Название книги:

Hunting Zero

Джек Марс
Hunting Zero




“Not doing it for you,” Watson reminded him somberly. “Doing it for those kids. And Zero? If I’m made, if I’m compromised in any way, if they figure out what I’m doing with you, I’m out. You understand? I can’t afford to get agency blacklisted.”

Reid’s initial kneejerk instinct was a quick swell of anger—this is about my children, and he’s afraid of being blacklisted?—but he stifled it just as fast as it came on. Watson was an unexpected ally in all of this, and the man was sticking his neck out for his girls. Not for him, but for two children he’d only met briefly.

Reid nodded tightly. “I understand.” To the solemn, grunting mechanic he added, “Thanks, Mitch. I appreciate your help.”

Mitch grunted in response and pressed the switch to open the garage bay as Reid climbed into the Trans Am. The interior was all black leather, clean, pleasant smelling. The engine turned over immediately and thrummed under the hood. A 1987 model, his brain told him. 5.0 liter V8 engine. At least two hundred fifty horsepower.

He pulled out of the Third Street Garage and headed for the highway, his hands tightly wrapped around the steering wheel. The horrors that had been swirling through his head previously were replaced with a steely resolve, a hard determination. There was a hotline. The police were on it. The CIA was on it. And now he too was on the road after them.

I’m on my way. Dad is coming for you.

And for him.


“You should eat.” The assassin gestured at a carton of Chinese takeout on the nightstand beside the bed.

Maya shook her head. The food was long cold by now, and she wasn’t hungry. Instead, she sat on the bed with her knees drawn up, Sara leaning against her with her head in her older sister’s lap. The girls were handcuffed together, Maya’s left wrist with Sara’s right. Where he had gotten the handcuffs, she didn’t know, but the assassin had warned them several times that if either of them tried anything to escape or make noise, the other would suffer for it.

Rais sat in an armchair near the door of the seedy motel room with orange carpeting and yellow walls. The room smelled musty and the bathroom reeked of bleach. They had been there for hours; the ancient bedside alarm clock told her in blocky red LED numerals that it was two thirty in the morning. The television was on, tuned into a news station with the volume low.

A white station wagon was parked directly outside, mere feet from the door; the assassin had stolen it after dark from a used car lot. It was the third time they had switched cars that day, from Thompson’s truck to the blue sedan and now to the white SUV. Each time they did, Rais changed directions, heading first south, then back north, and then to the northeast toward the coast.

Maya understood what he was doing; a cat-and-mouse game, leaving the stolen vehicles in different locations so that the authorities would have no idea which way they were heading. Their motel room was less than ten miles from Bayonne, not far from the border to New Jersey and New York. The motel itself was a strip of a building that was so rundown and frankly disgusting that driving by it gave the impression it had been closed for years.

Neither of the girls had slept much. Sara had catnapped in Maya’s arms, stealing twenty or thirty minutes at a time before rousing with a start and a whimper as she woke from whatever dream she’d been having and remembered where she was.

Maya had fought the exhaustion, trying to stay awake as long as possible—Rais had to sleep sometime, she knew, and it could afford them a precious few minutes they needed to make a run for it. But the motel was located in an industrial park. She saw when they had pulled in that there were no houses nearby and no other businesses that would be open this time of night. She wasn’t even certain anyone would be in the motel office. They would have nowhere to go except into the night, and the handcuffs would slow them down.

Eventually Maya had succumbed to the fatigue and unwillingly nodded off. She was asleep less than an hour when she woke with a slight gasp—and then gasped again when, startled, she saw Rais sitting in the armchair only three feet from her.

He was staring directly at her, eyes wide open. Just watching.

It had made her skin crawl… until a whole minute passed, and then another. She watched him, staring back, her fright mingling with curiosity. Then she realized.

He sleeps with his eyes open.

She wasn’t sure if that was more disturbing than waking to find him watching her or not.

Then he blinked, and she sucked in yet another startled gasp, her heart leaping into her throat.

“Damaged facial nerves,” he said quietly, almost a whisper. “I’ve heard it can be quite unsettling.” He gestured to the carton of leftover Chinese takeout that had been delivered to their room hours earlier. “You should eat.”

She shook her head, cradling Sara across her lap.

The low-volume news station was repeating the major headlines from earlier that day. A terror organization had been deemed responsible for the release of a deadly smallpox virus in Spain and other parts of Europe; their leader, as well as the virus, had been apprehended and several other members were now in custody. That afternoon the United States had officially lifted its international travel ban to all countries except for Portugal, Spain, and France, where there were still isolated incidents of mutated smallpox. But everyone seemed confident that the World Health Organization had the situation under control.

Maya had suspected that her father had been sent to assist with that case. She wondered if he had been the one to take down the ringleader. She wondered if he was back in the country yet.

She wondered if he had found Mr. Thompson’s body. If he had realized they were missing—or if anyone had realized they were missing.

Rais sat in the yellow chair with a cell phone resting on the armrest. It was an older style phone, practically prehistoric by today’s standards—it wasn’t good for anything but calls and messages. A burner phone, Maya had heard such things called on TV. It did not connect to the internet and had no GPS, which she knew from police procedural shows meant it could only be traced by the phone number, which someone would have to have.

Rais was waiting for something, it seemed. A call or a message. Maya desperately wanted to know where they were going, if there even was a destination. She suspected that Rais wanted their father to find them, to track them down, but the assassin did not seem to be in any rush to get anywhere. Was this his game, she wondered, stealing cars and changing directions, eluding the authorities, in the hopes that their father would be the one to find them first? Would they just keep bouncing from place to place until there was a faceoff?

Suddenly a monophonic ring tone blared out from the burner phone beside Rais. Sara jumped slightly in her arms with the high-pitched intrusion.

“Hello.” Rais answered the phone flatly. “Ano.” He stood from his chair for the first time in three hours as he switched from English to some foreign tongue. Maya knew only English and French, and she could recognize a handful of other languages from single words and accents, but she didn’t know this one. It was a guttural tongue, but not altogether unpleasant.

Russian? she thought. No. Polish, maybe. It was no use guessing; she couldn’t be sure, and knowing wouldn’t help her understand anything that was being said.

Still, she listened in, noting the frequent usage of “z” and “-ski” sounds, trying to pick out cognates, of which there seemed to be none.

There was one word that she managed to pick out, however, and it made her blood run cold.

“Dubrovnik,” the assassin said, as if by way of confirmation.

Dubrovnik? Geography was one of her best subjects; Dubrovnik was a city in southwestern Croatia, a famous seaport and popular tourist destination. But far more important than that was the implication of the mentioned word.

It meant that Rais was planning to take them out of the country.

Ano,” he said (which seemed like an affirmative; she guessed it to mean “yes”). And then: “Port Jersey.”

They were the only two English words in the entire conversation besides “hello,” and she picked them out easily. Their motel was already close to Bayonne, a stone’s throw from the industrial Port Jersey. She had seen it many times before, crossing the bridge from Jersey into New York or back, stacks upon stacks of multicolored freight containers being loaded by cranes onto vast, dark ships that would carry them overseas.

Her heartbeat tripled its pace. Rais was going to take them out of the US by way of Port Jersey to Croatia. And from there… she had no idea, and no one else would either. There would be little hope of ever being found again.

Maya could not allow it. Her resolve to fight back strengthened; her determination to do something about this situation came roaring back to life.

The trauma of watching Rais cut the woman’s throat in the rest stop bathroom earlier that day still lingered; she saw it whenever she closed her eyes. The vacant, dead stare. The pool of blood nearly touching her feet. But then she touched her sister’s hair and she knew that she would absolutely accept the same fate if it meant Sara would be safe and away from this man.

Rais continued his conversation in the foreign language, chattering in short, punctuated sentences. He turned and parted the thick curtains slightly, only an inch or so, to peer out at the parking lot.

His back was to her, probably for the first time since they had arrived at the seedy motel.


Maya reached out and very carefully pulled open the drawer of the nightstand. It was all she could reach, handcuffed to her sister and without moving from the bed. Her gaze flitted nervously to Rais’s back, and then to the drawer.

There was a Bible in it, a very old one with a chipped, peeling spine. And beside it was a simple blue ballpoint pen.

She took it and closed the drawer again. At almost the same moment Rais turned back. Maya froze, the pen clutched in her closed fist.

But he did not pay her any attention. He seemed bored with the call now, anxious to get off the phone. Something on the television caught his attention for a few seconds and Maya hid the pen in the elastic waistband of her flannel pajama pants.

The assassin grunted a halfhearted goodbye and ended the call, flinging the phone onto the armchair cushion. He turned toward them, scrutinizing each in turn. Maya stared straight ahead, her gaze as vacant as she could make it, pretending to watch the newscast. Seemingly satisfied, he took his post on the chair again.

Maya gently stroked Sara’s back with her free hand as her younger sister stared at the television, or perhaps at nothing at all, her eyes half-closed. After the incident in the restroom at the rest stop, it took hours for Sara to stop crying, but now she simply lay there, her gaze empty and glazed. It seemed she had nothing left.

Maya ran her fingers up and down her sister’s spine in an attempt to comfort her. There was no way for them to communicate between each other; Rais had made it clear that they were not allowed to speak unless asked a question. There was no way for Maya to relay a message, to create a plan.

Though… maybe it doesn’t have to be verbal, she thought.

Maya stopped touching her sister’s back for a moment. When she resumed, she took her index finger and surreptitiously drew the slow, lazy shape of a letter between Sara’s shoulder blades—a large S.

Sara lifted her head curiously for just a moment, but she did not look up at Maya or say anything. Maya hoped desperately that she understood.

Q, she drew next.

Then U.

Rais sat in the chair in Maya’s peripheral vision. She didn’t dare glance over at him for fear of seeming suspicious. Instead she stared straight ahead, as she had been, and drew the letters.

E. E. Z. E.

She moved her finger slowly, deliberately, pausing for two seconds between each letter and five seconds between each word until she spelled out her message.

Squeeze my hand if you understand.

Maya did not even see Sara move. But their hands were close, on account of being cuffed together, and she felt cool, clammy fingers close tightly around her own for a moment.

She understood. Sara got the message.

Maya started anew, moving slowly as possible. There was no rush, and she needed to make sure that Sara got every word.

If you have a chance, she wrote, you run.

Do not look back.

Do not wait for me.

Find help. Get Dad.

Sara lay there, quietly and perfectly still, for the entire message. It was a quarter after three before Maya finished. Finally she felt the cool touch of a thin finger on the palm of her left hand, nestled partially under Sara’s cheek. The finger traced a pattern on her palm, the letter N.

Not without you, Sara’s message said.

Maya closed her eyes and sighed.

You have to, she wrote back. Or there is no chance for either of us.

She didn’t give Sara an opportunity to respond. Once she had finished her message, she cleared her throat and said quietly, “I have to go to the bathroom.”

Rais raised an eyebrow and gestured toward the open bathroom door on the far end of the room. “By all means.”

“But…” Maya lifted her shackled wrist.

“So?” the assassin asked. “Take her with you. You have a free hand.”

Maya bit her lip. She knew what he was doing; the sole window in the bathroom was small, barely large enough for Maya to fit through and wholly impossible while handcuffed to her sister.

She slid off the bed slowly, prodding her sister to come with her. Sara moved mechanically, as if she had forgotten how to properly use her limbs.

“You have one minute. Do not lock the door,” Rais warned. “If you do I will kick it down.”

Maya led the way and closed the door to the tiny bathroom, cramped with both of them standing in it. She flicked on the light—fairly certain she saw a roach skitter to safety beneath the sink—and then turned on the bath fan, which droned loudly overhead.

“I won’t,” Sara whispered almost immediately. “I won’t go without—”

Maya quickly held a finger to her own lips to signal for quiet. For all she knew, Rais was standing right on the other side of the door with an ear to it. He did not take chances.

She quickly pulled the ballpoint pen from the hem of her pants. She needed something to write on, and the only thing available was toilet paper. Maya tore off a few squares and spread them on the small sink, but every time she pressed the pen to it, the paper tore easily. She tried again with a few fresh squares, but again the paper ripped.

This is no use, she thought bitterly. The shower curtain would do her no good; it was just a plastic sheet hanging over the tub. There were no curtains over the small window.

But there was something she could use.

“Stay still,” she whispered in her sister’s ear. Sara’s pajama pants were white with a pineapple print on them—and they had pockets. Maya turned one of the pockets inside out and, as carefully as she could, tore it out until she had a rough-edged triangular scrap of fabric that had the fruity imprint on one side but was all-white on the other.

She quickly flattened it on the sink and wrote carefully as her sister watched. The pen snagged several times on the fabric, but Maya bit her tongue to avoid grunting in angry frustration as she wrote out a note.

Port Jersey.


There was more that she wanted to write, but she was nearly out of time. Maya stowed the pen under the sink and tightly rolled the fabric note into a cylinder. Then she looked around desperately for a place to hide the note. She couldn’t just stick it under the sink with the pen; that would be too conspicuous, and Rais was thorough. The shower was out of the question. Getting the note wet would run the ink.

An abrupt knock on the thin bathroom door startled them both.

“It’s been a minute,” Rais said clearly from the other side.

“I’m almost done,” she said hastily. She held her breath as she lifted the lid from the toilet tank, hoping that the thrumming bathroom fan drowned out any scraping noise. She looped the rolled-up note through the chain on the flushing mechanism, high enough that it wouldn’t touch the water.

“I said you have one minute. I am opening the door.”

“Just give me a few seconds, please!” Maya pleaded as she quickly replaced the lid. Lastly, she tugged a few hairs from her head and dropped them atop the closed toilet tank. With any luck—with a lot of luck—anyone who was following their trail would recognize the clue.

She could only hope.

The knob to the bathroom door turned. Maya flushed the toilet and crouched in a gesture to suggest she was pulling up her pajama bottoms.

Rais stuck his head into the open door, his gaze directed at the floor. Slowly he panned up to the two girls, inspecting each in turn.

Maya held her breath. Sara reached for her sister’s shackled hand and their fingers intertwined.

“Finished?” he asked slowly.

She nodded.

He looked left and right in distaste. “Wash your hands. This room is disgusting.”

Maya did so, washing with gritty orange hand soap as Sara’s wrist dangled limply next to her own. She dried her hands on the brown towel and the assassin nodded.

“Back on the bed. Go.”

She led Sara back into the room and onto the bed. Rais lingered a moment, glancing around the small bathroom. Then he flicked off the fan and the light and returned to his chair.

Maya put her arm around Sara and held her close.

Dad will find it, she thought desperately. He’ll find it. I know he will.


Reid headed south on the interstate, trying hard to ride the line between speeding and getting there quickly as he headed toward the rest stop where Thompson’s truck had been ditched. Despite his anxiety to get a lead, find a clue, he was beginning to feel optimistic about being on the road. His grief was still present, sitting heavy in his gut as if he had swallowed a bowling ball, but now it was wrapped in a shell of resolution and tenacity.

Already he was feeling the familiar sensation of his Kent Steele persona taking the reins as he barreled down the highway in the black Trans Am, a trunk full of guns and gadgets at his disposal. There was a time and place to be Reid Lawson, but this wasn’t it. Kent was their father too, whether the girls knew it or not. Kent had been Kate’s husband. And Kent was a man of action. He didn’t wait around for the police to find a lead, for some other agent to do his job.

He was going to find them. He just needed to know where they were going.

The interstate heading south through Virginia was mostly straight, two lanes, lined on both sides with thick trees, and thoroughly monotonous. Reid’s frustration grew with every passing minute that he didn’t get there fast enough.

Why south? he thought. Where would Rais be taking them?

What would I do if I was him? Where would I go?

“That’s it,” he said aloud to himself as a realization struck him like a blow to the head. Rais wanted to be found—but not by the police or the FBI or another CIA agent. He wanted to be found by Kent Steele, and Kent Steele alone.

I can’t think in terms of what he would do. I have to think of what I would do.

What would I do?

The authorities would assume that since the truck was found south of Alexandria, that Rais was taking the girls further south. “Which means I would go…”

His musing was interrupted by the blaring tone of the burner phone in the center console.

“Go north,” Watson said immediately.

“What did you find?”

“There’s nothing to find at the rest stop. Turn it around first. Then we’ll talk.”

Reid didn’t have to be told twice. He dropped the phone into the console, downshifted into third, and jerked the wheel to the left. There weren’t many cars on the highway at this time of day on a Sunday; the Trans Am crossed the empty lane and skidded sideways into the grassy median. Its wheels did not screech against the pavement or lose purchase when the ground turned soft beneath them—Mitch must have installed high-performance radial tires. The Trans Am fishtailed across the median, the front end spinning only slightly as it kicked a cascade of dirt out behind it.

Reid straightened the car as he crossed the barren narrow strip between stretches of highway. As the car found asphalt again, he popped the clutch, shifted up, and slammed down on the pedal. The Trans Am shot forward like a bolt of lightning into the opposite lane.

Reid fought down the sudden exhilaration that spiked in his chest. His brain reacted strongly to anything adrenaline producing; it craved the thrill, the fleeting possibility of losing control and the galvanizing pleasure of gaining it back.

“Heading north,” Reid said as he plucked up the phone again. “What did you find?”

“I’ve got a tech monitoring the police airwaves. Don’t worry, I trust him. A blue sedan was reported abandoned at a used car lot this morning. In it they found a purse, with IDs and cards matching the woman that was killed at the rest stop.”

Reid frowned. Rais had stolen the car and ditched it quickly. “Where?”

“That’s the thing. It’s about two hours north of your current location, in Maryland.”

He scoffed in frustration. “Two hours? I don’t have that kind of time to waste. He’s already got a big lead on us.”

“Working on it,” Watson said cryptically. “There’s more. The dealership says there’s a car missing from their lot—a white SUV, eight years old. We have nothing to track it with other than waiting for it to get spotted. Satellite imaging would be like a needle in a haystack…”

“No,” Reid said. “No, don’t bother. The SUV will mostly likely be another dead end. He’s toying with us. Changing direction, trying to throw us off from wherever he’s really taking them.”


“How do you know that?”

“Because that’s what I would do.” He thought for a moment. Rais already had a lead on them; they needed to get ahead of his game, or at least on par with it. “Have your tech look into any cars reported stolen in the last twelve hours or so, between here and New York.”

“That’s a pretty wide net to throw,” Watson noted.

He was right; Reid knew that a car was stolen about every forty-five seconds in the US, amounting to hundreds of thousands each year. “All right, exclude the top ten most frequently stolen models,” he said. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, Rais was smart. He would likely know which cars to avoid and which to aim for. “Scratch off anything expensive or flashy, bright colors, distinguishing features, anything the cops would find easily. And, of course, anything new enough to be equipped with GPS. Focus on locations that wouldn’t have many people around—vacant lots, closed businesses, industrial parks, that sort of thing.”

“Got it,” Watson said. “I’ll call you back when I have info.”

“Thanks.” He stashed the phone in the center console again. He didn’t have two hours to burn driving the highways. He needed something faster, or a better lead on where his girls might be. He wondered if Rais had once again changed direction; perhaps headed north just to turn west, heading inland, or even going south again.

He glanced over at the lanes of southbound traffic. I wonder if I could be passing them right now, right next to me. I’d never know it.

His thoughts were suddenly drowned out by a piercing yet familiar sound—the steady rising and falling of a wailing police siren. Reid swore under his breath as he glanced in the rearview mirror to see a police cruiser tailing him, its red and blue lights flashing.

Not what I need right now. The cop must have spotted him cross the median. He looked again; the cruiser was a Caprice. 5.7-liter engine. Top speed of a hundred and fifty. I doubt the Trans Am can maintain that. Even so, he wasn’t about to pull over and waste precious time.

Instead he slammed the pedal down anew, jumping from the previous eighty-five he was doing up to an even hundred miles an hour. The cruiser kept pace, leaping up in speed effortlessly. Still Reid kept both hands on the wheel, his hands steady, the familiarity and excitement of a high-speed chase returning to him.

Except this time he was the one being chased.

The phone rang again. “You were right,” Watson said. “I got a… wait, is that a siren?”

“Sure is,” Reid muttered. “Anything you can do about this?”

“Me? Not on an unofficial op.”

“I can’t outrun him…”

“But you can outdrive him,” Watson replied. “Call Mitch.”

“Call Mitch?” Reid repeated blankly. “And say what exactly…? Hello?”

Watson had already hung up. Reid swore under his breath and skirted around a minivan, swerving back into the left lane with one hand as he thumbed the flip phone. Watson told him that he’d programmed a number for the mechanic into the phone.

He found a number labeled with only the letter “M” and called as the siren continued to blare behind him.

Someone answered, but didn’t speak.

“Mitch?” he asked.

The mechanic grunted in response.

Behind him, the cop moved into the right lane and accelerated, trying to get up next to him. Reid jerked the wheel quickly and the Trans Am slid flawlessly into the lane, blocking the cop car. Behind the closed windows and the roar of the engine he could faintly hear the echo of a PA system, the trooper ordering him to pull over.

“Mitch, I’m, uh…” What am I supposed to say? “I’m doing about one-ten down I-95 with a cop on my tail.” He glanced in the rearview mirror and groaned as a second cruiser pulled onto the highway from a speed-trap vantage point. “Make that two.”

“All right,” Mitch said gruffly. “Give it a minute.” He sounded tired, as if the notion of a high-speed police chase was as blasé as a trip to the grocery store.

“Give what a minute?”

“Distraction,” Mitch grunted.

“I’m not sure I have a minute,” Reid protested. “They’ve probably already got the license plate.”

“Don’t worry about that. It’s a fake. Unregistered.”

That’s not going to inspire them to call off the pursuit, Reid thought glumly. “What sort of a distraction… hello? Mitch?” He threw the phone onto the passenger seat irritably.

With both hands back on the wheel, Reid veered around a pickup truck, back into the fast lane, and put the pedal fully down. The Trans Am responded with zeal, roaring forward as the needle leapt to one-thirty. He darted around much slower traffic, weaving in and out of both lanes, using the shoulder, but still the pair of cruisers kept up.

I can’t outrun them. But I can outdrive them. Come on, Kent. Give me something. It had happened several times over the last month, ever since the memory suppressor had been removed, that a particular skill set from his former life as a CIA operative would come rushing back in times of need. He didn’t know he spoke Arabic until he was faced with terrorists torturing him for information. He didn’t know he could fend off three killers hand-to-hand until he had to fight for his life.

That’s it. I just have to put myself in a desperate situation.

Reid grabbed the emergency brake just behind the gearshift and yanked it upward. There immediately came an awful screech from inside the Trans Am and the smell of something burning. At the same time, his hands spun the wheel to the right and the Trans Am fishtailed tightly, its back end once again crossing into the median as if he were trying to spin in the opposite direction.

The two cop cars followed suit, slamming on their brakes and trying to make the tight turnaround. But as they hit their brakes, facing south, Reid continued into the spin, doing a complete three-sixty. He pushed down the emergency brake, shifted, and slammed the gas again. The sports car jolted forward and left the confused cops quite literally in the dust.

Reid let out a whoop of victory as his heart thrummed in his chest. His excitement, however, was short-lived; he had his foot firmly on the gas, trying to maintain his speed, but the Trans Am was losing power. The speedometer needle dropped to ninety-five, then ninety, falling fast. He was in fifth gear, but his e-brake maneuver must have blown a cylinder, or else kicked dirt up into the engine.

The earsplitting wail of sirens made the bad news worse. The two cruisers were behind him and catching up fast, now joined by a third. The highway traffic moved aside to clear a path as Reid had to weave in and out of lanes, desperately trying to keep the needle up to little avail.

He groaned. It was going to be impossible to shake the cops at this rate. They were no more than sixty yards behind him and gaining. The cruisers formed a triangle, one in each lane with the third splitting the line behind them.

They’re going to try the PIT maneuver—box me in and force the car sideways.

Come on, Mitch. Where’s my distraction? He had no idea what the mechanic had planned, but he could really use it at the moment as the cruisers closed the gap on the failing sports car.

He got his answer an instant later as something huge leapt into his peripheral vision.

From the southbound side of the highway, a tractor trailer jumped the median doing at least seventy, its huge tires bouncing violently over the ruts in the grass. As it reached the pavement again—going the wrong direction—it teetered dangerously and the silver tank it was hauling tipped sideways, bearing down upon him.

Lukeman Literary Management Ltd