BOOKS: BURNED

BUY EXCERPT

An excerpt from Burned by Valerie Plame Wilson

In the Salon Denon, Vanessa Pierson stood poised in front of Eugène Delacroix’s The Barque of Dante, aware of the swirl of people around her: the student painters slouched behind their easels; the German, Asian, and American tourists; the stylish Parisians, all drawn to the Louvre on a rainy morning on this third day of February. But her focus remained on the painting for these few stolen moments when she didn’t allow herself to think about events as they might unfold over the next few minutes. She drew fleeting pleasure from the Delacroix’s rich and somber colors and dark Romanticism.

The irony of the painting depicting the voyage to hell was not lost on her. She thought about the last few months, her own voyage along the River Styx. As horrific as it had been in so many ways, Vanessa was determined to see it through to the end. She admitted to herself that she loved the rush.

She leaned in, fascinated, to look more closely at the artist’s brush- work. The water droplets on the bodies of the damned looked so absolutely real—and for just a moment, she was taken away from the weight of the operation in front of her . . .

She felt the soft brush of eyes and turned to see a girl no older than ten, crisp in a navy blue school uniform and braids, standing close enough to touch. She seemed to be staring so intently at the Delacroix, head tilted, arms crossed, that she might be oblivious to the world—but her gaze slid back to Vanessa, who took in the raised brows over sharply intelligent eyes, then slightly pressed her lips together, the “not easily sold” posture of a fellow observer, a healthy skeptic. She liked that confidence, especially when manifested in young girls.

They both smiled.

“Time to move, B-two.” The order, audible only to Vanessa, was emitted from the tiny earpiece she wore—it came from Hays, manning tech from the French service safe house a few kilometers away. Vanessa gave the girl an almost imperceptible nod, both in agreement that the subject was dismal, and then caught one last look at Dante and Virgil and the miserable souls roiling in the River Styx as she turned toward the entrance to the gallery and the staircase beyond.

She descended as quickly as possible through the steady f low of visitors, noting the staccato of a woman’s sharp heels on the marble, the musky scent of a rain-dampened wool sweater, the babel of myriad tongues. The Richelieu Wing, housing the museum’s Near Eastern antiquities, from Mésopotamie archaïque, would have to wait for another visit not paid for by U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Down the final sortie, she was just paces from the exit to the museum’s exterior courtyard, where Jack, aka B-1, the other member of her counter surveillance team, Bravo 6, was in position. The crowd here was thick, and she had to refrain from pushing people out of the way. When she was very close to the exit, she could smell rain and a chill ran through her—dread?

It had been only two months since she’d shot and killed a hired assassin, a Chechen who’d murdered at least a dozen high-level targets, including three of her assets, before he tried and failed to assassinate the head of MI5.

She’d stopped the Chechen, but his boss, the man the CIA’s counterproliferation division (CPD) knew only as Bhoot, was alive, presumably well, and still dealing death.

His code name was Hindi for “ghost,” and he was her elusive target: a powerful black-market nuclear proliferator, the man responsible for a secret weapons facility in southern Iran, the ruthless head of a massive international arms-smuggling syndicate.

She shook off the dissonant thoughts and racing memories and brought her focus to the present. The chill wasn’t dread but anticipation.

She had a vital job to do, an asset to meet, who claimed to have intel that could bring CPD closer to stopping Bhoot. Her asset’s intel might save countless lives. She and her team would do everything they could to make the events of the next thirty minutes go seamlessly.

She pushed through the last exit gate to the outside, only to be slapped by light rain from the ceiling of low-hanging clouds covering Paris. The French called those leaden skies and the constant drizzle la grisaille. Vanessa considered the weather in Paris to be generally abysmal, no matter what the lyrics were to “April in Paris.”

Here the rain-slicked Cour Napoléon, the courtyard of the Louvre, stretched the hundred or so meters from the main Pei Pyramid to the Place du Carrousel. Vanessa slowed her pace so that she strolled toward the northwest corner of the pyramid where it abutted a reflecting pond. The Arc de Triomphe stood clearly visible to the west beyond the metal crowd-control barriers. She rummaged in her pockets, a tourist searching for her iPhone, for her camera, for a cigarette.

She felt self-conscious, wanting to blend in, but her every nerve seemed to vibrate as she waited to make the meet. Her last meeting with an asset ended in disaster; he ended up dead.

But I killed the Chechen—that nightmare is over, right?

Her earpiece crackled. “Got eyes on you,” Hays said. He had full audio contact with Vanessa and Jack as well as video feed from two exterior security cams.

“Copy that,” Vanessa replied softly. She held up the phone, snap- ping a picture of the equestrian statue of King Louis XIV at the same time that she tracked the people around her.

Even on a weekday mid-morning the courtyard was crowded. A dozen Asians on a guided tour; rows of uniformed French schoolgirls walking in two lines, holding hands and scattered amid the tourists; a half-dozen armed security officers dressed in black uniforms, Police stenciled across their backs. For the past year, staff at some of the city’s major landmarks had organized strikes to protest attacks by aggressive child pickpockets and beggars, the youngest members of criminal gangs flooding into Paris from eastern European countries.

Vanessa caught a glimpse of a compact, muscular man in a green slicker walking away from the pyramid: Jack. She registered her internal f licker of relief, even as he disappeared amid a new stream of tourists flowing toward the pyramid.

Damn it, her reactions weren’t back to normal. She was too on edge, spooked too easily.

Come on, she told herself, the worst won’t happen; this isn’t last year.

A group of young men and women approached in a cluster; she counted eight males and three females, all attractive, olive-skinned, dark-featured.

Not one of them was her Syrian asset, Farid Hasser, with his amber eyes and shy smile.

“Arabs?” Hays asked, clearly catching a visual of them from the security feed.

For an instant, Vanessa thought so. Then not.

She thought she heard Hebrew.

“Negative,” she said under her breath.

She checked her watch: 1051 hours—nine minutes before their agreed-upon meeting. Her Nicorette gum tasted stale in her mouth; not surprising, after nearly three hours of SDR—surveillance detection route—to make certain she hadn’t been followed. Farid’s intel was bringing him out of the shadows, and that was always a risk. When he made contact via coded e-mail, he’d alluded to “a problem with the newest product you are interested in—I think some things are wrong in the distribution process.”

That message—coupled with rumors in the world of counterproliferation and the bits and pieces of intel from CIA and NSA analysts— made Vanessa and her cohorts at CPD all but certain that Farid’s “product” was a miniaturized nuclear weapon, a prototype smuggled out of Bhoot’s Iranian underground production facility just weeks before U.S. bombers destroyed it last September.

But the most ominous implication of Farid’s message—“Some things are wrong in the distribution process”—convinced Vanessa that the smuggled nuke might already be in the hands of a third-party buyer.

Her tiny earpiece vibrated again when Hays said, “Male, early twenties, dark hair, dark blue parka, your one o’clock.”

On his cue, Vanessa saw the man just as he joined a woman pushing a crying toddler in a stroller.

She exhaled even as the familiar frisson ran through her body. Not Farid.

He’d celebrated his twenty-second birthday one month ago. Hard to believe he’d been her asset for more than two years. And he’d delivered before on his promises of actionable intel, much of it gleaned from his job as a courier for a relative’s Dubai-based import-export business. For an instant Vanessa held him clearly in her mind: slim, tall, gently serious—yet exuberant when he let go of his polite reserve.

In many ways, Farid seemed like a younger brother, a little bit like a puppy dog, and she’d sensed at their first meeting that he needed structure and her guidance. She was proud of her ability to size people up quickly; it was a requisite of the job.

She scanned the courtyard to the Place du Carrousel to see if she’d catch another glimpse of Jack or spot Farid. Her view was blocked by yet another procession of uniformed school kids, this time young boys, headed her way.

“Excusez-moi,” she murmured, stepping to the side to avoid a woman in a wheelchair.

Now the schoolchildren were close enough that she could pick out occasional words from their birdlike chatter.

A slender man approaching from the Place du Carrousel caught her eye. He stood out from the crowd, but she couldn’t pinpoint exactly why; the slightly slouched and lightly syncopated stride reminded her of Farid but was mirrored by that of any number of twentysomething urban males. With roughly seventy meters between them, he was too far away for her to identify him.

Hays hissed. “Your ten o’clock, male, leather jacket—” “Copy.” Already got him.

As he drew close to the statue of Louis XIV, his pace slowed. He was about sixty meters from her now, but the crowd was denser. A German group passed so closely in front of her that one of the women bumped her shoulder. Her line of sight reopened: The man was looking in her direction.

She pulled her pack of Dunhill cigarettes and her lighter from her pocket. She tamped the pack. She tried not to shake from the adrenaline coursing through her system. She knew what she had to do, but cursed when her body betrayed her emotions.

As if reassured by their prearranged signal, he began moving again, toward her with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his dark leather jacket and his dark curly hair tufting out from beneath his distinctive black Emirates—Dubai cap: Farid’s uniform. But was it Farid? His chin was tucked so she couldn’t see his features. In the rain, at this distance she couldn’t be positive.

Something seemed to spook him, because she saw him pull back; a pair of security officers was striding toward him. Vanessa tensed, too. But the officers didn’t sense his wariness, so they passed him by, their attention focused on a group of a half-dozen ragamuffin youngsters.

She caught a good look at his face in profile: Yes, the sharp angle of cheek to jaw was a match for Farid. And wasn’t that a Paris Match tucked under his left arm? They’d agreed to that signal. If nothing went wrong, if nothing warranted aborting the operation before they passed each other, he would hand off the magazine with the f lash drive he’d taped to a page inside.

“Is it your guy?” The vibration of Hays’s tiny, whispered voice tickled her ear.

Maybe. But still she couldn’t confirm it.

Now, with forty-five meters between them, the window was closing for the handoff. She began to walk in his direction, epinephrine- driven excitement fueling her as she moved between and around the constant flow of people. When she lost sight of him, her pulse spiked until she found him again.

She almost collided with an older Asian couple, but she stepped around them and just heard the wake of their Mandarin. Now only twenty-five meters and a posse of a half-dozen laughing teenagers separated Vanessa from her asset. Crowds worked both ways—they could act as a shield and a means to melt away, but they could also infringe on sight lines and her ability to move fast, if necessary. As two of the teenage girls slowed, Vanessa saw him clearly.

“He’s got a backpack,” Hays snapped.

And, for the first time, she saw he wore a dark backpack off one shoulder.

Her stomach clenched.

His face had gone so pale that his skin looked chalky. Now she could see that his lips were moving. Was he praying?

She felt his gaze slide over her. He had singled her out of the crowd. Their eyes met—but he wasn’t looking at her, he was staring through her.

That couldn’t be Farid.

“We’ve got a possible suicide bomber—” Hays hissed out the words.

Oh, God, no.

She took a quick breath just as he detonated the bomb.