The old car rolled along Piata Street, its headlights casting odd shadows on the endless buildings and bus shelters. Jesse hadn't approached his apartment from this direction before, but the street and building numbers were approaching the range that he was used to seeing. It was unusually quiet on the street. Normally, couples and shop owners would be walking along the sidewalks until midnight or later. On this night, though, the streets were deserted. If there was a curfew, Jesse had missed the memo.
"Doesn't anyone take walks in this part of town?" Sascha asked, taking a broad look around them.
"Normally I would be taking one. The officer who dropped me off mentioned that this was a very active neighborhood. Apparently there are 5K runs a few times a year during the warmer months. It's my kind of place when I'm not being stalked."
They drove past a red bus shelter where an old man with a cane was waiting for the red line bus to take him out of town. The lights were still on in a barber shop on the next block.
"Slow down," Jesse said. He had spotted the Thai restaurant that had become an important navigation marker for him as he learned the neighborhood. "Do you see the pair of benches right there? Next to the fountain."
Sascha squinted, trying to make out the dark shapes through the glare of the lights above the street. "Got it."
"Just past those benches is a dark spot. People park there and go into the shops or go for a walk in the park behind the fountain. The car won't look out of place, and we'll have a great view."
Sascha pulled over and tucked the car's right tires into the gutter, being careful not to scrape them on the curb. He killed the engine and set the parking break, leaving the keys in the ignition this time.
"So, I've been wondering," Jesse said. "How did you know that my new place was on North Piata? Wouldn't that seem like any old address?"
"The detective running the phone records for me let it slip that the NYPD maintained a few housing units for witness protection and such in that area. Loose lips, I know. And it definitely clouds the picture when we're trying to figure out how the address got out. He made me swear that I wouldn't mention it to anyone, and I suppose I still haven't."
Jesse shook his head and glanced at the side mirror of the car. The night was completely still except for the occasional car that rolled past. They both felt out of place on the street, but the potential payoff was worth the discomfort and boredom.
After a couple of hours, Jesse began to nod off. It had been a long and difficult day, and there was absolutely nothing happening that could hold his attention. Sascha noticed the sudden stillness around him—outside the car as well as inside—and nudged Jesse awake. "I'm getting hungry," he said. "Can you watch for a few minutes? I'll get enough for both of us."
"Sure," Jesse said, rubbing his eyes. The short sleep had refreshed him, and he was suddenly eager to watch the activity outside of his building again. It was after midnight. There would be no motion on the street until the bars closed for the night. Jesse hoped that Sascha would be bringing coffee along with dinner.
Jesse thought he saw a dark shape moving along the sidewalk in the distance, very close to the wall of the buildings. He blinked a few times to clear his vision. He couldn't be certain, but a couple of times he though that he had seen movement. It was too high to be a cat. The motion might have been at waist level on an average-sized person.
Before Jesse could decide whether his eyes were deceiving him, Sascha emerged from the front of the Thai restaurant. He was carrying a drink tray and a large bag. Good man, Jesse thought. The momentary distraction, though, was enough to cause Jesse to lose sight of the apparition that he had been tracking. He tried to find it again while Sascha walked toward the car. There was nothing there.
Sascha took a detour through the park to throw off his scent, just in case someone happened to be watching the street. Counter-espionage was a delicate business. He approached the car from the fountain, opened the door, and quickly got in. "Did I miss the bad guys?" he asked as he pulled a box of rice from the bag. He handed the rice to Jesse along with a fork and a pair of chopsticks.
"Well, not exactly. But I thought I saw something. Along the left-hand sidewalk, against the wall of the buildings. I saw movement a couple of times, but then I lost it."
Sascha stopped rooting on the bag and looked at Jesse. Then he turned his head toward the street, focusing on the sidewalk that Jesse had mentioned. Suddenly his face changed. "There," he said in barely more than a whisper.
Jesse, who had been watching Sascha rummage in the bag of food, snapped his head around to look at the street. A tall woman had just appeared out of the darkness. She was wearing a long black jacket, a dark brown scarf, and a fedora. Her hair was shoulder-length and dark.
"Something about that doesn't look right," Sascha said. "Do you recognize her?"
"Not at all," Jesse said. He squinted again, trying to make out the woman's face.
Sascha pulled a small pair of binoculars from the breast pocket of his coat and unfolded them. Looking through the glasses, he was able to see her face. "She has a small black box in her left hand," he said. "Dangling earrings. White gloves. I'm no fashion expert, but it's a strange ensemble."
They both watched as the woman approached Jesse's building. As she walked into the glow of the light over the building's front door, her pace slowed. She walked up to the door, used a key in her right hand to unlock the door, made no visible effort to check her surroundings, and slipped inside.
Sascha set the binoculars in his lap. "Do you have any neighbors up there?" he asked.
"Yeah, there's one other unit," Jesse said. "It will be on the left side of the door. I haven't seen anybody come or go from that place. Maybe she'll turn her lights on."
They watched the building for several minutes, ignoring the food that had completely occupied their attention only moments earlier. Nothing changed. There were no lights on, and the woman had not left the building.
Jesse frowned. "All of the rooms have windows that face this direction," he said. "If there was a light on, we would see it. What's she doing?"
Suddenly, the door opened again, and the woman stepped into the light. She closed the door firmly, walked across the street, and walked back in the direction from which she came. Sascha quickly picked up his binoculars and watched her fade into the blackness.
"Should we go check it out?" Jesse asked. If they checked the lock, then it would be easy to determine whether the woman had picked it. On the other hand, by entering the building they might cause any further action to be aborted.
"No," Sascha said. The firmness in his voice left no room for argument. "She wasn't in there long enough to look for anything. If she was one of the goons we're looking for, then her job was probably to check out the scene, determine whether you were home, and then pick the lock if necessary."
"And if I had been home?" Jesse asked.
"Hard to say. She might have knocked on your door and then apologized, making a simple excuse. Maybe she was looking for her friend, and she must live in the other apartment. Or maybe she had a nine millimeter under her coat."
Noting the strained look on Jesse's face, Sascha went on: "Hey, don't sweat it. That's why we're out here. Keeping watch is our only shot at snaring these cats. My gut tells me that there'll be another visitor tonight. These guys have probably done this before, and it works best in stages. We did it the same way during drill exercises."
"All right," Jesse said. "You're the boss. What did you bring me for dinner number two?"
Sascha divided the food between them, and they enjoyed the hot meal. Sascha had bought two large cups of coffee to keep them alert during the wee hours. Cream and sugar for Jesse, and straight black for Sascha. Drinking the coffee also took their minds off of the boring work of watching the building, making it easier for them to stay awake and on task.
One hour went by, and the two. And then three. The closing time for the bars had come and gone, and they saw only a handful of people walking on the sidewalks. Jesse and Sascha talked about the projects that the current batch of students were pursuing. When that topic dried up, they talked about a date that Sascha had had the previous week. When Sascha asked about Jesse's night life, he just laughed and changed the subject.
When the sky had begun to glow toward the east, Sascha asked if Jesse wanted to give up for the night. "I might have had their timeline wrong," he said with a shrug.
"I don't know," Jesse replied. "I'm not in a hurry to go in there, especially after seeing that woman earlier."
"Don't worry; I'll go in there with you. If anything seems fishy, then we'll find a safe place to get some sleep."
Jesse finished his last drop of coffee and opened the car door. The morning chill was brisk, so he pulled on his gloves and buttoned his coat. He walked around to the driver's side of the car, checked for traffic, and walked with Sascha to the other side of the street. They both felt alert for the hour. It was quiet enough that Jesse could hear the soles of his shoes grinding against the sidewalk with each step.
They crossed one street, then another, and finally reached the entrance to the building. Jesse pulled his key from his pocket, unlocked the door, and pulled it open. He stepped over the threshold and held the door for Sascha, who made a visual sweep of the street in both directions. No one was in sight.
In front of them was a staircase that led to a small landing. There were two opposing doors, one on either side. Jesse checked the doorknob, first visually and then with his hand. "It's locked," he said.
Sascha shrugged. "Let's check it out, then," he said.
Jesse found another key on his keyring and stuck it into the doorknob. He turned the handle and pushed the door open. As he took a step forward into the apartment, he heard a sound from behind him and froze.
"Stay where you are. I want to see your hands."
It was a woman's voice. Jesse slowly raised his hands into the air. He looked around at Sascha and saw that his jaw was clenched and his eyes were tightly closed. Caught us both. The voice had an accent, but Jesse couldn't place it. It wasn't anything that he had heard before. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, and his sleep-deprived, caffeine-soaked brain wasn't providing any good solutions.
Sascha turned his head to look toward the voice. "Who the hell are you?" he shouted. "What do you want with us?"
The sound of a revolver being cocked echoed through the hallway. Sascha felt his adrenaline surge. "That depends on how cooperative you are," the voice said. "Go inside, and keep your hands showing."
Jesse and Sascha took several steps forward. They heard the woman mutter something in a foreign language. The sound was muffled, as though she was speaking into her sleeve. She stepped into the apartment and closed the door, keeping her gun raised and pointed toward the two men. For the first time in his life, Jesse wished that he kept his knives on his countertop instead of in an overhead cabinet. Even in his temporary apartment, he kept them carefully out of sight in case someone broke in when he was asleep.
Sascha turned around first, anxious to see his captor's face. She was older than he expected. It was not the woman whom he had seen through his binoculars. She was wearing a gray overcoat and tall black boots. The look on her face was one of boredom. Sascha knew that a dozen hours of waiting could do that to you, but his boredom had ended with a click on the landing outside. He knew instinctively from the way that the woman held the revolver that she wasn't a trained in small arms use. She was also standing in a way that made her easy to topple. Sascha wasn't ready to act on that information just yet, but he was glad to know that his trained mind was working on his behalf.
"Your names, please," the woman said. "And no funny business."
They both gave their first names.
"Yes, hmm," she said. "My associates will be here in a moment. Till then, do tell me where I can find the recording."
It was Jesse's turn to be anxious. The woman's statement had removed any doubt about her intentions, but there were still plenty of questions that Jesse wanted to ask.
Sascha beat him to it: "What's your name, ma'am?" he asked.
She turned the gun toward Sascha and gave him an odd look. "My name is Beata. You can call me that. Now, back to business. You have a recording that I want, and it will be best for you if you cooperate with me. My associates will not be so friendly."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Jesse said, making a defiant stand. He knew that this wouldn't work, but he was at a loss for what else to do. They needed to find a way out of this, and preferably before the goons arrived.
"No funny business," Beata repeated, training the gun toward Jesse. "I know that you have it. You told a man in Warsaw that you have the recording. Lying to me will not help you. It would be most useful to me to have it."
"It isn't here," Sascha said. "There's nothing here for you."
Beata sighed, her face beginning to show impatience. "I will not have you wasting my time, gentlemen. You will tell me where to find the recording, and I will send my men to get it."
"I'm sorry, but that's not possible," Jesse said. He was shaking now and tried to will his legs to be still.
"And why is that?" Beata asked. Her voice was flat, and her annoyance at these obstacles was apparent.
"The recording is locked in a secure vault at a local university," Jesse lied.
"Then you will be taking us there," Beata said. "When my men arrive, you will tell us where to drive, and then you will unlock the vault."
Jesse said nothing. There was no way that Beata's plan would work. The vault was locked, and Jesse had no key or passcode to open it. Beata and her goons might remember how to manipulate the computerized scheduling system to defeat the door security, but the recording wasn't in the vault anyway. Jesse was more interested in buying a bit of time, though. He was confident that Sascha would think of a way out of this, but they had been dealt a difficult hand. Rushing Beata and trying to overpower her ran the risk of someone getting shot, and she was expecting reinforcements any moment. There was no easy escape from the apartment except through the front door.
A moment passed in which the three of them glared at one another. Suddenly, there was a loud buzzing noise that seemed to come from the ceiling. After cringing and inhaling sharply, Beata regained her composure. She backed toward the door, keeping her gun level and pointed toward Jesse and Sascha. She glanced at the panel on the wall that controlled the intercom system. With her free hand, she pressed the button that unlocked the front door. They all heard the door slam shut at the bottom of the stairs. Heavy footsteps shook the floor.
When the door opened, three heavy-set men were standing on the other side. Beata said something to the men in a foreign language. The men nodded. "The gentlemen were just telling me," she said to them in English, turning back toward Jesse and Sascha, "that the recording is in a vault at a university nearby. They will be taking us there, and they will unlock the vault."
"But first," she went on as she turned back to her men, "I want you to search the apartment. These men have not been entirely honest with me in our short time together. It may be here, and I want to be certain."
The three men walked past Beata, Jesse, and Sascha, and began looking around the apartment. It was an easy task since Jesse had only brought basic provisions, expecting that his stay would be short. They heard the men lift a few pieces of furniture, presumably looking under them for any hidden treasures. Next, they searched the bathroom and dismantled Jesse's bed. Jesse did not relish the thought that he would need to reassemble his apartment when this was all over. The thought was fleeting, though. The men had returned to the room empty handed.
"Nothing," one of them said in heavily accented English.
"Well," Beata said, "then we will go to the university. After you, gentlemen." She used the gun to gesture toward the door.
Jesse took the first step toward the door. The next moment was pure pandemonium. Jesse and Sascha heard the glass of the front window break. Immediately, one of the burly men fell to the ground, his dark shirt soaked in a spreading liquid. Another of the men clutched his arm and staggered backward, falling onto the floor after his third step. The third man pulled a gun from underneath his coat and pointed it at Sascha. He began stuttering nervously in a language that neither Sascha nor Jesse could understand. He ducked behind a cabinet, trying to get out of view of the window.
Beata had moved so that her back was against the door that led to the stairway. She could not see the window from there, but she was safe from further gunfire.
Sascha had hit the deck as soon as the shot rang out. He recognized the tactic, but he couldn't be sure of the shooter's allegiance. Was it a police force that had been watching the apartment? Was it a shot intended for Jesse or Sascha that had taken a bad bounce?
Sascha barely had time to wonder about the situation before he heard more heavy footsteps on the stairs. A look of fear came over Beata's face, and she scurried across the room to take up a position next to her remaining comrade. They both aimed their guns at the door. Jesse and Sascha, sensing that more violence was on the way, crawled out of the room.
When the door apartment door yawned open, nobody was there. "Who is there?" Beata called, a clear note of nervousness in her voice. "We will shoot!" Neither Beata nor her fellow gunman saw the small mirror that rounded the edge of the doorframe. An instant later, two men in black clothing and thick vests burst around the corner with automatic guns in their hands. Beata and her comrade fell before they could return fire. Another three men and one woman in dark clothing came through the door behind the first two. They quickly spread through the apartment, systematically checking each room. When they found Sascha and Jesse, they ordered them to their knees and kept their guns trained on them.
"Check them," one of the men said. Rough hands worked each of them over, looking for any sort of weapon. A moment later, satisfied, the checkers stepped back. Sascha felt relief despite the aggressive treatment. S.W.A.T. teams had to be thorough, and they had no way of knowing what he and Jesse might try to do. At any rate, he knew that they were safe. They also had a very good case that could be used to root out any informants within the NYPD.
The women stepped forward. "Mr. Winter," she said, looking at Jesse, "my name is Jenna. We know that the gunmen were looking for a recording of a conversation. Did they find it?"
"No, they didn't," Jesse said. He felt oddly relieved to be able to speak about the recording openly. It had been a difficult secret to keep, especially after the story of his success in Warsaw had hit the presses. "We told them that the recording was at the university in a vault, and they wanted us to take them there. And then everything went to hell in here."
"All right," the woman said. "Very good. We're going to clean up a bit in here, and then you're going to take us there. By force, if necessary." She turned to the rest of her entourage and gave a few terse commands in a foreign language. They sprung into motion, several of them tending to Beata and the dead gunmen. She spoke English with a flawless New York accent, and this had led Jesse to believe that she was a member of the local police. It was only when she spoke to the men in a foreign tongue that he suspected something was amiss.
Jesse sat frozen in place, his mind racing. He turned to Sascha, who had a look of bafflement on his face. "They're not the police?" Jesse asked quietly. "Who are they?"
Sascha shook his head. "I think we've just been caught in the crossfire," he said.
"You're going to feel the wrath of the party this time, Mr. Winter," a woman's voice said. It was the same woman who had spoken a moment before. She approached them slowly, looking pleased with her position of power.
"You don't know me," she said, "but you've met my cousin Marcel. I was a student in your program. You might recognize my name. I'm Jenna Sternoza, and my research project was in Madrid. Being a student here was very good for me." She paused meaningfully. "And it was good for my family."
"When you came to our country and demanded the release of your spies," she went on, "Marcel had no choice but to accept. He had no way to know whether you were lying. Since then, it's come to our attention that you were, in fact, telling the truth. Naturally, the fact that a recording exists that could damage my family's reputation and cause us to lose the trust of the people of Warsaw is bad for business. That's why you'll be taking us to the university and giving us every copy that you've made. If you cooperate, then neither of you will be harmed, and you'll be free to go about your petty and spying-obsessed lives. If you try to deceive us, then your fate will be much like our friends here." She gestured toward the bodies that were being searched by her men.
"Wait a minute," Sascha said, breaking his silence. "If you're with the party, then who are they?" He nodded toward the bodies.
"Another interested party. They are associates of the elderly woman who spoke to my uncle. The woman whose voice is on the recording. If they managed to get a copy of it, they'd do what you haven't had the guts to do. They would sell the story to every yellow rag across Europe. It would make them rich, and it would be the end of my family's prosperity."
Jenna pulled a small handgun from the holster on her right hip and pulled the hammer back. "Let's make sure that doesn't happen, all right? Get up."
Jesse and Sascha both got to their feet. They had been on their knees long enough that their legs ached as they rose. "The woman who showed up last night," Sascha said. "Black coat. That was you."
Jenne gave an amused half smile. "You've got a great memory for faces," she said, her voice laced with sarcasm. "But apparently you don't have the patience to handle a stake-out." Turning her back to them, she barked another set of terse orders to her men.
"Let's hit it," she said in English.
Sascha was trying to work out how he could quietly set off on alarm at the office once they arrived. There was no system in place for alerting the police of an armed robbery or assault. The university wasn't a bank, and the board of directors had decided that the money should be spent elsewhere. If there was no way to trigger an alarm, then they might have to cut their losses and turn over the recording—wherever, and whatever, it happened to be. Sascha doubted that the recording was in the vault. It would have been trivially easy for Jesse to put it in there, but a digital storage device of any sort would be suspicious, and every student file was reviewed at least once per year. However, leading this group of thugs to the wrong location would be as good as suicide. They weren't going to put up with any tomfoolery. Jesse was leading them to the right building, and that's where he and Sascha would have to make their stand.
The drive to CUNY was an uncomfortable one, but Jesse felt relieved to be out of the apartment. The sight of the dead bodies made him nauseous, and the broken windows had left the place unbearably cold. The police hadn't arrived to investigate the shattered glass, which led Jesse to wonder whether his neighborhood had suddenly been abandoned.
On their way out, Jenna's men had led Jesse and Sascha down the stairs and to the street. All of them kept their weapons hidden, including a sniper who joined them from a post across the street. He was the one who guaranteed an easy sweep of the apartment by disabling two of Beata's men when the moment was right. His vantage point would have provided an excellent view of the building and part of the street. In the game of spy versus spy, Jenna's crew was far superior.
Jesse sat squeezed between Sascha on his left and one of Jenna's gunmen on his right. The other gunmen were in the seat behind him. They were all tucked into a conversion van that had deeply tinted windows and a sour smell that reminded Jesse of spoiled milk. The driver was taking odd routes, and eventually Jesse realized that he was avoiding high-traffic areas. The van would look suspicous with the tinting job, and any search of the vehicle would turn up conflicting information and a number of weapons.
Jesse sat in the front passenger seat. "So Mr. Winter," she said as she surveyed the street, "how many copies of this private conversation have you made?"
"No copies," Jesse said. "The only one that I have is the one that I was given."
"Hmm," Jenna said. "You should always back up your stuff. Especially the important things. Very amateurish. Anyway, you say that you were given that copy. How did that happen? What business is it of yours to have it?"
Jesse was suddenly aware that the man beside him was glaring at him, waiting to hear the response. "I got it as part of a briefing before my trip," he managed to say. "I don't know the source."
"Listen, mister journalism-is-my-life," Jenna said, dropping all attempts at pleasantry. "I know the routine. I've sat through your classes and got your joke of a degree. You're supposed to protect your sources. I get it. But this isn't about state secrets or Berlusconi's latest scandal. This is about you telling me what I want to know or dying right here in this van. Your choice." She pulled her revolver out of its holster and made a show of checking its chamber.
"He's telling the truth," Sascha interjected. "There are people at CUNY who handle intelligence matters and interact with the feds. We're not cleared for that stuff. Jesse would have been given a thick stack of stuff to read, and maybe a few digital files to look through. That's how it works."
Jesse gave Sascha a look that communicated his gratitude. Sascha gave a slight nod and then looked back at Jenna.
Jenna appeared to contemplate the sub-optimal response to her demands. "It's right there," she said, pointing out the windshield toward a large parking structure. The driver nodded. She quietly holstered her handgun and pulled her coat over it. "Now listen to me," she went on, "this is how we'll do this. Mr. Greene, you'll stay in the van. Don't protest. I'm not interested in your lip right now. Mr. Winter, you're coming with us." She turned to the driver. "If you don't hear from me within ten minutes, then you have permission to shoot to kill. For both of them. Understood?"
Everyone stared at her. The gunmen mumbled a response that sounded affirmative.
"Let's go," Jenna said and threw open her door.
Jesse followed the gunman to his right as he climbed out of the van. One of the men from the back seat got out as well. He closed the door behind him. The driver had also gotten out and joined them.
"You'll lead the way," Jenna said to Jesse. "And don't waste my time. You heard my instructions back there."
Jesse took a deep breath, looked back at Sascha's dark shape in the van, and walked toward the building whose sign read
It was still early enough that no one was at work, draining Jesse's hope that he could communicate his distress to someone he knew. He led the entourage through the entrance to the building and walked toward the north elevator. They were two floors above the one that housed the vault. Jesse punched the button labeled
B2 and waited for the doors to close. He wished that Sascha were here. There was much more space available to them now that they were out of the apartment, and Jesse knew that Sascha would be able to manufacture an escape. Jenna probably knows just how capable he is, too, he thought. I'm on my own this time. He still had no idea what he would do when they got to the door of the vault. He had no key, no passcode, and no intention of opening the door.
The slow elevator finally arrived at
B2. After it settled, the doors opened to reveal a dim hallway that led away to the right. Jesse stepped out of the elevator and led the way toward the heavy steel door that was labeled only
When they arrived at the door, the gunmen formed a semi-circle around it, blocking Jesse's exit. Jenna stepped forward, looking carefully at the door and the keypad beside it. "Punch in the code," she said. "Let's see it."
"I don't have a code for this room," Jesse said. "We need someone from administration to open it."
Jenna stepped closer to Jesse and grabbed the front of his shirt. "Listen, you little shit," she said. "I'm tired of your lies. This building will be full of people in less than an hour, and I'm going to have that recording." She released Jesse's shirt and shoved him backward. He stumbled into one of the gunmen, who shoved him back toward Jenna. He managed to get his footing again.
"For someone so smart, you really don't seem to get it," Jenna said, putting her hands on her hips and pacing. Then she gave a scream of rage, grabbing hold of the door and jerking the handle back and forth. She fell backwards and landed with a hard thud as the door yawned open.
The gunmen murmered something to one another. Jenna lifted herself onto her elbows and gazed at the door. Her rage from the moment before had vanished and was replaced by a look of confusion and victory. "Well, well," she said. "I guess your stalling tactics are finished."
Jesse scratched his head absently and took a step back from the swinging door. His anxiety made everything seem to go by in slow motion. The door to the vault was now open, and Jenna was gloating about it. The security system doesn't turn off at night, he thought. Then the more pressing problem hit him: Jenna had thought that he had already been stalling for time, but the recording wasn't even in the vault. He would have a few minutes to work with while she perused the student files to find the folders for the Polish research project. After that, though, he would be facing another tongue lashing—or worse.
"Get in there," Jenna said to Jesse, grabbing his shoulder and pushing him through the open vault door. "Find me the folder. NOW."
Within the student records vault was a collection of towering steel shelving units. For anyone familiar with library catalogues, it was easy to navigate. Each shelving unit was labeled with the range of student last names that could be found on its shelves, and within each shelf the records were sorted alphabetically.
Jesse located the shelf labeled
R. "The recording is in Sam Rzeznik's file, so it will be here somewhere. It'll take me a few minutes to track it down."
"Make it fast," Jenna snapped. She uttered something to one of her men who nodded and pulled out his mobile phone.