New York City; June 21, 2001, 11:02 A.M.
"Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge, this is Selma. How do you copy?"
"Baton Rouge, no movement. Che is still at his last."
"Roger that, Selma. Maintain your current. Over."
The twelfth floor of the Deutsche Bank building on Park isn't a bad perch on Midtown: close enough to the pavement to spot the twenty-something MBAs, cell phones glued to their ears, bullshitting about make-believe deals; just high enough to appreciate the grid, the grandeur, how easy it would be to bring it all down with a dirty nuke. But there I go talking shop again.
London's more cosmopolitan. Paris more tarted up. For stolen wealth per square inch, there's no place like Geneva. But Manhattan is where the real money is. Something like half the currency in the world flows electronically through this city every day of the year. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the trillions zinging around the local cyberspace. All that money gives the city a sort of divine energy, and Madison Avenue writes the Bible, selling crap no one can afford to people who don't need it, from Edsels to Viagra and Brazilian butt lifts. No wonder the jihadists go to bed every night dreaming of pulverizing the place. (The fact that one in three Jews in America lives here doesn't hurt, either.)
Personally, I've had my fill of pulverized rubble. Beirut, Khobar, NairobiI know the way it smells when it's still smoking and soaked in blood, and how easy it is to make. Load a pickup with half-full acetylene tanks, fertilizer, and fuel oil, and you can take down most anything man-made that you can get under or inside.
I used to think spending the best parts of my life in the worst parts of the world was worth something, but my employer saw things otherwise. I'd reported one too many unpalatable truths, poked Foggy Bottom in the eye one too many times, told my own seventh floor to fuck off in one too many ways. "Intelligence" may be the snake oil we sell, but the one absolutely inexcusable character flaw inside the Beltway is candor.
After a quarter-century in the field, headquarters called me home early and put me out to pasture in an office park near Tysons Corner. The plan was to tie me up watching over a flock of retirees until I shuffled off into my own sunset, but that couldn't happen until I hit fifty, four years from now. In the meantime, I was working off a time card: eight-to-five, no weekend duty, all the "personal days" I needed. That's what I was doing right now: taking a Thursday to see friends in Midtown. Another gaper in the capital of grit. Or so I thought.
"Hey, c'mere and have a look," I said, staring down at Park. I tried to put a little urgency in my voice, enough to pry Chris Corsini away from his high-performance, posture-fit Aeron chair and triple-wide LCD screens. But Chris was a commodities trader. The only things that got him excited were seasonal draws on oil inventories and his annual bonus.
"No, I'm serious. Come here and take a look at these two."
Chris sighed as he pushed himself to his feet. "What's it now, Max, King Kong on the loose again?"
That's what I liked about Chris: Ever since I'd rappelled down the side of Sproul Hall into the dean's office, back in our undergraduate days at Berkeley, he'd decided I was a headcase. But unlike a lot of our classmates, he never held it against me. Maybe I helped balance out the picture-perfect wife in Darien, the three way-above-average pre-teens, and the metallic silver Porsche Carrera.
"There," I said, pointing him toward the corner of Forty-ninth and Park, but Chris wasn't seeing what I was.
"Hmmm, let me think a minute." He was drumming his fingers on the marble sill. "Ah, the three smokers in front of the UBS building across the street! Sky's falling! I'm moving everything into gold."
"Take another look."
"At what, Max? Help me out here a little."
"Those two," I said, directing his eye to a guy and a girl, maybe in their late twenties. "The hip pair in front of Quick and Reilly."
The guy was hip, all right: mini-dreds, black wife-beater, patched black suede pants, Timberland boots, no socks or laces. The girl was basic black, toofaded bodice and denim bottom with built-in creases, carrier bag hanging from her shoulderexcept for lavender highlights and a pair of those Puma arsenic orange-and-powder-blue sneakers.
"You see something I don't?" Chris asked.
"Can't be sure. Maybe it's that they don't look very comfortable in those uniforms, like they'd put them on for the first time today."
Chris hung by me a moment, made a kind of pitying cluck with his tongue, then walked behind his desk and sat back down. "Max, I'm curious to know how you make it on your own in this world. You're nuts."
Truth told, I had spotted the two of them earlier when I was walking down Park. They were clearly interested in me, so I'd given them both a hard look as I passed by, and they had turned instantly away. That's about as telltale a sign as you're likely to get from static surveillance, and nothing they were doing now was making me change my mind. Every once in a while, the girl would glance over the guy's shoulder, in the direction of the Deutsche Bank, and then say something to him before turning back. The guy never stopped talking into his cell phone. My bet? A walkie-talkie. Without a scanner, though, I couldn't be sure.
"Gotta hop," I told Chris, picking up my jacket. "I need a favor, though."
"What about our lunch? I pushed people all over the place to make room. You're like some goddamn senile cat, scampering off for no reason at all."
It was an old bitch. Bolting for no apparent reason is one of the things I do bestthat and manipulation, betrayal, and lying. Only the highest professional standards. The irony is that Chris knew the truest thing about me I'd ever told anyone. We were drunk junior year, burning hemp, sitting on a bluff staring at the Golden Gate Bridge, when he finally got around to asking me how my parents had died.
"I don't know," I told him.
"How can you not know?"
"I don't know if they're dead."
"Give me a break."
And so I told him everything: Mother's two husbands, neither my father; the grandfather who insisted I call him "Sir"; the bonds, the coupons, the trust fund; all the houses we lived in as if Mother were determined to book a season in every climate zone America had to offer. How when I was thirteen, she had signed us up for an archaeological expedition in Baluchistan, straddling the Pak-Iranian border. How I'd woken up one morning two years later to find a note tacked to the center tent pole: "MaxI've left with Ravi [another archaeologista real onefifteen years her junior] to look at a great dig. I shall be back in two weeks. Mother." Not "Love, Mother." Not "Dear Max." Not anything like it. That was the last time I saw her. Those two weeks had stretched to eighteen months before my aunt learned from dear Mother that she'd left me at the end of the world and booked a small tribe to come get me out.
"What the fuck did you do while you waited?" Chris wanted to know. "Live in a cave and eat bat shit?"
"Actually it wasn't too bad. A family took me in. They had a son my age. We rode horses, played soccer. I learned Baluch."
"That's fucking bullshit."
And there's the double irony: Of all the cock-and-bull tales I had told Chris in the twenty-odd years sincethe weird excuses for not showing, the weirder ones for leaving early, the improbable investment consulting firm that provided my Washington letterhead, and on and onI was sure the Baluchistan story was the one he least believed.
"C'mon, Chris," I said. He was back to swapping Nigerian crude. "This'll take ten minutes."
"What in God's name are you talking about now?"
"The favor. All you have to do is stand by the window and watch those two."
"Why would I want to do that? You really are nuts."
"Maybe. But my hunch is that they're tailing someone in this buildingmaybe one of your colleagues; hell, maybe even your boss."
Chris looked at me as if he was deciding whether to call security.
"It happens, sweetheart. Honest. The husband's sitting on his ass at home, laid off and stewed on midday martinis. Suddenly it dawns on him that the mother of his children has hooked up with the mailroom boy, so he calls in a private eye, and bingo! Fireworks hit the fan."
"It's a fabulous business these days," I pushed it. "Everyone's screwing everyone." Rule Seven: Create the context before you risk a truth. Rule Eight: Don't let the context twist in the wind. "Or maybe they're watching me."
"Right, Max. And I'm Princess Di and you're Dodi whatever the hell his name was. Drop the paranoid act. No one's following you."
Chances are he was right. (The why, for one thing, left a hole big enough to drive the Pyramids through.) But high-octane paranoia is as addictive as morphine and far more useful. There is no such thing as an accident, no coincidence, no luckthey taught us that on day one at the Farm.
I'll never forget Joe Lynch, the course director, walking up behind the podium that first morning and, without so much as a nod, asking, "Who ran a countersurveillance route coming here just now?" All of us wide-eyed career trainees looked around the auditorium, trying to decide if Lynch was joking. The Farm is a maximum-security facility with more deer than people. Only one road of any consequence runs through it. You'd have to be Vin Diesel with brains to even get inside the place. Still, Lynch had made his point: Always assume you're being tailed even when you are sure you're not. It's the only way to keep your edge, not get sloppy, not get caught.
I couldn't tell Chris any of that, of course. Like a lot of friendships, ours depended on a certain degree of ambiguity, augmented in my caseand maybe in his, toowith a healthy dose of harmless virtual reality. A moral no-man's-land.
"Listen," I said, "I was seeing this girl, and . . ."
Chris bit, back on familiar ground once more.
"Bound to happen," he said with a shrug.
"Hundreds of women. One Max. One of 'em was bound to get pissed off enough to come after you."
"I mean it, Max. You really are like a goddamn alley cat. You slink in and out of people's lives. Me, I don't mind that much. I'm not looking to bed you down, but"
"The point is . . ."
"Remember that chewing-gum heiress who was stuck on you way back when? Get it? Stuck on you. What did that last? Seven months? A fucking world record. After Marissa."
In fact, I'd already asked Chris to be my best man when it dawned on me that I liked having sex with the heiress more than I liked her, just about the same time she realized that she preferred the idea of me to me in person.
"Youthful indiscretions," I said. I needed to get Chris back on track. "Lookit, this little piece of work is different. Very vindictive. Worse, she's got the money to indulge her anger."
"What's her name?"
Name? Volunteer nothing, and never give up a detail you absolutely don't have to.
"I cut her off cold," I said. "No five stages of grief with this one. Just checked out. Left her steaming. I wouldn't put it past her to put a tail on me, or worse. Chris, I could use a little help here."
Chris turned serious again. "Come on, Max, we're too old for this. I've got work to do. You can watch the watchers yourself."
"That's precisely what I can't do. If I do something stupid like walk out of here and look over my shoulder, bend over to tie my shoe, or stare into a display window to see what's going on behind me, they'll know I spotted them."
"So? Isn't that the point?"
"Yeah, you do that and whoever is running this little show will bring in a new team I won't spot. It's the way these things work."
Chris wasn't buying into it, but he hadn't said no. It was up to me to close the deal.
"Trust me," I told him, "this chick is totally unzipped, a psycho. She'll do me harm given the chance. I gotta know sooner rather than later whether she's got a tail on me."
I picked Chris's cell phone up off the desk, poked my cell number into it, and put it back down in front of him. "See this little button with the green telephone on it? Push that in ten and tell me what happens. That's all you have to do."
Chris tapped his fingers on the desk, adjusted his neck in his starched white collar, shot his wrist out from an equally starched and beautiful tailored French cuff, and gave his watch a good looking-over.
"Okay, okay. But you know, Max, it's not easy having you as a friend."
He rolled his wrist a few more times just to make sure I didn't miss what was wrapped around it. The watch looked as if it had cost enough to feed an entire Afghan village for years.
"A new toy, eh?"
"A Breitling." He was beaming. "It's got a micro-transmitter in it that works anywhere in the world."
"In case you get kidnapped?"
"No, asshole, I bought it for sailing."
I laughed. "Yeah, just the ticket next time you're blown out of Long Island Sound and end up lost in the Azores."
"One thing, Max. How do you know that that's the way these things work?"
"Not tipping off a tail."
There was something new in Chris's voicea genuine curiosity. Maybe he was seeing me for the first time as I was, not as he wanted me to be. Maybe he was thinking about dumping his own little side plate. At this point, I didn't care.
"Some guy I met in a bar," I said. "He told me all about it."