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Truth or Die(10)

By:James Patterson

"C'mon," he repeated. "Let's go!"

He took off, hurdling the concrete bench where I'd been sitting. He was sprinting across the lawn, heading for the cover of the trees lining the Lake. I didn't need any more prompting to follow him, but it came anyway with the crack of a single shot splitting the air. People and pigeons were scattering all over again.

I might have been the only other one with a gun, but the bullet wasn't intended for me. Assassin #2 was aiming for the kid and nearly got him, the divot of grass flying up a mere foot to his left as he ran. There was a better-than-good chance the guy wasn't going to miss twice  …  unless I did something.

Hopping over the concrete bench, I didn't run right away. Instead, I spun around, crouched, and let go with a few rounds. Then a few more. Not at him, though.

You still smiling, buddy?

The guy on the ground had seemed all too pleased to stay there and watch me sweat, but as I sprayed a circle of bullets around him, he was quick to find the fetal position. Even quicker was his partner, who got the message. From a full sprint he stopped on a dime, lowering the gun to his side.

I was about to tell him to lay it on the ground and back away. Problem was, I didn't have much of a plan from there. I was just buying time, and only a few extra seconds at that. As soon as he stepped back, I was taking off, and then we'd see how fast we both could run.

That was when I glanced up and saw her.

There she was, the Angel of the Waters, perched high in the air and watching. Now she was looking out for me, and her plan was a hell of a lot better.

I jerked my head at the fountain. I didn't need to explain. In fact, I didn't say another word. All I did was keep aiming where I was aiming.</ol>


Maybe I have it in me to shoot your asshole partner, or maybe I don't. But do you really want to take the chance?

My two would-be killers exchanged glances, the one on the ground nodding somewhat helplessly at the one with the gun. He nodded back. Then-plop!-he tossed it into the fountain.

One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three  …

I was waiting until the count was ten, long enough for the barrel to fill with water. Would it still fire? Sure. But first he'd have to fish it out and shake it dry, and even then the compression would be off. And as for me?

Eight Mississippi, nine Mississippi, ten  …

I was off and running.

Sprinting for my life across the open stretch of grass, I could feel my lungs on fire. Only when I reached the trees did I look back for the first time, relieved as hell to see they weren't chasing after me.

Still, I kept running. Fear of the unknown, partly, and the rest hoping I could find the kid. But he was nowhere to be found. Until, that is, I felt the quick vibration of my phone again. It was another text from him.

Last 4 of ur SS#

I knew right away what he was doing-making sure it was really me who had my phone. He obviously hadn't hung around to see how things played out back at the fountain. Couldn't blame him. But I also couldn't figure out how he would know my Social Security number. Just add that to the litany of questions I had for him.

I texted back the last four digits, and within seconds he responded with a location where we should meet. Finally, I was going to get some answers.

Careful what you wish for  …


I DIDN'T look around the street before opening the door to the Oak Tavern on Seventy-Fourth off Broadway, but I knew he was watching me from behind some stoop or parked car, or more accurately, watching to see if anyone was following me. The kid wasn't dumb. That was why he was still alive. That was why we were both still alive.

So this guy walks into a bar with a Beretta M9 tucked under his shirt  …

Most New Yorkers can tell you that last call in the city is 4 a.m. Far fewer of them can tell the flip side-first call, the time at which a bar can legally start serving. It's 8 a.m. I knew it only as trivia.

For sure, the four guys scattered along the stools, who didn't even bother to glance my way as I approached the bartender, knew it as a way of life.

"Double Johnnie Black, rocks," I ordered.

The fact that I was having whiskey for breakfast didn't seem nearly as relevant as my having just had a gun aimed at my head. Drinking to numb the pain of Claire's death was one thing; drinking to settle an entire body of frayed nerves was another.

The bartender, tall and thin and hunched with age, nodded, completely expressionless, before heading off to grab the bottle. He might as well have had a sign hanging around his neck that read NO JUDGMENTS.

Waiting for him to return, I looked around a bit. Fittingly, the Oak Tavern was a genuine throwback, not the kind of place that hung reproduction crap on the wall to imitate a time gone by.

Instead, what hung on the wall was actual crap and old as shit. Signed photos of D-list celebrities from the seventies. A painting of a horse that looked as if it had been bought at one of those hotel art fairs off the highway. And right next to it, a coatrack missing half its pegs.

Genuine as well was the musty smell of the place. I could practically feel the dust traveling up my nose with each breath.

"Five fifty," said the bartender, standing in front of me again and pouring.

I gave him seven, picked up my glass, and headed for the rear of the tavern and a row of booths. They were those classic high-back ones, the crimson leather so worn and cracked it looked like a marbleized porterhouse. I slid into the last booth on the left, beyond the line of sight from the bar.

A few minutes later, the kid arrived.

As he walked toward me, I noticed that almost everything about him was a contradiction. He was skinny, with unusually broad shoulders. He had disheveled hair and slacker clothes and was staring ahead with the most focused eyes I'd ever seen. His gait was slow and deliberate, and yet his hands couldn't keep still. He was rubbing them together as if they were under some imaginary faucet.

The kid sat down across from me without saying a word. No introduction. No offer of a handshake, either, lest one of those hands of his might actually have to stop moving while waiting to grip mine. Finally, he spoke.

"Sorry for all this," he said.

That was the biggest contradiction of all, as far as I was concerned. "For what?" I asked. "You saved my life."

"I'm the only reason it was ever in danger, dude."

"We'll get to that in a moment," I said. "That, and whether I'm really going to let you call me dude. But speaking of names, what's yours? And don't say Winston Smith."</ol>


"It's Owen," he answered.

"And you already know mine, don't you? Among other things."

He nodded.

"Are you some kind of hacker?" I asked.

"It's not what I do for a living, if that's what you're wondering."

"Okay. What do you do for a living?"

But it was as if he hadn't heard me. Or, more likely, as if he needed to ask a few questions for himself before answering that one.


"WHAT'S YOUR connection to Claire?"

"Close friend," I answered. It was a good enough explanation for the time being.

"Are you a reporter?"


"You don't work at the Times?"


He hesitated, reluctant to ask his next question. He needed to know, though, and I needed to tell him.

"She's dead, isn't she?" he asked.

"Yes," I answered.

I explained how it had happened. His head dropped. "It's my fault," he said. "Everything."

"Claire would've been the first to tell you that isn't true," I said. "And I'd be the second."

"How do you know?"

"Because I was with her before she went to meet you. This was her job, Owen. It's what she did."

"So you knew about me?"

I smiled. "No. Claire never discussed her sources. I don't even know how she found you."

"She didn't-I found her," he said. "I knew her work. That's why I called her."

"When was this?"

"She and I spoke two days ago," he said. "I was planning on coming up here next week."

"What changed?"

He reached into his pocket, taking out his iPhone. After a few taps, he handed it to me. On the screen was an obituary from the online edition of the Sun Gazette down in Virginia. "Dr. Stephen Hellerman, 48, Leading Neurologist," the headline read. A picture of a clean-cut, good-looking guy was underneath.

"Who's that?" I asked.

"My boss."

I leaned in, squinting to read the first few sentences. " &lsquo;An early-morning home invasion'?"

"That's what it was made to look like. They shot him in the head. Then, last night, they almost got me, too."

"Who's they?"

"I'm not sure yet. I was hoping Claire could tell me."

Were we homing in, I wondered, or just going around in circles? "Why would she know?" I asked.

"The piece she wrote last year about the CIA black site in Poland."

I knew the article well, if only because Claire was in Warsaw for two weeks researching it, and missed my birthday. "The secret jail?"

"Yeah, in Stare Kiejkuty," he said with a perfect Polish accent. Impressive.

Stare Kiejkuty was a Polish intelligence-training site tucked away in a forest about two hours north of the capital. Claire got a guided tour of it from Polish officials, the key word being guided. As she described it, the whole purpose of the tour was to convince her the CIA wasn't using a spare room or two to interrogate suspected Muslim terrorists outside the reach of US legal protections.