut into the seam of the bra. There, buried in the elastic, is a round disc like the one I found in Howard’s shoe. I turn and show it to her.

  “They were tracking me, too,” she says.

  “Are you guys done?” Howard says. “It’s been like six hours already.”

  “We’re done,” Tanya says.

  He turns and looks at the bra in my hands.

  “Wow,” he says. “I missed the good part.”

  I hold out the small disc in the palm of my hand. Howard adds the first one to it.

  “Two tracking devices. The Program has been following you, and Mike has been following them, intercepting the signal. Maybe redirecting to keep them off our tail.”

  “The Program?” Tanya says.

  “That’s the name of the organization that took you. Mike works for them.”

  “And you work with Mike.”

  “In a manner of speaking. We were like brothers in The Program.”

  “Were?”

  I think of Mike on the phone earlier.

  I’m coming for you.

  “Things have changed,” I say.

  Tanya reaches out and takes the small discs from my hand. She says, “If Mike still works for the organization, why would he be keeping them off your tail?”

  “I don’t know,” I say.

  She looks at the beacons up close. “We should destroy these.”

  “No way,” Howard says. “We should plant them somewhere else.”

  Howard has good instincts now, developed over the last two missions we spent together.

  I fold the beacons into a paper towel, and on the way back to the main road, we pass a bunch of construction vehicles parked at a house where work is being done. I slow down and toss them into the back of one of the trucks before driving away.

  “That should make things interesting,” I say.

  “What now?” Tanya says.

  “Now we get as far away from here as possible.”

  I KEEP US NINE MILES OVER THE SPEED LIMIT.

  Slow enough to avoid flagging the attention of law enforcement, fast enough to get us away from the diner, from the GPS beacons, and from the holding house. I aim south toward Binghamton, New York. More people, greater safety.

  “How did your father die?” Howard says from the backseat.

  “That’s a little rude, isn’t it?” Tanya says.

  “It might make it easier to remember,” Howard says.

  “It was Mike,” I say.

  “I knew I hated that guy,” Tanya says.

  “But I can’t be sure he’s dead,” I say. “That’s why I asked you about it in the diner.”

  “Why aren’t you sure?” Howard says.

  “I thought I saw something when I was young, but sometimes when you’re very young and you experience violence, your brain shuts down. You think you remember something, but maybe you remember it wrong.”

  “Like a false memory?” Howard says.

  “Something like that.”

  I glance at Tanya, who is scrutinizing me from the backseat.

  “What’s on your mind?” I ask her.

  “This isn’t about Howard at all. It’s about your father.”

  “Howard was helping me try to find him. That’s why Howard was kidnapped, and why I came back for him.”

  “I thought you came to save him,” Tanya says.

  She’s perceptive. I have to choose my words carefully.

  “Howard is innocent,” I say. “I got him into this, so I’m getting him out of it.”

  “So you’re saving him,” Tanya says, “but finding your father in the process.”

  “I hope so. Yes.”

  I glance back and find her crying.

  “What’s going on?” Howard says. He’s as confused as I am.

  “What about me?” Tanya asks. “Where do I fit into this plan?”

  “You weren’t part of the plan,” I tell her.

  “I want to go home,” she says through sniffles. “Right now.”

  This is a difficult situation. If I let Tanya leave, she’ll almost certainly call the police and bring the wrong kind of attention down on us. That’s assuming she isn’t recaptured by The Program first. Either way, it’s safer to keep her with us, at least for the time being. I need to find a way to calm her down.

  “I’ll get you home as soon as it’s safe, Tanya. I promise.”

  Her crying gets louder. Howard strokes her shoulder to try to relax her, but it doesn’t seem to work.

  I spot an exit two miles ahead. I can see the ramp in the distance, arching off the main highway and disappearing behind a hill where I can just make out the sign for a small, local gas station.

  “I have an idea,” I say. “How about we stop for a minute and you call home? You can let them know you’re okay and you’ll be back soon.”

  That seems to do the trick. She wipes tears from her eyes.

  “Thanks, Zach,” she says. “That means a lot to me.”

  TANYA’S EYES ARE PUFFY FROM CRYING.

  I watch her in the waning light of the service station parking lot. She’s trying to keep it together.

  “My nana must be worried,” she says.

  “Who’s that?” I say.

  “I live with my grandmother. I was supposed to spend this week at my best friend’s summer house; that’s where I saw the thing happen with the neighbor. But my nana is expecting me to call in from time to time.”

  It’s a calculated risk for me to let her call home, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

  While Howard pumps gas, I lead her away, pulling out my phone and prepping it for the call. I can’t use a Program app, so I instead open a secure browser. I search online for one of many CID-spoofing sites that allow you to make a call over the Internet with a fake caller ID appearing on the receiving phone.

  Once the spoof has been set up, I pass the phone to Tanya.

  “Just type your nana’s phone number into the box there, and the site will initiate the call.”

  Tanya hesitates. “What do I tell her?”

  “How long since you were taken?”

  “Maybe five or six days. I’m not sure exactly.”

  “And you were supposed to be at your friend’s for a week?”

  She nods.

  I calculate how much time I’m going to need to get us clear of The Program.

  “Tell her you’ll be home the day after tomorrow.”

  “Really?” she says. Her face lights up.

  The truth is, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but hope is a powerful motivator. So I give Tanya hope now.

  She types in her grandmother’s number and the online service does the rest.

  “Nana?” she says. “It’s me. I’m using my friend’s phone.”

  I hear an old woman’s voice responding on the line.

  “I’m fine,” Tanya says, and then she sniffles, and tears start to stream down her cheeks. “Really, I am,” she says. She wipes at her nose. “I’ve got a little bit of a cold. Sorry I didn’t call you sooner. We’ve been going to the lake every day, and I’ve been so busy.”

  She walks away with the phone, and I let her go. I don’t need to screen the rest of the call.

  I go back to where Howard is gassing up the Accord.

  “When did your father supposedly die?” he asks.

  “Are you st
ill thinking about that?”

  “You said it’s what we were working on before I lost my memory.”

  “That’s right.”

  “I know Tanya had some issues or whatever—but it’s okay with me if we keep working on it.”

  “You’re a good guy, Howard.”

  “You think so?” he says with a shy smile.

  “To answer your question, I haven’t seen my father in almost five years.”

  Howard nods, considering it. The gas pump clicks off. Howard pulls the nozzle and screws on the cap.

  “So if he died, it was a while ago,” Howard says. “And there would be a record of it somewhere.”

  “Not necessarily.”

  “People don’t just disappear when they die.”

  “In my world they do.”

  A station attendant is sweeping trash in the corner of the lot. I motion for Howard to get into the car. I don’t want to risk being overheard in public.

  Howard settles into the passenger seat next to me, and we close the doors.

  “This morning Mike told me my father was dead, and I should stop searching for him. But before you were kidnapped, you found e-mail exchanges between The Program and my father, e-mails that were sent after his supposed death.”

  “Is it possible the e-mails were planted to make it seem like your father was still alive?”

  “It’s possible, yes.”

  “Would Mike know the truth?” Howard asks.

  I think about the moment in my family’s living room all those years ago, Mike leading me to where my father was taped to a chair and bleeding.

  “Definitely,” I say.

  “You said people disappear in your world,” Howard says.

  “That’s right.”

  “But their friends and coworkers don’t disappear. Your father knew people in the community. There would be questions and concerns.”

  “It wasn’t only my father who I never saw again,” I say.

  “Your mother, too?”

  I nod.

  “I’m sorry,” he says softly.

  “Let’s stay focused,” I say, urging him on.

  “Okay,” he says. “If The Program killed your parents, they’d have to plant a story of some kind, something to keep people from investigating.”

  “A cover story,” I say.

  “Exactly.”

  Howard has a good point. My parents were well known in the academic community. They couldn’t disappear without a lot of people asking questions.

 
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