The whole truth, p.5
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       The Whole Truth, p.5
 

         Part #1 of A. Shaw series by David Baldacci

  “You’re interested in police states?” she asked.

  “As much as I get around I’m usually in one at least once a month.”

  He’d literally run into her on a Berlin side street three years ago. She was in the process of being mugged by two men and he’d just finished a solo mission not unlike the one in Amsterdam and was not in a particularly good mood. When the thugs saw him they made a big mistake by thinking they’d rob two birds at the same time. The police showed up a few minutes after Shaw called them when he’d finished beating both men unconscious. He’d hit one of them so hard he had nearly broken his hand on the man’s skull.

  He’d walked Anna back to her hotel after she refused to go to a hospital. He held ice against her face for an hour and then slept on the floor of her hotel room because she was still so unnerved by the attack.

  Shaw had never had a serious relationship with a woman before. That might have stemmed from his relationship with his mother, or rather his lack of one.

  Abandonment did that to you.

  Yet from the moment he saw Anna Fischer, bruised and bloodied though she was, on that dimly lit avenue in the German capital, Shaw knew that his heart was no longer his alone.

  Nearly three years had now passed and her feelings had clearly deepened toward him. He knew that Anna loved him. Yet he could sense her growing bewilderment at his lack of commitment.

  Well, that was about to end. Shaw was not yet free from Frank but he could wait no longer. He would make this work. Somehow.

  “You’re pensive,” she said over dinner. At age thirty-eight she still wore her hair long. It curved seductively around her sculpted Germanic bones.

  “No, just hungry. With men they carry the same expression. I suppose they don’t serve coddle here.” It was a working-class meal of rashers, potatoes, onion, and sausages with pepper poured thick.

  “Not here, no, but we can go elsewhere.”

  “That’s okay. Food’s gotten better in Dublin over the years.”

  “Yes, though I still can’t understand why Irish stew has no carrots.” She smiled impishly over her wineglass. “Even the British have carrots in their stew.”

  “And that’s exactly why the Irish don’t.”

  Later, as they were finishing their meals she said, “So what were you doing in Amsterdam this time?”

  “As little as possible.”

  “Your consultancy work slowing down?”

  “Come on. I have a place I want to take you to.”

  Shaw could feel the strain in his voice and sensed that Anna could too.

  “Are you all right?” she asked. “You’re acting very mysteriously.”

  Shaw tongued his dry lips and attempted to smile. “I thought that was one of the things you liked about me. Mystery?”

  He didn’t believe his own words and it was clear she didn’t either.

  He rose. His legs quivered a bit and he silently cursed himself.

  I jumped into a damn canal from four stories up and beat a gang of nuclear terrorist nutcases almost single-handedly. You’d think I could manage this without acting like a lovesick teenager.

  A little later they entered a small pub north of the Liffey, which was the decidedly poorer and less glamorous half of Dublin. Yet Shaw liked it here, as did Anna.

  As she’d once said, “How can you possibly not love every molecule of a city that produced Swift, Stoker, G. B. Shaw, Yeats, Wilde, Beckett, and Heaney? And the master, Joyce.”

  Just to see her reaction he’d answered, “I’m more into Roddy Doyle.”

  “And I’m more into Maeve Binchy,” she’d shot back.

  He ordered for them, which was unusual. When it arrived she said, “What is it?”

  “Barm brack. It’s sort of a fruitcake.”

  “Fruitcake! Don’t they use those for doorstops and to poison people?”

  Shaw cut her a slice. “Just try it. You’re an adventurous gal.”

  Anna stabbed the cake with her fork and it clinked against something. Her wide eyes grew even wider as she probed the barm until her fingers closed around it.

  Shaw said, “Legend has it that if you find the ring in the barm brack, you’re destined to be married.”

  There was no turning back now, he knew. The next few moments would decide his entire life, and the sweat burned through his shirt. He drew a deep breath, slipped from his chair, and rested one knee on the old plank floor that was worn smooth from centuries of drunks and at least one man proposing. Taking her shaky hand in his firm one, he slipped the ring on her finger and said, “Anna, will you marry me?”

  CHAPTER 13

  THE DRUM-DRUM OF THE RAIN woke him. As he tried to get back to sleep the vibration next to his head elicited a small groan from him.

  Shaw snatched up the device and read the message he’d just been sent.

  Frank.

  In the bed next to him was Anna. They’d properly consummated their engagement and then drank a bottle of Dom, glasses balanced precariously on flat bellies.

  She slept soundly as Shaw rose, walked into the adjoining room, and punched in a number, knowing it would be answered immediately.

  “Your gig over in old Dublin?” Frank said cheerfully. Shaw could imagine the man lounging in a chair somewhere, probably several time zones away, wearing the smug, shit-eating grin that masters reserved for conversations with their servants.

  “What, your men not checking in with you regularly? Not that you need them to.” Shaw stared at his right side when he said this, where the old scar was. “And by the way, it’s 3 a.m. here. The thought ever run through that thick head of yours?”

  “We’re a 24/7 op, Shaw. You know the rules.”

  “Your rules.”

  He yanked open the drapes and stared out at a dismal curtain of rain drenching the area.

  “We need you, Shaw.”

  “No you don’t. And even people like me need some damn R amp;R.”

  “I can tell from your grumpy tone that you’re not alone.”

  Shaw of course knew that Frank knew exactly where he was and who was with him. Yet the other man’s tone made him look away from the window and then race back to the bedroom to check on Anna. She was still sleeping peacefully, blissfully unaware that he was currently haggling with a professional psycho.

  One of the woman’s long, elegantly formed legs lay on top of the sheet. It made Shaw want to wake her up, make love to her again. But then he had Frank on the phone. He returned to the other room and gazed out the window, exploring every crevice of the streets and alleys below for Frank’s boys. They were down there. They were always down there.

  “Shaw, you still breathing?”

  “I told you where I was going. So why keep me under the scope?”

  “You did it to yourself. With all this crazy talk about retirement.”

  “It wasn’t crazy talk. I’m done, Frank. The last one was the last one.”

  Shaw could envision Frank shaking his head with the dent in the back from where he’d been shot at close range with a nine-millimeter SIG Sauer sporting custom grips. Shaw knew these intimate details because he’d been the one who’d shot Frank.

  “We have a lot of work to do. The world is a very dangerous place.”

  “Yeah, because of people like you.”

  “It’s noble what we do, Shaw. It’s a matter of honor.”

  “Save the babble for the rookies.”

  Shaw heard the squeak of the chair as Frank sat up straighter. Okay, here it comes.

  Frank’s voice was tight and hard as cement. “And where exactly are you going to retire to, you prick? A supermax facility?”

  “The deal was for five years, Frank. I’ve hung on for almost six.”

  “You nearly killed me.”

  “You had a gun pointed at me. And you didn’t show your badge. I thought you were just one more goon looking to shoot me in the back.”

  “So if I’d flashed my badge you’re telling me you wouldn’t have shot
me in the frigging head?”

  “I did take you to the closest hospital. Otherwise you would have bled to death.”

  “Hospital!” Frank roared. “You left me holding what seemed like half my brain in the parking lot of a human chop shop in the middle of Istanbul.”

  “You really think it was just half?”

  “Look-”

  But Shaw cut in. “I shot you in self-defense, but when your guys showed up in Greece a month later they obviously didn’t see it that way. So we made a deal and I lived up to it. There’s nothing else to talk about.” They did have a deal, Shaw knew. In return for not spending the rest of his life at hard labor in some hellhole in Siberia that Frank would’ve gleefully arranged once he’d recovered from the large-caliber hole in his head, Shaw had spent nearly six years running around the world risking his life so, as Frank quaintly put it, others could live in peace and security. Well, Shaw wanted a little peace and security in his life and he wanted it right now. With Anna.

  Yet arrangements with men like Frank were sort of like hanging off the Golden Gate Bridge by your pinkies while high winds kicked off the bay. And Shaw couldn’t exactly grab a lawyer off the street and sue in open court for his contractual freedom. That was why he’d agreed to spend an extra year getting nearly shot, stabbed, poisoned, and even blown up. When he’d implied that tangling with the Amsterdam Islamic nuke squad was a cakewalk, he’d meant it.

  “But for your special ‘skills’ I wouldn’t have offered you anything except a prison cell.”

  This was news to Shaw. “So you were the one? Why?”

  “After my brains got put back in my head I realized anybody who could almost take me out was somebody we needed on our side.”

  “Then you should understand that I’ve done my duty.”

  Frank said slowly, “I don’t know. I’ll have to talk to my people about that. Maybe I could bring myself to cutting you loose, but I don’t think they’ll be too happy about it.”

  Shaw had never been able to go over, around, or through Frank. The burly baldy had stood his ground like a stone wall.

  I should have shot him between the eyes.

  “I don’t care if they’re happy! Just tell ’ em what I said.”

  “In the meantime I need you in Edinburgh and then Germany, Heidelberg. You don’t come through on that you can forget me talking to anybody except your new warden.”

  Shaw was silent for a few moments, trying to get his anger under control. “This is the last time, Frank. This is it! You can tell your people whatever the hell you want. Understood?”

  “Instructions the usual way. Two days. Enjoy Dublin. And your friend.”

  “You really don’t want to go there.”

  “Just making an observation.” The line went dead.

  “I hate your guts, Frank,” Shaw whispered to the empty air.

  CHAPTER 14

  SHAW SLIPPED INTO the small bathroom. Most European baths were small; these folks apparently required far less space to relieve and bathe themselves than the rest of the world. He splashed water on his face, looked up and caught his reflection in the mirror.

  Rugged is how most would describe his features. Even Anna had called him ruggedly handsome. The bones and skin were in decent shape. The eyes had always been his most distinctive element, though. Not only were they the lightest of blues that eyes could generate without artificial aids, they didn’t go with the rest of his coloring. His skin was swarthy, more Italian or Greek than Irish or Scottish, and his hair was dark and wavy, often with a mind of its own. Fetchingly rumpled, Anna had once described it. Yet when Shaw looked at himself all he saw was a haunted man with scars that ran far too deep to endure.

  As though she had sensed her presence in his thoughts, Anna appeared behind him, wrapping her long arms around his bare and brawny shoulders.

  She was wearing his T-shirt. On Shaw, the breadth and cut of his delts and chest made the shirt a tight fit. Yet even on the tall Anna, it was more like a dress.

  “Trouble sleeping?” she asked.

  “Rain. Don’t like rain at night.”

  “I thought I heard you talking to someone.”

  Shaw stared at her in the mirror’s surface as her fingers traced a small scar near his throat. It was a little souvenir from a visit to the Ukraine. He’d told her it was from falling off a bike. Actually it was from a knife thrown by an ex-KGB agent whose only qualification for the job was that he was a homicidal maniac. It’d missed Shaw’s jugular by about two centimeters. Still, he’d come pretty damn near bleeding to death in a place that would have made the chop shop in Turkey he’d dumped Frank at look like Johns Hopkins.

  He had another scar on his right side that he’d never explained to her for a simple reason: he wanted to forget it was even there, because every time he did think of it, he felt shame. Branded. Like a horse. No, like a slave. In fact, that was the other reason he was in Dublin, to do something about that little present.

  She said again, “Were you talking to someone?”

  Frank, scars, and the KGB butcher passed from his mind. What Shaw was really wondering was whether Anna was now having second thoughts. His proposal had been followed with a tearful “yes” from her that he could barely hear. And then the bride-to-be’s enthusiasm and excitement ratcheting up, she’d accepted his marriage proposal in nine other languages, her tears leaching onto his skin, finally bringing Shaw the man as close as he’d ever come to crying.

  But something in her tone now was signaling a message other than happiness. It really was time, he thought.

  He splashed water on his face, licked some off his fingers, and turned to face her.

  “I’m not really a business consultant specializing in international mergers and acquisitions,” he said.

  “I know that.”

  “What?” he said sharply.

  “I know many business consultants. They rarely can beat unconscious two armed men. They rarely have knife scars on their bodies. And they almost always want to show off their wealth. I’ve never even seen where you live. We always stay at my London flat.”

  “And you’re just telling me this now?”

  “It’s different now. I just told you I’d marry you.”

  “And if I’d still said nothing about what I did?”

  “I’d have asked. Like I am now.”

  “But you already said yes.”

  “And I can also say no.”

  “I’m no criminal.”

  “I know that too. I can tell. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Now tell me the truth.”

  He leaned back against the sink basin and marshaled his thoughts. “I work with an international law enforcement agency funded by several of the G8 countries. We handle stuff that’s either too dicey or too global for one country. Sort of like Interpol on steroids. I’m not in the field anymore. I’m in a desk position now,” he lied, carrying it off reasonably well, he thought.

  “And what laws do you enforce?” she asked firmly.

  “We try to stop bad people from doing bad things. Any way we can,” he added.

  “And what you do now isn’t dangerous, though you get calls in the night?”

  “Living is dangerous, Anna. You can turn the corner and get nailed by a bus.”

  “Shaw, don’t condescend.”

  “It’s not dangerous, no.” He could feel his skin growing hot. He could lie to a Persian madman with ease. But not to Anna.

  “Will you continue to come and go as you have been?”

  “Actually, I’m planning on retiring. Start doing something else.”

  Her face brightened. “This… this is a surprise.”

  I hope I live to carry it out. “Marriage is supposed to mean two people together, not apart.”

  “You would do this for me?”

  “I’d do anything for you.”

  She stroked his cheek.

 
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