BLOWBACK

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The quick slap of a runner’s stride against asphalt broke the late-afternoon hush of Vienna’s Prater garden. Vanessa Pierson tensed, catching a flash of blue and white in her peripheral vision. Lean legs encased in a warm-up suit, slightly scuffed running shoes, rhythmic breathing—an athlete training for Vienna’s annual marathon? She exhaled as he passed, but the knot behind her solar plexus tightened and sweat broke on her forehead, her body’s message that she’d moved way beyond normal operational adrenaline.

But there’d been nothing normal about this op from the beginning.

Her Iranian asset had sent her a private message embedded within the careful content of the e-mail that prompted this meeting. He’d used the code they’d agreed on the last time they met in person. A phrase that told her the meeting was so urgent it warranted the risk entailed. “Although my conference schedule is extremely busy, I’m hoping to visit the Klimt paintings in the Belvedere Palace.”

And now you’re forty-two minutes late, Arash.

Fear for him whispered through her. What if he’d been detained, arrested—

She forced her mind away from the worst-case scenarios. Screwed-up Agency commo plans were legendary—the most intricate and carefully arranged meetings blown by someone forgetting whether to move the clock forward or back by one hour or two.

She’d played tourist for the last ninety minutes, strolling the main avenue, circling the park’s ornate lake to feed the raucous ducks, the burn phone in her pocket pressing against her hip. Only one person had the number: Chris Arvanitis, her boss at the counterproliferation division, the only one at CIA Headquarters who still had her back.

Now, retracing her steps, she followed the path to the amusement park, where the Riesenrad, the Giant Wheel, spun ponderously against a low gray sky. When Arash arrived, he would head toward their landmark.

They hadn’t had any contact since their last meeting in Copenhagen, almost two years ago. For a few minutes they’d walked through Tivoli Gardens, the last gleam of sunset reflecting off the lake. As a swan stretched its gray wings, sending ripples over the water’s metallic shimmer, she’d pressed a flash drive into his damp palm, squeezing his hand gently. To calm him, she quietly joked, “For one of your colleagues at Natanz who enjoys the soft porn of Game of Thrones. Leave it where it will be used often and shared.”

He had offered a faint smile, but the skin around his dark eyes tightened and Vanessa read the spike of fear. He knew better than to ask what the drive contained—he would put the pieces together easily enough, even before the story burned through the international press and the virus contained on the flash drive irrevocably changed the nature of covert war. Knowing she would not see him again soon, if ever, she’d walked away without looking back. Almost whispering the silent request: Be very careful, Arash Farah. Stay safe, my friend.

VALERIE PLAME WILSON, former CIA covert operative on the “Vanessa Pierson Espionage Series” books, BLOWBACK & BURNED and Sarah:
“My co-author is the wonderful and talented Sarah Lovett, successful author of the thriller series featuring Dr. Sylvia Strange. She has been a delight to work with and I feel fortunate to call her a friend.”
"Plame, the now ex-CIA agent notably exposed by the Bush II White House, mines her experience as an operative in this debut novel. She shines a bright light on illegal international arms trading to show how its tentacles reach deeply into the intelligence activities of the West’s spymasters.

Vanessa Pierson, a high-octane heroine who may remind you of Sara Paretsky’s impulsive detective V.I. Warshawski and the intense Carrie Mathison of TV’s Homeland, has an uncanny knack for reading faces to gauge how much trouble she is in. She’s on the hunt for a notorious nuclear arms dealer before he can launch a deadly attack. There’s a dangerous love interest that pushes the mercury to explosive levels and a backstory that neatly fleshes out Vanessa’s motivation and ambition.

VERDICT: Be glad that the plot closes with a strong hint that Vanessa will return in future epic hunts for criminal masterminds. Between them, coauthors Lovett, the creator of forensic psychologist Dr. Sylvia Strange and five suspense novels (e.g., Dark Alchemy) and Plame, have delivered a tightly wound, vigorously deployed thriller echoing the real-life stories of CIA agents and their enemies."—Barbara Conaty, Falls Church, VA
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