Monday, June 12, 2023

Books: "Dead Drop," A Handler Thriller By M.P. Woodward


Dead Drop

By M.P. Woodward

Berkley; hardcover; $28.00

M.P. Woodward is a veteran of both United States intelligence ops and the entertainment industry. As a naval intelligence officer with the US Pacific Command, he scripted scenario moves and countermoves for US war game exercises in the Middle East. In multiple deployments to the Persian Gulf and Far East, he worked alongside US Special Forces, CIA, and NSA. Most recently, Woodward led international distribution for Amazon Prime Video and launched Amazon original content in over forty countries.

Woodward's naval intelligence and Amazon background informs his writing about covert operations, national security, counterintelligence and affairs in the Middle East. He is the acclaimed author of The Handler, and Dead Drop is his new modern espionage thriller, in which international nuclear negotiations turn allies into enemies.

The United States and Iran are engaged in nuclear negotiations that have reached a crisis point. The new American administration is determined to move ahead, but there are several stumbling blocks. One of those is the Iranian intelligence operative the CIA has hidden away in one of its safe houses.

Divorced CIA officers John and Meredith Dale are caught in the middle. John is desperate to keep his asset one step ahead of an Iranian hit squad, while Meredith is being sought after by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, to find the lead Iranian rocket scientist.

John and Meredith are pawns in an international chess game, and any player is aware that you cannot capture the king without sacrificing some pawns.

In this excerpt, Woodward writes of Meredith hoping for a reconciliation with John before everything was turned upside down, "Squashed upon the otherwise flat line of the dark Pacific Ocean, stretched wide by blazing yellow clouds, the sun, Meredith Morris-Dale thought, looked for all the world like a broken egg yolk. Far from the soul-stirring grandeur that had been promised, Meredith Morris-Dale thought, looked for all the world like a broken egg yolk. Far from the soul-stirring grandeur that had been promised, Meredith found the famed Maui sunset a bit disappointing; if anything, a mere runny mess.

Though preening couples to either side of her erupted with the predictable oohs and aahs, the vacationing CIA operations officer privately found it all rather ordinary. The sun going down off Hawaii. Big deal. She thought it more of less like the millions of sunsets that had preceded it, and, barring one of the man-made disasters she'd spent her entire career preventing, just like the multitudes that would follow.

Sitting by a plastic table on the sand, Meredith wore a backless white halter dress that hugged her lean torso, showed off her athletic shoulders, and revealed just enough of her long, brown legs. The heeled espadrilles she'd removed to make it across the beach were piled with her handbag on the seat next to her. Her ex-husband, John, was supposed to have been in that chair, sharing this sunset.

But he wasn't.

She glanced at her smartwatch and confirmed that John still hadn't messaged her. She tasted the salt of her frozen margarita and squinted at the oblong sun. For all she knew, John had gone straight to the airport and caught a flight back to Seattle. He was more than capable of that kind of stupidity, she thought.

She sighed. She deserved this - or at least most of it. She'd engineered it, set herself up, raised her own expectations, But who could have blamed her? It had only been two months since she and John had been on that last op in western Iran, working well together.

Maybe - just maybe - Meredith had thought back then, the sparks had been strong enough for a rekindling. Maybe, she'd hoped, she could even talk John into coming back to CIA as a case officer, ending his self-imposed exile out there in the Pacific Northwest.

For Christ's sake, she thought now, fingering the ice-cold glass in her hand. They'd been married for fifteen years, shared a daughter, traveled the world together in the cloak of a clandestine service that really made a difference. How could she not have at least tried to put things back together?

She'd planned this mini-vacation months ago to coincide with the short novice triathlon she'd completed that morning, a fundraiser for a veterans' support group. But in the sparky excitement after that last op - regrettably - she'd decided to invite John.

More judiciously, to sound neutral to her ex - to not scare him away - she'd spun the trip as an opportunity for him to decompress, a reward of sorts, since he'd done that Iranian op as a favor to her. And to her stunned surprise, he'd agreed to come along to root for her in the triathlon. It had been a homing beacon of a signal if ever there was one, she'd thought. How could she not have at least tried to make a go of things?

That's when she'd gotten stupid, she realized now, her head pounding after a large gulp of frozen slush. Like some pie-eyed schoolgirl, she'd bought John his own room and paid his airfare. While he said he'd only come for a few days to support her race, she'd stretched her own room reservation to a week, splurging for the ocean view, nurturing a dim hope that he'd stay on with her.

A hope that had taken root, branched out, strengthened, grown with every sunlit day on the beach together. And to her pleasant surprise, she'd even nudged him into talking sense again. Though he hadn't yet fully committed, she'd thought he'd started to consider a return to the Agency. It had all been going so well - until Meredith had gone and raised the old argument about his seven-year-old affair.

She swallowed what was left of the margarita.

Why, Meredith, why?

Now, conspicuously alone at her table, watching the sunset, she could feel the occasional eye upon her. More acutely, she noticed a man at the thatched-hut bar in a red flowered shirt who pretended to ponder the looming cliffs over her shoulder. An expert at counter-surveillance, Meredith recognized this for what it was.

But just then, she didn't care about the man in the red flowered shirt. For once in her life, she wasn't in disguise. She wasn't pretending to be someone else, using an alias on nonofficial cover in some distant hellhole or on her best behavior in some dull reception at an embassy.

No. Far from it. She told herself she had every bleeping right to be here by herself. She had every effing right to enjoy this drink, this sunset - even if rather ordinary - in solitude. Ogle away, Red Shirt. Enjoy the view. I'm on vacation. That's right - alone. She licked the salt on her empty margarita glass.

Sitting up a little straighter, Meredith faced into the ocean breeze. The rising wind tousled her hair and flung it behind her shoulders. Gazing at the backlit Pacific, she dropped her fake smile and allowed her real expression to take hold. Her mouth was firm, chin jutting. Her eyes glittered as they watered in the wind.

A final ray of orange sunlight burst through a cloud. It reflected brightly off the waves, lighting her as if on a stage. With her shining blue eyes and ruffling, white dress, she'd instantly blossomed to the full extent of her considerable beauty. Even men with wives sitting directly across from them stole secret glances at this lovely woman sitting all by herself. Another umbrella-topped drink arrived. It was from Red Shirt.

I'll tell you why I did it, Meredith was thinking, unconsciously tossing her head in the breeze, ignoring both the drink and its aloha-shirted procurer. I did it because no matter what John says, he sure as hell DID cheat with that woman on the Red Sea. He sure as hell DID lie about it right to my face. Bastard's STILL lying about it!"

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