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Tradition holds that Rome was built on seven hills. The Janiculum, higher than any of them, is the eighth. In ancient times, it was given over to the cult of Janus--the god of exits and entrances; the god of two faces. Todd Belknap would need them both. On the third floor of the villa on the via Angelo Masina, a looming neoclassical structure with facades of yellow ochre stucco and white pilasters, the operative checked his watch for the fifth time in ten minutes.
This is what you do, he silently assured himself.
But this was not the way he had planned it. It was not the way anybody had planned it. He moved quietly through the hallway--a surface, blessedly, of solidly mortared tile: no squeaking floorboards. The renovation had removed the rotting woodwork of a previous renovation . . . and how many such renovations had there been since the original construction in the eighteenth century? The villa, built upon an aqueduct of Trajan, had an illustrious past. In 1848, in the great days of the Risorgimento, Garibaldi used it as his headquarters; the basement, supposedly, had been enlarged to serve as a backup armory. These days, the villa once again had a military purpose, if more nefarious in nature. It belonged to Khalil Ansari, a Yemeni arms dealer. Not just any arms dealer, either. As shadowy as his operations were, Cons Ops analysts had established that he was a significant supplier not only in South Asia but also in Africa. What set him apart was how elusive he was: how carefully he had concealed his movements, his location, his identity. Until now.
Belknap's timing could not have been better--or worse. In the two decades he had spent as a field agent, he had come to dread the stroke of luck that arrives almost too late. It had happened near the beginning of his career, in East Berlin. It had happened seven years ago, in Bogotá. It was happening again here in Rome. Good things come in threes, as his good friend Jared Rinehart wryly insisted.
Ansari, it was known, was on the verge of a major arms deal, one that would involve a series of simultaneous exchanges among several parties. It was, from all indications, a deal of enormous complexity and enormous magnitude--something that perhaps only Khalil Ansari would be capable of orchestrating. According to humint sources, the final settlement would be arranged this very evening, via an intercontinental conference call of some sort. Yet the use of sterile lines and sophisticated encryption ruled out the standard sigint solutions. Belknap's discovery had changed all that. If Belknap was able to plant a bug in the right place, Consular Operations would gain invaluable information about how the Ansari network functioned. With any luck, the rogue network could be exposed--and a multibillion-dollar merchant of death brought to justice.
That was the good news. The bad news was that Belknap had identified Ansari only hours before. No time for a coordinated operation. No time for backup, for HQ-approved plans. He had no other choice but to go in alone. The opportunity could not be allowed to pass.
The photo ID clipped to his knitted cotton shirt read "Sam Norton," and identified him as one of the site architects involved in the latest round of renovations, an employee of the British architectural firm in charge of the project. It got him in the house, but it could not explain what he was doing on the third floor. In particular, it could not justify his presence in Ansari's personal study. If he were found here, it was over. Likewise if anyone were to discover the guard he had knocked out with a tiny Carfentanil dart and stowed in a cleaning closet down the hall. The operation would be terminated. He would be terminated.
Belknap recognized these facts dully, dispassionately, like the rules of the road. Inspecting the arms dealer's study, he felt a kind of operational numbness; he saw himself from the perspective of a disembodied observer far above him. The ceramic element of the contact microphone could be hidden--where? A vase on the desk, containing an orchid. The vase would serve as a natural amplifier. It would also be routinely inspected by the Yemeni's debugging team, but that would not be until the morning. A keystroke logger--he had a recent model--would record messages typed on Ansari's desktop computer. A faint chirp sounded in Belknap's earpiece, a response to radio pulse emitted by a tiny motion detector that Belknap had secreted in the hallway outside.
Was someone about to enter the room? Not good. Not good at all. It was an appalling irony. He had spent the better part of a year trying to locate Khalil Ansari. Now the danger was that Khalil Ansari would locate him.
Dammit! Ansari was not supposed to be back so soon. Belknap looked helplessly around the Moroccan-tiled room. There were few places for concealment, aside from a closet with a slatted door, at the corner near the desk. Far from ideal. Belknap stepped quickly inside and hunched down, squatting on the floor. The closet was unpleasantly warm, filled with racks of humming computer routers. He counted the seconds. The miniaturized motion detector he had placed in the hall outside could have been set off by a roach or rodent. Surely it was a false alarm.
It was not. Someone was entering the room. Belknap peered through the slats until he could make out the figure. Khalil Ansari: a man tending everywhere toward roundness. A body made of ovals, like an art-class exercise. Even his close-trimmed beard was a thing of round edges. His lips, his ears, his chin, his cheeks, were full, soft, round, cushioned. He wore a white silk caftan, Belknap saw, which draped loosely around his bulk as the man padded toward his desk with a distracted air. Only the Yemeni's eyes were sharp, scanning the room like a samurai's rotating sword. Had Belknap been seen? He had counted on the darkness of the closet to provide concealment. He had counted on many things. Another miscalculation, and he would be counted out.
The Yemeni eased his avoirdupois upon the leather chair at his desk, cracked his knuckles, and typed in a rapid sequence--a password, no doubt. As Belknap continued to squat uncomfortably in the recessed bay, his knees started to protest. Now in his mid-forties, he had lost the limberness of his youth. But he could not afford to move; the sound of a cracking joint would instantly betray his presence. If only he had arrived a few minutes earlier, or Ansari a few minutes later: Then he would have had the keystroke logger in place, electronically capturing the pulses emitted by the keyboard. His first priority was just to stay alive, to endure the debacle. There would be time for postmortems and after-action reports later.
The arms dealer shifted in his seat and intently keyed in another sequence of instructions. Messages were being e-mailed. Ansari drummed his fingers and pressed a button inset in a rosewood-veneered box. Perhaps he was setting up the conference call via Internet telephony. Perhaps the entire conference would be conducted in encrypted text, chatroom style. There was so much that could have been learned, if only . . . It was too late for regrets, but they churned through Belknap all the same.
He remembered his exhilaration, not long before, when he had at last tracked his quarry to earth. It was Jared Rinehart who had first dubbed him "the Hound," and the well-earned honorific had stuck. Though Belknap did have a peculiar gift for finding people who wished to stay lost, much of his success--he could never persuade people of it, but he knew it to be true--was a matter of sheer perseverance.
Certainly that was how he had finally tracked down Khalil Ansari after entire task forces had returned empty-handed. The bureaucrats would dig, their shovels would bang against bedrock, and they would give it up as futile. That was not Belknap's way. Each search was different; each involved a mixture of logic and caprice, because human beings were a mixture of logic and caprice. Neither ever sufficed by itself. The computers at headquarters were capable of scanning vast databases, inspecting records from border control authorities, Interpol, and other such agencies, but they needed to be told what to look for. Machines could be programmed with pattern-recognition software--but first they had to be told what pattern to recognize. And they could never get into the mind of the target. A hound could scent out a fox, in part, because it could think like a fox.
A knock at the door, and a young woman--dark hair, olive skin, but Italian rather than Levantine, Belknap judged--let herself in. The severity of her black-and-white uniform did not disguise the young woman's beauty: the budding sensuality of someone who had only recently come into her full physical endowments. She was carrying a silver tray with a pot and a small cup. Mint tea, Belknap knew at once from the aroma. The merchant of death had sent for it. Yemenis seldom did business without a carafe of mint tea, or shay, as they called it, and Khalil, on the verge of a concluding a vast chain of trades, proved true to form. Belknap almost smiled.
It was always details like those that helped Belknap track down his most elusive subjects. A recent one was Garson Williams, the rogue scientist at Los Alamos who sold nuclear secrets to the North Koreans and then disappeared. The FBI spent four years searching for him. Belknap, when he was finally assigned to the task, found him in two months. Williams, he learned from a domestic inventory, had a pronounced weakness for Marmite, the salty, yeast-based spread popular among Britons of a certain age as well as former subjects of the British Empire. Williams had developed a taste for it during a graduate fellowship at Oxford. In a list of the contents of the physicist's house, Belknap noticed that he had three jars of it in the pantry. The FBI demonstrated its thoroughness by X-raying all the objects in the household and determining that no microfiche had been hidden anywhere. But its agents didn't think the way Belknap did. The physicist would have retreated to a less-developed part of the world, where record-keeping was slipshod: It was the logical thing to do, since the North Koreans would have lacked the resources to provide him with identity papers of a quality that would pass in the information-age West. So Belknap scrutinized the places where the man went on vacation, looking for a pattern, a semi-submerged preference. His own tripwires were of a peculiar sort, triggered by the conjuncture of certain locations and certain distinctive consumer preferences. A shipment of a specialty foodstuff was made to an out-of-the-way hotel; a phone call--ostensibly from a chatty "customer satisfaction" representative--revealed that the request had originated not with a guest but with a local. The evidence, if one could even call it that, was absurdly weak; Belknap's hunch was not. When Belknap finally caught up with him, at a seaside fishing town in eastern Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka, he came alone. He was taking a flyer--he couldn't justify dispatching a team based on the fact that an American had special-ordered Marmite from a small hotel in the neighborhood. It was too insubstantial for official action. But it was substantial enough for him. When he finally confronted Williams, the physicist seemed almost grateful to have been found. His dearly bought tropical paradise had turned out the way they usually did: a fugue of tedium, of stultifying ennui.
More clicking from the Yemeni's keyboard. Ansari picked up a cellular telephone--undoubtedly a model with chip-enabled auto-encryption--and spoke in Arabic. His voice was at once unhurried and unmistakably urgent. A long pause, and then Ansari switched into German.
Now Ansari looked up briefly as the servant girl set down his cup of tea and she smiled, displaying perfectly even white teeth. As Ansari turned back to his work, her smile disappeared like a pebble dropped into a pond. She made her exit noiselessly, the perfectly unobtrusive servitor.
How much longer?
Ansari raised the small teacup to his mouth and took a savoring sip. He spoke again into the phone, this time in French. Yes, yes, all was on schedule. Words of reassurance, but lacking all specificity. They knew what they were talking about; they did not have to spell it out. The black marketeer clicked off the telephone and typed another message. He took another sip of the tea, placed the cup down, and--it happened suddenly, like a small seizure--he shivered briefly. Moments later, he sprawled forward, his head falling on his keyboard, motionless, evidently insensate. Dead?
It couldn't be.
The door to the study opened again; the servant girl. Would she panic, raise the alarm, when she made the shocking discovery?
In fact, she showed no surprise of any sort. She moved briskly, furtively, stepping over to the man and placing her fingers at his throat, feeling for a pulse, obviously detecting none. Then she pulled on a pair of white cotton gloves and repositioned him in his chair so that he seemed to be leaning back, at rest. Next she moved to the keyboard, typed a hurried message of her own. Finally, she removed the teacup and carafe, placing them on her tray, and left the study. Removing, thus, the instruments of his death.
Khalil Ansari, one of the most powerful arms dealers in the world, had just been murdered--in front of his eyes. Poisoned, in fact. By . . . a young Italian servant girl.
With no little discomfort, Belknap rose from his squatting position, his mind buzzing like a radio tuned midway between two stations. It wasn't supposed to go down this way.
Then he heard a quiet electronic hooting sound. It came from an intercom on Ansari's desk.
And when Ansari did not respond?
Dammit to hell! Soon the alarm really would be raised. Once that happened, there would be no way out.
Copyright © 2006 by Myn Pyn LLC. All rights reserved.