My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Ten:
May 30, 1987
Ramstein Air Base, West Germany
The back of the envelope was sweat-stained to a murky off-brown from being plastered to Tracie’s skin in the stifling heat of the East German dance club. The front, where was scrawled, “President Ronald Reagan,” by Mikhail Gorbachev, if her handler was to be believed—and Tracie believed him—remained undisturbed.
After fighting her way out of the dance club, Tracie had snuck out of East Berlin uneventfully—it was never a problem if you had the right contacts—and driven as fast as she dared back to Ramstein Air Base in West Germany in a waiting CIA-supplied automobile. By the time she arrived at Ramstein it was approaching six a.m., and she crashed, exhausted, in an empty apartment maintained just off the base by the CIA. After just a few short hours of sleep, she was awakened by telephone and advised her flight to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland would be departing at eleven p.m.
Tracie showered and dressed, reveling in the luxury of a little time to herself and the added bonus of an unlimited hot water supply. In many of the locations she had worked as a CIA field operative there had been no water at all, much less hot water.
During her shower, Tracie placed Gorbachev’s envelope atop the ceramic toilet tank, less than four feet from where she stood soaping and rinsing. Her assignment had been to retrieve the letter, spirit it out of East Germany, and then accompany it to Washington, never allowing it out of her sight until its delivery to the President, and that was what she intended to do.
She had slept with the letter hugged to her chest, cradling it like a tiny baby. She slept fitfully, but then she always slept fitfully, awakened by the slightest hint of a sound, a disruption in the room’s air currents, a barely perceptible noise outside her window. Her supersensitive perception, even while asleep, had kept her alive in some of the most dangerous locations in the world.
Tracie had performed missions in Asian and Middle Eastern countries where being female meant you had no rights, possessed no intrinsic value other than what the men around you were willing to bestow upon you. You could disappear without warning at any time and for any reason, and no one would ever question why.
The United States government would be no help, either, as her missions were almost always off the books and so highly sensitive that if she was captured, rather than fighting or negotiating for her release, the government would deny her very presence in the country, all the way up the official channels.
This was the life of a CIA Directorate of Operations agent. It was Tracie Tanner’s life, and a career she had never once regretted undertaking. It was a solitary, often lonely life, but as the daughter of a four-star U.S. Army general and a career State Department diplomat, Tracie had been groomed for it. After graduating Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, with a degree in linguistics, Tracie had been recruited into the ranks of the CIA. She had trained for three grueling years, initially at The Farm and then in the field, under a crusty old badass veteran of a quarter-century of covert operations whose real name she still did not know. Then she began working solo missions under her mentor and direct supervisor at CIA, Winston Andrews. Despite her inability to share even the broadest of details about her career with her parents, she knew they were proud of her decision to devote her life to the cause of freedom and service to her country.
But right now, all Tracie cared about was the steaming-hot water blasting out of the shower in the small apartment. She washed the sweat and grime of the mission off every inch of her body, then rinsed off and started again, scrubbing until she felt completely refreshed, regenerated and ready to begin the second half—the easy half—of the job. She would accompany Gorbachev’s letter to the White House, bypassing all official and diplomatic channels before hand-delivering it to its recipient, President Ronald Reagan.
The mission would end with an official debrief at Langley. Tracie hoped she might then be fortunate enough to wrangle a few days off to visit her folks in suburban Washington, but knew that was probably a pipe dream. Too many things were happening in too many hot spots around the world for the agency to allow one of their most valuable resources to hang out like a normal twenty-seven-year-old single woman.
In any event, the rest of the trip should be a cake walk. Tracie calculated the length of the flight and the time difference between West Germany and Washington, D.C. Eight hours in the air, more or less, and a six-hour time difference meant they would touch down at Andrews around 2:00 a.m. local time.
The 11:00 p.m. departure time was not exactly a typical flight schedule, but then Tracie had long ago adjusted to the unusual hours the job entailed. After being advised of the critical nature of the mission, the Air Force would have needed time to prep an airplane and get a flight crew together.
Tracie stepped directly under the shower nozzle, rinsing shampoo from her luxurious mane of red hair, enjoying the warmth of the water, always keeping one eye on the innocent-looking envelope propped against the wall on top of the toilet tank just outside the shower.
Finally, reluctantly, she twisted the faucets, sighing as the blast of water slowed to a trickle and then disappeared entirely. She stepped from the shower, dried off and dressed, and then quickly blow-dried her hair. With the extravagance of the hot shower out of the way, she wandered the apartment, the time passing slowly as she waited to leave Europe behind.
May 30, 1987
Ramstein Air Base, West Germany
Tracie woke with a start and checked her watch. She had drifted off to sleep, stretched out on a small couch while watching a soccer match on the apartment’s black and white television, and now worried she may have missed her flight.
Ten-ten. Shit. She’d have to hurry, but would probably make it. If she timed it right, she might even manage coffee. Dinner she could take or leave, but the thought of departing Ramstein for a long flight to the States without an invigorating jolt of caffeine was unacceptable.
She threw her clothing into a small canvas bag—traveling light was second nature to Tracie Tanner after seven years of CIA service—and slid Mikhail Gorbachev’s letter carefully into the interior breast pocket of her light jacket. Then she rushed out of the apartment, jumped into her car, and drove onto the base.
She dumped the CIA car outside a small commissary adjacent to the airfield, hid the keys under the front seat, and hustled inside. She passed a pair of young airmen who made no attempt to hide their admiration of her running figure. She ignored them. They didn’t have coffee. Besides, she had long since gotten used to men staring at her. Also ogling her, leering at her and propositioning her.
Tracie checked her watch. Twenty-five minutes until her flight’s scheduled departure. She choked down her coffee. It was scalding hot and almost undrinkably strong, just the way she liked it. Then she grabbed her bag, checked for her precious cargo—the letter was still there—and then double-timed to the airfield. Someone would retrieve the car later.
Tracie had been instructed to check in at Hangar Three, and now she slowed her pace about a hundred feet from the door, walking onto the tarmac at precisely 10:55 p.m. Outside the hangar, a gigantic green U.S. Air Force B-52 towered above her, the eight-engine high-wing jet appearing almost impossibly large. It had to be close to two hundred feet from wingtip to wingtip, and the fuselage soared high above like some kind of fabricated metal dinosaur. The notion of the huge hunk of metal ever getting airborne, much less staying that way and flying all the way to the United States seemed outlandish, some kind of magic trick or optical illusion.
Tracie had logged endless hours aboard dozens of different aircraft, from medevac helicopters to Boeing 747’s, during her tenure as a CIA covert ops specialist, but had never been aboard a B-52. The sheer enormity of the aircraft was staggering. From where she stood, it looked like every other aircraft she had ever flown aboard could fit inside this behemoth. The wings thrusting outward from the top of the aircraft’s fuselage seemed to go on forever, swept back and hanging down slightly, as if the weight of the eight jet engines hanging in clusters of two was simply more than they could bear. The fuselage itself stretched off into the distance; to Tracie’s eye it appeared nearly as long as the wing span was wide.
She froze in place, marveling at the engineering miracle perched atop its tiny-looking wheels. She could feel her jaw hanging open and closed it, embarrassed. She felt like a country bumpkin on her first visit to the big city.
Standing directly in front of—and far below—the nose of the huge aircraft was an officer, probably late-thirties, handsome in a grizzled, seen-it-all way. He had obviously been awaiting her arrival, and he smiled at her reaction to the B-52. “May I see your ID, ma’am?” he asked.
Tracie handed it over, shaking her head in mute admiration of the aircraft.
The officer said, “We get that a lot from people who have never been up close to a BUFF before. It’s pretty impressive, isn’t it?”
“That’s an understatement,” Tracie answered.
The officer handed Tracie’s ID back and said, “I’m Major Stan Wilczynski, and I’ll be Pilot in Command for today’s flight. I’ll introduce you to the rest of the crew shortly.”
She returned the Major’s smile. “I’ll bite,” she said. “What’s ‘BUFF’?” Other than you, she wanted to add, wondering how long it had been since she had enjoyed any male companionship outside of official duty status and realizing she couldn’t remember. She kept her remark to herself, though, noting the Major’s wedding ring.
He chuckled. “BUFF’s our nickname for the B-52. Stands for ‘Big Ugly Fat Fuckers.’ And they are all of that, but these babies have served with distinction for a quarter-century, with plenty more years to come. Some say the new B-1 will make the BUFF obsolete, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Tracie nodded, noting the reverence in the pilot’s voice as he talked about the plane. “How long have you flown the B-52, Major?”
“It’s Stan to my friends, Miss Tanner. And I’ve been involved with these Big Ugly Fuckers almost since my first day in the Air Force. Sometimes it feels like I’ve spent my whole life inside one of these beasts. Can’t imagine a better way to serve my country, to be honest.”
Tracie grinned. The man’s enthusiasm was infectious, and went a long way toward breaking down her caution, a trait she came by naturally and one that had served her well over the course of her seven-year CIA career. But there was no need for it now; it was clear she was among friends.
“Anyway,” Wilczynki continued, “I’ve bored you long enough. I just can’t help bragging when the subject is my baby.” He gestured affectionately toward the aircraft’s nose. “Whaddaya say we climb aboard and get ready to leave this continent behind?” The Major turned and indicated a metal ladder hanging from an open hatch in the bottom of the aircraft.
“I’m not bored at all,” Tracie answered, starting up the ladder. “I love hearing a professional discuss his passion.”
Major Wilczynski paused. “You know, I’ve never really thought about it in those terms before, but you’re right, I do have a passion for these old birds.” He started up the ladder behind Tracie and they disappeared into the B-52.