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The first installment in a weeklong series of excerpts, produced in partnership with TIME.com, is the opening passage from a contemporary international-thriller series written by Valerie Plame—the ex–CIA operative outed by the Bush White House and author of the New York Times bestseller Fair Game—and suspense writer Sarah Lovett.
Valerie Plame’s career as a CIA operative was cut short after her cover was blown. Now, Plame turns to fiction with suspense writer Sarah Lovett—delivering all the knowledge, experience, and authenticity only they can bring to the page. In Blowback, the first book in a major new series, undercover CIA agent Vanessa Pierson tries to pinpoint just who is building a nuclear weapon in Iran—and how this shadowy figure has discovered the identities of several of her sources and had them assassinated. And she’s getting closer, putting her cover and her career—and her life—at risk.
Publishers Lunch’s just-released free ebook Buzz Books 2013: Fall/Winter includes a pre-publication excerpt from Blowback—from which this shorter selection is adapted—plus samples of dozens of other books that will published in the months ahead.
The quick slap of a runner’s stride against asphalt broke the late-afternoon hush of Vienna’s Prater Garten. Vanessa Pierson tensed, catching a flash of blue and white in her peripheral vision. Lean legs encased in a warm up suit, slightly scuffed running shoes, rhythmic breathing—an athlete training for Vienna’s annual marathon? She exhaled as he passed, but the knot behind her solar plexus tightened, her body’s message that she’d moved way beyond normal operational adrenaline.
But there’d been nothing normal about this op from the beginning.
Her Iranian asset had sent her a private message embedded within the careful content of the email that prompted this meeting. He’d used the code they’d agreed upon the last time they met in person. A phrase that told her the meeting was so urgent it warranted the risk entailed. “Although my conference schedule is extremely busy I’m hoping to visit the Klimt Paintings in the Belvedere Palace.”
And now you’re forty-two minutes late, Arash.
Fear for him whispered through her; what if he’d been detained, arrested—
She forced her mind away from the worst-case scenarios. Screwed up Agency “commo” plans were legendary—the most intricate and carefully arranged meetings blown by someone forgetting whether to move the clock forward or back by one hour or two.
She’d played tourist for the last 90 minutes, strolling the main avenue, circling the park’s ornate lake to feed the raucous ducks, the burn phone in her pocket pressing against her hip. Only one person had the number: Chris Arvanitis, her boss at the counterproliferation division, the only one at CIA Headquarters who still had her back.
Now, retracing her steps, she followed the path to the amusement park, where the Riesenrad, the Giant Wheel, spun ponderously against a low, gray sky. When Arash arrived, he would head toward their landmark.
They hadn’t had any contact since their last meeting in Copenhagen, almost two years ago. For a few minutes they walked through Tivoli Gardens, the last gleam of sunset reflecting off the lake. As a swan stretched its gray wings, sending ripples over the water’s metallic shimmer, she pressed a flash drive into his damp palm, squeezing his hand gently. To calm him, she quietly joked, “For one of your colleagues at Natanz who enjoys the soft porn of Game of Thrones. Leave it where it will be used often and shared.”
He had offered a faint smile, but the skin around his dark eyes tightened and Vanessa read the spike of fear. He knew better than to ask what the drive contained—he would put the pieces together easily enough, even before the story burned through the international press and the virus contained on the flash drive irrevocably changed the nature of covert war. Knowing she would not see him again soon, if ever, she walked away without looking back. Almost whispering the silent request, Be very careful, Arash Farah, stay safe, my friend.
The Riesenrad groaned to a halt just as the lights sparked on in the amusement park, a small rainbow glowing against fading sunlight. A handful of laughing teenagers stumbled from a carriage on the huge wheel, and a small, screaming boy of about four tugged desperately on his mother’s arm. But Vanessa focused on the solitary male pedestrians within sight. No Arash, but a pale, dark-haired man turned away from her gaze abruptly.
The first glimmer of the icy panic rose. A panic that had dogged her since the shit-storm from Prague and Jost Pender’s disappearance.
Even when the pale man waved to an elderly woman shepherding twin boys of about ten, the fear remained, irrational now.
She reined herself in, but all her instincts pushed her to move. Turning in slow motion, scanning the amusement park and the green tree-shaded park beyond, marking: the teenaged neo-punk fan, noise leaking from his ear buds; the tourist family; the fraught woman with the noisy toddler.
A group of college students brushed past her on their way to the biergarten, voices rising over the groan of gears and piped music. She sidestepped them, abruptly brought back to ground.
She would give Arash ten more minutes.
“Komm schon! Vorwarts! Venez-vous! Come on!” The barker at the faded shooting gallery beckoned, calling out in assorted tongues, Come on, pretty lady, three shots for a euro!
She flashed a smile that didn’t reach her eyes—the open booth offered an easy view of the Hauptallee at the same time its proximity to the Reisenrad meant Arash would spot her quickly. She stepped up. “Nur drei?”
“Ordnung, drei, ja,” the barker offered with a dodgy wink. He took her money and handed her a scuffed target rifle.
Pushing strands of her dark bobbed wig behind one ear, Vanessa set the butt of the rifle squarely to her right shoulder. She narrowed her left eye, took a breath, and began the slow squeeze on the trigger. Four shots, four targets blown apart.
The barker tipped his head, fanning his hand, gesturing ‘hot stuff’.
She powered through her next shots, annihilating four new marks, refusing another go—”Nein, nein”—abandoning the target rifle on the counter of the faded green booth.
Even if it was a timing mix-up, Arash should have been there by now. She had to move and—damn, the screaming toddler was dragging his mother her way.
Vanessa pivoted toward the main avenue with its green canopy of chestnut trees, catching a glimpse of her distorted image in the mirror of the adjacent fun house, her slacks, boots, and jacket melding together, her slender body twisted to a freakish cipher.
Still the child screamed, a sound capable of shattering glass.
“Sie gewinnen!” The barker thrust a huge red plush panda into Vanessa’s arms just as she saw a familiar figure in a black overcoat in the near distance; Arash walking briskly along the Hauptallee, the recognizable hitch in his stride, his coat flapping slightly in the breeze, a tuft of blue-black hair falling over his high forehead, five o’clock shadow emphasizing his softening jawline.
Relief at the sight of him surged through her, its intensity catching her off guard.
Vanessa handed off her prize to the tearful child. She barely registered the mother’s surprised thanks because she was already moving to meet Arash. She quickened her pace to reach him while he was still on the main avenue.
* * * * *
Copyright © 2013 by Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett. Used by permission of Blue Rider Press, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.