Once my wife asked me: if you knew this was our final day together, what would you say to me?
We’d been married for all of a year. We were lying in bed, watching the sun begin to shine through the heavy curtains, and I answered her with the truth: anything but good-bye. I can’t ever say good-bye to you.
Two years later, that final day started as most of my days did. Up at five, I drove and parked near the tube station at Vauxhall. I like to use the public housing a few blocks away for my little adventures.
I started the run with a long warm-up in the open, exposed concrete courtyard of the old public building, slow-running in place, gathering pace, elevating my body temperature by a few critical degrees, then took off. You want your muscles and ligaments hot. A brick wall lay directly ahead of me, three feet taller than me. I hit it with a step that launched me upward, my fingers closing on the edge of its top. I pulled myself up with one fluid movement I’d practiced a thousand times before. No hard breathing, no creaking of joints. I tried to move in silence. Silence shows that you’re in control. Over the edge of the wall, running across the ground, and then a vault over a much shorter wall, one-handed, my legs clearing the bricks.
Into the main building. A stairwell, smelling of piss and decorated with a finger of black-and-white graffiti, lay ahead of me. I hit the painted wall with my left foot in a careful jump, using the energy to launch me rightward to the railing at the turn of the stair. A hard move where I’d fallen before, but today, sweet, I landed with care onto the railing, holding my balance, heart pounding, mind calm. Adrenaline thump. I jumped from the railing to an extended steel bar that stretched into the construction site, used the momentum to swing myself over to a gutted floor. The building was being torn apart and redone. I would damage nothing, leave no sign of passage. I might be a trespasser, but I’m not a jerk. I ran to the opposite side of the floor, launched into the air, caught another bar of steel, swung, let go, and hit the ground in a careful roll. The energy from the fall spread across my back and butt rather than jamming in my knees, and I was up and running again, back into the building, looking for a new, more efficient way to enter its spaces. Parkour, the art of moving, gets my adrenaline going while, at the same time, a slow calm creeps over me. Make a misstep and I fall down the brick walls. It is exhilarating and settling all at once.
I made another three passes through the building’s interesting web of space¾broken floors, gaping stairwells, equipment¾using a mix of runs, vaults, jumps, and drops to find the line¾the simplest and most straightforward path through the half-ruined walls, the low brick rises, the empty staircases. Energy burned my muscles, my heart pounded, but the whole time I tried to maintain a distinct and separate calm. Find the line, always the line. Around me, in the distance, I could hear traffic beginning to build, the sky lightening for the new day.
People think that what the British call council housing is an eyesore. It’s all in how you look at it. To a parkour runner the old square buildings are beautiful. Full of planes and walls to run up and bounce off, railings and ledges to walk and jump from, neighbors who don’t call the police at the merest noise.
The last route, I dropped from the second story to the first, grabbing a bar, swinging, letting do in a controlled fall.
“Hey!” a voice yelled at me as I slammed through the air. I hit, rolled, let the energy of impact bleed nicely through my shoulders and bottom. I ended up on my feet and took three steps and stopped.
Not a guard, a teenager, watching me. A morning cigarette perched on his lip. “How do you do that, man?”
“Practice,” I said. “Long, boring hours of practice.”
“Like a spider,” he said, smiling. “My mum and I been watching. She wanted to call the Old Bill. I said no.”
“Thank you.” I really didn’t need the police in my life. Time to find a new place to practice. I waved at my benefactor and decided to cool down with a long, straightforward run. Twenty minutes in a long, looping circle, a normal jogger out for his paces, and I jumped back into my car to drive home. Most Americans living in London don’t have cars. You don’t need them.
I have one for security.
I headed up to our apartment off Charlotte Street, not far from the British Museum. I slipped inside, trying to be quiet, hoping that Lucy was still asleep.
She was up, drinking juice at the small kitchen table, frowning at an open laptop. She glanced at me.
“Good morning, monkey,” she said, putting her gaze back to the laptop. “Out making mischief?”
I’d forgotten to take off the hand coverings I wore to protect my palms on the parkour runs. I could hear the disappointment in her voice.
“You didn’t fall off a building,” she said.
“No, Lucy.” I poured a glass of juice.
“What a relief. When you miss grabbing the edge of a wall and plummet to an untimely end, I can tell the baby you died getting your morning fix of crazy.”
The walls aren’t high. I don’t take stupid chances.” Defensive.
“When I’m expecting, Sam, any chance is a stupid one.”
“Sorry. Mostly it was a normal jog.” I took off the palm protectors, stuffed them in my pocket. I went to the fridge and found a cold bottle of water. I took refuge in it, drinking slowly and steadily. Shower, coffee, then a long day at the office. The adrenaline rush was gone for the day.
“I love you. I want you to know that.”
“I know that. I love you, too.” I turned from the refrigerator, looked at her. She was still studying her laptop, her hand perched on the soft fullness of her belly. The baby was seven months along, and I suppose, with the imminence of parenthood, Lucy and I were both more serious these days. Well, she was. I hadn’t yet been able to give up parkour runs, interspersed with my regular miles.
“I wonder if you might find a less dangerous hobby.”
“My job is more dangerous than my hobby.”
“Don’t joke,” she said. Now she looked at me. In her morning rumple, she was beautiful to me, brown hair with auburn highlights, serious brown eyes, a heart-shaped face with a full, red mouth. I loved her eyes the most. “I know you can do your job better than anyone. I’m scared you’ll take a stupid fall doing these runs. I don’t need you with a broken neck with a baby about to be born.”
“Okay. I’ll learn golf.”
She made a face that told me she didn’t take my promise seriously. But she said, “Thank you. Remember, tonight we have dinner with the Carstairs and the Johnsons.”
I smiled. They were her friends, not mine, but they were all nice people, and I knew our regular dinners out in London would become much rarer once the baby arrived. And maybe they knew a golf instructor. “Okay, I’ll be home by five, then.”
“We’re meeting them at six at the tapas bar in Shoreditch. Do you have a big morning?”
“A PowerPoint-heavy one,” I said. “Briefings all day with Brandon and the suit from back home.” I looked at her as she stood to stretch, her hands on the swell of her belly. “But I could cancel. Go to the doctor’s with you.”
“Save me from the PowerPoint. Let me go with you and The Bundle.” We kept skirting the discussion of names, so I’d given our imminent child a pseudonym.
“The Bundle.” She patted the top of her swell.
“Actually, I may have to meet you at the restaurant. I might have to go drink a quick pint with the suits after the meetings.”
She laughed and smiled and said, “Oh, such a tough job you have.”
I thought, thank God I don’t have my parents’ marriage. Lucy and I didn’t fight, didn’t glare, didn’t inflict long, painful silences.
“Go and bar-hop without your pregnant wife.” She smiled and closed her laptop. “But not quite yet.”
She came to me and slid her hands up my back. Pregnant women are full of surprises; it’s like living with a breeze that can’t settle on its direction. I loved it. She kissed me with a surprising hunger, almost a ferocity, her belly big between us.
“I’m hot and sweaty and gross,” I said. “I’m a yucky husband.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, you are monkey. And I’m enormous.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, you are.” And I kissed her.
When we were done, the sweetest start to that final day, I made us a breakfast of toast, coffee, and juice, then showered, dressed, and went to our office. Before I walked out, I looked back at her, at the breakfast table, and I said, “I love you,” and she said, “I love you.”
Famous last words.
London’s skies that day shone blue as a bright eye; a rare sunnyday for November after two weeks of gray, looming clouds. I had been in London for nearly a year. That final morning, in my somber suit, taking the tube to Holborn, I might have looked like one of the young lawyers heading for a firm or for court. Except my briefcase carried a Glock 9 mm, a laptop full of financial information on suspected criminal networks, and a ham-and-cheese sandwich. Lucy is sentimental; she liked to make my lunch for me because I made breakfast for her. She would be in the office later, when her doctor’s appointment was done. We’d worked together for nearly three years, first back in Virginia where we’d met and married, and then here. I liked London, liked my work, liked the idea of The Bundle being born here and spending his early years settled in one of the world’s great cities, not jumping latitudes like I had. Some kids start each year in a different school; I’d often started in a different hemisphere.
Holborn is a mix of new and old. Our office building was close towhere the street goes from being High Holborn to plain Holborn.It was a contemporary glass-and-chrome creation that I don’t doubt irritated architectural purists; next to it was a building undergoing a major refurbishment; scaffolding studded its façade. In front, a walkway funneled pedestrians into two lines, and I avoided it whenI could. The space opened up in front of our building and I worked my way through the spilling crowd.
The office building was mostly occupied by small firms—solicitorsand marketing consultants and a temp agency— except for the top floor. The sign on the elevator read CVX Consulting.The initials had been picked by the throws of a dart at a newspaper stuck to a dartboard one night. I joked with Lucy and my boss,Brandon, that CVX stood for Can’t Vanish eXactly.
I stepped into a bare room where a guard named John, a thick-necked Brooklyn expatriate, sat at a desk with enough firepower in his drawer to blow several holes in me. John was reading a book on cricket and frowning. Me, I’d long given up on deciphering that game. I walked to the door facing me, scanned my ID card; the door unlocked and I walked inside. The CVX offices were deceptively spare. The walls and windows were reinforced steel and bulletproof glass; the computer networks were moated with the strongest firewalls available. Offices and a few cubicles, a staff of eight people total. It smelled like all offices: a bit like ink, burned coffee, and Dry-Erase.
And the meeting I thought started at ten was apparently already under way. Brandon was sitting in the conference room with threeother suits from Langley, frowning at a PowerPoint display that was three days out of date.
I stepped inside. “Not at ten?”
“Eight. You’re twenty minutes late.” Brandon gave me a forced smile.
Two of the suits were older than me and already looked doubtful.The other was younger than me, and he had a page filled with scribbled notes. An eager type.
“If Lucy’s in labor, you’re forgiven,” Brandon said. He was originally from South Carolina and he’d kept the slow cadence of his speech during all his years abroad.
“I have no baby and no coffee,” I said. “But I have a more up-to-date presentation. Give me five minutes?”
The suits nodded and all stood and introduced themselves, shookmy hand, and went out to refill their cups with bad American-government-approved coffee, and I set up the laptop.
“I don’t like late, Sam,” Brandon said, but not with anger.
“I don’t either, sir. I’m sorry.”
“I hope you have good news for us. These guys are from the budget office. They think we might be wasting time. Convince them we’re not.”
Nothing so concentrates the mind as the possibility of the job being scrubbed.
When the suits returned with their bad coffee, I had jumped past the insomnia-inducing series of bulleted slides and stopped on a blurry photo that filled the presentation screen. The man’s face was florid, a bit heavy, with small ears. His hair was dark and curling, asthough it had just been ruffled.
“Gentlemen. We are hunters. Our game is international crime rings, operating with impunity across borders because they have managed to get their fingers deep into governments around the world.” I pointed at the photo. “Think of us as lions, chasing antelope.This man is the weakest one in the herd. We’re closing in onhim. He might be the CIA’s most important target.”
“Who is he?” one of the suits asked.
“He’s what we call a ‘clear skin’ — no name, no confirmed nationality,although I believe he is Russian, due to other evidence we’ve received. We believe he moves and handles large amounts of cleaned cash to these global criminal networks. I call him the Money Czar.”
Brandon said, “Tell us about the networks, Sam.”
“Sure. The Mafia is an old-school criminal network — a distinct leader, a bureaucracy of muscle and money cleaners that support him. New-school networks are highly specialized. Each part—whether muscle to enforce security or to intimidate or kill, or financial to clean money, or logistics to smuggle goods— is autonomous.Each is brought in only for specific jobs, and each time it may be a different set of people to do the work. It’s therefore much harder to break the network down, to get any detailed information on how it works as a whole.”
“I know we’ve been paying particular attention to certain networks that might have government ties,” the youngest suit said. “There’s a Croatian gunrunner network we might infiltrate, the Ling smuggling family in Holland, the Barnhill network in Edinburgh . . .”
The young suit was on my side. I took that as a good sign. “TheFeds were able to break the Mafia because it was a hierarchy —lower-level thugs could testify against the big guys. But the only weak links here are the common elements that move from network to network.” I tapped the Money Czar’s ugly face on the screen.“This guy is the glue between some very bad people. It goes beyond crime. It moves into threats not only to our allies, but to the United States. This man may represent our best hope of uncovering some of the biggest threats to Western security.”
“He doesn’t look that scary,” Brandon said, and everyone laughed. Except me. I was prepared to scare the hell out of them when I told them what I knew.
“So the question is how do we find this Money Czar and—” My phone beeped. When your wife is seven months pregnant, you get a free pass on taking calls in meetings.
“Sorry,” I mouthed to Brandon. “Pregnant wife,” I said to the suits. I stepped out into the hallway. I didn’t recognize the number.“Hello?”
“Monkey?” Lucy said. “I need you to meet me outside.”
“Um, I’m in a meeting.”
“I need you to step outside. Now, Sam.” Then I heard it: an awful undercurrent in her words, like a shadow eddying under summer water.
I started to walk to the door. “Did you get a new phone?”
“I lost my old one this morning. Just bought a new one. It’s been a rotten morning.”
I heard the shaky tension in her voice. “You sick?”
“Please, just come outside.”
Bad news, then, to be delivered face-to-face. Not in the office, whereemotion might be seen. A coldness gripped my heart. The Bundle. She had gone to the doctor. Something was wrong with the baby.
I hurried out of our offices; past John the guard, who had abandoned his cricket book for a British tabloid. Down the hallway.“Where are you?”
“Out on Holborn.”
“Are you okay?”
“No . . . just come find me outside. Please.”
I raced down the stairs, six flights, not waiting for the elevator. I came out into the lobby.
No sign of Lucy.
“Come out into the street,” she said. “Please, Sam. Please.”
“What’s the matter?” I headed out onto the busy street. It offereda steady stream of pedestrians— office workers, couriers, shoppers,the inevitable London tourists. Two young women leaned against the building in fashionable coats, smoking, sipping tea from plus-sized paper cups between gossipy laughs. I scanned the street. No Lucy. “Where are you?”
“Sam, now. Please. Run.”
I ran, even before Lucy said to, because it was all so wrong, Icould feel it in every cell of my body. I headed under the covered scaffolding of the building next door, hurrying along the steady march of people. Finally I pushed past a man in a suit, past a woman in a hooded sweatshirt.
I stopped when I stepped back out of the temporary tunnel; therewas no sign of Lucy, on the sidewalks, in the herky-jerk of London traffic. None. I turned, looked every way.
I heard my pregnant wife crying on the phone.
“Lucy? Lucy?” I gripped the phone so hard the edges bit into my fingers.
Now I heard her sobbing: “Let me go.”
My eyes darted everywhere and I heard a car honk. I turned andsaw a truck whip around an idling Audi, thirty feet away, the car facing me on the opposite side of the road, Lucy in the passenger seat. My office building stood between me and the Audi. My first thought was: no one stops on Holborn. The car was silver gray, like the sky in the moments before rain. A man sat in the driver’s seat,bent toward Lucy. Then he straightened and I could see him better. Late twenties. Dark hair. Dark glasses. Square jaw. I saw a flash of white as he turned his head, the pale curve of a scar marring his temple, like a sideways question mark.
Lucy looked right at me.
Then the blast hit.
A roar, an eclipse of the sun, like God stuck his hand between me and the sky. I turned and the top floor of our building was shattering, flame spouting out, reinforced glass and ash and steel carving and falling through the air. The ground shook. A person, halved, burning, fell to the street, right by the pretty tea drinkers, who cowered and staggered for the doorway’s cover as debris rained down.
My office of fake consultants was gone. Brandon, the visiting suits, the scribbling rookie, my friends and colleagues. Gone. Rubble covered the street, people, landing on cars, cabs, and buses, and London itself seemed to give out a scream, formed of the thundering blast’s echo against glass tower and stone courts, the keen of carhorns, and the rising cry and stampede of the bystanders.
I couldn’t see the Audi anymore, and Holborn was a mad jumble of stopped buses and cars, and chunks of concrete, stone, and steel.
I couldn’t see. I didn’t think. I vaulted onto the construction tunnel roof, monkeyed up the bars. I had to get above the haze.I climbed fast, then I saw the flash of steel gray. The Audi, with my wife in it, revved forward. I saw the back of Lucy’s head, bent slightly as though to catch the breeze in the window. Driving with the window down helped her cope with her morning sickness, I remembered. It was a crazy thought.
“Lucy!” I screamed. “Lucy!” I scrambled up the scaffold. I had to keep her in sight, find her above the cloud of grit. Below me was chaos. I had to keep the car in sight. I hurried up the scaffolding,found the Audi again. The traffic thickened like smoke from a fire, everyone trying to flee the blast.
I saw the Audi turn right onto a side street, revving onto the sidewalk to escape the impassable jam in the road, nearly running down two women.
The scaffolding moaned, heat surging through its joints. I heard a massive roar, turned, saw that the edge of the scaffolding closest to my office building had been savaged by falling debris. It was collapsing, thundering down onto the pavement.
I vaulted from the railing, bursting through the sheeted plastic onto a reconstructed floor. I hit concrete, coughing, tried to roll. I wasn’t in the right shoes for this and my roll was rough. I ran across the empty concrete, glanced back to see the scaffolding twist and shred and tumble into the street. The building shuddered and I thought: It’s next.
I ran across the unwalled floor to the back of the building— it cut all the way to a parallel street— and looked down, past a web of scaffolding on the north side of the building that was intact. I sawthe Audi forcing its way onto the narrow sidewalk, a man in a suit kicking at the door in fury as it nearly ran him and a woman down. It was thirty feet below me.
My wife looked up. Through the sunroof. She saw me, her eyeswide and her mouth a perfect little shock of O. She started to reach upward, her jaw moving, and then the scarred man hit her. With a solid punch across her mouth. She slammed into the door.
I dropped down through the web of the scaffolding, my blood turning to adrenaline. I broke my descent with grabs but I let gravity do the pulling and I had never been so afraid in my life. Not for myself but for Lucy and The Bundle. I couldn’t lose the car. He was taking my wife; he had killed innocent people. Then I was on the ground and I dashed into the traffic.
A Mini Cooper barreled into the street, right into my path, and I wasn’t even thinking, I was only running for all I was worth. I timed it, going over the roof when I should have been run down by the car, sliding with purpose, and then I hit the street, rolled downto my shoulders, back onto my feet, not crippled by the impact or the force. The pain came later. I didn’t even know I was hurt.
The Audi surged ahead into the crowd and I ran hard and saw it turn a corner. I couldn’t fight my way through the thickened crowd driven out from offices and shops, the jam of cars and two buses,paralyzing the traffic between me and the Audi. I saw the Audi make another right.
I ran, my foot a hot, bright glow of pain. I made it to the corner.In the distance the Audi inched past a delivery truck, tires exhaling smoke for a moment in the tightness of its turn, and then it surged forward. I ran down the block, and when I reached the intersection the car was gone. The scarred driver had found an empty side street,one empty of panicked traffic.
With shaking hands, I tried to redial the number she’d called me from. There was no answer.
Lucy was gone. My office was gone. Everything was gone. Training bubbled to the surface in place of thought. My fingers dialed an emergency number in Langley. Words came to my mouth but I couldn’t remember what they were.
Help me. My mouth moved.
She’d gone, everyone had gone. In the heart of London, the smoke rising like a pyre’s cloud of a life ended, the sirens starting their mad kee-kaw blare, a thousand people rushing past me, I was completely alone.
© Jeff Abbott» Buy “Adrenaline” and read more now!