‘You make a mistake, you will die.’ Walker didn’t take it personally.
‘You miss your target, you will die.’ The instructor was just doing her job. ‘You get a jam, you will die.’
Three weeks together and he could tell she was good at her job. ‘You get distracted, you will die.’
And she was quite attractive.
‘You listening, Walker?’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ he replied.
‘Good,’ she said, then looked up and down the line of seven recruits. ‘Because you’ve been trying to finish first and only first, for three weeks – you think I didn’t notice? You’re the only Air Force out here, with these Army and Navy and Marine vets, the best they had to offer. Me included. And you know what they say about Air Force?’
‘No, ma’am,’ Walker replied.
‘Me either. No-one gives a damn about the Air Force, so why talk about them?’
The six other recruits sniggered.
‘Run the op again,’ she said, looking to the staffers to confirm the training scenario had been reset. ‘This time I want that building cleared and the objectives completed in under two minutes. Two minutes. You hear me, recruits?’
‘Ma’am, yes, ma’am!’ the seven replied as one.
She gave a signal to the kill-house training officer, and he blew a whistle. They had a minute to prep.
Welcome to The Point, Walker thought. It was the CIA’s hands-on training facility, formally known as Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity Facility, a sprawling North Carolina campus owned by the Department of Defense. It was where the country’s top front-line operators from all branches of the military and intelligence agencies were sent to hone their field skills. The place was meant to test and train the best of the best: Top Gun for door-kickers.
He rushed the house. They had already assaulted it twice, and had failed miserably both times. Seven going into a double-storey building up against an unknown number of hostiles to subdue, an unknown number of friendlies to protect and get out, and three marked objects to retrieve – last time it had been a briefcase, a laptop and a thumb-drive, the latter hidden in a stitched-in seam inside a bad guy’s jacket, which they had failed to find. Six men and one woman going in and, like Walker, all were military. All practised at this kind of thing. All well trained. But this was different. This was designed to break recruits, to be near-on impossible, so that things in the field paled in comparison. Classic special-operations training.
However, this was even beyond special operations, at least as the DoD knew it; these new recruits had already been through the best the nation had out in the field: two Navy SEALs, two from Delta, a Force Recon Marine, an Army Ranger – and in Walker’s case, an officer from the 24th Tactical Squadron, the Air Force’s boots on the ground to Joint Special Operations Command.
Walker shadowed an ex-Army Delta Force guy named Clive Gowan, moving quickly to the rear of the complex. The other five were breaching the front doors and windows. They had their choice of silenced 9-millimetre weapons, and most, including Walker, were using an MP5 sub-machine gun. Good and accurate in close quarters. His secondary was a hip-holstered H&K USP 9-millimetre. The weapons fired blanks, and all wore laser tags. The flash-bang grenades and door-breaching charges were real, albeit dialled down. The people in the building were real too. Playing roles. Like the seven assaulters, they wore protective eye and ear coverings. Like the assaulting force, they didn’t want to lose.
The whistle blew, twice. Go time. Two minutes on the clock.
Clive tried the handle of the rear door – nothing made an operator feel more stupid than kicking in a door that wasn’t even locked.
It was unlocked. He opened it a thin crack, then used the back of his combat knife to slide from the ground up in that slim opening. Gently. He paused, about a foot from the ground, and shook his head. Walker closed the door. There was a trip wire, which in a real-life scenario might be connected to an explosive charge. In this case a smoke grenade.
Walker pointed to the window. Clive nodded, tried it, and it slid open. Safety glass, in case it smashed. Gym mats were positioned below each window, on the off chance someone fell through. The course was designed to break recruits, not maim them. Walker covered the Delta guy as he shimmied through, then saw the all-clear signal, and it was his turn. Clive was typical Delta: small and wiry, 180 pounds wet. Walker was taller and heavier, and didn’t land with the same kind of grace as his fellow recruit.
A figure emerged in front of them, coming around the doorway to what was set up as a small kitchen. Clive shot him with his silenced MP5. And got shot in the process. Exact timing, couldn’t do it again. Both were out of the game, and sat on the floor. Clive looked pissed. The instructor looked pleased, which told Walker that he’d done his job, and that meant that there were at least six hostiles still in here, each of whom had been tasked to take out a recruit.
He stepped around the instructor, then paused. He bent down, saw the lit-up area on the guy’s shoulder where Clive had zapped him twice.
Walker whispered, ‘That kill you straightaway?’
‘Huh?’ the instructor said.
‘I guess not,’ Walker replied, and he ditched his MP5, pulled his
sidearm and then hefted the instructor to his feet. He pressed the end of his pistol’s suppressor under the guy’s chin, pinning him against the wall. ‘Ever had a blank fired close-up against your skin?’
‘You’re mad.’ The guy was an old Army sergeant. Green Beret. Walker liked him, and wouldn’t shoot, but he wanted the intel, and he kept the pressure on the pistol.
‘We fail this run, we’re out,’ Walker said. ‘How bad do you think I want this?’
The instructor was silent.
‘Imagine I’m now doing something especially nasty to you, to get the intel,’ Walker said. ‘Play along. Use your imagination.’
The instructor’s eyes searched Walker’s. He sensed something harder, and said, ‘Upstairs, south-east room. Two captives. Three pieces of intel, all on the person in charge.’
‘Number of hostiles?’
‘You’re on the clock,’ the instructor said. ‘Tick-tock.’
Walker lowered his silenced pistol, took a pace out the door. ‘Asshole,’ the instructor said.
Walker shot him in the torso, twice. The guy was lit up all over.
Clive’s laugh was drowned out by the loud boom as the front door was breached.
Twenty-one seconds down.
Walker was already moving up the stairs, and motioned for the two SEALs to follow him, and for two other recruits to clear the downstairs rooms while the remaining operator took up a cover position. As he ascended he led with his pistol in a two-handed grip.
He sighted and double-tapped the first two targets that emerged at the top of the stairs. Imprudent move on their part – they should have waited for someone to rush up. But they probably figured the boom from downstairs was the first entry into the house and they would be in position faster than the attackers. Fine by Walker.
Three targets down. At least three remaining. Thirty-six seconds in.
Walker paused at the hallway and provided cover, motioning to his colleagues to head onwards. He felt a pat on his shoulder, and watched as the two SEALs went past. They were competent operators, Walker thought, as they moved warily but quickly towards the northern end of the house, where four rooms branched off the hallway.
At the top of the stairs, Walker turned right, heading to the southern end. He didn’t bother to check the south-west door. Instead he kicked in the door to the south-east room and rolled through the open doorway. Immediately he saw two captives seated on a bed, and a guy with a gun covering them. Walker sprang up and forward, rushed him, and as the trainer brought the gun to bear, Walker crash- tackled him, hard.
His college football coach would have been proud of the impact. He hit with his right shoulder, just under his opponent’s ribs, and kept his force going onwards and up. He hefted the instructor off his feet, and kept going until they smashed out the window, the safety glass shattering into a million little pieces. The drop was twelve feet. Walker didn’t want to get busted out for maiming a trainer, so he twisted as they fell, breaking the guy’s fall with his own body as they landed on the gym mat. The downside was, 200 pounds of man crashed onto him, and Walker was winded and sore – but not regretful.
‘Prick,’ the trainer said, getting to his feet.
Walker stayed on his back and shot him, three times. Forty-six seconds in.
Ten seconds later, the whistle blew.
Under a minute. A new record.
Walker stayed on his back. The other six recruits shuffled over. The SEALs had extracted the two captives.
‘He’s got the intel on him,’ Walker called out, pointing to the instructor he’d taken out the window. His cohort patted the guy down and quickly found it all – documents, a thumb-drive, photos.
The chief instructor stood over Walker, smiled, then held out her hand and helped him to his feet.
‘Welcome,’ she said, ‘to the CIA.’
FRIDAY 26 AUGUST
Three weeks later, Walker was one of five who completed the training. Clive, from Delta.
Jim and Hank, the SEALs.
Sally, the Marine.
Two Army guys flunked out. Scott suffered a broken back after slipping in a helo insertion in the first week and was in Walter Reed learning to walk again. The other, Brad, was booted for disciplinary reasons following an enhanced-interrogation simulation after the final clearance op. Brad had been the interrogator. Walker had been on the receiving end and had almost been drowned by excessive waterboarding before the exercise was called off. When freed of his shackles, Walker laid Brad out on the floor. The last they saw of him he was being stretchered back to base, and later that day, all his stuff was gone. Walker wondered if the Army would take a guy like that back. Probably. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at full tilt, they needed all the hardened nutcases they could get. They’d probably give the guy a promotion.
Now, the five freshest graduates of the CIA’s Special Activities Division sat in a bar. It was more a wind-down than a celebration. They’d been at such a high operational tempo that just sitting around and talking shit over a few drinks was the good medicine they needed. There wasn’t much choice, and the place they settled on was a long cinder-block rectangle with a corrugated-iron roof and no windows. Agricultural looking, but more likely repurposed from some kind of auto-repair workshop due to its proximity to Route 17, which carved through this part of North Carolina. Plenty of military types around, because it was that kind of bar, and it was just enough miles from Harvey Point and Norfolk Naval Shipyard for patrons not to worry about muscle-bound MPs crashing the party.
Walker and his cohort sat on battered timber stools that creaked and moaned with every movement, a table between them. No doubt the proprietor had learned the hard way that sturdy bar furniture made from steel tubing made all the better for bar fights. An ice-filled bucket of Bud Lights condensed between them, along with a heaped pile of buffalo wing bones devoured by the two SEALs. It was like genocide for chickens, Clive had quipped. Cheeseburgers did the rounds at the three- and six-hour marks. A recycled five-gallon oil can full of peanuts was half-gone, the shells by their feet. Good times.
They had been there since noon, residing in quiet reflection and simple banter. Taking stock. They had been through a tough grind, and they needed the change of pace. Classic rock played from a CD-stacker jukebox. Laughter and arguments came and went from the far reaches of the bar. They made small talk and watched via a television above the bar the White Sox win 5–3 over the Mariners. Walker had made ten bucks from one of the SEALs on the result. Around six pm the place started to fill up and conversation became hard to hear, the bare concrete floor and walls bouncing the sound around, but that was fine with Walker. They’d taken it in turns to flick through USA Today and the New York Times. They watched exhibition football, where Cincinnati Bengals did a good job of dismantling the Washington Redskins, and at half-time they had the barman switch it over to CNN’s rolling updates on the war in Iraq. The ticker reported that the Iraqis were protesting as a new US fire base had flattened an area of historic significance from Mesopotamian times.
‘Ungrateful is what them Iraqis are,’ Jim said. ‘They better pay us back in oil contracts for liberating them.’
‘Reckon we’ll ever find the supposed WMDs?’ Sally asked. ‘Who cares,’ Hank said. ‘They’ve got oil. We own it now.’ ‘WMDs are there,’ Jim said, looking over his beer to Sally. ‘Saddam
had chemical and biological, that’s a fact.’
‘A known known,’ Clive said with a grin.
‘Probably buried in a sand dune someplace,’ Jim said, sweeping
a pile of empty peanut shells to the floor.
Sally said, ‘I heard Saddam moved all his WMDs to Syria.’ ‘Then we should roll on into Syria next,’ Hank said.
‘You don’t think we’ve got enough to deal with?’ Sally suggested. ‘Maybe the lady’s right,’ Jim said. ‘Maybe we should pack up
and move home. Mid East be damned. Leave them to fight it out on their own.’
‘Lady?’ Sally said. ‘Want me to break off your arms and shove them up your boyfriend’s hot wing–tinged butthole?’
Jim grinned and hoisted his half-drunk beer as a kind of capitulation and apology. Sally clinked it with her bottle.
‘Respect,’ Jim said.
Clive shrugged and drained his beer, then went back to the bar to reload their bucket of Buds.
‘What say you, Air Force?’ Jim asked Walker.
Walker was silent. The news ticker said something about a storm warning for Florida and Louisiana. He thought back to his friends who were serving. The fact was, he’d had little choice but to move across to the CIA, in order to remain in the fight. The Air Force had just made him a Lieutenant Colonel, and they wanted him back home, at a desk, to help drive things. But that wasn’t Walker’s style. Not now, with two wars in full swing. Not ever.
‘Right,’ Jim said, looking back around the bar. ‘Man, I need to get laid.’
Sally said, ‘You couldn’t get laid if it was the end of the world and you looked like Brad Pitt, and Hank looked like Angelina.’
‘Hardy-ha,’ Jim said.
Clive returned. ‘Get them while they’re fresh.’
‘As fresh as Bud Lights can get,’ Sally said, flicking the top off a
bottle and necking it.
‘Five-oh,’ Jim said, motioning to the entry of the bar.
Walker turned and saw a couple of uniformed MPs on the scene.
Army. A sergeant and a major. Not there for a friendly drink. Senior men doing serious business. They were scanning the room. Only a couple of groups of patrons were in uniform – a gang of Army Rangers playing pool, and a bunch of Navy enlisted celebrating a bachelor party. The sergeant’s eyes settled on Walker, then he spoke to the major, who looked Walker’s way, and then they headed over.
‘I think they’ve got a hard-on for you, Walker,’ Clive said. ‘Maybe he’s gonna get laid tonight,’ Jim added.
‘Spit-roast for Air Force,’ Sally said.
The four of them laughed. Technically they were all still in the
military, for insurance and legal purposes, until mustered out of training at The Point and sworn in as CIA operatives. And that meant Walker was the senior officer. But the respect that came with rank had meant little at Harvey Point, and even less in this bar.
‘Lieutenant Colonel Walker,’ the major said, and snapped off a crisp salute as he and the sergeant took position a couple of paces away.
‘At ease,’ Walker said.
‘Message, sir, outside please,’ the major said.
Walker finished his beer, left a few twenties on the table for his
colleagues – he was the ranking officer among them, and some things never changed.
‘And here,’ he said, passing ten bucks to Hank. ‘You need Jim’s money more than I do. It should be enough to get you a blow job from one of those Navy guys.’
He left the four to drink and laugh as he followed the MPs out. It was good to be outside, in the fresh air and away from the din.
There was a Crown Vic sedan parked on the kerb, unmarked but with the MP radio whip antennas on the boot and domed light on the dash that signalled it as a police car.
‘What’s the message, Major?’ Walker asked.
The two MPs turned around, and the major pointed to the car park over Walker’s left shoulder.
There were around forty cars and trucks in the parking lot between the dark bar and a brightly lit Chili’s and Cracker Barrel further down that fed off the highway. Four tall lamps threw down shafts of yellow vapour light. Lots of shadows, no movement. It took a moment for Walker’s eyes to find him. A man in a dark suit and shirt leaning against a dull black pick-up. His arms crossed. A bright orange flare of a cigarette at his lips. Waiting.
Walker slowed as he neared the man in the suit. The smoking man, they’d called him at training. He would show up each week, always standing at a distance, observing, often with a smoke in his mouth. Sally had joked he was working for the FBI’s X-Files. Up close, Walker could see he was the other side of fifty. A well-worn face, like he’d spent decades working outdoors in a sun-drenched environment, and the lines had created permanent crags in his skin, like a topographical map of the Grand Canyon. His dark hair was a couple of inches longer than military regulation, thinned with age and worry. His posture was slightly stooped, like the weight of the world beat him down year on year. Slight and compact, maybe five-seven or five-eight to Walker’s six-three, 170 pounds to Walker’s 240. Despite the appearance, there was a restless energy about him – his eyes were jittery with ideas and things that needed to be done. Dressed in a suit that looked a size too big for him. A black or charcoal shirt under that, crinkled with wear, unbuttoned at the neck. The same or similar outfit Walker had seen him in seven times now.
‘Walker,’ the smoking man said, standing free of his car and extending a hand. ‘Rob Richter.’
His handshake was firm, his hand hard and calloused. Richter was clearly no office man.
‘I get the feeling you know all about me,’ Walker said. ‘Yep,’ Richter replied. ‘You’ve heard my name before?’
He nodded. ‘That means I’m good at my job – and others are good at theirs.’
To Walker’s ear, Richter’s accent was Arkansas. A southern boy doing good by his nation.
‘That’s the CIA for you, right?’ Walker said.
‘Yeah, well . . .’ Richter looked around and tossed his cigarette butt, then immediately reached into his inside jacket pocket and shook another Camel free from a soft pack. He lit up, and as he pocketed the fancy Zippo lighter, Walker saw the butt of a polymer automatic in a concealed shoulder holster. Walker knew that the CIA didn’t arm their staff on US soil, but maybe the smoking man was openly carrying a weapon across all states in some kind of second-amendment middle finger to rules imposed on his government agency. Or it could have been out of paranoia. Maybe the spook had been on one too many ops overseas, and thought the Russians were still on his case. Walker didn’t blame him. Far from it. He knew from experience that special-ops forces the world over opted to always have a good weapon at hand, even at home. They slept better, lived better. And longer.
‘Let’s go for a drive,’ Richter said.
Walker checked over his shoulder – the MPs were in their car and drove off with a spin of the back tyres on the blacktop. Not their tyres – the DoD probably had a schedule to change them out every year, worn out or not, every set on every MP vehicle, so why not drive it like you stole it. He glanced at the bar and figured his Point cohorts wouldn’t be getting a cab back to base until the early hours of the morning. Tomorrow was a day off, then they were all scheduled to fly home on Sunday and await further orders from Langley, which could take up to two weeks. Walker had put in a preference for assignments in the Mid East, Afghanistan and Europe, in that order. He’d seen plenty enough of the Mid East, but he didn’t much expect to be assigned any place else for the foreseeable future. Welcome to the age of the War on Terror. Us and them.
‘Where we headed?’ Walker asked.
‘That depends on how our next conversation goes.’ Richter climbed into his side of the truck and Walker headed around the hood and slid onto the passenger seat. The windows were open. August in North Carolina, a clear but humid night. Walker wore a T-shirt, a plain grey undershirt that came with his mountain camouflage fatigues for Afghanistan, with black jeans and pull-on boots. The relentless PT sessions over the past six weeks had made it hard for him to tie laces because of the ache and lactic acid in his bulging muscles, which had gained ten pounds of bulk. He couldn’t have either of the SEALs beat him in the bench press or bicep curls. Inside the truck smelled new, and as Richter started the engine, a big V8 thrum, Walker noticed the rental tag on the key fob.
Richter was an Agency man, probably from Langley, Walker guessed. He would have rented the vehicle from the airport at Chesapeake, or he might have driven straight down – a four-hour trip. Walker wasn’t surprised that the CIA didn’t have a fleet of cars waiting for their staff in every major city – this was no longer the military life, far from it, and he would have to learn to make do with the limited resources that came with the change. The Agency threw big money at overseas resources and assets, literally bags containing millions of dollars to foreign agents and foreign government officials, but Walker had learned that for the intel officers who were out there recruiting and putting their lives on the line, it was a tight ship. Gone for Walker were the Pentagon’s billions of dollars worth of toys and equipment.
‘So . . .’ Richter said as he drove, hanging onto the ‘o’ for quite a while. ‘You did well at The Point.’
‘Where’d you hear that?’
‘Birdie. Little one. Told me so.’
‘I thought they said from the get-go that they weren’t marking us.’ ‘They don’t,’ Richter said. ‘But they do write reports, like you wouldn’t believe. They watch and listen to you at every turn, from the sleeping quarters to the mess hall. Not just your tests and training, but your interaction with others. You know they’ve even got cameras in the bathrooms?’
They drove in silence for four miles north-east along Route 17, away from Harvey Point. Trucks laboured on the road. Cars and vans rattled along. No urgency. No bombs going off, no snipers on high, no hidden IEDs. America, but not as Walker had seen it for close on seven years of continuous overseas deployment.
‘What kind of intelligence officer do you see yourself as?’ Richter said eventually.
‘One who gets to live on at the end of the day, while making some kind of difference, would be a nice concept,’ Walker said. ‘That still a thing?’
‘Show me that person, and I’ll believe you. They’ve gone the way of the dinosaurs, those fine men. And they were mainly men, coming home from fighting Nazis. Don’t build ’em like that anymore.’ Silence fell for a few moments before Richter continued. ‘You and the others who just graduated? It’ll be the Directorate of Operations; or the Special Activities Division. But it’s not so special. But then you know that, right? The chances are you’ll be back out there, with the spec-ops teams, kicking down doors in Baghdad, just like you’ve been doing for the past seven-odd years.’
‘I know that.’
‘Well, I represent another element of intelligence officers. A far smaller group. Extra-selective. Interested?’
Walker looked across at him. ‘And what would that be?’
‘Sounds like women’s undergarments.’
‘Do your job well, you’ll get to take plenty of those off. I’m not saying that chicks go wild for spies, because no-one’s going to know what you really do. But seduction of assets is a tool at your disposal, and you’re going to have to use it.’
‘Use my tool, got it.’
‘Hmph. Funny guy, Walker.’ Richter glanced across at him. ‘How much have you had to drink?’
‘Too much for this recruitment spiel,’ Walker replied, looking ahead.
‘You let your guard down, even for a second, you can get killed out there.’
‘I know that.’
‘Yet you drank all afternoon.’
Walker was silent.
‘What are you thinking over there, Walker?’ Richter glanced across at him.
‘Your comment about using the tools at my disposal,’ Walker replied.
‘I’m married, so I guess I’ll figure another way to get information out of foreign targets.’
‘Right. Married. To Eve, back in Texas,’ Richter took a long drag on his cigarette, blew the smoke out a crack in the window and the airconditioning chased it out. ‘The two of you have been separated – what’d she say, going on two years now?’
Walker looked across at Richter. It was a statement, not a question. No-one knew that they were separated. No-one but he and Eve. Had Richter spoken to her personally? Or had it come up via a higher security clearance coming his way?
‘I’m gonna tell you what a guy told me when I was a newbie like you,’ Richter said. ‘You want to stay alive out there, what matters most is how well you walk through the fire. You think you can walk through fire, Walker?’
‘I can try.’
‘Damned well you’ll try. You’ll get your turn, hot shot. Take a look in that bag, Walker,’ Richter said, motioning to the small black duffel in the footwell between them. ‘Go on. It’s your future. And it starts tonight.’
‘Jed Walker is right there in Reacher’s rear-view mirror.’ Lee Child.
Jed Walker is about to learn that in the murky world of espionage, the rules of war do not apply. An action thriller where the line between the good guys and the bad can be hard to see.
It's 2005 and Jed Walker has just joined the CIA. As a ten-year veteran of Air Force Special Operations, Walker is used to being at the pointy end of things. But normally the front line is much further from home.
Sent to New Orleans on the trail of Russians wanting to claim back what was stolen from them in Afghanistan, it doesn't take long for Walker to realise that in the murky world of espionage, the rules of war do not apply.
Teaming up with a feisty M16 operative, to do what is right for the nation Walker must take steps that will betray The Agency. As Hurricane Katrina hits, to forever change a city, it's clear to Walker that that this is a high-stakes game where the winner takes all, and he must succeed.
From Langley to Louisiana, Washington to Moscow, THE AGENCY moves like a tempest through a treacherous landscape of double-crosses, false identities, and enemies old and new.
Jed Walker is going to be pushed to the limit - of what he can do, what he can take, and what he knows is right.
'A terse, tense brand of hard-boiled action suspense . . . addictive.' THE AGE