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THERE were four thugs, total gangsters, in front of the house with their rifl es and their night-vision goggles. Four more in back. No telling how many more inside.
So figure a dozen hard guys at least, protecting one of the worst guys in the world.
Not one of them having a clue about how much trouble they were really in, how badly I had them outnumbered.
Hired guns, in any country, never worried me. The Bads? They were the real enemy, worse than any terrorists, even if I was one of the few people alive who knew they existed.
Even my boss, the president of the United States, didn't know what we were really up against, how much he really needed me.
When he talked about our country fighting an "unseen" threat, he didn't know how true that really was.
When my son, Zach, was little, I used to tell him these fantastic bedtime stories about the Bads, and he thought I was making them up. I wasn't.
The snow was falling hard now, bringing night along with it. Not good. Defi nitely not good. I didn't need a blizzard tonight, not if I wanted to get the plane in the air once I got back to the small terminal near the airport in Zagreb. Which was only going to happen if I could get past the guards, get inside, and then back out with the guy I'd come all this way for. It meant things going the way they were supposed to, which didn't always happen in my line of work.
My offi cial line of work? That would be special adviser to the president. A title that meant nothing on nights like this. On assignments like this. The real job description was fixing things, things that other people couldn't, saving people who needed saving, capturing people who needed to be stopped. Dispensing my own brand of justice.
Sometimes I had help, people watching my back.
Not tonight. Tonight I was on my own. Not even the president knew I was here. Sometimes you have to play by your own rules.
On this remote hill in northern Bosnia, near where the concentration camps had been discovered a few years before, I had managed to finally locate a Serb war criminal and part-time terrorist named Vladimir Radovic. He was known to governments around the world and decent people everywhere as Vlad the Bad because of all the innocent people he'd slaughtered when he was in power, before he was on the run.
To me, he was known by a code name, which I thought fit him much better:
I was here to catch the Rat.
Me, Tom Harriman. About to blow past the guns and inside a cabin that had been turned into an armed fortress.
Almost time now. I didn't just feel the darkness all around me, as if night had fallen out of the sky all at once. I could feel another darkness coming up inside me, the way it always did in moments like this, when something was about to happen. When I didn't have to keep my own bad self under control. When I could be one of the good guys but not have to behave like one.
The me that still scares me.
Time to go in and tell the Rat his ride was here.
I should have been cold, as long as I'd been waiting outside. And I knew I should be worried about what might go wrong. Only I wasn't. Cold or worried, take your pick.
As I moved along the front of the tree line, seeing the smoke coming out of the chimney, seeing both levels of the house lit up, I did wonder if it had been too easy finding him. Wondered if the Bads had wanted me to find him, as a way of drawing me here, making me vulnerable.
But that was always part of the fun of it, wasn't it? The finding out.
Someday when Zach is ready, when it is Zach's time and not mine, I will have to tell him the truth about the Bads and about me, tell my kid that the most fantastic story of all was me.
But for now it was time to be the unknown hero again, with the jeep waiting for me on the access road, over on the other side of the woods, with the jet waiting a few miles away in Zagreb. This wasn't the Tom Harriman who testifi ed in front of Congress and briefed the intelligence agencies.
This was the Tom Harriman who did whatever it took to get the job done.
I began to move toward the left side of the house, my boots not making a sound, even on the frozen snow. One of my many talents, gliding like I was riding an invisible wave.
The front four men were fanned out about fifty yards from the cabin, carrying their rifl es like they were looking for any excuse to use them. They didn't know what I knew, that even if they did get to use them, the guns wouldn't do them much good.
And just like that I changed the plan, called an audible on myself, came walking out of the woods, in plain sight, talking to them in their native language.
"I'm lost," I said. "Can you help me out?"
Every gun turned toward me as the guards shouted at me to stop. But I just kept smiling, moving toward them, asking how to find my way back to the main road. I was such a stupid, they probably never met such a stupid in their lives.
The guy in charge just shook his head, turned and said something I couldn't hear, and they laughed, all of them dropping their guns at the same time, like a fighter dropping his hands.
I was on them before they knew it.
It was as if I'd covered the ground between us in one step. Another of my talents. Michael Jordan or LeBron never had a first step like this.
I put all four of them down before any of them could get his gun back up. Wondered if they could hear the roar inside my head, the one I always heard. It was never adrenaline in times like this, it was something more, something I'd never been able to understand. Or control very well once the bell rang. Most people only see it happen in action movies, one against four, one guy using only his hands and feet for spins and kicks and jumps. Only this was no movie.
It was over quickly, the four of them laid out in the snow, arms splayed like snow angels. Done like dinner, as Zach would say.
It was then that I heard the crackle of the walkietalkie from inside one of the guards' parkas. Heard a voice full of static, asking Toni why he wouldn't respond, that if he didn't respond right now, he was going to come looking for him.
I didn't know whether the voice was coming from behind the house, one of the four back there that I'd seen earlier, or from someone inside with the Rat.
Someone on the roof trained a huge searchlight on the front yard, making night as bright as day. The first shot was fired then, from somewhere off to my left. Then another. I ducked and rolled and went in a low crouch in the direction of the front door. They were probably wondering how I could still be moving like this, how they'd possibly missed me from close range.
I didn't have time to tell them they probably hadn't missed, that if they were going to put me down, they simply needed bigger guns.
They weren't putting me down and they weren't stopping me. I'd come too far to get the Rat, to take him to the people waiting for him in London, the ones who wanted to either hang him or put him away for the next ten thousand years.
I made it to the porch, the gunfi re still crackling all around me.
First floor or second?
He was on the second floor. Don't ask me how I knew; I just did. Call it a sixth sense. So instead of crashing through the door, I jumped up to the second-floor landing.
Don't ask about making a jump like that. You either can or you can't.
I smashed the window and burst through. There he was, the fat slob, trying to make it to the door, turning to fire a shot with the gun in his right hand. But I was across the room before he could do anything, slapping the gun out of his hand, putting my hand behind his neck, finding the spot, putting him out.
I dragged him the rest of the way through the doorway, the two of us in the second-floor hallway. Here came two more of his guys, coming up the stairs with their guns raised but afraid to take the shot because I had pulled the Rat up in front of me, like one of those Kevlar vests you see on the cop shows. I wondered if the vests ever smelled as bad as he did.
It was the stink guys got on them when they were caught.
"Boys," I said to the guys on the stairs, "I'd love to stay and chat, but we've got a plane to catch. And I don't have to tell you what security is like at the airport these days."
"You're not going anywhere," the first one said.
"Well, yeah, actually I am," I said, and kicked him and his friend down the stairs. Then I was over them, flying toward the front door.
I had the Rat under my arm now. I'd played lacrosse in high school, had heard a story once about Jim Brown, who ended up becoming the greatest running back in pro-football history. Brown had been a lacrosse star himself in high school and later at Syracuse. He was so much bigger, stronger and faster than everyone else that he'd just pin his stick and the ball to his body, run down the field and score, again and again.
They'd had to change the rules so guys like him couldn't do that.
I pinned the Rat to me like that now, backing away from the house as more guys with guns appeared from every angle, all of them afraid to shoot because they might put one in the boss.
I thought about dropping him in the snow so I could go back and finish them all off, because when I got going like this, sometimes I couldn't stop myself. But we really did have a plane to catch.
So I turned and ran into the woods, not worrying about the hidden trees or branches. I could see in the dark, even without those fancy night-vision goggles the Rat's boys had been wearing. Even with the hard snow pelting my face.
When I got to the other side of the woods, I looked down to the lights of the jeep, making sure that no one was waiting for me there.
It was just when you thought the hard part was over that the real danger began.
I threw the Rat in the backseat and peeled away, hearing the sound of cars starting up behind me. I tore off down the road toward Zagreb, taking the first turn like it was NASCAR.
My ride out of here, a Hawker 4000, was waiting on the runway, which was already covered in snow. I had told the kid who helped run the little terminal for his father that I worked for his president. I didn't tell him why I was here, just told him enough to pull him into tonight's action movie, like the two of us were playing Bond or Bourne.
I'd overpaid the kid by a lot for fuel and maintenance and told him what time I thought I'd be back and told him to have the wings de-iced. If not, the whole mission was a waste of time. Doomed to fail.
His eyes grew wide as plates when he counted the money. Then he nodded and promised me he'd do whatever I needed him to do. I told him that when the plane was in the air to take the money and the jeep he'd loaned me and keep driving until daylight because if he didn't, the guys I'd gone after would be going after him.
I saw two sets of headlights now. They looked to be a couple of minutes behind me, maybe less.
I pulled the jeep up to the plane, untied the Rat, dragged him out of the backseat.
"Him?" the kid said. "It was him you were after?" He crossed himself. Twice.
"Yeah," I said.
"He killed two of my uncles," the kid said. "In the war. Can't you just kill him here and let me watch?"
"Not my brand," I said. "Sorry."
Another of Zach's expressions.
The Rat started to wake up. Must be losing my touch, I thought. Usually the claw was good for a few hours. This time I just slapped him hard, twice, and back out he went.
Headlights from the first jeep appeared at the far end of the runway as I got behind the controls and started taxiing away from them. Soon enough the other jeep came barreling behind.
It was then, in the lights of the Hawker, that I saw a figure walking onto the runway. A man. He wasn't trying to stop me, wasn't carrying a weapon. Wasn't doing anything except standing in the lights, like all he wanted was for me to see him, hair as white as the falling snow showing underneath the old cap he wore down low over his eyes.
What are you doing here? I wondered.
You're supposed to be on the other side of the world.
I didn't have time to find out. The plane was already bumping down the runway, shimmying on the ice and snow. And we were airborne, the Rat and me, through the first level of clouds.
I tried to focus on flying the plane, getting above the weather, flying until I had to refuel, as I knew I'd have to, between here and London.
But in my mind I kept seeing him on the runway, just standing there.
And that was the problem.
It was never what you thought, never who you thought.
I wanted to feel the rush you felt after you'd won, that feeling the great guys in sports told you they never got tired of. I should have felt great, really, bringing down the Rat, delivering him to people who'd been chasing him a lot longer than I had.
So why did I feel as if I were the one being chased? Even up here, all alone in the night sky?
ZACH Harriman needed to get home.
Not take his time crossing Central Park the way he usually did. Not stop at his favorite bench and read a book the way he sometimes did. Not try to kill a little more time before his dad came home.
He hadn't slept much the night before. He'd been feeling anxious. He always got this way before his dad came home from one of his "business trips."
Only Zach didn't think of them as regulation business trips. No one did. His dad worked for the governmentworked for the president, actuallyand Zach would often see him described as a "troubleshooting diplomat" in the newspapers or when he was being introduced on one of the TV news shows.
Zach didn't quite know what his dad did on these trips, but he had a feeling his dad was saving the world one bad place at a time. One time Zach had asked him what it was like, working for the president, and his dad had said in a quiet voice, "I work for the good guys."
He had gone off to Europe this time, some top-secret location Zach and his mom weren't allowed to know.
"That darned national security thing again," his dad had said, almost trying to make a joke of the danger he was probably going to be in.
But it was never a joke to Zach.
Peopleadults mostly, but kids at school, tooseemed to think every day was like some kind of holiday if you had a famous father. And Zach had to admit, no way around it, that it was a pretty cool deal, being Thomas Harriman's only child.
Except, it was way more cool when he was actually around.
A few months ago, his dad had been in Africa, and the news reports had showed him celebrating with some people he had led back across the border from South Africa into Zimbabwe. At the time, a commentator on CNN had said, "When this country needed him, there he was. Maybe Tom Harriman's real job is hero. And he goes wherever that job takes him."
But, see, that was it right there. That was the problem, to Zach's way of thinking.
The job kept taking his dad. He seemed to belong to the world.
And when you were fourteen, as Zach had just turned, the world that mattered the most to you was your own. Zach Harriman's world was his dad and his mom. It was Alba, Zach's nanny when he was younger, the family's housekeeper and cook now. And it was Kate, the fabulous Kate, Alba's daughter, because she and her mom lived with the Harrimans in their amazing apartment on Fifth Avenuethe top three floors of the great old brownstone Zach's eyes were fixed on now as he crossed the park.
Any kid wanted to have a dad who was brave and respected and famous, no doubt. And a hero, throw that in, too. Yet more than anything, Zach just wanted his dad to be home.
And he would be home tonight, flying his own plane as usual, landing it at Teterboro Airport over in New Jersey. Then he'd head back to the city by car.
Back home, Zach thought.
So Zach should have been happy. Like over-the-moon happy, not a care in the world. He should have been killing time the way he usually did, because it was still only five o'clock and his dad wasn't scheduled to walk through the front door until seven at the earliest.
Only Zach wasn't happy. He was in a hurry, and a big one.
Starting to run.
And the thing was, he never rushed through the park unless he got caught in some kind of storm and had to beat it home. Other people might think of Central Park, built right in the middle of Manhattan, and think of the trees and green grass, the tennis courts, summer concerts, softball fields, skating rink, more water than most people knew about. And the zoo. And Zach was cool with all that.
But for Zach, Central Park was his own backyard.
The park was a place where he could be alone and not feel alone, where he could run the reservoir or kick a soccer ball around or just wander aimlessly and never be bored. Or stop and watch kids play touch football and pretend that he was in the game with them, that he was just a regular kid.
Sometimes he would walk over to the West Side after schoolby himselfand spend an hour at the Museum of Natural History. Go hang with the dinosaurs who used to roam the earth the way his dad did now.
But not today.
Today he was running.
Running like he was being chased. Scared of something without knowing what.
He was close to Fifth Avenue now, could see he was going to make the light, didn't slow down as he crossed the avenue, nearly clipping a nanny he recognized from the neighborhood who was pushing a baby stroller.
He waved and yelled, "Sorry, Veronique!"
Then he slowed down just a little, like his dad downshifting one of his sports cars, as Lenny the doorman opened the front door for him.
"We need to talk about those Knicks," Lenny said.
"Later!" Zach said.
He took a hard right in the lobby, nearly skidding into the wall, heading for the elevator, the one that opened right up into the first floor of the apartment. Knowing the elevator would be waiting for him.
He took one last look over his shoulder, feeling totally whacked doing it, because he realized what he was doing. Looking to see if the Bads were gaining on him.
The elevator dinged and groaned and began to rise. Zach felt his stomach flip, as though the short ride up was a roller coaster.
The doors opened. Zach walked into the apartment, rounded the corner to the living room. Stopped dead in his tracks.
And he knew.
He knew before he saw all of them. Everyone staring at him with big eyes.
The saddest of all belonging to his mom, who clearly had been crying. His mom, who never even wanted anyone to see her crying at the movies.
The whole family was there. Alba. Kate. And John Marshall, the family lawyer, Uncle John to Zach his whole life, even though they weren't actually related.
With them were two policemen, staring at Zach along with everybody else.
Right there and then, Zach knew his dad wasn't coming home tonight. Wasn't coming home, ever.
He'd had it wrong, as it turned out.
The Bads hadn't been chasing him across Central Park after all.
They had been waiting for him here.