“He’s the man from the park,” Ashley told Logan finally. “The one who made the pick-up.”
“Which clinches it,” Logan said. “You gave Colby the disc, and the shooter stole the disc off him. So the Client didn’t get his disc, which would be bad enough, except that maybe he also thinks that he’s been sold out by the very person he put on the job. Because how else would Northrop’s people have known to be there?”
“Last night, you guessed that the Client’s organization was compromised,” Ashley reminded him.
“Yeah, but he doesn’t necessarily know it,” he reminded her. “That’s kind of the point of these things. So you’re the logical suspect. Which is probably why we haven’t been paid.”
“The chase the night before,” Ashley said.
“If they know about it, it’s probably raised their suspicions rather than lessened them.”
Logan’s words quashed the faint hope of easy exoneration she’d started to feel—but she wasn’t just going to accept that. “What do you mean?”
“Well, they’d know that the job went bad—but not how it ended,” Logan said. “For all they know, Northrop’s people caught you and forced you to go to the park and hand the disc over to the Client’s rep while they followed along.”
“But wouldn’t it have been a lot simpler for them to just take the disc from me when they got to me?” Ashley asked. “Instead of that whole ambush plan?”
“Of course,” Logan allowed. “But they may have had other reasons for doing what they did. It’s definitely a possibility the Client’s going to consider, especially after their operation’s been botched and their personnel killed. And, if he does have a traitor among his people, they’re likely to play up the idea that you’re the one at fault for how everything’s gone.”
Ashley thought again of Logan’s suspicion that she hadn’t just been pulled into a mere job, but the middle of an ongoing war. And that, with Colby dead and the disc he was supposed to pick up missing and presumably stolen, the Client probably would not stop at withholding the payment.
They’d made clear there would be unpleasant consequences to her not taking their job offer. For stabbing them in the back after taking their money? Getting one of their people killed? Whatever they had in mind, it was bound to be much, much worse, and not long in coming. Because unlike Northrop’s people, who hadn’t yet shown that they knew who she was, the Client’s people did know. They also knew how to get to her; they proved that much when they recruited her for the job.
Ashley still didn’t think they knew about the safe house; they might not even have known about her collaboration with Logan. But they did know where she lived. Could they have—
“My apartment,” Ashley said.
Its security system had hidden cameras covering the living room, and each of the three bedrooms (or as she actually used them, her bedroom, her home office, her guest room), as well as the main corridor. She always activated it before leaving, and now that it was running she could access the computer controlling the setup remotely.
Ashley did that now on her cell, keying in the number and entering the code that let her access the command screen.
She checked the living room first. The door was closed, the room empty, but something was off, something she couldn’t put her finger on.
She switched from the cam covering the living room to the bedroom and saw two people standing in the middle of it.
“There’s someone there,” Logan said.
“And I recognize them,” Ashley said. “The Client’s people.”
The granite-faced man who met her at the back door of the Winchester, the blond woman who searched her for a weapon before she was permitted into their boss’ presence.
There was no one else with them, not even the building manager, though she didn’t think they’d broken in. Maybe they said they were government agents (they looked the part in their suits and dark glasses), made up something about an investigation to scare him out of hovering over them. Maybe flashed a piece of tin that looked like a badge.
The woman went over to a bureau and pulled open a drawer, then started going through its contents, while the man went over to her closet and started going through the clothes hanging inside, each going about their task as wordlessly as they had when she met with their boss.
Ashley felt the sense of violation at these people going through her things only faintly, muffled as it was by the much more immediate and forceful sense of threat. The Client was sending his people after her, just like Northrop had done, and he seemed likely to continue sending them. If he really thought she’d betrayed him to Northrop then the only thing he could have really hoped to find in her apartment was a clue to where she’d gone.
“Maybe I should get in touch with them,” Ashley said. “Try and straighten things out.”
“Maybe,” Logan allowed. “But then again maybe not. Sending their people to your place like this, they’re already treating you like an enemy. And I don’t think you can say anything to convince them you’re not.”
Watching the Client’s goons paw through her underwear Ashley knew Logan was right. But just running away wasn’t much of a plan. There had to be some sort of endgame.
Unfortunately, they had no idea what this war was all about.
They didn’t even know who the Client might be.
Once again Ashley thought of the copy they’d made of the disc’s contents, incomplete as it was.
“If I heard you right yesterday, you had some ideas about how we could get this disc decrypted,” Ashley said. “What are our options?”
“I know a guy at the NCO,” Logan said.
“The National Communications Office?”
“Yes. He can get material into their system, get their code breaking computers and cryptanalysts on the job, get the decrypted result back out. For a price, of course,” Logan said.
“So basically he’s renting out the services of a national intelligence agency?” Ashley asked.
“Yeah, you can say that.”
“Is he high up in the organization?” Ashley asked.
“Far from it.”
“But could anyone not high up actually get away with that?”
“Well . . . this organization basically tries to intercept, record, decode, translate and analyze the entire world’s message traffic,” Logan said. “Every phone call, every e-mail, every text, every radio transmission.
“Naturally, they can’t do it all. What they get, and it is a lot, they can’t go through properly. They sift and they sort, with keyword searches and other procedures, but in the end there’s a huge amount of stuff in their files that no one ever actually looks at. There are stories about their intercepting plans for a big terrorist attack, and not getting to the information until after the attack happened. Because even with all their billions of dollars and tens of thousands of staff and the help of every other alphabet soup organization you can think of and their allies all over the world, they’re so overwhelmed.
“What are a couple of messages in all that? Not much. So I guess someone could slip things in and out of the queue without anyone noticing. Even get them priority by dressing them up as an urgent request from some outside agency. They wouldn’t necessarily have to be very high up to do that, just in the right place in the organizational flow charts, and willing to take the necessary risks.
“Of course, it’s also possible that he’s not doing this all on his own initiative. That he’s just an agent working for somebody else. A bigger group within the agency, or maybe even the agency itself. For all we know, the NCO could be trying to supplement its budget by quietly selling its services on the market.”
In these times even they could have been hurting for money.
“Can we afford him?” Ashley asked.
“I don’t know the numbers. But just making a guess at this kind of thing . . . I figure it won’t come cheap, but I don’t think it’ll break the bank either.”
Given the circumstances, she could not balk at the expense—if she could get the results they needed. “Do you think they’d be able to work with the partial copy we have?” she asked.
“If anyone can do it, they can. No one else’s resources come close.”
“No, of course not,” Ashley said. “When did you last speak to him?”
“A couple of years ago.”
Quite a while. It was possible that Logan’s acquaintance wasn’t even playing this game anymore, that he’d taken more risks than he was comfortable with, moved on to something else. “Do we have any other options?” Ashley asked. “I mean, any?”
“None remotely as good. This guy’s by far our best shot at getting past this decryption soon enough for it to be useful. Or maybe to get past it at all.”
Logan was entirely serious—but not offering many details.
“How do we do the deal?” Ashley asked.
“We can’t do it on the phone. I’d have to go down and see him in person. In Baltimore.”
"We’d have to go down, you mean,” Ashley said.