Authors: Louis Charbonneau
The Brea File
Copyright © 1983 by Louis Charbonneau
All rights reserved.
All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Published as an ebook in 2013 by Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc. Originally published as a hardback in 1983 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Cover art by John Fisk.
For Bruce Mellett, again,
and for Bruce, Michael and Jennifer
It was cold that February morning, in the hours before dawn, high in the foothills of the Sierras, and he moved with caution among frost-brittle branches. Pine needles swept across his face like trailing fingers. Very gently he pushed the branch aside.
There were patches of snow in the woods where the winter sun could not reach, and he skirted around them. Through an opening in the trees the lake gleamed below him, the dull silver of an old coin. He paused a moment to verify his bearings. The cabin was not yet visible. He saw one light, far across the lake, glittering like a single star. That would be the light at Boulanger’s boathouse. Sighting on that star, he judged himself no more than a dozen yards off his plotted course.
The wooded slope dropped steeply toward the shore of the lake, and as he started down he made his way even more carefully, testing the ground before each step, making no sound, his vaporizing breath the only fleeting sign of his presence. He was dressed in the black of the night from head to toe; even his face was blackened.
Peering along the shoreline, he felt a moment’s concern that he had miscalculated. Then he took two steps to his left, changing the angle of view, and the momentary tension eased. He saw the cabin, completely dark, isolated on this eastern shore, twenty yards from where he stood.
He raised his left arm and pressed a button on the side of his watch. Green numerals glowed briefly: 4:52.
He crept closer to the cabin, staying within the cover of the trees, until he could make out the finger of a small dock pointing into the lake and a small rowboat moored at its side. Everything was as he had known it would be, but he had had to satisfy himself.
In a hollow among the trees on the windowless side of the cabin he waited.
* * * *
Vernon Lippert rose early from long habit, but this morning for another reason. He was a troubled man and had slept poorly.
The cabin was cold; he had let last night’s fire die out, not wishing to waste wood. Crouching before the stone fireplace, he paused a moment, staring at a small pile of blackened paper ashes, a stain against the whiter ash from his wood fire. In a sudden, angry move he mashed the dark pile with the back of a fireplace shovel. Then he scooped them up and dropped them into a pail on the hearth. Over them he piled the white ashes left over from his wood fire until the pail was almost full.
Working quickly in the stubborn chill, he stacked kindling, a tightly rolled wad of newspaper, and logs cut from his own trees. He struck a long wooden match into flame and held it against the wadded newspaper.
The fire had begun to blaze cheerfully as he dressed. He used the toilet—the cabin’s one concession to modern comforts—and washed his face with cold water. Then he put on a pot of coffee.
He was a tall, lean man, and only a slight roll about the waist betrayed a lifelong struggle against excessive weight. He would be fifty-five on the sixth of May—the compulsory retirement age for an FBI agent.
Vernon Lippert had spent almost his entire adult life as a Special Agent with the FBI. Looking back on his career, he considered himself a fortunate man. He might have spent thirty years as an accountant with a badge. Instead he had had a stimulating, exciting life. He had handled just about every assignment that came to a field agent. He had worked all over the country, in large offices and small ones. He had spent eight years in Los Angeles, where there was an average of a bank robbery per day every day of the year, and three years in a small New Mexico town where the only bank robber of record was Billy the Kid—and that was more legend than fact.
He had liked it all.
In time he had been lucky enough to be assigned to his office of choice at Sacramento, and for the last six years he had been the Senior Resident Agent in San Timoteo. An RA’s office was an extension of the parent field office, but to a large degree Lippert had been on his own. He investigated everything that came up affecting his territory, which encompassed a number of small northern California towns in the area surrounding San Timoteo. He came to know the area intimately, its people and its places. Liked and respected, he was proud of what he was and of the Bureau he represented. Warts and all, as he sometimes said, it was the best.
His glance flicked toward the pail on the hearth with its hidden layer of black ashes, and his mouth pulled into a tight, bitter line. The documents he had burned last night recorded evidence that would damage the agency he loved. Undermine public confidence and hold the Bureau up to harsh criticism, to the wild excesses of those who were always looking for something to tear down. All because of the one extraordinary event in the otherwise placid history of San Timoteo, a disastrous confrontation between a bunch of radicals and the San Timoteo police.
Vernon Lippert had been at the scene. He had seen with his own eyes the violent explosion that, for millions of Americans, was the climax of the top-rated television show on the evening of August 28, 1981. Whether the cache of explosives in the radicals’ hideout had been hit by police gunfire, as some civil libertarians had later charged, or been set off by the revolutionaries themselves as a last, defiant gesture, was not for Vernon Lippert the subject for a suitably grave panel discussion on public television; it was a personally agonizing question. Because he had stood there as pieces of bone and flesh, splintered wood and metal and glass rained down over a two-block area for several minutes after the blowup. He had witnessed the scene of desolation that slowly emerged from the curtain of dust and debris—the blackened, smoking stumps of the foundation, the stunned silence broken by the racking sound of a policeman retching, the emptiness where moments before a cadre of defiant human beings had flaunted their contempt for a society they believed irredeemable. He had stood there and asked himself the unanswerable question: How could such a thing have happened?
It was a question that would not go away. Eventually he had been compelled to begin a quiet but persistent search for the answer. It led him through months of increasingly intensive investigation, working on his own, resisting the truth that gradually took shape, resisting but coming back to it inexorably, until the conclusion was undeniable: The annihilation of the People’s Revolutionary Committee had been no accident. It was a setup, arranged by an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
That agent for a long time remained invisible. He had operated under the code name of Brea. No such code name existed in FBI files. But by this time the case had become an obsession for Vernon Lippert. He was near the end of his career. The betrayal had taken place in
town; in a peculiar way he held himself responsible. He wouldn’t let the question go away. He had run down all the threads, woven them together, made sense of them. Documented everything, with lab reports and interview sheets and duplicated records. And found, finally, just two days ago, the last missing piece of the puzzle.
He knew who Brea was.
That was why he had come to the cabin alone, at this off season of the year. To be alone with his thoughts and his pain and his unwelcome knowledge. He suspected this would be the last peaceful time he would know for a long while.
It wasn’t safe to wait any longer.
He had conducted his investigation without authorization from Sacramento or FBI Headquarters. He hadn’t dared ask for it, suspecting what he did. But you couldn’t conduct an investigation without asking questions, revealing a particular interest. There was always the risk of a chance remark, an expression of curiosity that would reach the wrong ears— “What’s Vern Lippert up to?”
Brea must know!
Lippert had been quiet, careful, circumspect, but you could never be sure.
It was shortly after six o’clock that morning when Vernon Lippert shrugged into his mackintosh, opened the cabin door and stepped outside. He glanced up at the sky, gray but already lighter than the darkness that still hugged the land. He thought he spotted a hawk above the lake, also up early, wheeling slowly as it peered down. And in that moment Lippert felt the first intuition of alarm, the feeling a hawk’s prey might have when the predatory bird launched into its dive.
* * * *
The man with the blackened face started to move as soon as he heard the bolt slide back on the cabin door. He came around the corner just as Vernon Lippert stepped through the doorway onto the narrow wooden platform that served as a porch. He saw Lippert glance up at the gray sky, eyes narrowing behind his glasses as he sighted on something small and distant. Then a whisper of warning alerted Lippert, a slither of boot over soft earth or a stirring of air, and his eyes widened and focused as his head jerked around and he tried to leap backward through the open doorway.
He was not quick enough. What his shocked glance revealed was a flooding awareness of danger, recognition that came like a blow from a fist, and a swift darting sense of the precise immediate threat: a peculiar kind of gun in Brea’s hands. It was held in both hands like a medieval crossbow, though it was much smaller and lighter. It was made of polished metal and had a long barrel. It made a small popping sound as gas escaped when Brea pulled the trigger.
Stumbling over the threshold of his cabin, Lippert took the dart high on his temple. He jerked sideways against the doorjamb, stunned by a sharp electric shock. He didn’t fall. He sagged against the doorjamb and sank slowly until he was half sitting in the opening, his long legs sprawling over the wooden porch, twitching like a man with a seizure.
Brea closed in swiftly, while Lippert was still stunned and paralyzed from shock. He jerked the probe from Lippert’s temple. It remained attached to the weapon by long, thin, plastic-coated wires. The gun had been devised by the burgeoning technology of the security industry as a non-lethal method of immobilizing an attacker. Lippert would be dazed for only a few minutes. Brea wanted no struggle, no sign of violence.
He picked up the lean figure in the doorway as if he were lifting a child in his arms. He carried Lippert almost gently to the shore of the lake and without hesitating waded out into the water. The lake bottom dropped quickly, and at the end of the dock he was almost waist deep in the cold water. He lowered Vernon Lippert’s body and, in the moment of thrusting his head underwater, saw the FBI man’s eyes pop open.
There was a brief, feeble struggle, but Lippert had not yet recovered from the jolt he had received. In a minute bubbles broke the surface of the water. Brea waited another thirty seconds before he lifted the limp, sodden form from the water and laid it in the small boat tied to the dock. He found a tarpaulin wedged beneath the seat at the stem and dragged it out to cover the body. When he pulled the tarp clear and swung around, the flat paddle of an oar slammed against the side of his face.