I draped the strap of my laptop over the handle of my suitcase and climbed the worn stone staircase to the flat, my back pack heavy on my shoulder. Five centuries does a number on steps, even stone ones. I leaned the suitcase against the wall to unlock the Chubb lock on the thick oak door. A tall thin figure stood silhouetted against the French windows. A man. In my flat? Which one of the men who wanted me dead was he? I threw my pack at him and cannoned onto him, landing on his chest with my knees on his arms. I pushed hard on his windpipe with my right arm. He bucked and turned his head so that I could see his face.
“Well, if it isn’t my esteemed mentor, Sidney Worthington,” I said with relief. “What brings you to Paris?”
“Carruthers, get off of me! Are you trying to kill me?”
I leaned back and helped him to his feet.
“Would have if I’d been armed,” I said. “How did you get in? Paul didn’t say there was anybody here.”
Sidney sat down on the sofa and rubbed his throat.
“I didn’t stop in the café downstairs.”
I put my hands on my hips. “There is no way you picked that lock.”
“The Agency has a key.”
I turned my back on him. “Why am I not surprised?”
The Central Intelligence Agency owns the fifteenth-century stone building where I live and work when I’m not out saving the world.
I turned back. “To return to my question,” I pressed. “What brings you here? You’ve never visited me before. You don’t visit your people. You summon them.”
“I’m on my way to a money-laundering conference in Brussels.”
Sidney is the head of the CIA unit that tracks the vast spider web of dirty money, the billions and billions of dollars that are the profits from crime. Money laundering is big business because crime is big business. From my office in Paris, I pursue the toxic spiders and seize their money.
“Then you should be in Brussels.” I went to get my suitcase and laptop from the hall where I had left them. “This is Paris.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass.”
“I was a smart-ass when you hired me, Sidney. You didn’t visit me for the sake of my beautiful green eyes. What do you want?”
“A cup of coffee would be nice,” he said, crossing and recrossing his legs. He’s uncertain about whatever it is, I thought. All he has to do is fold his arms across his chest. He folded his arms across his chest.
“So would an answer,” I said.
He ran his hands through his short gray hair. “I need you to go to Fez. You’ve got a reservation on the two o’clock Air France flight to Casablanca.”
“Wrong answer, Sidney. I just got off the red-eye from Baghdad. Usually you let me do my laundry before you dispatch me to save the world again.” I crossed to the window and looked out. There wasn’t any sun in the street. My street never got any sun. “Why?”
“Alicia Harmon, the woman who runs the Femme Aid office in Fez, has vanished, and she’s got to be found. You know the place and the people better than anyone.”
Femme Aid is part of a network of similar offices the Agency set up around the world to monitor human trafficking. It’s a cover, but it actually does provide help for women in distress.
“Nobody’s seen her since the twenty-first of August,” Sidney said.
“My God, Sidney, that’s two weeks! Why didn’t the station in Rabat do something?”
“They did. They couldn’t find a trace.”
“And I will? Why didn’t you send somebody sooner? I’m not the only person on the payroll.”
Sidney joined me at the window.
“I needed you to finish the Baghdad job.”
I turned on him. “Yeah, right. That was real important. I found one and a half-billion dollars, a fraction of what the contractors have stolen. The Swiss banks have had to jack their buildings up several feet to accommodate all the new dollars in their basements. It was all computer work; I could just as easily have done it from here.”
“I needed you there to put the fear of God into them.”
I snorted. “Sidney, they fear neither God nor man. There are too many of them. There are more contractors in Baghdad than there are flies.”
“Look, Lee, you set up that office.”
I would not take the dirty black suits out of my suitcase and put the clean ones in without a fight. I was too tired.
“So what? Why does it have to be me? This is a job for Clandestine.”
“You know Fez and the people. Anybody else would have to waste time reading in, and that would take time, Lee. Time we may not have.”
“Sidney, if you’d sent somebody else in the beginning, you would have had more time.”
“That’s not the point. I didn’t. In her last-”
He didn’t like the way that sounded. “In her most recent report, she wrote that she had found a link to terrorist money.”