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Truth or Die

By:James Patterson

ONE


AT PRECISELY 5:15 every morning, seven days a week, Dr. Stephen Hellerman emerged from his modest brick colonial in the bucolic town of Silver Spring, Maryland, and jogged six miles. Six-point-two miles, to be exact.

Depending on whether it was Daylight Saving Time or not, it was either still dark or just dawn as he first stretched his calves against the tall oak shading most of his front yard, but no matter what the season, Dr. Hellerman, an acclaimed neurologist at Mercy Hospital in nearby Langley, rarely saw another human being from start to finish of his run.

That was exactly how he wanted it.

Although he'd never been married, dated sparingly, and socialized with friends even less, it wasn't that the forty-eight-year-old doctor didn't like people; he simply liked being alone better. Being alone meant never being tempted to tell someone your secrets. And Dr. Stephen Hellerman had a lot of secrets.

A brand-new one, in particular. A real dandy.

Taking his customary left turn out of his driveway, heading north on Knoll Street, Hellerman then hung a right onto Bishop Lane, which curved a bit before feeding into the straight shoot of Route 9 that hugged the town's reservoir. From there it was nothing but water on his left, dense trees on his right, and the weathered gray asphalt beneath his Nike Flyknit Racers.

Hellerman liked the sound the shoes made as he ran, the consistent thomp-thomp-thomp-thomp that measured off his strides like a metronome. More than that, he liked the fact that he could focus on that sound to the exclusion of everything else. That was the real beauty of his daily run, the way it always seemed to clear his mind like a giant squeegee.

But there was something different about this particular morning, and Hellerman realized it even before the first beads of sweat began to dot the edge of his thick hairline.

The thomp-thomp-thomp-thomp wasn't working.

This new secret of his-less than twelve hours old-was unlike all the others encrypted inside his head, never to be revealed. The facts that Hellerman moonlighted for the CIA, was paid through an offshore numbered account, and engaged in research that no medical board would ever approve were secrets of his own choosing. Decisions he'd made. Deals he'd cut with his own conscience in a Machiavellian trade-off so big that it would garner its own wing in the Rationalization Hall of Fame.

But this new secret? This one was different. It didn't belong to him.

It wasn't his to keep.

And try as he did, there simply wasn't enough thomp-thomp-thomp-thomp in the world to let him push that thought out of his head, even if only for an hour.

Still, Hellerman kept running that morning, just like every morning before it. That was what he did. That was the routine. The habit. Six-point-two miles, every day of the week. The same stretch of roads every time.

Suddenly, though, Hellerman stopped.

If he hadn't, he would've run straight into it.





TWO


A WHITE van was parked along the side of Route 9 with its hood open, the driver hunched over the engine, which was hissing steam. He had his back turned to Hellerman. He hadn't heard him approaching.

"Dammit!" the guy yelled, pulling back his hand in pain. Whatever he'd touched on the engine was way too hot. As if the steam weren't a giveaway.

"You okay?" asked Hellerman.

The guy turned with a look of surprise to see he wasn't alone. "Oh, hey," he said. "Yeah, I'm fine, thanks. Wish I could say the same for this piece of shit van, though."

"Overheated, huh?"

"I think the coolant line has a leak. This water should at least get me through my route," the guy said, pointing to a bottle of Poland Spring perched on top of the grille. He smiled. "Unless, of course, you're a mechanic."

"No, just a humble doctor," said Hellerman.

"Oh, yeah? What kind?"

"Neurologist."

"A brain doctor, huh? I've never met one of those before." The guy poured some water on the radiator cap to cool it down before giving it a second go. "My name's Eddie," he said.</ol>
 
 

 

"Stephen."

Hellerman shook Eddie's hand and watched as he emptied the Poland Spring into the radiator. He looked pretty young, thirtyish. Good shape, too. Hellerman, as an MD and a running fanatic, tended to notice such things. Anytime he first met someone, they were immediately classified as either "fit" or "unfit." Eddie was fit.

"Yeah, that oughta do it," said Eddie, rescrewing the radiator cap.

Meanwhile, Hellerman glanced at the side of the white van. There was no logo, no marking of any kind. Eddie, nonetheless, was dressed in matching gray shorts and a tucked-in polo, much like a driver for FedEx or UPS.

"You mentioned having a route," said Hellerman. "Are you a delivery man, Eddie?"

Eddie smiled again. "Something like that," he said before slamming the hood. "But my real specialty, Dr. Hellerman, is pickups."

Hellerman's toes twitched inside his Flyknit Racers. Never mind that he hadn't told Eddie his last name. Just the way the guy delivered the line-hell, the line itself-was enough to set off every warning bell in his head.

My real specialty is pickups? That could only mean one thing, thought Hellerman.

He was the package.

The sound he heard next only confirmed it. It was the van's side door sliding open. Eddie wasn't alone.

Out came a guy who could've been Eddie's brother, if not his clone. Same age, just as fit. The one major difference? The gun he was holding.

"You know," said the guy, aiming at Hellerman's chest, "one of the first things you learn in field training is that the only habit you should have is to have no habits. You never eat lunch at the same restaurant, you don't have a favorite park bench  …  and for the love of stupidity, you never jog every day at the same time along the same route. But, of course, you're not actually a field agent, Dr. Hellerman, are you? You're just a civilian recruit." He motioned to the van. "Get in."

It took Hellerman all of one second to consider his options. There weren't any. None, at least, that didn't end with his taking a bullet.

So into the windowless van he went. It was empty in the back. Save now for him. "Where are we going?" he asked.

"That depends," said the one with the gun. "Can you keep a secret?"

He let go with a loud laugh that immediately became the most annoying and terrifying noise Hellerman had ever heard in his life. Even after the sliding door was closed in his face, he could still hear it loud and clear. Until.

Pop! Pop-pop!

It sounded like firecrackers, but Hellerman knew that wasn't what it was. Those were definitely gunshots. Three of them.

What the hell  … ?





THREE


THE ONE with the gun wasn't the only one with a gun.

Before Hellerman could even begin to figure out what had happened outside the van, Eddie opened the driver's side door and quickly climbed behind the wheel. He slid his Beretta M9 into one of the cup holders so casually it could've been a grande mocha from Starbucks.

"You're safe now," he said, starting the engine. "But we need to get out of here. Fast."

"Eddie, who are you?" asked Hellerman.

"My name's not Eddie," he said, shifting into drive and punching the gas simultaneously.

The tires screeched, kicking up gravel from the side of the road, as Hellerman frantically grabbed the back of the shotgun seat to hold on. As he watched the speedometer hit forty, then fifty, then sixty, he waited for Not Eddie to elaborate, but nothing came.

"In that case, who was that with you?" Hellerman asked.

"He's the guy who was going to kill you," Not Eddie answered. "Right after he got what he wanted."

"Which is what?"

"You tell me."

Oddly enough, Hellerman knew exactly what Not Eddie meant. This was all about his new secret, it had to be. "Are we talking about the kid?"

"Yes, exactly  …  the kid. Where is he? We need to get to him before they do."

The speedometer was pushing seventy now. The posted speed limit on Route 9 was thirty-five.

"Wait a second," said Hellerman. He was back to full-blown confused. "Who's they?"

"The ones who developed the serum. That's what the kid told you about, right? That's what he uncovered. The serum."

"How do you know?"

Finally, Not Eddie was ready to explain. "I'm FBI," he said.

Had Hellerman actually been sitting in a seat, he would've fallen out of it. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You're telling me the FBI has an agent working undercover in the CIA?"</ol>
 
 

 

"Someone has to keep them in line."

"By killing one of them?"

"It was either you or him, so I think the words you're really looking for are &lsquo;thank you.' "

"I'm sorry," said Hellerman. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. But now you've got to help me," Not Eddie said. "Where is he? Because we can't protect him if we don't know where he is."

Hellerman couldn't argue with the logic. After all, he was living proof of it. Mr. Not Eddie-or whatever his real name was-had just saved his life.

So he told him what he knew, that the kid had travel plans.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," said Hellerman.

"And what did he want you to do?"

"Spill the beans internally. Later this morning, I'm supposed to meet with the assistant director."

Not Eddie, whose real name was Gordon, glanced back at Hellerman in the rearview mirror. "Thanks," he said with a nod. "I appreciate your telling me the truth."

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