Chapter 25

The old man was a stud. He gripped the steering wheel of a non-descript green sedan that had more horsepower than anything Sascha or Jesse had driven. Despite his age and the slow, awkward way that he walked on the way toward the car, there was no doubt that his mind was sharp. He knew the city's alleyways, lights, and traffic patterns. It was no more than fifteen minutes before they were on a sparsely-travelled, unlit road. The man kept their speed within six miles per hour of the posted speed limit, reflecting his first-hand knowledge of the habits of the local police. They would get to the destination as quickly as was safe and prudent, and no faster.

Sascha could trust no one. His gut had never failed him, even in the moments on foreign battlefields when he was sure that the young men pointing their kalashnikov rifles at him and shaking with fury were going to make an example of the poor American who had fallen into their lap. He had always been an instinctive man, not putting much stock in raw intellect. The rational mind just didn't have the staying power that one needed to survive in the jungle. It wasn't syllogisms or philosophical debate that kept Sascha's distant ancestors, doubtless a line of stupendous badasses, from getting eaten by a pack of lions.

He had begun to count the cards that were on the table, putting together a map of the political landscape that had become clear in the past twenty-four hours. The guys after Jesse were connected to Europe. Eastern Europe. It was the only group that had a vendetta, and the only one that would care enough to make a play on Jesse's person as well as his apartment. The apartment was clean, presumably a place that was arranged by the feds or the NYPD. If someone else knew about it, then two things were possible. If the place had been used to house endangered people before, then knowledge of its location could have leaked through a dozen different channels. Failing that, then there was someone in the investigation who had dropped breadcrumbs. Whether it was done intentionally or not was an academic question at this point. Not being able to trust the authorities was the card that weighed most heavily on Sascha, and it was the reason that he had been so keen on moving Jesse away from any known places or people. He needed some time to think, and he knew that Jesse was reeling from the stress of the entire situation.

Sascha had been absently turning his mobile phone over in his coat pocket. He remembered suddenly that it would be reporting his position and quickly pulled the case off. He nudged Jesse and made a show of removing the battery. He gave Jesse a significant look and glanced down at his pocket. Jesse took the hint and did the same.

When they finally reached the parking lot, the old man handed Sascha a pair of keys on a ring with a dirty tag and wished them well. "If you see any white smoke, give the oil a check," he said. "You might need a few drops." He revved the engine and drove off, leaving Sascha and Jesse alone in a quiet parking lot in the middle of nowhere.

Sascha looked up at the sky. The Milky Way was barely visible overhead. The glow of the city was clearly visible to the east even though they were more than forty miles away. "Hungry?" he asked.

"Yeah, I could use some comfort food. Where are we, anyway?"

"No clue. That's an advantage right now. We just need to hope that nobody else knows where we are."

The adrenaline had finally filtered out of Jesse's bloodstream, and his hunger had returned in full force. He was shaking slightly as they spoke, making him look nervous. He took a deep breath of the cool evening air. The thought that his world was shrinking had begun to sink in. The part of the world that he could trust, anyway. He couldn't go to his beloved apartment, nor could he go to his new place. The university had proven unsafe. And now the NYPD was on the list of places that should be avoided. Pulling the battery from his phone had been a breaking point. He needed some good news, and he had a feeling that it would be a while before Sascha could deliver it. It could be a very long night.

The road lines on the interstate rolled by in time with Jesse's heartbeats. He was still too wired to sleep, and he was waiting for Sascha to give him some news about where they were going. They had turned at least a dozen times since leaving the parking lot, snaking their way along dark roads that all looked the same.

"I need to know something about that recording," Sascha said as he pulled into the parking lot of a small diner whose pink neon sign had only one illuminated letter. He killed the engine and set the parking brake.

"You don't need to tell me where it is. Or what it is. I just need to know whether it exists and whether someone could find it using information in your apartment."

Jesse looked out the windshield at the diner. A middle-aged couple was having dinner and enjoying a lively conversation. He ran through the items in his temporary apartment, trying to recall what he had left there in his suitcase and in the boxes of essential items that the police had brought from their storage site. He convinced himself that there were no copies of the recording in the apartment before saying anything.

"It's real," Jesse said finally. "The recording exists, and I've listened to it. The original was created on a handheld cassette recorder, so the quality is terrible. I mean really awful. But you can make out what's being said."

"So it's a tape that they're looking for?" Sascha asked. "A plastic cassette tape?"

"Oh, no. No way. The original might still exist, but it's been digitized and cleaned up. There's no specific physical object that these people are after, but they might not know that. I don't have a copy in my possession. There isn't a copy on any of the computers or thumb drives in my apartment."

"At the office, then. That's where it is?"

Jesse looked at Sascha for a moment and then looked back at the diner.

Sascha looked incredulous. "Jesse, you know that's not safe," he said. "You were bugged while you were at work for most of a day, and we know that they've had access to the computer system. If there's a digital copy somewhere, then they have a great chance of finding it."

"Don't worry about that," Jesse said. "I've thought about the basic security threats, and this is what I came up with. I know it doesn't seem smart, but it's in the safest possible place given the circumstances."

"All right. Let's get some grub."