Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton
check my watch: nearly 3:00 p.m. The virus could go off any minute, but no later than nine hours from now.
And my people found the virus.
“So—that’s great, right?” I say to Devin and Casey. “You found it!”
is the right word.” Casey pushes her glasses up against the bridge of her nose. “Thanks to Augie. We never would’ve located it ourselves. We tried for two weeks. We tried everything. We even did manual searches, we ran customized—”
“But now you found it.”
“Yes.” She nods. “So that’s step 1.”
“What’s step 2?”
“Neutralizing it. It’s not like we can just hit a Delete button and make it go away. And if we do it wrong, well—it’s like a bomb. If you don’t disable it properly, it goes off.”
“Right, okay,” I say. “So…”
Devin says, “So we’re trying to re-create the virus on the other computers.”
“Can Augie do that?”
“Augie was the hacker, sir, remember. Nina was the code writer. Actually, if anyone’s been most helpful, it’s the Russians.”
I cast a glance around me and lower my voice. “Are they really helping or just appearing to help? They could be taking you down the wrong road.”
“We’ve been on guard for that,” says Casey. “But it doesn’t seem like they’re misleading us. They’ve told us things we’ve never known about what they do. It seems like their orders were to do everything possible to help us.”
I nod. That’s certainly what I was aiming for. I can’t know if it’s true.
“But they didn’t write this code, either,” she adds. “This virus Nina created—Augie says she created it three years ago. It’s more advanced than anything we’ve ever seen. It’s quite amazing.”
“We can give her a posthumous award for best cyberterrorist ever when this is over, okay? Tell me what’s going to happen. You’re going to re-create the virus and then learn how to neutralize it. Like a simulated war game?”
“And you have all the supplies you need?”
“I think we have enough laptops here, sir. And there are thousands at the Pentagon for the rest of the threat-response team.”
I had a hundred computers shipped here for this very purpose. We have another five hundred under Marine guard at the airport, not three miles away.
“And water, coffee, food—all that?” The last thing I need is for these experts to falter physically. They have enough pressure on them mentally. “Cigarettes?” I say, waving my hand at the stench.
“Yeah, we’re fine. The Russians and Germans smoke up a storm.”
“It’s totally polluted down there.” Devin makes a face. “At least we got them to agree to smoke in the laundry room. There they can open a window.”
“They—there’s a window?”
“Yeah, in the laundry—”
“Secret Service locked all the windows,” I say, realizing, of course, that it doesn’t stop someone from unlocking them from the inside.
I head down the stairs to the basement, Devin and Casey following me.
“Mr. President?” Alex calls out, following me down the stairs as well.
I hit the bottom of the stairs and turn to their war room, moving quickly, feeling a ringing in my ears along with my doctor’s words of warning.
The war room is filled with desks and laptops, dozens more off to the side, and a large whiteboard. Other than the security camera in the corner of the room, it looks like an ordinary classroom. Six people are here—two each from Russia, Germany, and Israel, chatting while they open laptops and bang away on keyboards.
“Check the laundry room, Alex,” I say. I hear him move behind me. I hear his words, too, from two rooms away.
“Why is this window open?”
It only takes Alex a minute to sweep the entire basement, including the room I’ve taken over as the communications room. I already know the answer before he tells me.
“He’s gone, Mr. President. Augie is gone.”
he two members of the security patrol are dark and burly, crew-cut and square-jawed and wide-bodied. Whatever they’re saying to each other in German, as they march toward her, must be humorous. They’ll stop laughing if either of them, moving southeast, turns his head to the left.
Her head only inches from the branch above her, suspended in air by one hand on a rope, Bach feels her strength failing. She blinks away the sweat in her eyes as her arm begins to tremble furiously. And she can hear the branch, with all her weight on one isolated part, start to give way, a steady creaking.
Her bag and clothes may be camouflaged, her face and neck may be painted pine green to match the tree foliage, but if that branch even begins to crack, the game is over.
If she shoots, she must end it right there, two quick shots. And then what? She could steal their radios, but it wouldn’t take the rest of the team very long to realize that two of their sentries have gone missing. She’ll have no choice but to abort.
Abort. She’s never dropped a job or failed one. She could do it now, yes, and probably expect retaliation from the people who hired her. But that’s not the problem: she doesn’t fear retaliation. Twice in the past, on jobs she carried out successfully, the people who hired her tried to kill her afterward to tie up loose ends, and she’s still here; the people they sent are not.
The problem now is Delilah, the name she will give her child—her mother’s name. Delilah will not grow up with that burden. She will not know what her mother has done. She will not live in fear. She will not experience terror so great and long-lasting that it seeps into your pores, never leaves you, colors everything that comes afterward.
The men move past her sight line for a moment, disappearing behind the tree from which she is hanging. When they pass by on the other side of the tree, she will be completely exposed, no more than ten meters from them. If either of them looks to his left, due east, they won’t miss her.
They come into sight again, on the other side of the tree.
And they stop. The closer one has a mole on his cheek and a deformed ear that looks like it’s taken some hits over the years. He drinks from a water bottle, his Adam’s apple bobbing on his unshaved throat. The other man, smaller, is standing in the shadows of the woods, a beam of light shooting upward, scanning the trees, scanning the ground.
Don’t look to your left.
But they will, of course. And there’s no time. She can’t hold on much longer.
The branch groans out a larger creak.
The first man lowers the water bottle, looks up, then turns to his left, toward her—
Bach already has her SIG aimed at the first man, a bead on the space between his eyes—
A loud squawk comes from both radios at the same time, something in German, but by any measure indicating that something has gone wrong.
Each man reaches for the radio on his waist. A few words are exchanged, and they turn and run north in headlong flight back toward the cabin.
What just happened? She doesn’t know, doesn’t care.
With no time and no strength left, Bach puts the sidearm in her mouth, her teeth clamping down on the long suppressor. Her right hand free now, she swings it up and grabs the thickest part of the branch, nearest the tree’s body. Then her left hand comes off the rope and grabs the branch, too, just quickly enough to avoid a free fall to the ground. With a groan that is far too loud, but not caring about the consequences now, she summons whatever energy she has left and does a pull-up, her face scraping against the branch. She pushes her feet against the base of the tree and runs them upward until she manages to get her left leg over the branch.
Not the most graceful maneuver she’s ever performed, but she is finally in an upright position, straddling the tree branch, almost losing her backpack and rifle in the process. She breathes out, wipes her forehead, slick with sweat, camouflage paint be damned. She gives herself one minute. She counts aloud to sixty, managing to reholster her sidearm, ignoring the burn in her arm, slowing her breathing.
She unties the knot and pulls the loose rope up. She wraps it around her neck, unable at the moment to access the backpack.
She’s not going to spend another minute on this branch, even if she’s sitting over the thickest part now.
She steadies herself against the tree and gets to her feet, reaches for the next branch, and starts climbing. When she arrives at the top, she’ll find a secure perch, and she’ll be in perfect position to carry out her job without detection.
owboy’s gone missing. Repeat, Cowboy’s gone missing. We need a full search of the woods. Alpha teams, stay home.”
Alex Trimble clicks off the radio and looks at me. “Mr. President, I’m sorry. This is my fault.”
It was my idea to keep security light—to keep this meeting secret. We had to. And what security we have has been devoted to watching for anyone trying to come
the cabin. We weren’t worried about someone trying to
“Just find him, Alex.”
On our way to the stairs, I pass Devin and Casey, ashen, as if they’ve done something wrong. Both of them with their mouths open, trying to find words.
“Fix the problem,” I say, pointing back to the war room. “Figure out how to kill that virus. That’s all that matters. Go.”
Alex and I head up the stairs and stand in the kitchen, looking out the window to the south, the expansive backyard and then the woods that seem to have no end. Alex is giving instructions through his radio, but he will remain at my side. The agents are now scrambling, most of them moving into the woods, searching for Augie, but a small number of agents—the Alpha team—hold back to secure the perimeter.
I don’t know how he got to the woods without being seen. But I do know that if Augie’s in there, it will be very difficult for our small team of agents to find him.
More important: why run?
“Alex,” I say, about to express these thoughts, “we should—”
But my words are interrupted by the noise from the woods, unmistakable even from inside the cabin.
of gunfire from an automatic weapon.
I ignore Alex, bounding down the stairs and into the woods, over uneven ground, turning sideways to pass between trees.
I keep going through dark terrain, shrouded by the tree canopy, hearing the shouts of men up ahead.
“At least let me go in front of you,” he says, and I allow him to overtake me. Alex has his automatic weapon at the ready and is swiveling his head from side to side.
When we reach the clearing, Augie is sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree, seizing his chest. Above him, the tree has been splintered to near devastation from bullets. Two Russian agents stand with their automatic weapons at their sides, while Jacobson is giving them an earful, stabbing the air with his finger.
When Jacobson sees us, he stops and turns, showing us his palm in a stop gesture. “We’re okay. Everyone’s okay.” He glares one more time at the Russians, then approaches us.
“Our comrades from the Russian Federation saw him first,” he says. “They opened fire. They say they were just warning shots.”
“Warning shots? Who needed warning shots?”
I walk toward the Russians, pointing back to the cabin. “Go back to the cabin! Get out of my woods!”
Jacobson says something to them, a word or two in Russian. Their expressions implacable, they nod, turn, and leave us.
“Thank God I was close,” says Jacobson. “I ordered them to cease fire.”
“Thank God you were close…as in, you think the Russians were trying to kill him?” I ask.
Jacobson ponders that, expelling air through his nose. He throws up a hand. “The Russian National Guard, they’re supposed to be the best Russia has. If they wanted to kill him, he’d be dead.”
President Chernokev recently created a new internal security force, answering directly to him. The word is that his National Guard is the elite of the elite.
“How sure are you of that?” I ask Jacobson.
“Not sure at all, sir.”
I pass between the Secret Service agents and walk over to Augie. I squat down next to him. “What the hell were you doing, Augie?”
His lips quiver, his chest still heaves with deep breaths, and his eyes are wide and unfocused.
“They…” His throat chokes up. He swallows hard. “Tried to kill me.”
I glance up at the tree above him. A quick glance reveals that the bullets that riddled the tree were about five feet off the ground. Doesn’t feel like “warning shots” to me. But I suppose it depends on where he was standing.
“Why’d you run, Augie?”
A faint shake of the head, and his eyes drift off. “I…I can’t stop this. I can’t be there when it…when it…”
“You’re scared? Is that it?”
Augie, almost sheepishly, his body still shaking, nods.
Is that all this is? Fear, remorse, feeling overwhelmed?
Or have I missed something about Augie?
“Get up.” I grab his arm and force him to his feet. “This is no time for scared, Augie. Let’s you and I have a talk in the cabin.”
ach finally reaches the perch she’s seeking high up in the white pines, her arms and back feeling the strain of climbing upward with a sizable bag and rifle on her back. In her earbuds, she listens to Wilhelm Friedemann Herzog performing his playful rendition of the Violin Concerto in E Major three years ago in Budapest.
Through the pines, she has a clear view of the cabin in the distance and the grounds to the south.
The branches next to the trunk of the tree are thick enough to hold her. She straddles a branch and places her case in front of her. She opens it with her thumbprint and removes Anna Magdalena, assembling it in less than two minutes, looking out over the trees as she does so.
She sees sentries patrolling the grounds, men with weapons.
A black tent.
Four men climbing the stairs to the porch, moving quickly—
She adjusts the scope feverishly. She has no time to create a platform and mount the rifle and get into position, instead bringing it to her shoulder and looking through the scope. Not ideal, and she will only have one chance at a shot before blowing her cover, blowing everything up, so she can’t make a mistake—
She works forward to back as they approach the door to the cabin.
A large dark-haired man, earpiece.
Shorter, lighter man, earpiece.
The president, passing between the men, disappearing into the cabin.
Followed by a short man, frail, tangled dark hair—
Is that him?
Is it him?
One second to decide.
Take the shot?