Scapegoat Excerpt

Chapter 1

Istanbul, Turkey

Rennie Vogel stepped into the courtyard closing the door behind her. She checked her watch before pausing to take in the moon, low and perfectly full, silhouetting the dramatic spire of the former Beyoglu hospital against the sky, clear tonight. The courtyard had come with the apartment and was double its size. The same pattern of green, white and coral red tiled her living space and extended into the courtyard and up six steps to a narrow rise lined with lush potted plants. A high stuccoed wall enclosed the courtyard and tonight, like most nights, a black cat sat on the wall eerily outlined against the backdrop of the city. She turned away from the flash of the cat’s eyes to fit her key into the iron gate that led up a short flight of steps where she threw the bolt on the heavy door to the street.

It was just a few minutes to midnight and though the little store just paces around the corner of her cobbled street was usually open till then, her American habits, accustomed to opening and closing times written in stone, nagged at her. She ran through logical scenarios in her mind in the thirty seconds it took her to round the corner. They should be open till midnight, she told herself. They usually are. But sometimes they close up early. She had been unable to discern any predictable pattern. The store’s hours didn’t seem to be aligned with the weather or the tourists carousing more than usual. Sometimes she thought she liked living in a world where the clocks ran more naturally, more in tune with human whim rather than a constantly thrumming capitalist machine. But not when she was thirsty.

A beam of light breaking the shadow of the Galata Tower told her she’d gotten lucky tonight and she hurried down the steps. Shops so tiny didn’t exist at home and she found the intimacy of being with not one, but usually two, clerks in a store no larger than a walk in closet, disconcerting.

“Marlboro Light and an Efes,” she said holding up a finger.

American cigarettes were everywhere in Istanbul. American beer was not. But Rennie wasn’t choosy and had grown to like the one lager to be had all over Turkey.

Back in the courtyard, Rennie sat with her feet up on the low brick wall, sipping her beer and taking in the skyline. When she could rouse herself to it, she was still awed by living in a foreign city. And Istanbul seemed to embody the foreign with its minarets and the keening call to prayer waking her every morning. She’d balked at the Istanbul assignment at first, suspecting it was the opening chime to the death knell of her time with the FBI. But then she found the foreignness suited her. She wanted to feel alienated.

Rennie stifled a yawn and watched as the ever-present courtyard cat slinked away as he always eventually did when she invaded his territory. She heard a window open above her and saw a man lean out, take a final drag on a cigarette and drop it to the courtyard below. She’d almost taken the sixth floor flat for its balcony and the sight of the Golden Horn in the distance. But the courtyard sold her, hemmed in on three sides by tall buildings where Turks hung out their hand-woven rugs to air on their windowsills. Rennie didn’t like feeling enclosed, without an escape route, but she’d developed a habit of not shunning things she found unpleasant. Punishing herself seemed logical somehow.

And deserved.

Indeed, her guilt felt like an entity that had taken up residence in her body. An unexcisable and malevolent twin. She shook her head, wishing she could just stop thinking. She drained her beer and went into the studio to try, once again, to sleep.

Twenty hours later, Rennie sat at her desk in the FBI Legal Attache Office in Istinye, tapping her heel against the cheap industrial carpet, staring, her eyes unfocused, at the cryptic Turkish document before her. It was eight o’clock and she would leave soon, walking slowly down the street to a pub frequented by Eastern Europeans. She wouldn’t see anyone she knew there and would sit in a quiet corner drinking a much needed beer and pretending to read.

Her body had gone soft.  She hadn’t felt strong for a long time. Every morning she’d wake, thinking, This is a new day. But by evening she’d be filled with longing for the moment when the seal of the fridge door pulled away from the chill metal and she’d reach for the cool neck of the bottle, the opener at the ready. It was as if the woman she had been, the woman who felt she only had to reach out and could firmly grasp whatever she wanted, was always just ahead of her, out of sight, slipping around the corner into the shadows. She’d intend to get some exercise but the desire to calm her mind as she’d done since Tajikistan would be too strong. She’d done nothing more in the past six months than occasionally walk up the steep hill to her Beyoglu apartment after a stroll across the Galata Bridge to the Asia side of the city.  Sometimes, she went to the baths. Stared at the copper ceiling, feeling her shoulder bones, her hips against the octagonal marble slab as she waited to be called and scrubbed perfunctorily by a robust Turkish woman. Afterward, she’d eat too many mezzes and a fish and go home. It was strangely comforting somehow, cloaking herself in a layer of fat.

After Tajikistan, CT3 – the special forces team she’d worked so hard to get onto – had been dissolved, supposedly temporarily, while the investigation took place. She was placed on leave with pay, enduring round after round of humiliation, failing to adequately respond to questions that were unanswerable unless the government admitted its role. And they were never going to do that.

In the midst of it all were the funerals.

Baldwin. Goode. Levin. Smythe.

Awkward conversations.  Family members broken by grief.

The funerals had done nothing to heal the wounds from the death of her team. At each ceremony, family members had eyed her with confusion or sympathy or outright hostility.  Only Smythe’s wife – Smythe, whom she’d clashed with time and again – had approached her, irony of ironies,  gripping her hand and saying the expected, “Thank you for coming.  I know this is hard for you, too, and I want you to know I don’t blame you at all.”

And it was there that she finally cried. Not at Baldwin’s funeral, her friend, whom she ached for, but at Smythe’s. Rennie had gripped Fiona Smythe’s hand so tightly. And then the woman had guided Rennie’s head to her shoulder where she heaved once, and cried as silently as she could. For everything that had happened. And for Fiona Smythe too, who stroked her back and cooed in her ear, so kind, and never to know what a bastard her husband was. When Rennie had finally lifted her face, she stared at the woman, certain an expression approximate to madness had twisted her features.  She wanted to say, Why don’t you blame me too?

Baldwin.  Goode.  Levin.  Smythe.

Every day she recited their names like an incantation, only her lips moving. But on the bad days she could hear the words like a banshee scream in her head.

Where had her strength gone? Rennie had retreated into herself further than she ever imagined she could.  Accepted whatever accusations were made in the interrogations.  Fully expecting to be fired, she waited for it, patiently, longing to hear the words and go home and sleep.  But they never came.  She was to attend language classes, pack her bags and settle into a desk job – research and analysis – in the Istanbul office.  Safely away from all that had taken place in those dark woods, sentenced to smother under reams of paper.

Rennie forced her leg to stop its incessant jumping.  She shut down her computer.  Locked her files in the drawer.  She spoke to no one on her way out.  The other agents and the foreign service staff had learned to keep their distance. They knew she was tainted and didn’t want to be infected by whatever had tanked her career.

Outside the day was still hot and the city was busy and cosmopolitan. It almost buoyed her mood.  This March was unseasonably warm in Istanbul and it only made her feel disjointed, the seasons all askew.  She longed for the normalcy of a rainy spring in Washington – the coming of the cherry blossoms and the tourists.  She stopped at a street vendor and bought a wrap – spiced meat and roasted eggplant – before she headed to the bar.  She didn’t want to get too drunk.  Just a little.

Thoughts of Hannah Marcus crept into her brain.  She couldn’t go there.  To the place where she imagined what might have been possible.  It was too much.  Too much.

Reaching her bar, she thought, I’ll just walk by, go home, read a book, get a good night’s rest.  She stood before the door, a woman in a daze.

You should go for a run.

Every day she told herself she would run.  Every day. But the lure of the bar and its easy comfort was too strong.

Or at least just go home.

But her apartment was too empty.  And if she was there and coherent, she would think.  And she must not think.

Rennie tried to remember who she was before the FBI, before she began running around that old track in college. But her mind wouldn’t stretch back that far. She only remembered that first moment of clarity as she tore up her favorite trail on Old Rag Mountain, when she realized she could become whoever she wanted to be. And it had seemed like everything that came after that – getting into the FBI, being chosen for CT3 – had only reinforced her unflagging sense that she could achieve whatever she set her mind to. 

A finger of pain trailed along her throat.

You need a drink.

Rennie pushed through the heavy door, trading the thrum of the hot, muggy street for the clamor of the airless bar.  The tension in her throat was almost unbearable.  But release was close.

The light in the bar was entirely artificial.  She could be anywhere except for the incomprehensible chatter in the background.  Mainly Bulgarians, with a sprinkling of Czechs and Romanians, maybe even a Pole or two.  It didn’t matter.  She couldn’t understand them and they had no interest in her and that was what she wanted.  She moved to her table in the back, waving to the bartender as she passed.  She sat and found she was in a curious mood.  Something new had crawled into her brain.  Something that felt like action.  She set her jaw against it, didn’t have the energy for it.  What was the point anyway?

There was a pay phone at the back of the bar.  Her eyes kept returning to it.  Before she could change her mind, she moved toward it pulling the calling card from her pocket – the one with no connection to her government.  Several weeks before she left for Turkey she had stopped by a colleague’s office, finding him absent and the database she needed open on his desktop.  She quick-searched Hannah’s name, memorized her number and performed her colleague’s original search. Sometimes at night, when she tossed and turned in bed, she would visualize punching those numbers into a dial pad. It never once helped her to sleep. The numbers on the pay phone were sticky and Rennie had to try twice before reaching a dial tone.  The 202 exchange – the D.C. area code – seemed a million miles away.

What if she answers?  What could you possibly say?  Without ruining your career?

But her career had felt over for a long time.  If it wasn’t, she wouldn’t be where she was.  She couldn’t think. Was it a crime?  Calling Hannah Marcus.  When she’d been explicitly instructed to have no contact with her.  She was about to hang up when Hannah’s machine picked up.

Good.  Yes.  Just listen to the message and hang up.  Just hear her voice.

The message was brief and to the point and Rennie could hardly take it in.

Oh, Hannah.

Just as the beep sounded, she heard Andrei calling to her from the bar.

“Vogel, you’re up.”  Her beer sat frothing on the bar, scarred from years of abuse.

“I’ll be right there.”

Rennie replaced the receiver.  It felt like the end, a conclusion to something she shouldn’t have been thinking about anyway.

The walk from the phone to the bar seemed interminable.  She heard Hannah’s voice in her mind and the memory of their one night together rushed back, achingly vivid.  She thought, What could it possibly matter?  But somehow it did.

The bar was busy.  It was Friday night.  She drank half the pint in the first gulp, easing the tension in her throat.

Andrei, unshaven and handsome and always good-natured, stood smiling at her.  Rennie was an unusual presence in the bar.

“Our friendly American,” he said.

Rennie smiled back and lifted her glass.

“Cheers to that.”