Ben Zolstra gripped the hammer in his fist, then drove the nail home in two hard, sure swings. He repeated the action at the other end of the board, stopping to wipe the sweat from his eyes before lining up the next plank.
The thunderstorm had been bad. Not the worst Ben had ever dealt with, but severe. When he’d made his survey that morning, the lawn and the fields that made up the modest few acres of the Zolstra family farm were littered with fallen branches, and the long dirt driveway that led out to the main road was clogged with broken-off limbs from the surrounding woods. Ben had been busy with the chain saw since dawn.
As the hot day wore on and he’d cleared the road, Ben moved to the barn, which had taken some damage. Could have been worse. The toppling yellow birch had only clipped the corner of the roof. A direct hit might have meant rebuilding the thing from the ground up, a prospect Ben didn’t exactly relish. Though he certainly had the time.
Ben steadied himself on the ladder again, then reached up and held the next board into place across the hole in the barn. He hefted the
hammer, ready to swing, but something stayed his hand. Ben squinted in the sunshine at a fine haze of dust that had begun rising over the woods. A car was coming up the driveway. No, not one. From the size of the cloud, it had to be at least two. Likely big vehicles.
The squeak of an opening screen door drew Ben’s attention to the small clapboard house that stood a hundred feet off from the barn. Mary Zolstra stepped out onto the covered porch.
“Expecting company?” she asked.
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” Ben called, descending the ladder and walking toward the little house.
Some dormant part of Ben thought first of defense. The 7 mm Remington Mag hunting rifle in the hall closet. Or the pistol stashed in the duffel under his bed. His mother wasn’t a half-bad shot with her police-issue .40 caliber, either.
He pushed the thought from his mind. This was Vermont, not the Middle East. He wasn’t liable to be the target of a raid here.
Ben mounted the steps, and he and his mother watched from the porch as two large black SUVs burst from the shadow of the woods and angled toward the house. No sooner had they jolted to a halt than two of the farm dogs emerged from behind the house and began circling and barking at the vehicles.
The back door of one of the SUVs opened, and a man in a black suit stepped out. He immediately jumped back in surprise as one of the dogs snapped his jaws at him.
“Christ,” the man said, “you wanna call off your guard dogs?”
Ben leaned forward onto the porch’s wooden railing. “I’m not sure yet.”
The guy was a few years younger than Ben, late twenties probably. Asian. The German shepherd snarled at him again.
“Wait a sec,” Ben said, as though putting it together, “you’re with the Agency, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.” The man looked relieved. “Thank you.”
“Hmm.” Ben and his mother shared a look. “Get him, Shadow!” Ben shouted to the dog.
The young agent screamed as the dog reared up on his hind legs . . . then rested his large paws on the man’s shoulders and started licking his face. Ben and Mary burst out laughing.
The rear door of the other SUV shot open, and a white man in a dark suit leaped out.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” the older man said, “quit fucking with Agent Wei, will you?”
Ben almost did a double take. He recognized the man at once, but he could hardly believe Jeffrey Novak would show up unannounced at his home.
“Zolstra, you’re really off the grid,” Novak said.
The man had enough gray in his hair to look distinguished, but he was still in fighting trim, and his strides were long and fast as he made his way up to the porch. Wei managed to untangle himself from Shadow’s affections and trailed somewhat sheepishly behind the older man.
“That’s kind of the point,” Ben answered.
Novak and Wei reached the bottom of the steps leading up to the house. Novak made a show of looking around at the lawn, the fields, the barn.
“What are you, playing farmer now?” he asked.
“I’m not playing at anything.”
Ben looked at his former boss and took a moment to assess the situation.
Jeffrey Novak was standing in front of him. The deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In person. In a place that was, if not exactly the middle of nowhere, then close enough. Something big had happened. And if they were here for Ben’s help, then it had to be real fucking big.
“Where are my manners? This is your mother, Mary, isn’t it?” Novak said, looking up at her and smiling. “I understand you retired last year. What a career. Was it thirty-four years on the force?”
“Thirty-six,” Mary said, “and I don’t find you charming, so don’t bullshit me.”
Novak eyed Ben. “I see where you get your sparkling personality.”
Now it was Ben’s turn to smile. “So what’s with the social call?”
“We need to bring you in on something.”
Novak held his arms out. “Do I have to stand out here all day, or can we go in and have a seat?”
Ben said nothing. Mary lowered herself into a rocking chair and settled in. Novak sighed as Wei shifted uncomfortably next to him.
“Look,” Novak began, “we got a situation.”
“There’s always a situation.”
“Not like this. This is, uh . . .” Novak shook his head, at a loss. “This is new.”
Ben swatted at a fly that buzzed around his face. “Well I don’t know about anything new. I’ve been off the board for, what, two years?”
He feigned indifference, but Ben knew exactly how long it had been. He’d thought about the Agency every day of the seventeen months since he gave his notice to Director Harris. Chopping wood, pulling weeds, changing the spark plugs on the tractor—nothing he did could make him forget what he’d lost when he turned his back on the CIA. But he sure as hell wasn’t about to let Novak know that.
“Who asked for me?” Ben said. “I know it wasn’t Harris.”
After the way Ben had left, he’d half-wondered if the director had a mind to take him out. Maybe that was just the paranoia of spending ten years as a field agent tracking some of the nastiest pieces of shit the world had to offer, but there it was.
“It was my idea to come get you,” Novak said. “The director only approved it because I insisted.”
That was a surprise. On their past operations together, Novak had, at best, only tolerated Ben.
“Listen,” Novak said, “everything unraveled so fast after you returned from Belarus that I . . . I never got to say how truly sorry I was. About your brother.” He looked over to Mary. “About your son. He was a fine Marine. He served honorably in Afghanistan.”
Ben twisted John’s Annapolis class ring, which hadn’t left his pinky since it had come into his possession two years before.
Mary nodded. “I thank you for that.”
But Ben felt his blood rise. “What does the Agency know about honor?”
“Benjamin.” Mary’s hand clasped around Ben’s wrist. “Let the men come inside.”
Ben gave a reluctant nod. He turned and stalked into the house, the screen door slamming in its frame behind him.
“Well?” he called to the agents from inside.
Novak and Wei mounted the steps and entered the house, following Ben to a rough-hewn wooden table pushed against the wall of the tiny kitchen. They sat down. Ben stared at Novak across the table.
“You’re trying to bring me in for this . . . whatever this is,” Ben said. “Why?”
“You’re the best,” Novak said simply, “and we need the best right now.”
Ben might have been flattered if he hadn’t known from experience that the word of a CIA agent wasn’t worth much.
“So are you going to tell me what this is about or do I need to read your mind?”
“It’s better you see it for yourself,” Novak said. “We’re here to bring you to a briefing, if you agree to come with us.”
Ben had always loathed the capital’s swampy air and reek of hypocrisy.
“How about we save the trouble and you just tell me now?”
Novak smirked, but his eyes were tired. “You wouldn’t believe me if I did.”
“So what makes you think I’m going to pick up and leave with you, if you won’t tell me why?”
Wei scowled at him, and Novak’s placid facade finally cracked in frustration.
“How about the fact that I dragged my ass all the way out here, personally, to come find you? When I tell you we need you, I mean it, dammit. I want you to take the lead on this, if you’re willing.”
Ben leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. He was going with them. He couldn’t pretend he hadn’t known it from the second they’d rolled up.
“If I come and see what this is about, it’s not going to be like before,” Ben said. “If I don’t like what I hear or see, I walk.”
“And if I’m the lead on something, it means I’m the lead. Agreed?”
Novak nodded his head, tracking with Ben. “You’ll be free of the usual red tape.”
“What about Harris?”
“You let me worry about him. I’ll keep him out of your way, you have my word.”
His word again. Ben met Novak’s eyes across the table, and the man didn’t flinch.
“Fine,” Ben said. He was only agreeing to a meeting, after all. “But don’t tell me we’re driving there.”
“The chopper’s not far. I didn’t want to land on your front lawn.” Novak stood. “We should move, if we’re going to make it. You still keep a go bag?”
Ben nodded once.
Novak grinned. “Figured as much.”
“Old habits,” Ben allowed.
His duffel was packed and ready, gathering dust under his bed. It
contained what it always had: a few changes of clothes, three passports in different names, roughly two thousand in cash, a pair of burner cell phones, a tactical folding knife, and a loaded SIG Sauer P229 with two extra magazines.
“Grab it,” Novak said, turning toward the door. “We’ll meet you in the car.”
Novak motioned to his junior associate and left the room. Wei narrowed his eyes at Ben before following his boss.
Two minutes later, Ben was shouldering his duffel bag as he pushed through the screen door out onto the front porch.
Mary rose from her seat. “Come back in one piece, you hear me?”
They embraced. Ben descended the steps and walked to the open door of one of the waiting SUVs. He tossed the duffel inside. With one hand on the door, he took a last look around him at the little patch of Eden where he’d been raised, and where he’d spent the last year and a half. Whatever was waiting for him down in Washington, was it worth leaving all this again and jumping back into the fray?
There was only one way to find out.
Ben got into the vehicle and closed the door. As the SUVs barreled down the long rutted driveway toward the main road, he didn’t look back.