Excerpt from Countdown to Death by Bryan Cassiday. All rights reserved. This excerpt is protected by copyright.
Ethan Carr didn’t know if he wanted to get into this. As a PI he normally didn’t take this kind of a case, because he didn’t want to get mixed up with the government—and this guy worked for the government, or used to work for it. And he was talking about being assassinated.
In the Burger King on Pico Boulevard in LA, the guy sitting across from Carr had beady eyes behind rimless spectacles. Carr didn’t trust guys with beady eyes. Though, to his knowledge beady-eyed guys weren’t any more dishonest or untrustworthy than guys with exophthalmic eyes or what passed for regular eyes. It was just that beady eyes had that kind of effect on him—an effect of shiftiness.
The guy’s name was Richard Herbert.
He was wearing a white button-down shirt with the collar open and no tie, tan slacks, and, on his feet, clean, white jogging shoes, which were incongruous with his pasty, monkish complexion. Thirtyish, with the face of a nerd, he looked like he should be wearing a pen guard in his shirt pocket and holding a slide rule in his hand. Certainly not jogging shoes.
“You didn’t say why you wanted to hire me over the phone,” said Carr.
“I’m not gonna say anything important over the phone,” said Herbert. “My phone’s tapped, and so is yours.”
“Not to my knowledge. What makes you think it is?”
“The NSA has everybody’s phone tapped. Don’t you read the papers?”
Carr shifted his tall body on the uncomfortable plastic seat in the booth he shared with Herbert. “Why would anybody bother tapping my phone?”
“Believe me. Your phone’s tapped.”
“Well, you can talk here—unless you think the restaurant’s tapped, too.”
“I doubt it. That’s why I asked to meet you here.”
“Then let’s get to it. Why do you want to hire me?”
Herbert leaned closer to Carr. “The Equation Group has hired a hit man to kill me. I want you to protect me.”
“Whoa. Back up a second. Who is this Equation Group? Never heard of them.”
“They’re a group formed by members of the NSA and the United States Cyber Command.”
Carr had been right when he had first met Herbert. He didn’t want anything to do with the guy. The government wanted Herbert, and Carr didn’t tangle with the government. It was one of his rules for surviving as a PI. Do. Not. Mess. With. The. US.
“In other words, they’re into espionage,” said Carr.
“That’s not their word for it, but that’s what it boils down to.”
“What do they call it?”
“Why does the Equation Group want you dead?”
“I took information from them that they don’t want anyone to see.”
“You’re a traitor?”
Herbert became irritated. “I took it for the good of the country. I don’t work for any foreign country.”
“If not a traitor, how do you see yourself?”
It didn’t take Herbert long to answer. “As a whistleblower.”
Whistleblower versus traitor, decided Carr. He wasn’t sure of the distinction.
“What’s the difference?” he said.
“I told you, I’m not working for a foreign country. Therefore, I can’t be a traitor.”
“But information you have stolen could be used against the US by another country. Is that correct?”
“Anything could be used by another country against this country.”
“What’s the purpose of this Equation Group?”
“They’ve created sophisticated spyware that can’t be removed from a computer once the computer’s been infected. The virus will also disable the computer permanently.”
“And you know this how?”
“Because I used to work for them. That’s why they want me dead. I know too much.”
“Don’t other people know about this?”
“Then what’s the big deal?”
Herbert tapped his chest with his forefinger. “I know how to do it. Which makes me valuable to the other side. And the Equation Group will do anything to stop me from leaving them.”
“Including whacking you out.”
“What exactly do you want me to do?” said Carr, and took a bite of his Whopper.
“I want you to keep me alive for twenty-four more hours so I can see my son.”
“Do you really believe they’re gonna waste you?”
Herbert’s eyes widened. “I do.”
“You’re talking about the US government. We’re not in the business of blowing away our own citizens.”
“They think I’m going to skip town to a country that doesn’t have extradition with us.”
“So that makes it OK for them to kill you?”
“In their eyes.” Herbert paused. “If I won’t go back to them, they’ll take me out. No question. You know the old catchwords national security. In their minds that justifies murder, or, as they see it, the execution of a traitor.”
“But you’re not a traitor?”
“How can I be? I don’t want to sell my skill set to another country. I simply want to get out of this job and see my son.”
“And tell the world what this Equation Group is up to. Don’t forget that tidbit of info.”
“I want everybody to know what the group is capable of, but not the actual nuts and bolts of the operation.”
“Why won’t they let you see your son?”
“Because they think it’s an excuse for me to leave the country.”
“And they’re right about that.”
“It’s not an excuse. I really do want to see my son before I leave.”
Carr thought about it. “If you’re a traitor, I don’t want to get involved in this.”
“I told you, I’m no traitor.”
“But if the feds say you are and I help you, then I’m a coconspirator and I could end up whacked out like you for aiding and abetting.”
Herbert sipped his Coke from a plastic straw and squirmed in his seat. “These aren’t really feds we’re dealing with.”
“They’re not the FBI. These assassins are members of the Equation Group.”
“But you said the Equation Group works for the government.”
“They do. They were crucial in helping Israel create the Stuxnet worm that set back Iran’s nuclear program for years after it infected their computers.”
Wearing sunglasses and a stingy-brimmed straw fedora, a middle-aged man in an aloha shirt and khaki Bermuda shorts entered the restaurant, a newspaper rolled in his hand. His fluorescent green flip-flops slapped the floor like castanets.
Herbert started at the sight of the newcomer.
“What’s wrong?” said Carr, picking up on Herbert’s reaction.
“I think I saw that man behind me a few blocks back when I was walking here to the restaurant.”
Pretending he was checking out the menu that hung on the wall behind the cashiers, Carr turned to get a better look at the man. Carr, who always sat facing the front door when he was in a restaurant because he didn’t want anybody sneaking in unnoticed and getting the drop on him, had seen the man enter but had observed nothing remarkable about him.
“You think?” said Carr.
“I’m pretty sure,” said Herbert, keeping his eyes trained on the stranger warily.
“Do you know him?”
“Just because he was behind you two blocks away doesn’t mean he was necessarily tailing you. Maybe he just wants a burger.”
“Maybe,” said Herbert, unconvinced.
The stranger was standing at the counter making up his mind what to order as he read the menu posted on the wall.
“This isn’t the type of case I normally take,” said Carr.
“But somebody’s trying to kill me,” said Herbert.
“According to you it’s the government. And where I come from the government is the law.”
Herbert sighed mournfully. “Too many people think like you. That’s the problem nowadays.”
“How do you figure?”
“Being a government worker doesn’t give you the right to do anything you want.”
“But it gives you the power to, especially if you’re in one of the alphabet-soup agencies.”
“Exactly. That’s the problem.”
Copyright 2015 by Bryan Cassiday