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Shadow of betrayal
THE MEETING LOCATION HAD BEEN CHOSEN FOR ITS isolation, an abandoned Catholic church on the east side of a little-used road fifty kilometers northwest of Cork, Ireland, near the border between County Tipperary and County Cork. The structure that remained was all but invisible from the road. One of those places only a local would know about, then forget over time.
As a bonus, no one lived within a kilometer and a half of the ruins, making it a natural choice for an exchange. In the two days Jonathan Quinn had been scouting the location, no more than a dozen cars a day had driven past, and not a single one had even slowed, let alone stopped.
The roof of the church had long since disappeared, leaving only the gray, pitted stone walls of the chapel. Encouraged by the wet Irish climate, vegetation had grown up around the building, both surrounding it and filling the inside. It was as if a congregation of flora was waiting in the open-air sanctuary for a priest who had yet to arrive.
Nearby, an untended cemetery provided the only reminder that people had once worshipped here. Quinn didn't know how long the compound had been abandoned, but the most recent grave marker he'd located had been for someone named Maureen Owens, year of death 1889. So it wasn't hard to imagine that it had been at least a century since any parishioners had gathered between the chapel walls.
Quinn did a last walk-through just after noon, careful to step only on broken stones or patches of grass to avoid leaving any trace of his presence. He double-checked to make sure all the cameras and microphones were well hidden and working. When he was satisfied, he returned on foot to the van parked a half kilometer away.
The meeting was scheduled for nine that evening. According to the agreed-upon terms, the informant was to arrive from the south, while the man from Quinn's client—an organization known as the Office—was to come in from the north.
They were each instructed to park a quarter kilometer from the location and walk the rest of the way in. They were to meet inside the church, with each participant allowed to bring one associate. Once they had all arrived, the informant would give the Office's agent certain information in exchange for what Quinn assumed was a generous cash payment.
The details of the exchange, what the information was and what the informant was earning for his efforts, were none of Quinn's business. He was a cleaner. His job was to watch and observe, and—only if necessary—clean up any mess that might occur.
As Quinn reached the back of the van, the right side door swung open. Quinn's apprentice Nate was hunched inside, a Glock 19 pistol in his right hand.
"Ground check?" Nate asked.
"We're all set," Quinn replied.
Nate relaxed. While he had no doubt been watching Quinn's approach—first on the cameras stationed around the church, then on those surrounding the van—and had seen his boss return alone, there was always the possibility someone had gotten to Quinn in one of the dead areas, and was waiting just beyond the camera's view. But Quinn had answered Nate's question with the prearranged all-clear signal.
The apprentice moved aside and let Quinn enter, then leaned out and pulled the door shut.
The van had been transformed into a mobile observation post. But unlike those fancy ones in the movies, here little attention had been paid to the human component. A half-dozen small flat-screen monitors were mounted on the right wall. Five were receiving signals from the ten cameras back at the church, each monitor assigned to two cameras, and automatically toggling back and forth every five seconds. The sixth monitor was digitally divided into four smaller screens displaying different views of the surveillance van and the surrounding area. Below the monitors, twenty-eight digital recorders—each no larger than a paperback book—were hung in portable racks. Two recorders per feed, in case one crapped out.
And as if that wasn't enough, there was a satellite link sending a real-time signal back to the Office's headquarters in Washington, D.C.
State-of-the-art equipment all. It was the two plastic chairs and the banged-up portable ice chest that seemed out of place.
"You check in with Peter?" Quinn asked. Peter was the head of the Office, and the man who had hired them.
"Fifteen minutes ago," Nate said as he settled into the chair nearest the back of the van. "We did another connection test. Signal strength is steady. I flipped it to black, so they're not getting anything at the moment."
"Any more interference from the cameras?" Quinn said.
Nate shook his head. "Everything seems fine now. I think we're ready."
"Keep an eye on them," Quinn said, nodding toward the monitors. "If anything acts up again, let me know."
"You going somewhere?"
Quinn pushed the empty plastic chair toward the equipment rack, then stretched out on the floor. "As far away from here as I can," he said as he closed his eyes. "Wake me in two hours if there aren't any more problems."
"Yeah, sure," Nate said. "I'll just . . . stay here."
"Stay alert." Quinn tapped the cooler with his foot. "Have a Red Bull, if you need one."
Nate said something under his breath.
Quinn opened one eye. "What?"
Quinn stared for a moment longer, then closed the eye. "I could have left you in Los Angeles, you know."
He could sense Nate wanting to say something more, but his apprentice remained silent.
At five minutes to nine, the Office's agent, a veteran operative named David Otero, arrived. With him was William Ownby, the allotted second man. Quinn and Nate watched as the two agents cautiously approached the church, then entered the abandoned sanctuary.
Peter had told Quinn that Otero and Ownby would have no knowledge of Quinn's presence. That wasn't unusual. Quinn and Nate weren't there as backup. They were there for an entirely different reason. One Otero and Ownby wouldn't have wanted to consider.
Nate glanced at his watch. "It's three minutes after nine. Our other guest is running behind."
Quinn nodded, but said nothing. The second party had been told the meet would take place somewhere in the south of Ireland, but had only been given the exact location three hours earlier. And the church wasn't the easiest place in the world to find.
"Hold on," Nate said. "Lights."
Quinn used a handheld joystick to pan a camera that was covering the road to the south a little to the right, centering a pair of distant headlights moving toward the church. For a moment, they disappeared as the road dipped between two hills. Quinn and Nate had measured the distance that morning. The vehicle was just under a kilometer away.
A moment later, the car reappeared, and less than thirty seconds later it began to slow.
"Approaching the turnout," Nate said.
On the screen, the car slowed to almost a crawl, then pulled off into the wide spot in the road, and its lights were turned off.
Quinn leaned forward and pushed a button on a rectangular metal box mounted in the rack. Next to the button was a speaker, and just above that a microphone was mounted on a five-inch gooseneck extender.
"Peter, you getting this?" Quinn asked, then let go of the button.
"Yes. That's got to be them." Though Peter's voice came through the speaker, the quality was so good it sounded like he was in the van with them.
Quinn glanced back at one of the monitors covering the inside of the church. Otero had found a large block of stone to sit on, while Ownby had taken up a less visible position in a nook near the north entrance. If either man was getting impatient, they didn't show it.
Four minutes later, one of the microphones picked up the sound of footsteps approaching the church.
"Everything recording?" Quinn asked.
Nate glanced at a small LCD monitor mounted on a swivel arm next to the hard drives. He pressed one of the buttons on the touch-screen menu. The display changed to a set of green lights.
"All drives recording," he said, then glanced over his shoulder toward the communication equipment. "Satellite link steady and strong."
Quinn pushed the button that connected him with the Office. "Approaching the church now."
"Good," Peter said. "Let's get this over with."
Otero must have also heard the footsteps. He stood up, and put a cautious hand on the bulge in his jacket pocket before looking back at Ownby and pointing in the direction of the approaching sound. Ownby reached under his jacket and pulled out a gun, a Beretta 9mm. From his pocket he pulled out a long cylinder, a suppressor, and attached it to the end of the barrel.
The footsteps stopped just beyond the walls of the church. Then silence for almost a minute.
"I don't see them," Nate said.
"They're there," Quinn said.
"I know. But I don't see them."
There were a series of numbered buttons on the base of the joystick Quinn was holding. He punched number 8 and began panning a camera covering the outside of the church's south end.
"There," Nate said, pointing at the monitor for camera eight.
Quinn could see them now. There were two of them, crouched low and half-hidden by the thick brush. As Quinn and Nate watched, one of the men sprinted forward, stopping only when he reached the outside of the church wall. He then moved down the wall until he came to what had once been a doorway, and peered inside.
"Are we going to play games, or are we going to meet?" It was Otero. He was still standing in the middle of the church, not concealing his presence. When there was no response, he said, "Two minutes and we're leaving."
The man who had been looking into the church from the doorway glanced back at his partner and waved for him to come over.
"Quinn," Nate said.
"I thought they were only allowed one companion."
Quinn shot Nate a glance, then looked at a monitor Nate was pointing at. It was the one covering the north approach to the church, the way Otero and Ownby had come.
"I don't see anything," Quinn said.
"In the tree," Nate said. He leaned forward and touched the screen.
For half a second, Quinn still didn't see anything, then a slight movement revealed the form of a man lying prone on one of the branches, facing toward the church.
A quick glance at a monitor that gave a broader view of that side of the church confirmed Quinn's suspicion that the man was high enough to see through the missing roof into the abandoned structure.
Quinn pushed the mic button again. "Peter, we have a problem."
"Check the feed to camera six. In the tree, near the top of the image."
There was a pause.
"Do you see him?" Quinn asked.
"Is he one of yours?"
"I played by the rules. Only two," Peter said. "He must be one of theirs."
Quinn wasn't convinced of that, but there was no time to argue the point. On another monitor the two newcomers stepped through the doorway, entered the church, and walked a couple paces before stopping. They looked nervous, like this was the first time they had ever done anything like this.
"You need to abort right now," Quinn said.
"We need that information," Peter said.
"Peter," Quinn said, "if you don't abort, you might not get anything."
At the church Otero said, "You guys are going to have to come a little closer."
The taller of the two men shook his head. "We are fine here. I think you have something to show us."
Otero smiled, then tossed a coin in the air so that it landed a foot in front of his counterparts.
"Your turn," Otero said.
The tall man tossed his own coin toward Otero. This was the prearranged recognition signal. Otero had been carrying a fifty-yen Japanese coin, and the informant a 1998 Canadian half-dollar.
"Peter!" Quinn said.
"The meet's already started," Peter said. "They won't answer their phones until they're back in their car."
"They might not even make it back to their car," Quinn said, then let go of the button.
"We can start the van," Nate suggested. "That should throw everyone into a panic. We could even fire off a shot."
It was an excellent idea, Quinn thought. He relayed it to Peter.
There was a pause, then Peter said, "Do it."
Quinn pulled his SIG Sauer P226 out of the holster under his left arm as Nate moved toward the back door to open it.
Several rapid flashes from one of the monitors caught Quinn's eye. It was the one showing the close-up of the man in the tree. He glanced at the view of the church. Otero, Ownby, and the man who had been talking for the other party were all on the ground and not moving.
The final man had just exited the church and was making a run for it. Then there was another flash. The man jerked to the left, his momentum dropping him into a bush at the side of the trail. Like the others, he didn't get up.
"Stop," Quinn said to Nate.
The door was already half opened.
"Close it. Quietly."
Nate shut the door as Quinn sat back down.
Quinn pushed the button. "Your op is blown."
"I can fucking see that," Peter said. "Goddammit! You need to keep whoever that is from getting to the bodies. One of those guys is carrying something we need."
"Don't know if you noticed," Quinn said, "but your men are probably dead. That guy in the tree's got a silenced rifle, and I'm not really interested in walking into his range."
"Do what you were going to do before! Scare him off. He's not going to want to get caught."
Quinn took a deep breath, then nodded at Nate to open the door again. He checked monitor six. The assassin was holding his position, waiting to see if anyone else was going to show up.
Quinn pulled one of the remote communication sets from a bag near the recorders. He slipped the receiver over his ear, then climbed out of the van.
"Talk me in," he said to Nate.
"You're going to try to take him out?" Nate asked, surprised.
Quinn shook his head. "I'm just going to convince him to go someplace else."
"You want your suppressor?" Nate asked.
Quinn paused for a second. If things went as planned, he'd need the noise of the shot to scare the guy off. But if things got off track?
"Toss it to me," he said.
Nate disappeared for a second, then stepped back into the doorway and threw a dark cylinder to Quinn.
Quinn stuffed it in the front pocket of his jacket as best he could. Once it was secure, he nodded back at the van. "Talk me in. You're my eyes, so try not to get me killed."
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2009 by Brett Battles
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