Olen Steinhauer

The Nearest Exit

The second book in the Milo Weaver series, 2010



There are three emergency exits on this aircraft. Take a few moments now to locate the closest one. Please note that, in some cases, the nearest exit may be behind you.




When DJ Jazzy-G hit the intro to “Just like Heaven,” that Cure anthem of his youth, Henry Gray achieved a moment of complete expat euphoria. Was this his first? He’d felt shades of it other times during his decade in Hungary, but only at that moment-a little after two in the morning, dancing at the ChaChaCha’s outdoor club on Margit Island, feeling Zsuzsa’s lips stroke his sweat-damp earlobe… only then did he feel the full brunt and stupid luck of his beautiful life overseas.

Eighties night at the ChaChaCha. Jazzy-G was reading his mind. Zsuzsa was consuming his tongue.

Despite the frustrations and disappointments of life in this capital of Central Europe, in Zsuzsanna Papp’s arms he felt a momentary love for the city, and the kerts-the beer gardens that Hungarians opened up once they’d survived their long, dark winters. Here, they shed their clothes and drank and danced and worked through the stages of foreplay, and made even an outsider like Henry feel as if he could belong.

Still, not even all this sensual good fortune was enough to bestow upon Henry Gray such intense joy. It was the story, the one he’d received via the unpredictable Hungarian postal service twelve hours before. The biggest story of his young professional life.

His career as a journalist thus far had rested on the story of the Taszar Air Base, where the U.S. Army secretly trained the Free Iraqi Forces in the Hungarian countryside as that unending war was just beginning. That had been four years ago, and in the meantime Henry Gray’s career had floundered. He’d missed the boat on the CIA’s secret interrogation centers in Romania and Slovakia. He’d wasted six months on the ethnic unrest along the Serbian- Hungarian border, which he couldn’t give away to U.S. papers. Then last year, when the Washington Post was exposing the CIA’s use of Taliban prisoners to harvest Afghan opium that it sold to Europe-during that time, Henry Gray had been mired in another of his black periods, where he’d wake up stinking of vodka and Unicum, with a week missing from his memory.

Now, though, the Hungarian post had brought him salvation, something that no newspaper could ignore. Sent by a Manhattan law firm with the unlikely name of Berg & DeBurgh, it had been written by one of its clients, Thomas L. Grainger, former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. The letter was a new beginning for Henry Gray.

As if to prove this, Zsuzsa, who had been standoffish for so long, had finally caved to his affections after he read out the letter and described what it meant for his career. She-a journalist herself-had promised her help, and between kisses said they’d be like Woodward and Bernstein, and he had said of course they would.

Had greed finally bent her will? In this moment, the one that would last a few more hours at least, it really didn’t matter.

“Do you love me?” she whispered.

He took her warm face in his hands. “What do you think?”

She laughed. “I think you do love me.”

“And you?”

“I’ve always liked you, Henry. I might even love you someday.”

At first, Henry hadn’t recalled the name Thomas Grainger, but on his second read it had dawned on him-they had met once before, four years ago when Gray was following leads on the Taszar story. A car had pulled up beside him on Andrassy utca, the rear window sliding down, and an old man asked to speak to him. Over coffee, Thomas Grainger used a mixture of patriotism and bald threats to get Gray to wait another week before filing the story. Gray refused, then returned home to a demolished apartment.

July 11, 2007

Mr. Gray,

You’re probably surprised to receive a letter from someone who, in the past, has butted heads with you concerning your journalistic work. Rest assured that I’m not writing to apologize for my behavior-I still feel your articles on Taszar were supremely irresponsible and could have harmed the war effort, such as it is. That they didn’t harm it is a testament to either my ability to slow their publication or the inconsequence of your newspaper; you can be the judge.

Despite this, your tenacity is something I’ve admired. You pushed forward when other journalists might have folded, which makes you the kind of man I’d like to speak to now. The kind of journalist I need.

That you have this letter in your hands is evidence of one crucial fact: I am now dead. I’m writing this letter in order that my death-which I suspect will have been at the hand of my own employer-might not go unnoticed.

Vanity? Yes. But if you live to reach my age, maybe you’ll be able to look upon it more kindly. Maybe you’ll be able to see it for the idealistic impulse I believe it is.

According to public records, Grainger had run a CIA financial oversight office in New York before his fatal heart attack in July. Then again, public records are public for a reason-they put forth what the government wants the public to believe.

Around three, they fought their way off the dance floor, collected their things-the seven-page letter was still in his shoulder bag-and crossed the Margit Bridge back to Pest. They caught a taxi to Zsuzsa’s small Eighth District apartment, and within an hour he felt that, were his life to end in the morning, he could go with no regrets.

“Do you like that?” Zsuzsa asked in the heavy darkness that smelled of her Vogue cigarettes.

He caught his breath but couldn’t speak. She was doing something with her hand, somewhere between his thighs.

“It’s tantra.”

“Is it?” He gasped, clutching the sheets.

This really was the best of all possible worlds.

I will now tell you a story. It concerns the Sudan, the department of the CIA I preside over, and China. Unsurprisingly for someone like you, it also concerns oil, though perhaps not in the way you imagine.

Know too that the story I’m about to tell you is dangerous to know. My death is evidence of this. From this point on, consider yourself on your own. If this is too much to bear, then burn the letter now and forget it.

Afterward, when they were both exhausted and the street was silent, they stared at the ceiling. Zsuzsa

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