One week earlier
Cimetière du Père-Lachaise is the most visited cemetery in the world, but the Paris landmark was all but deserted on this rainy, gray, and cool weekday morning. An elderly couple fed squirrels on the cobblestones; a dozen young people stood solemnly in front of Jim Morrison’s fenced-off but simple plot. A group of German hipsters lounged among the graves surrounding Oscar Wilde’s tomb, and a lone man took photos of the statue of Euterpe, the muse of music, as she wept above composer Frédéric Chopin’s mausoleum.
There might have been seventy-five visitors in all on the property, but the cemetery spread over one hundred hilly and wooded acres, so anyone who wanted privacy could find it easily here in the warren of tombs, crypts, cobblestoned lanes, and old oak.
And one man had done just that. A dark-complected fifty-five-year-old with thinning gray hair old sat alone a few rows up the hill from Molière’s tomb, on a small bench that one had to either know about or stumble upon to locate. His name was Dr. Tarek Halaby, and there wasn’t much about the man to make him stand out from the average Parisian of Middle Eastern descent, although someone with knowledge of fashion might pick up on the fact that his raincoat was a Kiton that ran north of two thousand euros, and they therefore might come to the quite reasonable assumption that this was a man of significant means.
As he sat there in the stillness of the cemetery, Halaby pulled out his wallet and looked at a small photo he kept there. A young man and a young woman standing together, smiling into the lens, with hope and intelligence in their eyes that said the future was theirs to command.
For twenty seconds Halaby stared at the photo, till drops of rain began to fall, splashing on the image and blurring the smiling faces.
He dried the photo off with this thumb, put his wallet back in his coat, and looked up to the sky. He lifted his umbrella and got ready to pop it open, but then the phone he’d placed on the bench next to him buzzed and lit up.
He forgot about the impending shower, put down the umbrella, and read the text.
Crematorium. Alone. Lose the goons.
The man in the raincoat sat up straighter and looked around nervously. He saw no one: only tombs and gravestones and trees and birds.
Cold sweat formed on the back of his collar.
He stood, but before he began walking he sent a reply.
I am alone.
A new text appeared and the man in the raincoat felt his heart pummel the inside of his chest.
Two men with guns in their coats at the entrance. Two more fifty meters east of you. They go . . . or I go.
Dr. Halaby stared at the phone a moment before typing out his reply with fingers that trembled.
He placed a call, held the phone to his ear, and spoke in French. “He sees you, and he won’t do this with you here. Take the others, go get a coffee, and wait for my call.” A pause. “It’s fine.”
The man ended the call, slipped the phone into his raincoat, and began walking up the hill towards the crematorium.
Five minutes later Dr. Halaby held his umbrella over his head while he walked through the steady rain. The huge crematorium of Père-Lachaise was higher on the hill, another sixty meters on, but Halaby was still making his way through the narrow passages between the tall mausoleums all around. As he advanced, his eyes fixed on another man, himself holding an umbrella. He appeared around the side of the huge crematorium, then stepped into a parking lot between Halaby and the building. Halaby expected the man to continue in his direction, so he was surprised when he instead climbed into a small work truck and drove off to the west.
Halaby was doubly surprised to hear a voice behind him now, not three meters away, coming from a recess between a pair of crypts.
“Stop there. Don’t turn around.” The man spoke English, softly, his voice barely louder than the sound of rain hitting Halaby’s umbrella.
“As you say,” the doctor replied, standing still now, doing his best to keep his hands from shaking. He was partially shielded on three sides by the marble walls of crypts, and in front of him row after row of waist-high tombstones jutted from the wet grass.
The voice behind him said, “You brought it?”
Halaby was Syrian, he lived in France, but his English was good. “As instructed. It is in my front pants pocket. Shall I reach for it?”
“Well . . . I’m not putting my hand down your pants.”
“Yes.” Tarek Halaby reached into his pocket slowly and retrieved a blue badge in a plastic case hanging from a lanyard. There was also a folded sheet of paper with an address on it. He held both items back over his shoulder. “The badge will get you into the event. VIP access. As you know, there is no photo. You will have to provide that yourself.”
The man behind him took the badge and the paper. “Anything new to report?”
Halaby detected the American accent now, and he knew this was, for certain, the man who had come so highly recommended. He didn’t know much about the American other than his reputation. He had been told that this asset was a legend in the world of espionage and covert ops, so of course he would be thorough in his preparations, exacting in his demands.
Halaby replied, “All is the same as in the information you were given yesterday.”
“Security around the target?”
“As you were told. Five men.”
“And the threat?”
“Also the same as before. No more than four hostiles. Five, at most.”
“Five is more than four.”
Now Halaby swallowed. “Yes . . . well . . . I was told probably just four hostiles, so the intelligence is not certain. But it is no worry, because the hostiles will not act until tomorrow, and you will proceed tonight. Won’t you?”
The asset did not answer the question. “And the target? Still departing France tomorrow?”
“This is unchanged. The flight leaves at one p.m. Again, tonight is the last night where we can—”
“The address written on this paper. Is this the RP?”
“The . . . the what?”
“The rally point.”
“I’m sorry. I do not know what this means.”
Halaby thought he heard a soft sigh of frustration from the other man. Then, “Is this where I go when it’s done?”
“Oh . . . Yes. It is the address of our safe house here in Paris.”
There was a longer pause now. A grackle landed on a tombstone just a few meters in front of the man with the umbrella, and the rain picked up even more.
Finally the American asset spoke again, but his voice sounded less sure than before. “The man I talked to on the phone. He was French. You are not French.”
“The one who you spoke with, the one who hired you through the service in Monte Carlo . . . he works for me.”
Halaby heard soft wet footsteps and then the American came into view around the umbrella. He was in his thirties, a touch shorter than Halaby’s six feet, with a dark beard and a simple black raincoat. The hood hung low over his eyes; rainwater dripped off it in front of his face.
The American said, “You are Dr. Tarek Halaby, aren’t you?”
Halaby’s heart began pumping wildly upon hearing this dangerous man uttering his name. “Oui, that is correct.” He switched his umbrella to his left hand and extended his right.
The asset did not move to accept the handshake. “You are the director of the Free Syria Exile Union.”
“Co-director, actually. My wife shares the title.”
“You supply medical equipment, medicine, food, water, and blankets to civilians and resistance fighters in Syria.”
“Well . . . originally, yes. Relief used to be our only mandate. But we are now involved with more direct opposition of the regime of Ahmed al-Azzam.” Halaby spoke through a nervous smile now. “As you know, we haven’t hired you to deliver blankets.”
The American continued eyeing him, adding to Halaby’s disquiet. “One more question.”
“Yes, of course.”
“How the hell are you still alive?”
The rain beat down ceaselessly on the umbrella and the marble structures around the two men. Halaby said, “I . . . I don’t understand.”
“A hell of a lot of people would love to see you dead. The Syrian government, the Islamic State, the Russians, Hezbollah, the Iranians. And yet you came this morning in person to meet with a man you did not know. And you are here alone.”
Halaby answered defensively. “You asked me to send my people away.”
“If I asked you to shoot yourself in the face, would you do it?”
Halaby tried to control his breathing. With all the conviction he could muster, he said, “I am not afraid.” The truth was he was stone-cold terrified, but he did his best to hide it. “I was told you are the best there is. Why on earth should I be afraid?”
“Because I bet you were told I am the best there is at killing.”
Halaby blanched but recovered quickly. “Well . . . we are on the same side, are we not?”
“I am taking money to do a job. That’s not exactly a side, is it?”
The older man forced a smile. “Then I guess I should hope the other side didn’t offer you more to eliminate me.” When the American did not return the smile, he added, “It was important I met you. I wanted you to know how crucial tonight is for our movement.”
The American seemed to be thinking things over, as if he might just drop the badge in the mud, turn away, and forget this entire affair. Instead he just said, “Trust will get you killed.”
Even though he was scared, Halaby realized he was under scrutiny now, and he knew he had to assert himself to earn the respect of this man. He brought his shoulders back and his chin up. “Well, monsieur, if you are here to kill me, get on with it, and if not, let’s end this meeting, because you and I both have a lot to do today.”
The man in the hooded raincoat sniffed. He was not to be rushed. His eyes shifted around the cemetery for a moment, and then they locked back on the doctor. “I support what you are doing. I took this job because I wanted to help.”
Halaby let out a soft breath of relief.
“And that’s why it pisses me off to learn that you’re an amateur. You’re going to get your ass killed long before you or the Free Syria Exile Union actually accomplishes anything. Dudes like you don’t last long as revolutionaries unless you take extreme measures to protect yourself and your operation.”
Halaby had never been referred to as “dude” in his life, but he did not interact often with Americans outside the occasional surgical symposium. He said, “I am quite aware of the danger. Hiring you, I was told, was the right decision. I hope you will prove me right. By our actions we can, perhaps, deal a serious blow to the Syrian regime and hasten the end of this cruel war. Nothing you could do for our cause could be more important than tonight here in Paris.” Halaby raised an eyebrow. “Unless I could persuade you to go to Syria yourself to eliminate President Azzam.”
The remark was clearly a joke, but the asset did not laugh. “I said I support what you’re doing. I didn’t say I was suicidal. Trust me, you’ll never get my ass into that hellhole.”
“That hellhole . . . is my home.”
“Well . . . it’s not mine.”
Both men listened to the rain for a moment, and then Halaby said, “Please, monsieur, help us succeed tonight. Here.”
After another bout of silence, the American in the hooded coat said, “Pull all surveillance on the target. I’ll take over. And watch your back. If no one is actively targeting you yet, that will probably change after tonight.” He turned away and began moving off around the tombstones to the west.
Halaby called after him, causing him to stop after only a few steps. “You asked me how it is I am still alive.”
The American did not turn back. He just stood there, facing away.
“My wife has a philosophy about this. She thinks all the best and bravest of my people died in the first years of the conflict. An entire generation of heroes. Now . . . those of us who are left after seven years of fighting . . . we are the ones who were too afraid to get involved in the beginning.
“The resistance leaders of today aren’t in power now because we are the strongest. The boldest. The most capable. We are in power now, alive now, simply because we are all that remains.”
The asset began walking again, drifting off through the tombstones, but he spoke over the sound of the rain. “No offense, doc, but I think your wife might be on to something.”
Tarek Halaby realized he’d never really studied the man’s face, and now, thirty seconds after looking right at him, he doubted he’d recognize him if they met again.
Soon the American disappeared from view through the rain and the dead.
The small and spartan 15th Arrondissement apartment saw no natural light when the sun was out, but on a rainy afternoon like this the third-floor walk-up appeared positively subterranean inside, except for a single lamp on a desk in the corner.
A man sat alone under the lamplight, hunched over the desk, listening to the rain on the nearby shuttered window while he worked. He looked up from his project when he heard a noise over the water dripping off the roof. It was the sound of footsteps in the private courtyard outside, and then the echo of a door slamming shut.
The man rose silently and moved to the window, opened the shutters a few inches, and looked down, his right hand hovering over the grip of the Glock pistol in his waistband.
He saw the origin of the noise instantly. The old woman from apartment 2C stood in the rain, lifted the lid to a garbage can, and poured a full pan of used cat litter into the can. She closed the lid again and returned to the door to the stairwell, and it slammed behind her several seconds after she headed back inside.
Courtland Gentry scanned the entire scene below him now, slowly and carefully, then took a calming breath. He closed the shutters, returned to his chair, then leaned back over his project.
There were a few items lying on the table next to his backpack. Coiled climbing ropes, a gun-cleaning kit. The blue badge given to him by the man in the cemetery lay on the desk before him, under the bright light. Next to it was a passport-quality photo of himself: a two-inch-square shot of him wearing the same clothes he wore now. A charcoal suit coat, a white shirt with a widespread collar, and a black tie. Taking his time to check the image carefully, he determined it wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough to pass normal scrutiny.
The apartment was all but bare; no personal items lay about, only items needed for today’s operation. On his left, just five feet from where he sat, a blue tablecloth was attached low on the wall with pushpins, and a few feet in front of it a camera sat on the seat of a wooden chair. A fluorescent desk lamp stood on the wooden floor pointed towards the tablecloth. Five minutes earlier Court had turned on the light, pressed the ten-second delay on the camera, sat on the floor in front of the blue background, and stared into the lens until the camera clicked. After that he flipped the light back off and printed the image out on the color printer in the corner that he’d purchased for this single two-inch-square image.
Now he took a pair of tweezers and used a craft store glue stick to affix his picture in place on the ID, then pressed down on it with the bottom of a plastic cup from the kitchen, taking his time to make sure it was secure so the corners would not peel.
While he waited he did a few neck rolls to relax. He wasn’t a fan of the arts and crafts work that came with his job; he was slow and meticulous with it, and this sort of thing stressed him out. Only by necessity, and only over a long period of time, had he gotten good at it.
Court had served for over a decade in the Central Intelligence Agency, then five more years in the private sector as an assassin for hire. When CIA was running him he could order up docs, credos, credit cards, and fully backstopped legends with little trouble. But working as a solo act he’d had to either find private “paper hangers” or create what he needed himself.
Sometimes he was forced to rely solely on his clients to provide the documents for his needs, but today was something of a hybrid situation. His client had been able to procure an authentic badge that would get him into the event he needed to infiltrate, but Court didn’t trust his client enough to pass over a photo of himself for them to complete the project.
He’d do the work himself to maintain his personal security.
Court had become something of a hybrid himself. He was back with the CIA in an ad hoc contract role, but he retained the autonomy to accept freelance work when he so desired. And today was one hundred percent freelance. Langley had no idea where Court was, or what he was doing, and that was by design. Court didn’t know if they’d approve of today’s mission, and he didn’t give a damn.
For a long time he’d wanted to do something to support the fight against the Syrian regime, and this was his way of doing it without going into Syria. A mission into Syria, Court had determined via study of the situation and his many years of personal experience as an intelligence and operational asset . . . would be a fool’s errand.
He’d taken this job from a handler based in Monte Carlo who, for a twenty percent finder’s fee, served as a cutout in the initial negotiations between the contractor and the client. Court decided the work asked of him looked like it would be difficult but doable. As an additional bonus, the job was in Paris, and Paris was probably Court’s favorite city in the world.
But now he couldn’t help but worry about the amateurish behavior of his clients. Yes, they seemed to have some top-flight intelligence about his target tonight, but their operational tradecraft was all wrong.
Still . . . the job itself felt right, and that was why Court was here. He’d recently completed a mission in Southeast Asia with flying colors, but the operation had left him angry, empty. The United States had come out the ultimate victors, thanks to Court’s actions, and that was the plan, but it was an ugly op, and Court’s own actions on the mission left him feeling angry and conflicted. Now he wanted to feel positive about what he was doing, like back in the days before his reconciliation with the Agency.
Court believed in this Paris job, so despite his misgivings about the danger, he would continue on.
He’d earned the moniker Gray Man for his ability to remain low profile, in the shadows, while still completing his arduous assignments. He had the skill to succeed. He believed in his plan, and he believed in his skill to make it through tonight to see the sunrise tomorrow; he told himself all he had to do was keep his eyes open to avoid getting burned by his employer’s bad practices.
Tonight would be difficult; people would likely die, but Court knew what was at stake, and he knew the mission was righteous.
This was his first work in two months; he’d been laying low, first in Slovenia, then in Austria. He’d spent his time training and hiding, reading and thinking. He was in as good physical shape as he’d been in years, and he’d focused intensely on the physical side of his development recently, because he had concerns he had lost a step mentally. No, it wasn’t PTSD or concussions or early-onset dementia that threatened to slow him . . . it was something much more debilitating.
It was a woman.
He’d met her on his last operation, spent just a few days with her, but still he could not get her out of his mind. She was a Russian intelligence officer, now in the hands of the CIA and buttoned up in some safe house back in the States, and this meant there might be even less chance of him seeing her again than if she’d been working at the Lubyanka in Moscow.
If ever a relationship was doomed to failure, Court acknowledged, it was this one. But he had feelings for her, to the extent he wondered if he was the person he was before he met her. Had he lost that step? Would he hesitate in danger? Was he open to compromise now that there was someone out there who actually meant something to him?
As he worked on his forged ID badge, Court considered all this for the thousandth time in the past two months. And for the thousand and first time, he admonished himself.
Jesus, Gentry. Turn that shit off. Thoughts like these will get you killed.
This was no life for a man in love. Court saw himself as an instrument, a tool, mission-focused in the extreme. The woman on his mind was on the other side of the globe, embroiled in her own issues, no doubt, and he knew he’d do well to forget about her so he could operate at one hundred percent.
He knew he needed to remain mentally sharp. Especially today, because shit was going to get crazy before the night was through.
The man in the darkened apartment shook off concerns of his diminished mental alertness and climbed into a black two-piece motorcycle rain suit, pulling the rubbery material over the Armani. Then he hefted a pair of black backpacks, locked the door to his apartment on the way out, and made his way down the dark and narrow staircase towards the street.
Paris shone in the afternoon sun, the buildings and streets still glistening from the rain shower that blew out of the area a half hour earlier. Cars rolled by the majestic seventeenth- and eighteenth-century architecture of the 8th Arrondissement, just north of the Seine and within a few blocks east of the imposing Arc de Triomphe.
The Hôtel Potocki on Avenue de Friedland was a structure that would have stood out as a magnificent showpiece in most any other city on Earth, but here in Paris the Potocki was just another beautiful building on just another beautiful block full of beautiful buildings. It had been built as a palace two hundred years earlier for a family of Polish nobility who made it their life’s work to erect ornate residences all over Europe, and they’d spared no expense to illustrate their wealth and power to the Parisians. Even today it remained one of the most elegant mansions in the city, rented out as a high-dollar venue for parties, events, and private get-togethers of the elite.
This afternoon the entrances to the building were surrounded by crowds, all holding their camera phones high in hopes of catching images of the attendees of the exclusive function inside. In addition to the hundreds of onlookers, photographers and reporters milled about, limo drivers stood by their freshly polished vehicles in nearby lots, and private security manned the streets and sidewalks.
But the real action was inside. Through the monumental bronze doors cast by Christofle, up the grand marble staircase, and in the opulent Salle des Lustre, some three hundred well-dressed men and women sat around a long glowing runway that ran below and between rows of crystal chandeliers. The room was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, and thumping music and flashing lights gave an energetic, almost manic feel to the scene.
The announcer proclaimed the arrival of the winter collection, the crowd leaned in, and, one at a time, lithe models began marching authoritatively out onto the catwalk wearing dramatic velvet capes, thigh-high boots, and embroidered chiffon dresses.
The hum of the crowd was unmistakably approving.
In the ninth row, to the right of the runway, sitting at the southern end of the room and holding a camera and an iPad, a man in a charcoal Armani suit sat next to an elderly woman with a small poodle nestled in her arms. The man’s eyeglasses were as refined as his silk tie and handkerchief, and he looked on at the procession traversing the catwalk just like everyone else, craning his head, nodding along with each new look, and tapping notes into his tablet.
The man had avoided the majority of the cameras, and even the lights from the runway did not reach to him in his seat. He was just a face in the crowd. No one in the room was focusing on him, and other than the guard who scanned his pass and the roving waitress with the silver tray of champagne flutes, he’d had no interaction with anyone in the building, though he’d entered a full ninety minutes earlier.
As a new model stepped out from the wings and proceeded down the catwalk, the man in the Armani suit focused intently for a moment, then looked away.
Not her, he told himself.
He took a moment to look around the room again, and not for the first time in the last hour and a half, Court Gentry told himself that this was probably pretty much what his version of hell would look like. Through the too-bright lights he saw the vapid eyes, and through the too-loud music he heard the insipid discussions on inane topics all around him in multiple languages, conversations that he felt made him dumber by the minute for having been forced to listen to them.
The focus on the clothes and the colors and the style and “the scene” was nearly a foreign tongue to him, but he understood enough to know he didn’t give a damn about anything being discussed, anywhere in the building. He couldn’t imagine anything more annoying than the crowd he sat in, the words from their mouths, the oohs and ahhs about a bunch of clothes no one off a runway would ever wear, anywhere, and no one who’d ever eaten a sandwich in their life could fit into in the first place.
Everyone else here insisted on referring to this as Paris Fashion Week, but still, Court was pretty sure he was in hell.
This was the Zuhair Murad show of the Haute Couture Collection, and Court had done just enough study on the designer and his work to pass relaxed scrutiny as a member of the alternative fashion press. His cover was as a freelancer, sent to get impressions and images of the periphery of Fashion Week for an online style magazine, to chronicle the guests and the clothes and the “scene,” whatever the hell that was.
Court looked around. A coked-up sixty-year-old man with a horror-show facelift and eyeliner danced in his chair on the other side of the runway, sloshing half his champagne on the leg of the nineteen-year-old boy seated next to him.
To the extent Court had a scene at all, this sure as shit wasn’t it.
But it was Court’s job to fit in, no matter what the surroundings, and he did his job well. He was invisible here, because it was his job to be so, just as it had been his job to remain invisible while riding the Metro in D.C., roaming the streets of Hong Kong, or piloting a yacht in Minorca.
His eyes flicked back to the runway, and as the beautiful women came out one by one, he continued scanning them.
Not her. Not her. Not her, either.
His attention moved from the slow procession of models and off the runway entirely. Two athletic men with dark suits and dark hair entered the hall on his right from an access door near the entrance to the stage. They stood back against the wall, scanning the crowd. Court pinged on them instantly, and his eyes casually followed them as they moved closer to the curtain where the models emerged.
Across the lights of the runway he saw another pair of goons, similarly attired, both dark and swarthy. They stood close to the action, and directly behind them a few men and women seated called out to them to try to get them to move.
A security man attached to the venue stepped over to the pair on the far side and ushered them a few feet closer to the wall. They complied, more or less, but they remained within reach of the models on the stage and runway.
And then a tall female model with coal-black hair marched out from behind the wings in a black chiffon dress with silver piping. She was as beautiful as all the others, perhaps even more intense and serious about her work than the rest as she moved up the runway. Through the flashing of dozens of cameras she marched her stilettos to the beat of an old David Bowie song souped up with industrial techno. Court noticed all four of the big men looking up at her, and then he noticed all four men turning and scanning the crowd. They didn’t follow her walk down the length of the raised platform, but their eyes stayed on the three hundred or so in the audience.
Court turned his attention away from the bodyguards, and he focused again on the model.
She was utterly stunning. And she was his target.