Murder in a World of Total Surveillance
Thursday, August 23, 2007 12:14:00 AM
by Humphrey Hawksley
|When Kat Polinski breaks into an embassy in Washington to steal files, she finds the staff massacred. Hours later she learns her sister has been murdered. Kat's already lost her parents and nothing will stop her finding her sister's killer.
Saturday, 2:10 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time
Kat, you there? What do you see?”
She touches her earpiece. Streetlights cast a skittish beam into the room that has the feel of a ghost town. A sick feeling sweeps through Kat, like a cold mist spreading through her limbs from the center of her chest.
She had gone through a night like this before and come out with the chemical tastes of a mortuary in her mouth and memories that clung to her like thorns.
In the silence, just past two in the morning, she stands inside the doorway of the second-floor, open-plan office and looks at each of the six desks, taking in family pictures, coffee cups, computer monitors; no drawers or filing cabinets open; no papers strewn about; no desks disturbed; nothing smashed or strewn on the floor. As far as she can see, nothing’s been touched.
The only thing that stands out is the five bodies.
“Kat. Speak. What do you see?”
Kat takes a deep breath to keep her voice steady.
“Two females, young, Asian-looking. Both wearing jeans. One is wearing a red blouse, the other a blue tank top. They’re holding hands. They must have slid down the wall when they were shot. There’s blood all down the wall right by them.”
“An Asian male, young, skinny, in a blue button-down shirt, under the desk, all twisted around.”
Blood’s soaked into the carpet. “Yes.”
Under the chair lies a pair of loafers, a head on the floor next to it, a young guy, longish dark hair, as if catnapping with his shoes off.
At the next desk, head resting on folded arms, is an older woman, long, gray hair tied back in a clip, blood dried around. A lot.
At one end of the room is a long window lit by the glow of a Washington streetlight. At the other, a window looking out into a courtyard, light enough to see a drainpipe. On the wall hang holiday posters of people skiing, horseback riding; in the middle, a portrait of the president; on the other side, more pictures, of oil rigs, pipelines; and a map of the world. Behind Kat is the door she’s locked, with a bulletin board displaying embassy regulations, fire escapes, and other notices.
The air-conditioning’s off. Humidity’s clinging inside her lungs. But it’s her nerves, not the air, that she’s got to control. The killer’s been and gone. She’s sure of it. It’s Friday night, Saturday morning, so she might have all the time in the world.
On the other side, near an ornamental clock hanging lopsided from the wall, Kat sees a woman’s foot, tights, and a black shoe with a buckle and a heel.
“No one’s supposed to be here, right?” says Kat into her mouthpiece.
“Kat, get out,” orders Cage. “Right now.”
From the street, she hears traffic. From the ceiling, the hum of old fluorescent lights. The ticking of a cuckoo clock from her right. She picks up a buzzing sound, stays where she is until she sees a wasp flying back and forth into the back window. She closes her eyes to check she’s seeing right. When she opens them, nothing’s changed.
She catches movement against a wall, a desk away from where the older woman’s been killed. She grips the flashlight like a gun. Cage wanted her to take a weapon, but if she had, she’d end up shooting someone and be back in jail. All she has in the way of weapons are a cell phone taped to her right ankle, and a fiberscope and a can of Mace in her pants pockets.
Kat lets her breath out slowly. The movement is light from a computer screen. It flickers and goes dark again.
“Surveillance still out?” she asks.
“Abort, for Christ’s sake.”
“Affirmative and no intercepts.”
For the past couple of months, Kat’s been breaking into embassies—China, Venezuela, Nigeria, a whole bunch of them—on behalf of the American government. But for tonight’s job, she had to look up exactly where Kazakhstan was, a huge place in between Russia and China, an environmental shit-hole with oil, gas, mountains, and ski slopes.
The office she’s in belongs to the trade secretary, Aliya Raktaeva, who Kat guesses must be the woman with the stylish shoes, lying about ten feet away from where the screen saver’s spitting out colors. Kat walks over, pulling off a cotton glove and putting a latex one in its place. If you want to steal secrets, get them from where they’re kept, usually a computer hard drive in a secure office.
“Kat, you don’t abort now, you’re back inside.”
She glances at Aliya Raktaeva. The way she’s fallen is graceful, lying half under her desk, like she’s snatching an afternoon nap.
What would Kat have done? Stared at the killer while he shot her? Tried to run? There’s something horrible, personal, but serene about the room.
There’s also a hollow thumping in her chest that won’t go away. It’s not fear, although that’s around. It’s not horror, although that’s with her, too. Something like embarrassment that she’s invaded the intimacy of death, and guilt that if she hadn’t been coming, they might not be dead.
But if they died because of her, then Kat’s going to get what she came for. Cage wants her to stay, she tells herself, but is covering his ass. The jail threat’s for the audio playback, not for her.
The screen saver’s a lighthouse on an outcrop of rocks. A ship’s foghorn blasts out from the speaker, volume down, but it sends through a rush of extra adrenaline. Kat taps the Return key. The screen saver goes away, and a security window pops up. Kat types in the password and PIN that Cage gave her. She slips a five-gigabyte jump drive into the USB port. The computer whirs.
A photograph comes onto the screen. A woman is holding a pistol to a man’s head. It must be cold. She’s wearing a knee-length down jacket, black leather gloves, a blue hat pulled down over her ears.
“Bill, you there . . . ?”
“You’re compromised,” says Cage’s voice. “Are you still in the building?”
“Yes,” says Kat, studying the image.
The backdrop of the picture is a flat, vast landscape of snow disappearing over the curve of the horizon. At the edge of the frame is the wingtip of an airplane with a logo she doesn’t recognize. Underneath the wing stands a jeep with a crest on the door. The driver carries a U.S. military-issue M16 automatic rifle.
“Someone’s in there.”
She flips to the next picture. The man lies dead on the ground, a pool of blood by his head.
Kat ejects the jump drive, slips it into a plastic bag and into her pants pocket. She pulls out a high-resolution fiberscope with a tiny lens at the end. She doesn’t look at the bodies as she crosses the room.
Kat isn’t a tall woman, five-foot-four in sneakers, and she’s dressed to look as far from feminine beauty as her imagination allows. No makeup, dark hair cropped short, black T-shirt, baggy black pants with big pockets, and a set of contact lenses to conceal her eyes from iris scanners.
Kat lies on the floor, bends the fiberscope cable like a coat hanger, and pushes it under the door. But with the contacts, she can’t see anything except a blur of night-vision green. And she can’t take the contacts out, because she has no idea where the scanners are. Stupid.
“We’ve lost surveillance.”
“Where are they?”
“We don’t know.”
Kat gets out her Mace can and opens the door. The corridor runs maybe 200 feet, the length of the building. It’s lit by fluorescent lights, one bulb gone, another flickering. At each end are windows, one looking out to the back, one onto the road, the arc of streetlight streaming through the glass. The doorways to the room are recessed from the wall, leaving a space about the width of a closet, enough for Kat to take cover in.
A shot splinters wood above her head. Kat takes in a breath. She hurls herself across the corridor. Another round smashes into Raktaeva’s nameplate. The shot is loud, not silenced. Whoever’s shooting is there legitimately. Or they didn’t have time to silence the weapon. Or they’re crazy.
Kat ends up in another doorway, closer to the stairs.
“Don’t shoot.” She feigns a Spanish accent. “I’m only the goddamn cleaner.”
“What’s going on?” says Cage into the earpiece.
“A gun on the first floor,” she whispers.
“Didn’t get that. Repeat.”
Oh sure, and get my head blown off if I speak any louder.
She tries the door to the office. It’s locked. She watches for shadows. She can see in a semicircle to the two doors on either side of her. The shooter’s not there yet.
The text message on her cell phone is preset, but she takes a long time to send it because her hands are shaking. The text message goes, but the shooter must have seen her, caught some movement. The second shot is so close, she feels the air in her ear, a high-velocity round that gouges out wood and plaster the size of a fist.
A shadow crosses the light, slow, confident. The shooter’s taking his time, as if he knows Kat doesn’t have a weapon. She calculates what she’s going to do once he sees her. You don’t miss a head shot by less than an inch unless you’ve come in for the kill.
Kat doesn’t plan on getting shot. Her father died violently, and that’s put her where she is now, and it would be dumb, so dumb, if she ended up getting killed stupidly like John Polinski, just because she was reacting to him getting killed.
Kat’s strung taut like a bow, but when the streetlight flickers, flashes, and goes black, she does a double take. It’s not the shooter. Wrong direction.
The window thumps, distorting the other lights from the street. Again. Again. Rapid shots against bulletproof glass.
The shooter’s distracted, as surprised as Kat. She tries to see him, take in who he is, but can’t register anything properly in the sudden change of light.
Kat pushes herself up against the door and drops the phone into her pocket. The shooter turns away from Kat, weapon raised toward the window. Kat runs at him. He senses her, twists back, fires. Misses.
She dives for his legs, tackles, arms around knees. He goes down like a felled tree, but he’s wild-animal strong, throwing her off him, smashing her back against the wall. She’s down. He’s on his feet. It’s registering with him that she’s a woman. He wets his lips, lets a grin play over them, makes a show of dropping his gun on the floor.
A scar runs down from his right eye. His hair’s black and matted. She can smell deodorant.
Just as he kicks, Kat shifts sideways. His foot goes into the wall. He curls his finger, beckoning her to his feet, and kicks again, aiming at her crotch, before she’s steady. She turns, and it catches her buttocks, throwing her off balance. She hears him laugh.
“Stop, please,” Kat whimpers, and he relaxes; his next swing is careless. She comes back up and hits him hard with her elbow above the mouth. He grunts, flailing at her, blinking, and Kat follows up with the heel of her hand into his nose, feeling it break like an eggshell. She hits him again, both hands locked, under the jaw.
He falls. She picks up the weapon and runs.
She zigzags down the corridor, around to the elevator bank, down the stairs, until only a turnstile stands between her and the front door. She stops, still inside the building, standing silently under the high ceiling of the foyer. Like an echo, the throb of quietness is a barrier to her moving any farther.
“Cage,” she whispers, but gets only a rush of white noise in the earpiece. She curls her hand around the butt of the pistol, a military-issue 9mm Beretta. She sees normal traffic through stained-glass windows. The embassy’s an ugly Gothic building, bulging with pregnant bay windows and peak-tile towers.
Spotlights show up lawn and flower beds outside, then a dark patch, then the Carnegie Institution, draped with posters and light.
A shadow crosses the wall and makes Kat drop, legs buckling, flat down. She turns on the drop, catching the frame of the shooter, exposed halfway down the stairs. She fires once, both hands around the butt, elbows jammed against the floor. She aims at his heart, but hits the stairwell banister. He steps back.
“Stop shooting.” It’s Cage, in her headset, followed by the clicking of metal on metal as a round moves through the breech of a weapon.
“What the hell . . .” Kat’s eyes fix on the emptiness of the stairs. He’s better than her. If she stays, he’ll get her; if not this second, the next.
She springs up, jumps the turnstile, runs at the front door, punches the green button to release it, pushes it open, checks the different hues of light, hears the alarm start, and cuts left into the blackness created by a bay window, down into the dampness of summer-mown grass.
High across the street is the streetlight that Cage shot out to save her life. A flatbed truck goes past. It’s getting late, and traffic is thin in this run-down part of town, where only poor countries keep their embassies.
The door opens. The shooter’s standing at the top of the steps, one hand on his face, blood seeping through the fingers. His head tilts down, his right hand coming out of his pocket, looking straight toward Kat. She fires twice. He cries out in a foreign language, two single syllables, like Bit and Ach, sinks to his knees, and topples forward, head cracking on the steps below him.
Kat’s on her feet, sprinting along the front of the building, braced for a shot from across the street, but sensing it won’t come, because if anyone were there, they would have fired by now.
In the dark street ahead, two more streetlamps have been shot out, glass shards hanging—Cage’s work. A green lamp shines from the embassy wall, illuminating a side door. Just beyond that, the wall is set back, and that’s where Kat sees Cage’s head, pushed out into view.
“Freeze, there.” English with an accent. He has blue overalls like the other one, short-cropped hair, and a brooding face. And he has a gun to Cage’s head, a hand around his throat.
She slows a step, thinks again, and runs away from the building into the empty street.
A clock keeps one time, the human mind another. Kat’s movements take barely a second, but her thoughts run faster.
She runs in a looping curve, keeping herself in his line of sight while he makes his choice. If he kills Cage, Kat kills him. If he moves to kill Kat, either Kat or Cage kills him. He hasn’t banked on Kat risking Cage’s life, and that’s why in an assassin’s game, he’s screwed up badly.
Kat detects the turn of the wrist, the hardening of the grip on Cage’s neck, the shift of the sneakers.
He operates, as Kat hopes, on instinct, to attack the attacker. She lets him move the weapon a hairsbreadth from Cage, then she fires, keeps her finger on the trigger for four rounds, until the gunman’s down, the green light showing blood smears on the wall.
Kat lowers the gun, lets her head hang, too, squeezing her eyes closed and open, wishing her heart would stop flapping inside her chest.
Cage gently pries the Beretta from her fingers.
“Thanks,” he says, touching her lips with his finger. His hand trembles. His skin looks like wet chalk. He goes back to the corpse, runs his hands through its pockets looking for ID, but gets nothing.
The face of the guy she shot is lined and bloodless, long-boned with skin stretched tight and eyes ice white and open. A chill starts somewhere deep inside Kat and spreads through her limbs.
“No,” she says sharply as Cage stands up. “You need to search more.”
Cage steps back, draws a hand down his face, his expression tired but curious.
Kat squats by the corpse. She shuts her eyes and puts her hand underneath his shirt. His body hair is coarse on her palm. She sweeps her fingers around, chest, crevices of the neck, groin, thighs; all warm but going cold.
She breathes in his body sweat, feels a retching deep in her throat, holds it down. She takes out her hand. She’s shivering, but she won’t stop now. Rushing. Rushed. Breathing, not thinking. Trying to breathe, not think.
She opens the dead man’s mouth, single index finger, probing, inner cheeks, roof of mouth, through the latex of the glove, feeling saliva cooling with death. Roof of the mouth. Worth a try. She’s hidden stuff there herself.
“Over here,” she says quietly, walking quickly around the front of the building, letting Cage follow. The body of the first man she shot has fallen headfirst down the steps, face upward, blood spilling from the mouth. This time Kat goes straight there, prying open the jaw, and finds it against the hard palate on the roof of his mouth, a tiny metallic object, wafer flat, protected by plastic wrap.
“Always good to learn what people give their lives for,” says Kat blankly, holding it up to show Cage, then slipping it into her pocket.
She peels off the glove. Blood smears onto her hand. She sees a rain puddle around a drain blocked with leaves and rinses her hand in the filthy water; street dirt’s better than corpse’s blood.
A black Lincoln Town Car comes around the corner. Kat walks in the opposite direction.
“Over here,” shouts Cage.
“Real discreet,” says Kat. She keeps walking.
Cage runs to her, takes her arm. The Lincoln stops next to them.
“Get in,” says Cage. Kat hesitates, then follows.
Doors closed, Cage says, “Kat—”
“Enough,” she cuts in. “I just killed two people, okay? Give me some space.”
A few blocks away, she hears a police siren. She peels off her dark wig, shakes her head, and runs her hand through her short blond hair.
Copyright © 2007 by Humphrey Hawksley