John Wells goes undercover in Saudi Arabia in a cutting-edge novel of modern suspense from the #1 New York Times-bestselling author.
John Wells may have left the CIA, but it hasn't left him. A mysterious call brings a surprise meeting with the aged monarch of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah. "My kingdom is on a precipice," he tells Wells. "Powerful factions are plotting against me, and my own family is in danger. I don't know who I can trust, but I'm told I can trust you."
Reluctantly, and with the secret blessing of the CIA, Wells goes undercover; but the more he learns, the more complicated things become, and soon he, too, is unsure whom to trust, in Saudi Arabia or Washington. One thing, however, is clear: If the conspirators prevail, it will mean more than the fall of a monarch-it may be the beginning of the final conflagration between America and Islam.
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February 08, 2011
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Excerpt from The Secret Soldier by Alex Berenson
Montego Bay, Jamaica
"ONE-FORTY-NINE . . ."
John Wells felt his biceps burn as he reached full extension. He held, held, lowered himself again. Beneath him, the world narrowed to a few square feet. The cigarette burns speckling the dirty green carpet were as large as canyons.
Up Wells went, slow and sure. Outside, a spring breeze rolled off the Caribbean. In here, the air was humid, almost murky. Sweat puddled at the base of his neck, dripped off his bare chest.
The room's door swung open. Afternoon sunlight flooded in. Wells raised his left hand to shield his eyes and decided to see if he could get away with a one-armed push-up. Down he went, balanced on his right arm. He hadn't tried one in years. Harder than he remembered. Or he was getting old. He tensed his chest, felt his triceps and biceps quiver, held himself steady.
Brett Gaffan stepped into the room, flipped on the light. "Trying to impress me, John?"
Wells ignored Gaffan, pushed, rose. Stopped. Found himself stuck. Sweat stung his eyes. He slipped sideways--
And with a final convulsive effort forced himself up. Once he passed halfway, he felt the power coming from his biceps rather than his triceps and knew he'd be all right. He stood as soon as he finished, before his arm could give out.
"You look like you're gonna have a stroke."
"I could do those all day." Wells tried to stop panting.
"Uh-huh." Gaffan tossed Wells a paper bag. Inside, a liter of cold water.
"Thankee." Wells sucked down half the bottle. As part of his cover, he had to drink. And though he was careful to nurse his Red Stripes, he couldn't be too careful. He'd gone through five or six last night. He wasn't used to drinking so much. Or drinking at all. Every morning he woke to a cotton-filled mouth and a shrunken skull.
Until a few months before, Wells had been a CIA operative. He'd had a long and successful career at the agency. A few years before, he'd played a highly public role in stopping a terrorist attack on Times Square. But his missions since then had been kept quiet, and the public's attention was fickle. He was still a legend among cops and soldiers, but civilians rarely recognized him.
Wells would admit that part of him had loved working for the agency. The CIA and its cousins in the intelligence community could arrange a new identity in a matter of hours, get him anywhere in the world in a day, hear any call, open any e-mail, track any vehicle. But the power came with a price, one Wells could no longer pay. He had always been allergic to the Langley bureaucracy, the way the CIA's executives put frontline operatives at risk for their own gain. After his last mission, the tension had grown unbearable. Vinny Duto, the agency's director, had used Wells to win an intra-agency power struggle. Wells felt what was left of his honor boiling away in the cauldron of Duto's contempt.
He saw no choice but to quit, make a life for himself in New Hampshire, a land whose silent woods mocked Washington's empty talk. The granite mountains would outlast empires and the men who built them. He rented a cabin in a little town called Berlin. But he and his dog, Tonka, spent a lot of time fifty miles south, in North Con- way, with Anne Marshall. Wells had met Anne a few months before, before his last mission. She knew who he was and some of what he'd done, though he kept some details from her. He wasn't sure yet what their future would be.
NOW WELLS WAS BACK in the field. He had decided to run down a fugitive CIA double agent. Without official approval. Not for the first time on this trip, Wells wondered what he was trying to prove. And to whom.
He dropped the empty water bottle on the floor, where it joined crushed Bud Light cans and the remains of a joint that had rolled under the dresser between the two queen beds. All left here on the unlikely chance that a Jamaican drug dealer decided he needed to check their cover. Gaffan and Wells were sharing the room, which had acquired a funky odor after four days.
"Yo. You have to play that way?"
"Did you really just say 'yo'?"
"I did." Gaffan had grown up in northern New Jersey, a rowhouse town called Bergenfield, near New York City. His years in North Carolina and Georgia had coated his Jersey accent with a strange sugar. He seemed to speak fast and slow at the same time. Wells couldn't explain how.
"Please don't ever again."
Wells pulled a dirty T-shirt on with his cargo shorts, slipped black work boots on his sockless feet. He'd owned the boots barely two weeks, but they were as ripe as the room. He tugged a New York Mets cap low on his head and stuffed twenty twenty-dollar bills in his pocket. Wells was a Red Sox fan, but he couldn't wear the cursive B under these circumstances.
"How do I look?"
"The question is not how you look, it's how you smell."
"How do I smell?"
"Like a skeezy pothead dumb enough to think you can buy a few ounces of good shit without getting rolled, mon."
"Exactly right. Let's go."
Gaffan was a former Special Ops soldier who had crossed paths with Wells twice before. They'd stayed in loose touch after the second mission. When Wells realized he would need backup for this trip, he'd called Gaffan, who had quit the army to join a private security firm in North Carolina. Gaffan had happily taken a week of vacation to join him.
At the door, Gaffan stopped. "Peashooters tonight?" Wells's old Makarov and Gaffan's new Glock were stowed in plastic bags in the air-conditioning vent in the bathroom--along with two suits, one for Wells and one for Gaffan. For the moment, Wells had insisted they leave the weapons. They were supposed to be small-time dope dealers. Guns would raise questions, and being unarmed didn't bother him. He'd gone naked on lots of missions. Gaffan obviously didn't enjoy the feeling. He'd asked Wells to reconsider a couple of times.
"Son. Don't take your guns to town."
Gaffan tapped his temple. "Johnny Cash. Like it, yo."
"Keep this up and there's trouble ahead."
"The Dead. Showing your age."
WELLS AND GAFFAN WERE chasing Keith Robinson, a former CIA officer who had sold secrets to China. After his cover was blown, Robinson fled the United States on a fake passport. For three years, he turned to smoke. Agents never found a credit card or phone connected to him. His name didn't pop at border crossings. The best guess was that Robinson had altered his appearance and was living in a country that had a mostly cash economy--and enough Americans that he wouldn't stand out. Selling trinkets in Guatemala. Teaching English in Vietnam. Studying at an ashram in India.
The CIA had promised a five-hundred-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to Robinson's arrest. The FBI and CIA websites and U.S. embassies displayed his photo and the reward offer. The agency's best hope was that a tourist would recognize Robinson or that someone who knew him would betray him for the money. Indeed, tipsters had reported spotting Robinson everywhere from Paris to Beijing to Wrigley Field. But none of the sightings panned out.
The investigation had not been closed. It never would be. Robinson's crimes were too serious for the agency and the FBI to give up on him. Officially, anyway. But after three years without a lead, only four agents were assigned to the case full-time. They spent most days asking local police forces to chase tips. They no longer monitored the phone calls or mail sent to his ex-wife, Janice.
SO THEY NEVER SAW the postcard that dropped through the slot of Janice's front door in Vienna, Virginia, a few miles from the agency's headquarters. On the front, a photo of a six-foot-long marijuana cigarette on a beach towel. And four words: "Getting baked in Jamaica." On the back, a phone number. No signature, no explanation.
Janice hoped the card wasn't what she thought it was. Suddenly she was thirsty, an itch in her brain as real as a spider bite. She could almost feel the welt. She didn't have any booze in the house, of course. But she knew every liquor store in Fairfax County. Didn't have to be hard alcohol. She could have a glass or two of wine. To relax. A bottle. One bottle wouldn't kill her.
She raised her shirt, looked down at the scar where the George Washington University surgeons had given her a new liver. She'd lost the old one to cirrhosis before she turned forty. Wouldn't kill her? She might as well put a gun in her mouth. Be quicker and hurt less. She tore the postcard into pieces so small it looked like she'd run it through a shredder. Her hands ached when she was finished. She threw the pieces into the garbage disposal and went to the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting she could find.
THE SECOND CARD CAME three months later. This one had a photo of Bob Marley above the words "Don't worry, be happy." A phone number. Janice couldn't remember if it was the same one that was on the first card.
This time she didn't panic. She made herself a pot of coffee and sat on her couch and stared at Bob Marley. She couldn't pretend now. It was Eddie. At the agency he'd gone by Keith, but his middle name was Edward. She'd called him Eddie, and she'd always think of him as Eddie. Anyway, it was him. Had to be.
She'd hoped he was dead. A couple of the FBI guys had told her, he's dead. You can't run like the old days. We post his picture on the Web, everybody in the world sees it. If he were still alive, someone would have told us. She never believed them. Eddie was too much of a snake to die. A cockroach. Didn't the scientists say that cockroaches would outlast everybody? He'd dragged her down inch by inch, drop by drop, and she'd let him.
No. She wouldn't blame him. After their son Mark died, she'd stopped caring about anything but her own misery. Every day dawned grayer than the one before until the sun stopped rising and the night was eternal. Eddie seeped away in the darkness like smoke. So she wouldn't blame him for what she'd done to herself. But she wouldn't forgive him, either. He was a whoremonger and a spy. He'd betrayed his country. Four men, at least, had died for his sins.
She'd felt so stupid the night she found out. How could she not have known? The early-morning walks. The piles of cash. Poor Eddie. Always frustrated with the agency. Stuck in a dead-end job working counterintelligence when he wanted so much to be in a foreign post. Always so sure that his talents were wasted.
She had to admit it seemed obvious in retrospect.
After Eddie left, the FBI moved her to a hotel, a Marriott in Alexandria. And they made sure that she had plenty of wine in the room. They weren't even subtle about it. They brought in Costco bags filled with bottles. For a couple days she was grateful. Then, finally, she realized just how far she'd fallen. The FBI was afraid if she stopped drinking she'd go into withdrawal.
A week later, she quit. She woke up and reached for the bottle on the bedside table and thought, I can't do this anymore. She wasn't sure at first whether this meant drinking or living, but then some part of her decided she wasn't ready to give up yet. In a day, she had the shakes so bad that the agents called 911. She wound up in thirty-day rehab, and to everyone's surprise, including hers, it took.
A month after it ended, she got another surprise. She woke up vomiting, her eyes a pale yellow. A blood test showed she had hepatitis C, a final going-away present from Eddie. The combination of booze and virus had ruined her liver. The doctors told her that if she didn't get a transplant in a year, she'd be dead. Not that she needed the warning. Her skin was yellow, curdled like milk left out too long.
She didn't expect a transplant. She didn't deserve one. She had done this to herself. But the transplant networks had their own rules, and after eight months her name came up. She never asked about the donor. She couldn't face another ounce of grief.
The transplant took. The immunosuppressant drugs worked. She went to her AA meetings and stayed sober. The months turned into a year, and another. She divorced Eddie in absentia. She started teaching kindergarten again, something she hadn't done since her son died. She knew her life would never be smooth. He ex-husband was a traitor. She was no one's idea of a catch, a forty-year-old woman on her second liver. But she imagined she might make a life for herself. It would be simple and lonely, but it would be hers.
Then the postcards came.
ALMOST FROM THE BEGINNING, the FBI agents had told her that she wasn't a suspect. For that, she was grateful. As the investigation wound down, they asked only that she inform them if Eddie ever reached out. A call, a letter, an e-mail. Even if you're not sure it's him. You start getting hang-ups late at night, let us know.
Now she needed to tell them. But she couldn't face having Eddie back in her life. She couldn't face a trial, replaying the humiliations of the last decade. The newspapers would portray her as the pitiful ex-wife of a traitor. And they'd be right.
She needed Eddie gone. Forever.
It wasn't so much that she remembered Wells. She'd never forgotten him. He and another CIA agent, Jennifer Exley, had discovered what Eddie had done. They'd come to the house the night after Eddie disappeared. She hadn't seen Wells since then. But he'd taken charge, and part of her, despite her despair, because of her despair, had hoped that he would sweep her up and rock her to sleep. Her knight in bulletproof armor. Maybe he could solve this for her.
Ridiculous. God. Ridiculous didn't even begin to describe her. But Wells had given her his phone number. And she'd never thrown it away. She'd kept it in her wallet all along. Now she reached for it.
WELLS CAME TO SEE her two days later. He was older than she remembered, flecks of gray in his hair, narrow creases around his eyes like a child's drawing of rays coming off the sun. But he still had his hair. His chin was still square, and his shoulders, too. She'd bet he could still pick her up with one hand. Anyway, this wasn't a date. She hadn't told him about the postcard, but he must have known that her call had to do with Eddie.
He stepped inside, looked around as if he were trying to match the furniture in his head with what he saw in the living room. Most everything was new. She'd thrown out the heavy, smoke-sodden couches and replaced them with bright futons from Ikea.
"I redecorated. It's probably meant for some college student half my age, but I don't care. I needed the old stuff gone." She realized she was chattering and made herself stop. She couldn't remember the last time a man had visited the house.
"I'd offer you a drink, but there's nothing in the house--"
She felt herself redden. Of course he understood. "If you'd like some coffee."
"Coffee's fine, sure."
She came back with two cups of coffee. "Milk? Sugar?"
He shook his head, leaned back, waited. She'd hoped for small talk. She wondered if Wells was still with Exley. She'd been certain back then that they were together. And even as she watched her life collapse, she'd found the energy to be jealous.
But she was afraid to ask Wells about his life. She could see he wasn't much for casual conversation. So she told him about the postcards, how she'd destroyed one and kept the other. She showed the card to Wells. It was creased at the corners. He looked it over carefully, though there wasn't much to see, just the phone number and the stamp, canceled with a postmark from Kingston.
"You think it's Eddie?" she said.
"Any idea why he'd do this now? He knows the risk."
"I think maybe he's lonely. And bored. And thinks I won't tell."
"Why would he think that?"
"Because he believes I'm weak. And that he can manipulate me. And he's right."
"You're not weak. You're--" Wells broke off. She could see he couldn't bring himself to say "strong," the lie was too obvious. "You're human. But what I don't understand is why you came to me on this. The FBI--"
"I don't want them. I want you."
"Even better. Because there's something I can't ask the FBI."
Wells shook his head, like he already knew what she was going to say.
"When you catch him. I want you to kill him."
AGAIN, WELLS THOUGHT. VINNY Duto last year and now Janice Robinson. The director of the CIA and the ex-wife of a double agent. They had nothing in common aside from their shared belief that Wells would kill on command. That he would turn another human being into dust, not in battle but methodically and without remorse. Wells had killed before, more times than he wanted to count, but he wasn't an assassin.
"Not yet," he said aloud.
"Not yet what?"
"I'd love to be the one to bring him in. But it's not my place."
"You don't understand." She told him of the humiliations she feared, the loss of privacy. "Anyway, what he did. Not to me. To the country. He doesn't deserve a trial. He deserves to disappear. Feed him to the sharks."
An idea flickered in Wells. "Look. If we're lucky, and Keith"-- Wells couldn't make himself say "Eddie"--"is in a place where I have leverage, what if I get him to come back to the United States on his own? And plead guilty. No trial."
"I know what you're saying. If he plea-bargains, he won't get the death penalty. But I promise he doesn't care. Knowing Eddie, he thinks that life in prison, no parole, is just as bad. If you catch him, he'll want a trial. His moment in the limelight, to tell the world what he thinks. He'll love it. He'll drag it out as long as he can."
"There's things worse than the death penalty."
"I don't get it."
"I guess you'll have to trust me."
FROM HIS SUBARU, WELLS called Ellis Shafer, his old boss at the agency. Shafer was an odd little man, jumpy and brilliant. Sometimes Wells thought that he and Shafer were both too independent to fit inside the CIA's bureaucracy. Yet the evidence proved him wrong. Shafer had survived almost forty years at Langley. And Shafer had stayed on when Wells had quit, even though Vinny Duto had used Shafer as badly as Wells on their last assignment. Wells supposed he understood. Shafer was more cynical, more used to these games. Still, he hadn't entirely forgiven Shafer.
"You'll never guess who I just saw."
"Stop naming random celebrities."
"You asked me to guess."
"No, I didn't."
"Well, you said I'd never guess, which is the same thing--"
"Ellis. Please stop. You win."
"Who was it, then?"
"I'll tell you when I see you. Which will be in about five minutes."
"Don't hurt me. I promise I'll confess to whatever you like." Shafer hung up before Wells could reply.
THE FRONT DOOR WAS unlocked. "In the kitchen," Shafer yelled.
The kitchen smelled of burnt coffee. Coffee grounds blotched Shafer's jeans, and he was wearing a T-shirt that said "World's Best Grandpa." He raised his arms to hug Wells.
"No hug. Please. And congratulations, Ellis. Why didn't you tell me?"
"Tell you what?"
Wells nodded at the T-shirt.
"Oh. No. There's no grandchildren. Lisa, you know, she's at UVA, and she's got a boyfriend now. It's kind of reverse psychology. I figure the shirt is so lame, she'll be sure to take care when she--"
"You found the shirt for ninety-nine cents, didn't you? At Sam's Club or something."
"Ellis, you're getting weird in your old age."
"You sound like my wife. But it's good to see you. What's going on?"
"Sit." Shafer sat. Wells recounted Janice Robinson's story, and what she'd asked. By the time he finished, Shafer was leaning forward across the table, his eyes boring into Wells, all the slack gone out of him.
"You know, I hear this, my first thought is you quit," Shafer said. "You live up in the sticks with your dog and your new girlfriend."
"She's not my new girlfriend--"
"Oh, no, no, no. You are some genius at ops, but you couldn't be more emotionally stunted. Especially about women. And please don't tell me we're the same. I've been married thirty years. Thirty years, one woman."
"I didn't come here to talk about this."
"How about this, then? Call the FBI and be done with it."
"Janice Robinson wants me to handle it."
"I'm sorry. I missed the section of the criminal code that says the traitor's ex-wife decides who brings him in. Anyway, she doesn't want you to handle it. She wants you, period. I remember Jenny telling me, back in the day."
"I have a plan." Wells explained.
"You understand that's not a plan. That's five long-shot bets. Even if you're right about where he is, what he's doing, you have to find him. Then you have to get to him. Then you have to hope he doesn't want to go out in a blaze of glory."
"He's a runner. Not a fighter."
"Runners fight when they're cornered. I understand why you're doing this. But nothing's going to make up for what happened last time. Let the Feebs"--Shafer's unfriendly term for the FBI--"do their job."
"Thanks for the advice." Wells stood to leave.
"You're going to be as pigheaded as always, do this on your own."
"Then you want some help?"
"All right. But let me make one thing clear. I'm not doing this because I think I owe you, I should have quit with you, whatever. I'm doing it so you don't blow it."
THE NEXT AFTERNOON, JANICE led Wells to her kitchen. The counter was strewn with red horses, purple cows, yellow sheep, a menagerie of construction paper.
She laughed, the sound sweeter than Wells expected. "For my kindergarteners."
"You like teaching?"
"You probably know this, it must be in a file. But Eddie wanted another baby. After our son died. I couldn't do it. Wouldn't. Maybe things would have been different if I . . ." She trailed off.
"Guys like your husband, they find excuses to do what they want. And if they can't find one, they just make it up."
Janice shrugged: I don't believe you, but I won't argue. "Anyway, the teaching, it's D.C., Northeast, a charter school. These kids, they don't have two nickels to rub together. You see it in the winter, their shoes, these cheap sneakers that soak through if there's any rain. Much less snow. So I'm trying to show them the world cares about them, even a little bit. Maybe it means something to them. Probably not, but maybe. That's a long way of saying yes, I like it, John. You don't mind if I call you John?"
"Of course not." Wells touched Janice's arm and then realized he shouldn't have. Her face lit like a winning slot machine. "You understand what I want you to do?"
"I don't know if I can."
"It's the only way. Otherwise, I have to tell the FBI."
"Good. So tomorrow, somebody's gonna put a tap and trace on your phone. Keith won't know it's there." Shafer had called in a favor he was owed from an engineer who used to work at NSA. "Tomorrow night, you call him. Sooner or later, he'll call you back. Don't ask him where he is. Unless he brings up a visit, don't mention it."