Today's Reading

He sat paralyzed for a moment, unsure of his next move, or the rules of this new game. Did the old rules still apply? Was he now expected to act like an Agency field operative? Did he have that authority? He needed to make a decision.

"Get out!" he barked at the defector. "Why?"

"They followed you. Get out!"

"What are you going to do?" The defector sat frozen, his face contorted in horror.

Hefflin jumped out of the car just as he heard the gunshot, the bullet bursting the car windshield.

These guys are serious.

His passenger half fell out of the Dacia, and Hefflin pushed him into the doorway of a building, then turned back and plunged his handkerchief into the opening of the gas tank. As he lit the handkerchief with his lighter, a second shot rang out, this time the bullet hitting the side of the building. He scrambled into the doorway, grabbed the defector, still partly paralyzed with fear, and pulled him inside the building.

The hallway was pitch black; the light bulbs broken. With the aid of his lighter, Hefflin was able to drag the man down the hallway until he found the steps to the basement. At the bottom of the stairs, he pushed through a metal door that led to an alleyway. As they reached the adjacent side street, he heard the explosion. The building windows burst, shards sprayed both Hefflin and the defector and crackled on the cobblestones like fine sleet. A ball of fire hurtled high above the buildings, followed by the cries of men.

He pulled the defector toward a main street where he knew a pay phone stood.

No backup needed, they said. Just a routine pickup, they said. Christ!

He held onto the man's collar for fear he would panic and flee, then dialed the number he had been given.

"Control," a man's voice answered. Hefflin spoke his numbered code.

"Confirmed," Control said. "What is your status?"

"Pickup compromised."

"Your location?" Hefflin gave it to him.

A moment of silence, then, "Go to location Alpha 5."

He tried to remember what that meant. He had previously memorized the prearranged pickup spots throughout the city, but that had been three years before, and they were now just a jumble in his brain. Had they even kept the same codes all this time?

"Where is Alpha 5?"

"You are on a non-secure line," Control said.

"Look, the operation was blown. Enemy agents are swarming in the area. Now tell me the fucking rendezvous point!"

There was silence, then Control gave him the intersection of two streets. Hefflin hung up and dragged the defector onward at a clip.

"Where are you taking me?" the man gasped. Though he was tall and slim, the man now hunched down, his clean-shaven face twisted in fear, like a WWII prisoner being dragged to some Nazi camp.

"A pickup point," Hefflin said. "The embassy entrance will be crawling with KGB, if that's what these guys were. We'll never make it inside."

They picked up their pace. The defector seemed calmer now and was able to keep up, his understanding of the situation having probably eased his fears. Blaring sirens rose to a pitch, followed by fire trucks passing by the main boulevard, then faded again.

"How much farther?" the defector asked. He was beginning to pant.

"A few more blocks that way." Hefflin pointed with his chin, one of the Romanian gestures he automatically reacquired after arriving in his country of birth. The truth was he wasn't sure of the location. He hadn't been in Bucharest in over three years and then only for a few weeks. But the streets sounded familiar from his childhood.

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