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Archive for September, 2010

The Last Run, Chapter 2

I was going to post Chapter One today, but after some thought, realized it would give away a bit more of the plot than I’m ready to part with at the moment.

So, instead, here’s Chatper Two, the introduction of Caleb Lewis, the Tehran Number Two. Those who’ve read the previous novels (what? You haven’t! For SHAME! Rectify this lack at once!) will have, perhaps, realized that there’s a structural similarity between A Gentleman’s Game and Private Wars, one that continues in The Last Run. Each novel begins with a “pre-operational briefing” as a means of introducing Chace and establishing where she is both personally and professionally. This is then followed by the “instigating event,” normally in Chapter One, that gets the plot rolling. From there on out the novels all follow a sort of ’round robin’ narrative style, where chapters follow Chace, Crocker, and at least two other ‘new’ characters introduced in the novel – one of them the antagonist-slash-adversary-slash-enemy, one of them a potential ally of the protagonist.

The Last Run follows this structure, in the main, but there’re some curve balls thrown in; to explain would be to give away more than I care to right now. Suffice to say that Caleb is introduced in Chapter Two (yes, that’s the one below), and he’s in the ‘potential ally’ category, in case you hadn’t already guessed that. I liked writing Caleb. If you’ve read Private Wars, you may see echoes of  Charles Reiss, but those are cosmetic, due mostly in part to the fact that both men are doing ‘government work’ in environments neither is certain they’re prepared for.

Last note before I shut up and let you read. Caleb’s own journey in The Last Run was, possibly, more fun for me to write than Chace’s.

Hope you enjoy! The Last Run is on sale as of October 26th!

***

Chapter Two

Iran – Tehran, Park-E Shahr
4 December 0651 Hours (GMT +3.30)

At the School, the instructors had talked a lot about fear, and even though Caleb Lewis had listened to their every word and believed each one that was uttered, he still found himself entirely unprepared for the real thing. It was, without question, awful, purely, completely, clawingly awful. It was a fear that had its own feel, its own scent, even its own taste. Nothing anyone had ever told him, nothing that he had ever experienced growing up, had proved an adequate preparation for its constant presence.

For three and a half weeks, since first setting foot in Iran, fear had been with him, and it showed no signs of leaving anytime soon.

***

He hadn’t wanted the post as the Tehran Number Two. What Caleb Lewis had wanted, what he had trained for, was a desk job, in the Intelligence Directorate, preferably on the Iran Desk. He had wanted to work for D-Int Daniel Szurko, who was by all accounts both a quite brilliant and very pleasant gentleman who demanded the best from his staff. That was why Caleb Lewis had worked so very hard at mastering his Farsi as well as his Arabic, and it hadn’t ever occurred to him that doing so would lead to his downfall, the same way it had never occurred to him that doing less than his best in his other coursework at the School might propel his life on an entirely different trajectory.

Then, at the beginning of November, ten members of the embassy staff in Tehran had been arrested, all of them accused of espionage, and after almost two weeks of diplomatic wrangling between Her Majesty’s Government and the Islamic Republic of Iran, all ten had been released, declared persona non grata, and sent packing back to England. It wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last, but what had made this particular instance exceptional was that, of the ten, two actually were working for SIS. In the mad scramble to fill the post, Lee Barnett had been pulled from Istanbul and named the new Tehran Number One, but nowhere in the field had D-Ops been able to find an able Number Two.

Which was why, only one week before completing the School, Caleb Lewis had been called out of class by James Chester and directed to report to Paul Crocker in London for immediate briefing by D-Ops. Chester had added, ominously, that Lewis might want to pack up his belongings before he left. Forty seven hours later, he was getting off a plane in Tehran, his heart trying to climb its way out of his mouth, and his head still reeling with the nearly absurd
amount of operational data the Ops Room staff had pumped into it.

Ever since that moment, Caleb Lewis had been desperately pretending he was a spy, and was just as desperately certain he wasn’t any damn good at it.

***

The Ops Room had done their best by him, and, in fact, Lewis was doing a far better job of things than he imagined. The briefing, while hasty, had been thorough, comprehensive, overseen not only by D-Ops, but by Terry Ricks, the previous Tehran Number Two. It was Ricks who had done most of the talking.

“First priority on hitting the ground, Caleb, is to figure out what that bastard Shirazi’s done to us since we’ve been on holiday,” Ricks said. “Those VEVAK bastards move quick, damn quick, and they’ll be looking to make you as one of ours as soon as you land.”

“Understood,” Caleb said, nodding, head already starting to swim in confusion.

“Play the rulebook, understand? Take your time, identify the opposition, don’t do anything—not a bloody goddamn thing—until you’re certain you know when you’re being followed and when you’re not.”

“Yes.” Caleb spoke with such emphasis that D-Ops, sitting alone along one side of the briefing table, shot him a glare, and Lewis didn’t need telepathy to read the man’s thoughts. Crocker was nervous about him, and with good reason. Lewis was being sent into a hostile theatre, green as a new shoot. Everyone present for the briefing—hell, everyone in the Ops Room, if not in Vauxhall Cross itself—knew the importance of Tehran.

Ever since the Revolution, Iran had been, as they said in the old days, a tough nut to crack. But following the last election and the suppression of the Green Revolution that followed in its wake, SIS had seen an opportunity and seized it. It had taken Ricks the better part of a year, but somehow he’d cobbled together the beginnings of a new network, consisting mostly of students and counterrevolutionaries, with a few, precious members of the clergy and low-level
government officials. The nascent cell was of paramount importance to SIS, and one needn’t be an expert in Farsi to understand why; since the Revolution, reliable human intelligence out of Iran had been near-impossible to obtain. The Americans were widely known to be both deaf and blind in the country, and Britain, even after thirty years of effort, had met with nothing but repeated failure in the face of VEVAK’s aggressive counterintelligence program. Israel’s operations, while perhaps more successful, had always been jealously guarded and its fruits rarely shared, now even more so with the possibility of a nuclear Iran.

There was no margin for error. If there was a failure in Iran, it would be laid first at Caleb’s feet, then at Barnett’s, and of the two of them, Barnett, with his years of service to the Firm, had political cover. If Caleb screwed this, his would go down in the record books as one of the shortest careers in SIS history.

“Used cars for code names,” Ricks said. “Code words and phrases for all of them, using Farsi only, to avoid suspicion. The lexicon’s here, you’ll need to memorize it. Newest one recruited, code name Mini, works for one of the mujtahids appointed to the Guardian Council. Ideological asset, has refused funds. Very, very skittish, Lewis, and with good reason. His dead drop is in the Park-e Shahr, beneath the eastern footbridge, north side. Checks Wednesday and Saturday. Eleventh brick up, sixth in as you face it on the left. The masonry looks solid, but the brick is loose. Droploaded sign is an empty pack of cigarettes on the ground at the foot of the trashcan, to your right as you enter the park from Fayyazbakkah Street, facing south. Your drop-cleared is a yellow chalk mark on the front of the south gatepost, at the east entrance to the park. Repeat it back.”

Caleb repeated it back without error. He thought Crocker looked surprised he’d managed it.

“Good,” Ricks said. “Next one, code name is Phantom, she’s a student at Tehran University. Ideological, but is taking payment…”

***

The first Saturday in December, and Caleb woke cold and immediately scared, eyes coming open to find himself staring into his pillow. He sat himself up with a start, certain he’d overslept, checked the clock and saw he hadn’t, and fought off the near-overpowering urge to collapse back beneath the warmth of his blankets. Tehran had turned surprisingly cold in the last three weeks, never rising above ten degrees Celsius. Rain had started falling the night before. Sitting on the side of his bed, he could hear it spattering against the windows still.

Caleb roused himself, showered and dressed, took his backpack from its peg, and then, with a moment’s hesitation to gather himself and marshal his courage, stepped out of his apartment. He made his way down the two flights onto Mellat Street and into the rain. A car sped past him as he emerged, an old Fiat, and he avoided the spray it kicked up, only to be rewarded twenty yards to the south with a soaking from a speeding Khodro as he crossed Amir Kabir. He shook himself off, continuing towards the Tehran Bazaar, most of the shops not yet open. It wasn’t yet six in the morning. He ducked into the first open café he found for a quick cup of coffee, exchanging pleasantries with the owner, and used the opportunity to again try and spot anyone who might be following him.

That he didn’t see any surveillance did nothing to ease his fears.

In its own way, it made things worse.

***

There were three drops for him to check, Mini, Cayman, and Quattro, and Caleb took them in reverse order this morning, in an effort to continually vary his routine. No signs set for Quattro or Cayman, and he was beginning to think that maybe he might be home and warm and dry before eight, when, at the entrance to the Park-e Shahr, at the foot of the trashcan, he saw a crushed pack of 57s. The cigarettes were manufactured by the Iranian Tobacco Company, named 57 after the year 1357 in the Iranian calendar, 1979 in the Gregorian, the year of the Revolution.

Without stopping, Caleb continued into the park. The rain began pelting him with thicker drops, and he struggled with the sudden desire to look back over his shoulder, to check, once again, for anyone who might be following him. Thus far he’d seen no one who raised undue suspicion, had seen nothing out of the ordinary, but that gave him no confidence. His contact with Mini since arriving in-country had been limited, only one message two weeks earlier, marginal value about movement on the Guardian Council and a statement that he had to be careful, that he was afraid he was under suspicion. Given everything Ricks had told him about Mini, Caleb had expected a longer silence.

He trudged his way deeper into the park, along the broad central main path, stepping over piles of scattered, sodden leaves. A bicyclist swooped past him, continued on, speeding towards the central fountain. Caleb turned west, onto a thinner trail, overhung with branches, the sound of the rainfall louder on their leaves. The near-constant noise of Tehran’s automobile traffic had faded, and now he could hear his own footsteps. There was a bench on his right, ahead of him, and he stopped at it, propping up his left foot and bending to fix the laces on his trainers. He straightened, wiped water out of his hair, and still he saw nobody who might be following him. He turned south, switching paths, then east again, and twice more he stopped to admire the trees, or to look north, as if trying to spot the Alborz Mountains behind the rain.

Finally, his route took him towards the footbridge, fifty meters away now, and he saw the bicyclist who’d passed him earlier, still perched on his seat, one leg down to hold his balance, peering about, and Caleb was slowing his approach when the rider pushed off once more, speeding away, down the trail. Caleb waited until he was out of sight. Then he followed the narrow pathway down the embankment, to where it joined the walkway beneath the bridge.

The sound of the falling rain was louder beneath the bridge, but Caleb didn’t idle to enjoy the shelter. He located the brick, shifted it, and inside there was, indeed, a scrap of paper. He pocketed it, replaced the brick, then continued down the path. It had taken him two, perhaps three seconds total to clear the drop.

He used the east entrance to leave the park, marking the south post as he passed it with the chalk he carried in his pocket.

***

His Number One, Lee Barnett, was in their office when Caleb reached the embassy.

“Drowned rat,” Barnett said.

“Pardon?”

“As in what you look like.”

Caleb peeled off his jacket, nodding, then took a seat at his desk. For a moment he relished the modest relief in the safety of his surroundings. Their office was buried deep within the embassy itself, unmarked, and always locked, the only keys possessed by Caleb and Barnett. According to Barnett, they indeed had “posh digs,” at least compared to other Stations the Number One had experienced. Most often SIS was stuck in something more akin to a closet, with barely enough room to allow a man to change his mind, let alone his shirt. Here, there was space for the two of them to have their own desks, with enough to spare for an ample cabinet that held the secure communications array used to speak with London. Opposite Caleb’s desk was the office safe, large and ancient and impenetrable, flanked on either side by floor-to-ceiling bookcases. The room had no windows, not even ceiling lights, but was instead illuminated by two standing lamps, positioned at opposite corners. Instead of being dim, however, that gave the room a feeling of warmth, something
Lewis was more than a little grateful for at the moment.

Barnett moved to their little tea table and plugged in the kettle. “Long walk this morning?”

“Had to check the flags on Mini, Cayman, and Quattro,” Caleb answered, digging into his pocket. “Mini had loaded the drop, so I took an extra hour before moving to clear it, just to be sure I was clean.”

“I thought Mini was keeping his head down?”

“That’s what I thought.” He unfolded the note. There was a pause, only the sound of the kettle beginning to chatter. “Sir?”

“Hmm?”

Caleb smoothed the note out on his desk, looked at Barnett.

“Mini uses code words.”

“Is that a question?”

“No. Mini uses code words, the lexicon that Ricks worked up before he got PNG’ed.”

“If you need the lexicon, it’s in the safe, I—”

“No, this is a number code,” Caleb said. “Mini’s drop, but it’s not Mini’s code. This one’s different, in English, not Farsi. Looks like a
substitution code.”

“Give here.”

Caleb handed the note over, watched as Barnett’s thin face seemed to stretch in confusion, the normally cheerful smile absent. Caleb liked Barnett; it was, in fact, Barnett who had made him feel that his fear was both to be expected and to be managed, and there was something paternal about the man that appealed greatly to Caleb. He was a tall man, veering close to gangly, with a thick head of black hair that had begun showing the gray of distinction at his temples. If Caleb had any problems with Barnett at all, it was that the man smoked like a refinery, and had no qualms about doing so in their office, official embassy no-smoking policy be damned.

Barnett had lowered the note, was staring at the wall, deep in thought. The kettle rattled to crescendo, then shut itself off with a
click.

“You weren’t followed?” Barnett asked him.

“If they were on me, I never saw them.”

The Number One handed the note back to Caleb, reached for the pack of Silk Cut Blue resting on his desk beside his lighter. He shook one free and set fire to it. After another moment he left his cigarette to dangle on his lip, moved to the kettle, and fixed each of them a cup of tea.

“Doesn’t make any fucking sense.” Barnett handed one mug to Caleb. “If they know the drop, why the hell didn’t they nab you when you went to clear it?”

“Not following, sir.”

“Mini uses the lexicon, Caleb. This isn’t the lexicon. Ergo, Mini didn’t load the drop.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Caleb said. “Mini gave up the drop.”

“No, lad, you’re not thinking it through. If Mini gave up the drop, why wouldn’t he have given up the lexicon, too? And if the drop’s been blown, then why didn’t Shirazi’s goon squad just pin you to the ground the moment you came to clear it? Or, better yet, after you’d cleared it? Did you see anyone else around, anyone at all?”

“There was a bicyclist, just before I got to the bridge, but he was gone before I moved in.” Caleb examined the note again, all the more certain that he was looking at two different codes, a primary number key, followed by a rudimentary substitution code, reading:

E N M S A E K H
N H MH A K A SM

Caleb counted up the figures in the first part, fourteen numbers, apparently grouped in twos. “The second part is definitely substitution, but I think this first part is a book code.”

“Could be he’s waiting until you return.” The ash on the end of Barnett’s cigarette dropped onto the back of his hand, narrowly missing his mug of tea. He wiped his hand against his pants, leaning forward to examine the note again. “First time to see if the drop is real. Now that it’s confirmed, they’ll grab you on the next trip. PNG express, if you’re lucky.”

“God.” Caleb felt suddenly ill.

“I think you’re right, I think it’s a book code. Caleb?”

“No one in the network uses a book code, sir.”

“Thing is, if VEVAK does have Mini, then he certainly gave them the lexicon.”

“So it’s not VEVAK?”

Barnett straightened up, shrugged. “Guess we won’t know that until we decode the bloody thing. By which, of course, I mean until you decode the bloody thing.” He grinned.

“But I don’t know the book.” Caleb shook his head, unsure if his Number One was making a joke or not. “It could be any book. And the substitution code—I mean, there’s no way to even begin to guess the key.”

“Well, the book code at least, if it’s a message for this Station, it’s going to be found in one of those.” Barnett used his cigarette to indicate the two bookcases, filled to bursting with all manner of reference, both technical and cultural. At least three different copies of the Koran, and that many again of the collected Omar Khayyám, anything that any previous resident to the Station had thought of merit, or, at the least, of use. “Can’t be more than one hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred books there, tops. Crack part-the-first, maybe that gives you the key to part-the-second.”

“You can’t be serious,” Caleb said, and immediately regretted it.

One look told him that, for all Barnett’s humor, there was nothing about the current situation he found funny.

“Look, Caleb, either this is Shirazi playing silly buggers with us, or it’s someone else who’s discovered that we use the footbridge in Park-e Shahr as a dead drop. In either case, the location is compromised.”

Caleb got to his feet quickly, suddenly possessed of a different fear, one that had nothing to do with his own well-being. “I’ve got to set the warning flag for Mini. Jesus, if he hasn’t been made and they’re watching the drop, he’ll walk right into them.”

“No, sit. Drink your bloody tea.”

“But Mini—”

“I’ll do it. If Shirazi’s crew has eyes on you, there’s a chance I’ll draw less attention. He’s in Elahiyeh?”

“Yes, in the foothills.”

“What’s the flag?”

“There’s a streetlight at the corner of Razm Ara and Estanbol, on the north side.” Caleb searched his pockets, pulled out the piece of yellow chalk. “Two horizontal lines on the east side of the post.”

“No school like the old school.” Barnett took the chalk. “Right, I’ll set the flag, you hit the books. I’d start with the ones in Farsi.”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

“Good. Wish me luck.”

“I should go,” Caleb said uneasily. “Mini’s my agent.”

Barnett grinned, opening the door. “You’re a good lad, Caleb.”

***

It was midafternoon before Barnett returned, saying the deed was done and that the rain had finally stopped, and that there’d been no sign of any VEVAK interest whatsoever. He noted the growing towers of books surrounding Caleb, fixed two more cups of tea, and turned his attention back to the reports he’d been preparing for delivery to D-Int earlier that morning. Each worked in silence.

As Barnett was preparing to leave for the day, Caleb found the book. A copy of Hakim Abu’l Qasim Ferdowsi’s epic poem, Shahnameh. Even when he had it, he wasn’t sure it was correct. The intervening hours had been filled with so many pieces of nonsense, of what appeared to be the correct match of page and word to meaning, only to fall apart at the last moment. An article where a noun was needed, or a number that went to a page or word that didn’t exist. Twice already Caleb had managed to decode the whole message, only to realize the sentence was utter, utter nonsense.

Which was why, even after reading it through three times, he still wasn’t certain he’d decoded it correctly.

The grapes are in the water. Falcon.

Barnett, about to pull on his coat, stopped and stared at him.

“What?”

“I’m not sure, sir. I think that’s the message. ‘The grapes are in the water. Falcon.’ Sounds like a keyword code now, but it still doesn’t match the lexicon. And we’re not running anybody under the name Falcon, are we?”

“Not in this theatre. You’re sure you’ve got it right?”

“No,” Caleb said, with utter sincerity. “I’m not.”

“Not really what I wanted to hear.” Barnett had the communications cabinet open now, extended a long leg to hook a nearby chair, pulling it closer. He parked himself in front of the keyboard, began typing quickly. In addition to the signals deck, there was a headset, as well as a companion handset, for the secure audio link, but Caleb had yet to see them used. According to Barnett, he didn’t want to see them used, either, because if one of them was on the headset here in Iran, the odds were it was Paul Crocker at the other end of it in London.

“Give it to me again,” Barnett said. “And the substitution code at the end.”

Caleb relayed the message once more, Barnett typing more slowly this time as he took it down. Task completed, Barnett turned the transmit key, then whacked the “send” button with his palm.

The machine hummed for an instant, then went utterly silent. Barnett removed the key, scooted himself back in his chair, closed and locked the cabinet.

“London’s problem now,” he told Caleb Lewis.

***

Return to Form

School started roughly two weeks ago, though this is the first true “uninterrupted” week, now that the High Holy Days are over. What this means is that myself and my partner in crimes are able to finally return to the serious work of writing for a living. There are many wonderful things about summer, but with two kids in school, and thus two kids out of school for three months, productivity, shall we say, suffers.

Response to Stumptown 4 has been gratifying, which is always nice. In the main, I avoid reviews – in fact, in the main, I avoid looking around the interwebs for anything concerning me, which seems to surprise many people, and befuddle many more. Every now and then I am directed to something about myself or my work; more often than not, the kindly-hearted directing-type person points me to the positive, but there’s always – there is always – a negative. Normally from a poster who enjoys the fact that they don’t have to own the fecal onslaught they’re spilling. Point of order: you want to throw a knife at me, sign your fucking name. I own my words; have the courage to own yours. Otherwise, you’re just another nutless coward who “is working on a comic/movie/novel” but doesn’t have the talent or wherewithal to make it happen. Nut up or shut up.

I mean, seriously, didn’t your parents teach you anything about how to behave in public?

This, too, is a return to form. Comics are a Very Small Pond, folks, and people who take themselves too seriously in these waters are people who need to gain some perspective. Really.

Still getting the details together for The Last Run tour. Right now I’ve confirmed appearances at Murder By The Book (Portland), Seattle Mystery Bookshop, the Los Angeles Mystery Bookstore, The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the Miami Book Fair (that’ll be near the end of November). More stores may be added, but the likelihood of my getting out east of the Mississippi (aside from the Miami trip) is looking rather… thin. To those of you on the East Coast specifically who have been waiting patiently for me to come your way, 2011 will – repeat will – be the year for it. Check the appearances page for updates!

Speaking of which… I, unfortunately, will not be attending NYCC, as planned, though JVM will still be doing the show. Scheduling conflicts + Deadlines = No Way In Hell That I Could Make the Trip, though I am hoping to get out to New York in late November/early December, if all goes well.

Back to the matter of The Last Run. I’ll be posting the first chapter on Friday, as a teaser, the second chapter the week following, the third the week after that…at which point I hope appetites will be suitably whetted for the novel’s release on the 26th of October.

And now, a question for y’all. For A Gentleman’s Game and Private Wars, we did bookplates, with art done by Steve Rolston and Brian Hurtt respectively. The deal was, you sent a SASE with a copy of your receipt for the novel, and you received in exchange a signed and numbered bookplate. Is this something folks would be interested in for The Last Run? Let me know in the comments below!

EDITED TO ADD:

I forgot to say that I won’t be at Jet City this weekend, either. Both Jen and I have had to cancel due to family commitments.

Yes, I know – a lot of cancelations lately. This Real Life thing is a bitch.

Cover artwork for Question collection

Art by Cully Hamner

Art by Cully Hamner

Cully Hamner has shared cover art for the collection of his and Greg’s co-feature from Detective, The Question: Pipeline, which hits stores January 26, 2011.

See Greg in Vancouver!

Vancouver Comicon

Greg will be in Vancouver tomorrow (September 12) for the Vancouver Comicon!

The con will go from 11am to 5pm at Heritage Hall (3102 Main Street).