By Brendan DuBois
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From the New York Times bestselling author of The President Is Missing, America has elected its most brilliant president ever, but he’s also a psychopath—and about to start a world war with our most dangerous enemy.
US President Keegan Barrett has swept into office on his success as Director of the CIA. Six months into his first term, he devises a clandestine power grab with deadly consequences.
Barrett personally orders CIA agents Liam Grey and Noa Himel to execute his plan, but their loyalties are divided. The CIA serves at the pleasure of the president, yet they’ve sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
When the threat comes directly from the Oval Office, that’s where the blowback begins.
“Pure Patterson… Blowback asks us to imagine what would happen if a narcissistic psychopath were elected to the White House [and] to experience the terror of the world hanging in the balance at a moment when only a handful of determined patriots can save us.” –Ron Charles, Washington Post
“If you want to test a man’s character,
give him power.”
–traditionally attributed to
President Abraham Lincoln
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Johannesburg, South Africa
IT’S A BRISK autumn day in June in one of South Africa’s largest cities, and thirty-year-old Benjamin Lucas is enjoying an off day from his South African Diamond Tour. He stands just under six feet, with close-trimmed dark-brown hair, and has a muscular physique from hours in the gym he likes to keep hidden by wearing baggy clothes. On the all-inclusive, ten-day excursion package, he and the other eleven members of his group had walked Pretoria, visited Soweto, the famed site of the decades-long simmer, eruption, and fight against apartheid, and spent a day and night up north at the Madikwe Game Reserve, ooohing and aahing at the sight of elephants, hippopotamuses, and zebras from the comfort of their air-conditioned Land Rovers.
Alone now in Johannesburg, Benjamin keeps up his appearance as a travel writer on an off day, while knowing deep down that if this day ends in failure, the best outcome would be an arrest and expulsion after some torturous days in the custody of South Africa’s State Security Agency, and the worst outcome would be a slit throat in some back alley.
Yet Benjamin keeps an open and happy look on his face as he saunters into the popular section of Johannesburg known as Cyrildene, the city’s Chinatown. At the entrance to the neighborhood on Friedland Avenue, he stops and takes a photo of an impressive arch ornately styled to resemble a pagoda.
There are close to a half million Chinese living in South Africa, most of them in and around Johannesburg. A few blocks in, he feels like he’s in his hometown of San Francisco. The Chinatown residents, the tourists, the outdoor stalls, the blinking neon signs in Chinese characters marking shops and bookstores, restaurants, and tearooms, the scents of all the cooking bringing him back to his childhood, before he went to Stanford, before he got his master’s degree in Asian Studies at Boston University, and before he joined the Central Intelligence Agency.
Benjamin makes it a point not to check the time because he doesn’t want any watchers out there to think he’s heading for a meeting, which happens to be the truth. But his legend as a freelance writer is airtight, with real articles written under his cover name searchable on the internet, and because everything he’s carrying in his shoulder bag marks him as what he pretends to be: a travel writer.
His wallet contains his identification in his cover name of Benjamin Litchfield: California driver’s license, a San Francisco Public Library card, credit cards from MasterCard, Visa, and American Express, as well as loyalty cards for Walgreens and Chevron, and other bits and pieces of what’s known as wallet litter.
He’s wearing white sneakers, tan jacket, plain khaki pants, and a bright-yellow baseball cap from South Africa’s football team, nicknamed “Bafana Bafana.”
If examined, his Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III digital camera would reveal lots of photos of his tourist activities. There are only a few pieces of technical equipment in his possession, including a tracer in the camera’s electronics, so the CIA station at the Johannesburg consulate knows his location.
And then there are his Apple earbuds. If they were taken from his ears without his approval, they would continue to play tunes from his iPhone, contained in his travel bag.
But now, securely in place, they are playing a double role: thanks to overhead, highly classified Agency HUMMINGBIRD drones, the bud on the left will send out a high-pitched tone if it detects surveillance radio frequencies used by officers of the State Security Service, and the one on the right would send out a low-pitched tone if it detects surveillance radio frequencies used by officers of his real opponent today, China’s Ministry of State Security.
Benjamin casually checks a clock in the window of a store selling medicinal herbs and powders.
It’s 10:45 a.m., and in fifteen minutes, he’s to meet an officer from the Ministry of State Security—their equivalent of the CIA—who wants to defect to the United States, and both earbuds are silent, meaning everything seems to be going well. A countersurveillance team from the Agency ghosted his route earlier, and if they had spotted anything amiss, he would have been instantly contacted through the same enhanced earbuds.
So far, the earbuds have been quiet.
But it’s not going well.
He can’t spot them, but he feels he’s under surveillance.
Being undercover overseas is always one delicate balancing act, constantly evaluating the people and scenery around you, juggling the external legend of who you are and what you’ve done, while keeping the training and discipline of being a clandestine operative inside.
Studious Dr. Jekyll and murderous Mr. Hyde, their sharpest instincts combined and enhanced with state-of-the-art technology.
The exterior Benjamin is still happily wandering—apparently aimlessly—through these Chinese markets, while the interior Benjamin becomes more assured that he’s been spotted.
He feels like his balancing act is one fatal step away from collapsing this vital op, potentially the most important he’s ever been on, into a bloody failure.
BUT THE HALF smile of a curious tourist remains as he continues his job.
It’s hard to explain but after years of doing overseas operations, you develop a sixth sense that you’re being watched, nothing you could learn in class or during field training while at the famed CIA Farm. The old-time lecturers would tell amusing tales of how their predecessors stationed in Moscow during the height of the Cold War had a hell of a time meeting up with agents. The KGB had everything wired in Moscow, from taxicab drivers to spa attendants, but one funny way of determining that the KGB was after you was taking a few seconds to look at the surrounding cars and their windshield wipers.
Cars without windshield wipers, innocent. Because every driver in that worker’s paradise Moscow knew that windshield wipers were kept in the car and were taken out only when it rained or snowed. Parking a car with the windshield wipers attached meant they would be stolen within seconds.
But cars with windshield wipers, they belonged to the KGB, as well as cars with the best tires. No Moscow thieves would dare go after those vehicles.
Smart tradecraft, back in the good old days when the intelligence world was black and white.
Here, in the Chinatown section of Johannesburg, it was all shades of cold grays and blood red.
Benjamin keeps on walking, not breaking stride, looking at the reflections in shop windows and car windshields, and he can sense it. There is a rhythm in the movement and swirls of crowds, but in running surveillance, sometimes you have to stop and see what you are following, and in doing so, risk standing out like barely hidden rocks in a smooth-flowing stream.
Up ahead are a series of food stalls with bright large umbrellas shading them from the June sun. A thought comes to him. Benjamin stops and smiles, chats to the shopkeepers in English, takes photos, and then buys a skewer of disgusting-looking fried food.
He takes it in hand, starts munching on it, and, approaching a municipal wastebasket, suddenly stops and spits out whatever spicy piece of meat was in his mouth, doing his best to upchuck what was left in his stomach from breakfast, and in doing so, sweeps the area around him with his sunglasses-hidden eyes.
There. Young Chinese man suddenly stopping while crossing the street.
There. Young Chinese woman, smartly dressed, carrying a briefcase and talking on her phone, taking just a few seconds to turn her head away from the phone to look at him.
Benjamin has been made.
He’s being surveilled by Chinese intelligence.
Depending on what orders his Ministry of State Security counterparts have received from Beijing, he might not be alive by the time noon arrives.
BENJAMIN DROPS THE skewer into the trash and resumes his walk, wiping at his face with a paper napkin that he drops onto the street.
There’s a brief temptation to cancel this highly dangerous op, but he won’t do that because of all that is at stake for Langley.
More than a decade ago, in a horrific series of still highly classified events, nearly every CIA agent and asset in China was identified, rolled up, and disappeared, most likely executed with a bullet to the back of the head. To Langley, it was like being comfortable at home, with a worldwide internet connection, and having it suddenly go dark, with calls to customer service going unanswered, the constant unplugging and plugging of the modem leading to a black screen.
No news, no knowledge, nothing.
Which is a dangerous way of living in today’s world, no hint of what your leading global rival is thinking, planning, and preparing to do.
Then there’s something else about this mission, something deeply personal hidden away for years, but that has surprised him by coming back so raw and open.
A cherished memory of a beautiful woman sitting next to him in a college class, a decade ago, and—
All right, he thinks. Put that away. He’s sure he’s been made but there’s always a chance that those two Chinese pedestrians are truly innocent, just reacting in shock at seeing a tourist vomit in the street.
Is he overreacting?
Time for evasion, Benjamin thinks, as he again resists the urge to check his watch.
Benjamin comes to a busy street, and then slips through a narrow space left by two dull-green taxicabs that have abruptly stopped. Here the crowds are just a bit more thick, and he increases his pace and ducks into the lobby of the Fong De restaurant, whose layout he memorized a month ago.
Just moving, seconds in play, he goes into the men’s room, luckily finding an empty stall.
Move, move, move.
The bright-yellow baseball cap is gone, and he takes a small squeeze tube and sprays the edges of his dark-brown hair, making it instantly gray. A floppy tan rain hat goes on his head. The white plastic earbuds are tossed. The tan jacket, turned inside out, is now blue. A wet wad of toilet paper is swept across his white sneakers, turning them black. The sunglasses join the baseball cap into an overflowing trash bin and are replaced by clear reading glasses. From his travel bag he takes out a black flashlight and after some pulling and twisting, it becomes a black cane.
After some folding and zippering, his shoulder bag is now a fanny pack, fastened around his waist. He flushes the toilet and starts limping out of the bathroom, through the crowded lobby, and now outside.
Time elapsed, about sixty seconds.
HARD TO EXPLAIN again, but Benjamin knows that his change-up back there has thrown off his surveillance, as he takes his time, limping along, the map of this part of Chinatown still vivid in his mind, and now he’s close.
Down a narrow alley, overflowing trash bins on both sides. A dog barking somewhere, a car with a bad muffler rattling nearby.
The alley comes out to a narrow road lined with low-slung brick and stone shops and apartment buildings, lengths of clothesline hung with clothes drying in the breeze.
At the corner he comes to a front door bracketed by a pair of fat, smiling tiger sculptures, their stone faces chipped, the bright paint nearly faded away. Breathing hard, Benjamin leans his cane against the doorway, bends down to tie his right shoe, his fingers slipping for a moment to the rear of the two-foot-tall tiger, pulling away a key fastened by a drop of putty.
Key concealed in his hand, he retrieves the cane and enters the ill-lit apartment building.
He trots up the three flights of stairs to the top floor. The place smells of old diapers and cooking oil. There are two doors at the top landing, 3-A and 3-B.
He unlocks the door to apartment 3-B, steps in, closes the door behind him.
The dark apartment seems small and cluttered, and a shape erupts from behind the couch, coming at him hard.
HE TAKES THE cane, thrusts it between the person’s legs, causing a trip and tumble, and then he’s on top, twisting arms behind, breathing hard. He says, “Hell of a day, don’t you think.”
“You go to hell, right now,” comes the woman’s voice.
“Dante won’t approve,” he replies, and he gets up, the recognition phrase he used, and the reply, and his reply to the reply, all checking out.
He gets up, puts a hand against the wall near the door, fumbles for a second, turns on the light.
A slim and attractive Chinese woman gets off the floor, wearing black shoes, gray slacks, a light-yellow blouse, and black leather jacket. Her hair is long and ink black.
She stands staring at him, and he stares right back.
“You nearly broke my leg,” she says, her English perfect.
Ben says, “Had to do it. You came after me in the dark.”
Another stare, and then she shakes her head.
“Damn, Ben,” she whispers. “It’s good to see you!”
“You too, Lin,” he says, stepping forward, giving her a good hard hug and kiss on the cheek. She is Chin Lin, a fellow student back at Stanford, onetime girlfriend of his and now an operative of the Chinese Ministry of State Security.
He looks around the cluttered and dirty apartment, checks his watch, sees he has five minutes before he signals for the exfiltration.
In exactly three hundred seconds after his signal, a black delivery van is going to pull up in front of this apartment building and spirit him and Chin Lin away. By this time tomorrow she should be in a safe house somewhere in Europe.
“How was your morning?” he asks.
She smiles. Damn, that smile…
How long before she gets back to the States? How long from then can he have the opportunity to be with her, one on one, with no Agency handlers or interrogators nearby?
“Fine,” she says. “Managed to slip away from my minders back in Pretoria and got here about ten minutes ago.”
Lin reaches over, gently fluffs the edge of his newly grayed-out hair. “Damn, Ben, you’re letting yourself go.”
He smiles. “You…you look great.”
Again, that sweet look and dark eyes that gripped him, the moment she sat down next to him at a Writing and World Literature English class at Stanford, and the class after that, and the one after that, when he had finally worked up the nerve to ask her out for coffee.
Those were definitely the days.
Stop it, he thinks. Stop thinking of those wonderful, sweet days at Stanford, studying and traveling and learning together, him telling her his story of being a lonely adoptee, her telling her story of being part of a large Beijing family, involved in both business and government in China.
After graduation she had returned to China, and he had stayed home in California, still alone. In a series of weird twists that could probably end up as an internet meme, they had both found employment with their own nations’ intelligence agencies.
“Long way from Tresidder,” she says, mentioning a student hangout back at Stanford.
“Six years’ worth of a long way,” he says, which is true—that’s how long it’s been since he last saw her.
He spares a thought: she wanted to defect, and she chose him.
Checks his watch.
Time for the signal, and after that, five minutes to the exfil.
He goes to the near window, overlooking the main avenue. He lowers and raises a window shade halfway.
He and the defector are ready for pickup.
Just five minutes and this op would be on its way to conclusion, months in planning, from when word came to him at Langley, Chin Lin wants to come back to the States and have a tequila with you.
What a stunner that had been, her making a private joke about the first time she drank tequila and threw up on his shoes back at school. His and everyone else’s first response was that this was a trap somehow, something to embarrass the Agency and the country, but after slow negotiations and an agreement to make it happen in a neutral country like South Africa, the slow wheels of planning commenced, the communications going through a complicated email cutout process using systems in the internet cloud.
He looks at Chin Lin and thinks, she’s the one who got away, and the Stanford student in him thinks—Do we have a chance to make it work this time?—but no, back to the job at hand. Stop thinking about the past, stop wondering what she’s been doing these last six years, get your focus back, buddy.
“You have luggage?” he asks. “A carry-on?”
With disappointment in her voice, she says, “Benjamin…what kind of tradecraft did they teach you in Virginia? You think I could leave my apartment in Pretoria with a bit of luggage in hand? My minders would have picked me up in seconds.”
She pats the hem of her jacket.
“Thumb drives sewn in,” she says. “With enough photos and documents to keep your analysts busy for months.”
In the old building, a floorboard creaks.
Why, is what he wants to ask, for he knows from his briefings back at Langley that Chin Lin’s father is a senior official at the Chinese Ministry of State Security. What is driving her to make this ultimate betrayal, not only against her country, but her father?
With her defection, her father will bear the brunt of Beijing’s anger, and will probably end his days in a miserable prison cell after months of severe torture and interrogation.
Benjamin looks one last time at his watch and there’s a sudden loud crash as a large Chinese man leads with his shoulder to break through the thin wooden door. Another Chinese man rushes in through the broken door, carrying a pistol, aiming it straight at Benjamin.
BENJAMIN’S TRAINING KICKS in and he lifts his arms up in surrender, saying, “Hey, hey, hey, what the hell is going on?,” desperately trying to exit his CIA persona and get back to Benjamin the innocent travel writer.
One armed Chinese man pushes Chin Lin against a cracked plaster wall, and the closer man says, “You! Don’t move!”
Benjamin puts a tremble in his legs and fear in his voice. “I mean it, what is this?”
The man who told him to stop puts a pistol to Benjamin’s forehead—a 9mm QSZ-92, he coolly observes—and roughly searches him, pulling his fanny pack off and tossing it to the floor. When he is done, he speaks rapidly in Chinese to a third man who has come in.
The third man is older, better dressed, and he gingerly closes the broken door into place. He turns to look at Benjamin, but ignores Chin Lin, who is standing quiet and still against the wall.
“Who are you?” he asks, in precise, barely accented English.
His training kicks in again, as hard and logical as it must be. In situations like this one, you have one responsibility: you.
Your asset, agent, defector…they are to be cut loose. Get yourself away, best you can.
But thinking about Chin Lin…he’s both angry and sad.
It’s clear now.
She’s betrayed him.
But why? For what purpose? To capture a regular field operative in a neutral nation? Doesn’t make sense.
He says, “Benjamin Litchfield. I’m from San Francisco, in California. I’m a travel writer…who the hell are you?”
The older man stares at Benjamin. “And this…woman?”
Benjamin tries an embarrassed laugh. “Jeez, I don’t know. I was here, walking around, checking out these hot Chinese babes…and I was getting…Well, you know. A hankering for one of those famous Chinese massages you hear about. I never dared to get one back home. Always was concerned I might see someone I know, either going in or coming out. Know what I mean?”
Another embarrassed laugh, though part of his soul is dying at seeing the look on Chin Lin’s face. Even in this moment of great betrayal, there is still an old love there that won’t be extinguished.
But he remembers his training at the Farm: get off the X, meaning, if you’re trapped or in an ambush, don’t freeze, don’t hesitate, make a move to get off the X.
Right now he’s in the middle of the X, and save for trying to dive through that window—only doable in TV shows and movies with their special effects—the only way out is through that door. Benjamin isn’t armed, because he’s not in downtown Lahore but Johannesburg—not particularly dangerous—and because these men are pros. A three-to-one gunfight tends to end quickly with victory for those with the best odds.
“I do know what you mean,” the older Chinese man says.
“Here, I’ll show you,” Benjamin says. “Just…hey, relax, okay?”
From his left pants pocket he removes a folded-over newspaper clipping from a local weekly alternative newspaper, passes it over the near gunman, who gives it a glance. Benjamin says, “See? Lotus Blossom Massage Parlour. I made a call and I was told to come here and—”
The older Chinese man drops the clipping to the floor. “Your name is Benjamin Lucas. You were adopted by the Lucas family of San Francisco when you were eleven months old. You went to Stanford and Boston University, and for the past six years, you have been an operative for the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States.”
Benjamin refuses to let his emotions come to the surface. He is no longer in control, no longer in charge. He is in survival mode.
That is all.
The older man turns and speaks rapidly in Chinese to Chin Lin, who is standing quietly and bravely against the far wall. He goes back to Benjamin and says, “In order to be polite among professionals, I will tell you what I’ve just told Chin Lin.”
With horror growing now, Benjamin says, “No, please, it was my fault. I—”
The man says, “I told her, Chin Lin, you are a traitor to your Party and your country, and you must pay the price.”
He quickly removes a pistol from a waist holster and fires off three shots into Chin Lin’s chest. The sounds of the gunfire are ear-splittingly loud in the small apartment. Chin Lin cries out, the front of her blouse torn and bloody, and she collapses and slides down the wall.
So many memories of their time together—their first lovemaking, the strolls along El Palo Alto Park and her gentle and laughing critiques of Chinese food at Stanford flash through him as he sees a woman he’s loved for years slowly die before his eyes.
- “The perfect beach read for political junkies.”—Kirkus
- On Sale
- Sep 12, 2022
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Little, Brown and Company