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The stakes were higher than she’d expected. This knowledge made it harder for her to justify her own little low-stakes game. Was the tight focus on saving her own life even defensible in the face of this kind of horror? She’d held a hard line in her conversation with Carston, but if there was any chance this story was more than a trap, did she have any choice but to try to stop it?

If Daniel Beach disappeared, de la Fuentes would know someone was onto him. Odds were, he would act sooner than he’d planned, ahead of schedule. Daniel had to talk, and he had to talk quickly. And then he had to go back to regular life, be seen, and keep the megalomaniac drug lord calm until the good guys could take him out.

In the beginning, it was standard operating procedure for Alex’s subjects to be released into the wild for a short time. This was a major part of her specialty; Alex was the best at retrieving information without damaging the subject. (Before Alex, Barnaby had been the best and only man for the job.) The CIA, the NSA, and most similar government sections had their own teams for interrogating subjects who were slated for disposal after the information was acquired. Over time, as she proved more successful than even the best of the other teams, Alex had gotten a lot busier. Though the other sections would rather have stayed insular, kept the information with their own people, the results spoke for themselves.

She sighed and refocused on the now. Eleven pictures of Daniel Beach lay in a row across the pillows at the head of the bed. It was hard to reconcile the two sides of the coin. In the early pictures he looked like a Boy Scout, his softly waving hair somehow projecting innocence and pure intentions. But though it was obviously the same face in the spies’ photos, everything was different. The hair was always hidden under hoods or ball caps (one of her own frequent disguises); the posture was more aggressive; the expressions were cold and professional. She’d worked on professionals. It took time. Possibly more than one weekend. She looked at the two matching but contradictory faces again and wondered briefly if Daniel had an actual psychiatric disorder or if it was a progression she was looking at, and the innocent no longer existed at all.

Not that it mattered – yet.

The headache felt like it was searing a hole through the inside of her eyeball. She knew it wasn’t the hours of reading that had caused it. No, the decision looming in front of her was the source of the pain.

She gathered up all the files and stuffed them into a suitcase. The decimation of the population of the American Southwest would have to take a backseat for a few hours.

She was in a different car than she’d started out with that morning. Before checking into the motel, she’d returned the rental in Baltimore, then taken a cab to York, Pennsylvania. The cabbie dropped her a few minutes’ walk from the house where a man surnamed Stubbins was selling his three-year-old Tercel, as advertised on Craigslist. She’d paid cash and used the name Cory Howard, then driven to Philly in her new ride. It was a trail that could be followed, but it would be very hard to do.

She drove several miles away from her motel, then chose a little dive that seemed to be doing brisk business. That was desirable for two reasons. One, she would be less memorable in a crowd. Two, the food was probably edible.

The dining area was packed, so she ate at the small bar. The wall behind the bar was mirrored; she could watch the door and front windows without turning around. It was a good perch. She had a greasy burger, onion rings, and a chocolate malt. All were delicious. While she ate, she turned off her brain. She’d gotten pretty good at that over the last nine years; she could compartmentalize almost anything. And while she focused on the food and watched the people around her, the headache subsided to a dull throb. Over the course of the meal, the Motrin finally won and the pain dissolved completely. She ordered a piece of pie for dessert – pecan – though she was completely stuffed and could only pick at it. She was stalling. Once the meal was over, she’d have to make a decision.

The headache was waiting for her in the car, as she’d known it would be, though it was not as sharp as before. She drove randomly down the quiet residential streets, where anyone following her would be obvious. The little suburb was dark and empty. After a few minutes she wandered closer toward the city.

There were still two columns of possibilities in her head.

The first column, that Carston had been lying in order to lure her to her death, was beginning to seem more and more unlikely. Still, she had to stay alert. This whole story could be fiction. All the evidence and coordinating departments and separate analysts with their differing writing styles and the photographs from around the world – it could be a very detailed, elaborate setup. Not a foolproof one, either, since they had no way of knowing she wouldn’t just walk away from it.

But why would Carston have all this info prepared if he’d hoped to get her to a prearranged meeting? They could have killed her easily there without all this window dressing. A ream of blank paper was all you would need if you expected your mark’s brains to be on the pavement before she could open the briefcase. How quickly could this kind of thing be thrown together? She’d given him no time to manufacture it on the spot with her early arrival. Who was Daniel Beach in this scenario? One of their own? Or an unsuspecting civilian Photoshopped into the exotic scenes? They had to know she would be able to verify some of this information.

They’d offered her a plan of action in the final file. In five days’ time, with or without her, they would pick him up during his regular Saturday-morning run. No one would miss him until school began again Monday. If anyone did happen to look for him, it might appear that he’d taken a little holiday. If she agreed to help, she would have two days to get the information they needed, then she would be free to go. They hoped she would consent to keep in some form of contact. An emergency e-mail address, a social network site, the classifieds even.

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