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Choke Point: A Risk Agent Novel

The air is visible. It smells of camel dung and human sweat. It tastes worse. It comes in hot waves, stealing any appetite he might have had and stinging his eyes. Flies buzz past his ears and light on his face. He waves them away, his right hand a horsetail of constant motion.

The sun-soaked skin of the man who sits cross-legged before him looks shrink-wrapped over long, thin bone. Unflinching rheumy eyes stare back at him beneath wild white eyebrows. John Knox studies the man’s long flat-nailed fingers as they punch out numbers on a battery-operated calculator that serves as their translator—money, the only language spoken here.

The chess sets before him are things of beauty. Knox is offered such sets everywhere he trades; he’s tired of them. But these are hand-carved inlaid stone boards and intricately carved jade pieces—fine jade, not the cheap stuff. What they’re doing in Kairouan, Tunisia, is anybody’s guess. Knox used to try to think through such anomalies. No longer. He doesn’t care where they came from or who made them, just craftsmanship and price. Weight, sometimes, because shipping has gotten so expensive. Profit is not in quantity but quality. He needs to reach a price that will allow him to sell them for ten times cost. His mind grinds through figures—taxes, shipping, breakage, shrinkage. The merchant taps the calculator, signaling a new asking price. Knox blows away a fly and reads the number upside down.

It could have been a gust of wind, the touch is so light. A moth-eaten cat that appears by his leg offers another possibility. The poor thing looks like it was put in with the laundry and hung out to dry. But accompanying that touch came a sour odor. Not cat urine; something distinctly human. Trailing faintly behind, a pleasant, almost intoxicating, sweet warmth of milk chocolate.

It’s the chocolate that causes Knox to react reflexively. Turning as he does. He misses the boy’s left ankle but feels hairs brush the tips of his fingers.

Up and off the rug and into the melee of the market, the grit of sand against stone under his Tevas as he dodges the colorful robes and linen wraps that move about randomly, unintentionally blocking him.

The kid got his wallet belt. Sliced the nylon webbing with what had to be a razor—Knox takes note of that—and was gone. Just like that. Ten, maybe eleven years old, and with the uncanny touch of someone who’d done this for many years.

And fast? The kid is Usain Bolt in miniature. Knox’s one advantage is height—able to leap tall buildings. He keeps his eye on this kid despite the kid pulling away from him.

They turn left down a narrow lane passing wooden birdcages stacked high, noisy colors darting around inside. A stall of stringed peppers like an astringent in the air. Silver bangles chiming in clumps on pegs while seashell necklaces clatter in the same breeze. The kid with blurred legs like the Road Runner.

The cash would be a loss. This is a buying day, the last of four days in the market, the first three devoted to research. A fat wad of bills he can’t afford to lose just now at a time when every shekel counts. But the passport is the most important. He’d rather avoid the U.S. Consulate if given a choice. Has no desire to spend another several days here awaiting the reissue. He’s heard a rumor of Queensland Boulder Opals arriving into Marrakesh by the weekend. Never mind that he must travel to Morocco to buy Australian gems—it’s a global economy.

The kid turns right: a mistake. Knox has him, unless he proves to be a good climber. That lane is a rare dead end, terminating at a tobacco café serving the best coffee in the city— which is saying something here. Knox increases his stride, coughs up some phlegm and spits—enjoying the aerobic hit.

He reaches for his waist pack that isn’t there. Shit. The kid has his knife. He slows infinitesimally; it doesn’t affect his speed, but it places his feet under him more substantially. If the kid is a pickpocket, fine. But there’s a larger possibility he is only to serve as bait to lead Knox into a real mugging and full robbery—jewelry, shoes, even teeth if they have gold fillings.

Two guys he can handle. If it’s more than that, he’s in trouble.

Doesn’t see the kid anywhere. Gone, like a special effect. Laundry hangs out to dry. Some fish suspended by the tail alongside the underwear. And his waist belt on a café table in front of an empty chair.

Knox skids to a stop, dust catching up with him from behind.

David Dulwich’s shoulders pull at the seams of the gray XXL T-shirt reading Ohio State athletic department in cracked, silk-screened letters. His scarred hand engulfs the demitasse to where it looks like he’s drinking steaming coffee out of a white thimble. A torn-open Hershey’s bar rests by the ashtray.

“Really?” Knox says, working hard not to appear out of breath.

“Sit down,” David Dulwich replies, kicking back the empty chair.

The rush of the hotel room’s forced air is all she hears. Or maybe it’s blood rushing past her ears, chased by adrenaline. Hours earlier, it was a coxswain’s rhythmic chants rising from the Charles, but the boats are long in their racks.

Her nakedness is a liability; she isn’t herself. But it’s the only price she has paid thus far to reach the endgame. The kissing and touching she found distasteful, but it never went further than that. Her decision, she reminds herself. She owns this op.

She crosses to the bathroom on tiptoes, having always found the idea of hotel carpets disgusting. She imagines colonies of bacteria engaged in an orgy, a single-celled frat party feeding on ground-in beer, vodka and cocaine.

The needle goes first with a simple snap. It splashes into the toilet and the sound startles her. She wraps a facecloth around the rest of the syringe, places it carefully onto the tile and stomps her heel, crushing the plastic to pieces that quickly follow into the open bowl. She flushes everything down, waits to make sure it’s all gone. Gooseflesh ripples up her arms and neck as she catches herself in the mirror. Grace Chu, former forensic accountant.

She flushes the toilet a second time for good measure.

She stands there seeing all the imperfections in her naked form. Always the same. At first a flash of “isn’t she pretty?” followed by disappointment: she sees her lean, attractive figure as marred by sallow skin and etched by an abundance of black body hair—the curse of every Chinese woman. She invents sad eyes and small teeth. A short neck. Never mind that men call her “alluring,” “intoxicating,” “beautifully proportioned.” Men see breasts and legs, a waist and bottom. And little else. Losing the staring contest, she terminates it.

Grace locates her underwear on the carpet and shakes it vigorously before stepping in. Her bra is next. Strapping it on. Bending forward, adjusting. She feels surprisingly safer. She searches her purse for a tube of Vaseline while she studies the man in bed. The clock reads 1:33 a.m.

She uncaps the Vaseline without looking. Approaches him cautiously, not quite trusting the combined effect of Rohypnol and ketamine. Asleep yet awake. Paralyzed yet conscious. As the drugs began to take effect she was able to milk him for the VPN password, which he gave up freely. He will have no memory of that—of any of the past hour—in the morning. No memory of her. Possibly, even, the hotel bar. Getting Rohyped turns the Etch A Sketch upside down and shakes it, hard.

She swallows away her fear as she confronts his open, blank eyes. For a moment she wonders if she’s killed him, but then the throbbing of a neck vein convinces her otherwise. Smearing the Vaseline across his open eyes does not bother her the way she imagined it might. Without the ointment he would suffer permanent eye damage. She reminds herself she’s helping him. There’s something sadistically pleasing about that, causing her to smile ruefully. With the Vaseline smeared across both open eyes the man looks frightful. He was no Romeo to begin with, but this clouded-eye look is hideous.

Sitting at a reproduction leather–topped desk, she attacks his laptop like the digital predator she is. Her fieldwork has increased steadily since a Shanghai op that took her out of her desk chair—though technically, this job is unrelated to a paycheck. It’s off the books.

Cloning a large data hard drive can take forty to ninety minutes. But she can’t pass up the opportunity. Strictly speaking, all she needed was the password—access to the mutual fund’s corporate server. But the contents of the CFO’s laptop offer the possibility of a rich prize. Possible leverage over the man down the road: the kind of sordid thing Rutherford Risk thrives on.

She raids the minibar for a bottle of vodka. Wipes it down and places the empty in her purse for good measure. Can barely take her eyes off Mr. Smear-n-Off where he lies in bed. Expects him to sit up and march toward her like a zombie.

She downs another vodka quickly and preserves its bottle as well, leaving nothing to chance. After consideration, she keeps the drinking glass as well.

At some point, she redressed in the form-fitting mini that won his attention in the bar. Her head feels as if it’s stuffed with gun cotton, and her mouth is dry. She cautions herself to leave the minibar alone; she must remain lucid. At 102 pounds, only a very little booze can push her into la-la land.

She fusses in front of the bedroom mirror, peeks out occasionally at the tiny, flashing blue LED on the external drive. Still copying. Checks Mr. Smear-n-Off. He hasn’t moved a centimeter. Her throat tightens. She feels sorry for him. Guilty. Swallows it away. This op represents job security; Dulwich will owe her for this. John Knox will thank her.

This is progress.

A steaming demitasse is delivered the exact moment Knox sits down. The waiter says nothing. All prearranged. All trademark David Dulwich. Although never technically a spook, the man could give the CIA a run for its money. Knox notices the burn scar beneath the man’s collarbone. It immediately calls up the smell of diesel fuel mixed with cordite. At the height of the extended Iraq war, a VBIED explosive took out Dulwich’s truck. Knox dragged the man from a flame-ripped truck cab across packed sand while shrapnel whistled past his ears. No medals were awarded; they were working for a private contractor, a resupply and transportation firm based out of Kuwait. Dulwich rarely mentions the debt that hangs between them. But he lives it. In his current job, Dulwich manages field operations for a private security firm, Rutherford Risk. When opportunity arises, he offers Knox the choicest work. Short term. High pay. What are friends for?

“A phone call or an e-mail would have done just fine,” Knox says. He resists the fieldwork. He has a brother who relies upon his good health.

“I’m goofing with you. So what?”


“It was harmless.”

“Not for the kid if I caught him.”

“You wouldn’t have.”

Knox lifts his travel belt, studies the razor cut first, then unzips the pouch and carefully searches the contents.

“You’re getting careless, if there’s anything in there of value,” Dulwich says.

“I’ll let you know when I want your advice.”


“There’s a certain look to a buyer like me. A role to play. I’m trying to run a business here.”

“As am I,” Dulwich says. “Besides, you’re done with that. Castanets? Incense burners? You? Please.” Eschewing the showiness of an aluminum briefcase, Dulwich draws a camouflage backpack into his lap and withdraws a folded International Herald Tribune. He pushes it across the table at Knox as if it were toxic.

“That’s a week old,” Knox says, having not touched it. “Already read it. Thanks anyway.” He suspects a photo is folded into it, or a contract, or both. He wants the money— desperately—and Dulwich knows this, but Knox has to play like he doesn’t want or need it, and Dulwich plays along. A long-standing friendship, this.

“Our client is Graham Winston.”

Knox works the miniature spoon against the rock sugar at the bottom of the demitasse, impatient for it to dissolve. Good things take time to develop, he reminds himself. Women, for one. There’s a stunner under the shade of the café’s torn awning who has now looked his way three times. His imagination is sometimes a liability. He forces himself to focus on Dulwich, which is not easy.

Knox doesn’t need to ask which Graham Winston. Instead, he has to try to be a step ahead of Dulwich and figure out the angle. Without consulting the newspaper, he’s at a loss, so he concedes a round to Dulwich by pulling the newspaper low into his lap in order to shield any possible contents beyond news. He wonders how he might have looked right at something, yet not have seen it. How transparent is the obvious? This is more than a game, it’s part and parcel of his survival. He knows it. Dulwich knows it. Retention is ten-tenths of the game. He knows when he sat down there were six people at tables behind him. Four coffees, two teas. He knows that’s the fourth furtive look the attractive woman has given him, and it’s starting to bother him. He knows he read this paper and yet can’t recall the last time Graham Winston’s name appeared in a story. Knox took a chance.

“An interest of his, not a direct mention.” He unfolds the paper. No added contents.


“A cause.”

“More like it,” Dulwich says.

Graham Winston is famous for supporting causes: Green-peace; Human Rights Watch; Doctors Without Borders.

Knox supports Starbucks and Anheuser-Busch, Victoria’s Secret and Apple.

Knox doesn’t read every article in every edition. He skims. He headline-hops. He absorbs. Read the lead. Follow the jump. He likes newspapers. Mourns their passing.

“‘Little Fingers, Big Problems,’” he quotes.

“Who says you’re stupid?”


Winston turns causes into headlines, and though he comes across as self-aggrandizing, is nonetheless someone Knox can tolerate. In this instance, their stars align; Knox’s predisposition against the servitude of women in general, and young girls in particular, fuels his interest in Winston’s cause. He doesn’t allow Dulwich too close a look at his face, doesn’t want him to pick up on the fact that this is work he would do pro bono if asked.

“A girl, nine or ten, was treated in a local health clinic. Malnourished. A circular lesion—massive infection—on her right ankle, suggesting she’d been chained. Gets treated and either flees or is kidnapped from the center. It was the shape of the ankle wound that set off all the alarms. That, and the discovery by the docs of wool and animal hair in the wound. Her fingers were observed to be heavily calloused: thumb, index, middle.”

“I may have skimmed the article.”

“Graham Winston did not skim it.”

“He wants some rug factory shut down?”

“. . . they’re called knot shops.”

“I think of Winston as one of those names you hear on Terry Gross. He writes checks he can deduct. What’s he want with financing a battle with a bunch of Afghan thugs? If it backfires, he’ll bring them to his door. I hope you warned him.”

“He’ll bring them to our door. And it’s believed they’re Turks, not Afghans.”

“That article was a couple weeks ago,” Knox said, suddenly interested in the contents of the more current newspaper.

“Bottom of page six.”

Knox locates the article. Three inches alongside a two-column ad for couples performance videos. He knows that Dulwich is monitoring the telltale vein in his forehead. He attempts a Zen technique to control his heart rate. But it’s like trying to hold back a barn-sour nag.

“A car bomb,” Knox says. “A choke point.”


“Killed the driver and passenger.”

“A low-level EU bureaucrat who was sadly so insignificant they had to work the obit to make him appear otherwise.”

The paper’s placement of the article—buried deeply—speaks to Knox: the man’s death was insignificant as well.

“It’s better than sex, isn’t it?”

Knox says, “You’re treading on the sacrosanct.”

“This EU guy is so far down the ladder, he’s holding it for others. So why kill him?”

“Why are you screwing around with me? If you want me for this—and we wouldn’t be here if you didn’t—offer me the job and be done with it. I can tell you why: you think you’re on such thin ice that you have to let me sell myself. You condense this down to a couple of lines and you know I won’t be interested.”

“But you are interested. They killed the bureaucrat because he was a source for the article. They’re trying to kill the truth.”

“Spare me!” But there are style points to be awarded here. Dulwich is beating a drum and making it louder with every hit. He has it all choreographed. He assumed it would be a tough sell. Knox wants to make sure to see it from both sides before feeling the trap door give way. Graham Winston. A knot shop. Some low-level bureaucrat reduced to toast.

Knox still can’t see it perfectly. He’s pissed at himself.

“Why would Brian Primer,” he says, mentioning Dulwich’s boss, president of the Rutherford Risk security firm, “accept a job to shut down a sweatshop ring? It sounds more like something for a police task force.”

“Because he has a paying client.”

“Brian has plenty of paying clients.”

“Because these guys are scum holes. They kidnap ten-yearolds and chain them to posts and make them work eighteen-hour days. You know the drill. It’s repugnant.”

Knox needs no reminder why the op appeals to him— Dulwich had him at ten-year-olds in chains; he’s less sure about Rutherford Risk’s motivations. No matter how Dulwich pumps him up, he has always assumed he is expendable to these people. Rutherford’s clients pay well for a reason: the work is typically unwanted by, or too dangerous for, others.

“I’m appealing to your savior complex,” Dulwich says, being honest for a change.

“The girl.”

“The girls. And you need the money.”

Knox is in financial quicksand. A $300,000 nest egg to provide for his brother’s exceptional medical needs was embezzled by a woman who took advantage of his brother’s diminished abilities. Without that nest egg, should anything happen to Knox, his brother, Tommy, will be institutionalized. The irony Dulwich forces upon Knox each time he makes an offer is that Knox must risk his own safety to win the money to provide for his brother in case he’s not around.

Dulwich reaches down and comes out with another newspaper that contains the original article about the young, injured girl fleeing the health clinic.

“I did read this,” Knox says, remembering. The byline is Sonia Pangarkar. It’s as much a story about the poorer neighborhoods of Amsterdam and the European struggle with immigrants as it is a cry for this runaway girl’s life. The reporter is smart, thorough, and the piece engaging. There are names and places to back it up.

One of the names jumps out at him. “The car-bombing victim was one of her sources,” Knox says. “We discussed it already. So, it’s hardball.”


“In addition to wanting to protect those who cannot protect themselves, the benevolent Mr. Winston draws a line at murdering those willing to whistle-blow,” Knox says. “I’m touched.”

“Winston stands for liberty and justice for all. Terry Gross. Rachel Maddow. Anyone who will listen.”

“Graham Winston is intending to run for prime minister.”

“You said that. I did not.”

Knox sets down the paper. “I’m not a political consultant.” Hard-to-get is the only play with Dulwich. It’s time to negotiate.

Knox downs the rest of the coffee. It’s like swallowing a six-volt battery. “I’ve got Tommy to think of. The Turkish mob is not going to like being exposed. Just ask your low-level bureaucrat.”

“Winston will pay four times the last job.”

The number 200,000 swims in Knox’s head. It’s a lot of thimble cymbals.

Knox signals the waiter and orders another shot of espresso, wanting to ramp it up to twelve volts. Dulwich does the same. The curious woman stands up to leave. Knox senses a missed opportunity. “I’ll need Grace.”



“It’s Graham Winston, Knox.”

“A reliable contact in the police department would help.” He wants the young girl recovered safely. All the girls recovered safely. He resents that Dulwich knows this about him.

“Know just the guy. Name of Joshua Brower. We go way back.”

“I’ve got to believe that someone in power is looking the other way on this thing. Right? So the police piece is a tricky one.”

“Brower’s trustworthy. I’m with you.”

“You wouldn’t be leaving something out?”

“That’s not in anybody’s best interest.”

“Listen, we both know, given the choice of losing me or Grace, Brian Primer’s going to protect Grace.”

Dulwich is silent.

Knox decides not to push. He suspects Grace Chu’s star has risen within Rutherford Risk. First and foremost a forensic accountant, she has recently proven herself a quick study of computer hacking and, because of her former training with the Chinese Army, is no slouch in field ops. Knox knows he’s not in the same category––he offers Primer and Dulwich his cover of a legitimate international exporter and a growing passion for stomping the ugliest bugs that crawl out of the dark.

There’s sand in Knox’s teeth. Or maybe it’s coffee grounds. He can’t afford to get himself hurt or killed with Tommy’s ongoing medical care unfunded. The money being offered would help him to eventually cover his brother’s long-term home care. He bridles at the thought of an institution.

He’s pissed as he accepts the job.

Choke Point: A Risk Agent Novel
by by Ridley Pearson

  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Mass Market Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Jove
  • ISBN-10: 0515154644
  • ISBN-13: 9780515154641