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Three Years Ago
41°13′ N, 111°57′ W
Ogden’s a great town if you like hiking and mountain biking and skiing.” Doug Case gripped the broken armrests of his secondhand wheelchair and pretended they were ski poles. “That’s what I’m doing here, since you ask. How’d you happen to track me down? I wiped my names from the VA computers.”
Paul Janson said, “When it all goes to hell, people go home.”
“The place where they have to take you in? Not me. I’m not asking any favors.”
“I don’t see you getting any, either.”
Case’s home was the mouth of an abandoned railroad tunnel with a view of a garbage-littered empty lot, a burned-out Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the snowy Wasatch Mountains. He hunched in his chair with a frayed backpack on his lap, stringy hair down to his shoulders, and a week of beard on his face. His dull gaze flickered occasionally toward four muscular teenage gangbangers who were eyeing them from a Honda parked beside the KFC.
Paul Janson sat on an upended grocery cart. He wore lightweight assault boots and wool trousers, a sweater, and a loose black ski shell.
“Kill me and get it over with,” Case told him. “I don’t feel like playing games.”
“I’m not here to kill you.”
“Just do it! Don’t worry; I won’t defend myself.” He shifted the pack on his lap.
Janson said, “You are assuming that I still work for Consular Operations.”
“Nobody quits Cons Ops.”
“We have an arrangement. I went private. Corporate security consulting. Cons Ops calls me now and then. Now and then I call back.”
“You never were one to burn bridges,” Case conceded. “You work alone?”
“I have someone to bring along if I need a sniper.”
“As good as I’ve ever seen.”
“Where from?” Case asked, wondering who of that caliber Janson had recruited.
“Top of the talent pool,” was all Janson would reveal.
“Why’d you quit Cons Ops?”
“I woke up one morning remembering all the people I killed for the wrong reasons.”
Case laughed. “For Christ’s sake, Paul! The State Department can’t have covert operators deciding who to kill. When you have to kill somebody to do the job you kill him. That’s why they’re called sanctioned in-field killings.”
“Sanctioned serial killings was more like the truth. I lay in bed counting them up. Those I should have. Those I shouldn’t have.”
“How many in total? Shoulds and shouldn’ts.”
“I’ll be damned. I edged you out.”
“Forty-six confirmed,” Janson shot back.
Case smiled. “I see your testosterone hasn’t passed its sell-by date.” He looked Janson up and down. The son of a bitch hadn’t aged. Paul Janson still looked thirtysomething, fortysomething, fifty. Who knew with his close-cropped hair a neutral iron-gray color? And he still looked like somebody you wouldn’t look at twice. Unless you were another professional, and then, if you were really, really good, you’d look twice and see the shoulders under the jacket and the watchful eyes and by then it might be too late.
Janson said, “We have company.”
The gangbangers were strutting toward them.
“I’ve got ’em,” said Case. “You got lunch.” The empty Sonic burger bags were neatly folded under one of his wheels. Doug Case let them get within ten meters before he said, “Gentlemen, I’m offering one free lesson in survival. A survivor never gets in the wrong fight. Turn around and go away.”
Three of them puffed up. But their leader, the smallest, shot an appraising glance at Case and another at Janson and said, “We’re outta here.”
“The guy’s in a fuckin’ wheelchair.”
The leader punched the dissenter hard in the ear and herded them away. “Hey, kid!” Case shouted after him. “You got what it takes. Join the Army. They’ll teach you what to do with it.” He grinned at Janson. “Don’t you love raw talent?”
“I do,” said Janson, and called in a voice accustomed to obedience, “Come here!” The kid came, light on his feet, wary as a stray. Janson gave him a business card. “Join the Army. Call me when you make buck sergeant.”
“A rung up the ladder that says you’re going places.”
Janson waited until the Honda squealed away on smoking tires. “I remembered something else. I remembered every idea I used to believe that I turned my back on.”
“You could use a dose of amnesia.”
“There’s none available.”
Case laughed, again. “Remember when that happened to an operator? Forgot everything. Woke up beating the crap out of people. Couldn’t remember how he learned close combat. What the hell was his name?… I can’t remember. Neither could he. Unlike you; you remember everything. Okay, Paul, if you’re not here to kill me, what are you doing in fucking Ogden?”
“Telling the truth about what I did is pointless if I don’t atone.”
“Atone? What? Like an AA drunk apologizing to people he was mean to?”
“I can’t change what I did, but I can pay back the next guy.”
“Why not just buy a pardon from the pope?”
The sarcasm button didn’t work. Janson was deaf to it. He said, “You take the skills of observation we learned and turn them into yourself, it’s not a pretty sight.”
“Saul on the road to Damascus discovers his moral compass and changes his name to Paul? But you already are Paul. What are you going to change? The world?”
“I am going to do my best to save every covert government operator whose life was wrecked by his covert service. Guys like you and me.”
“Leave me out of this.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re my first project.”
“A million people hold top-secret clearances. If one in a hundred work undercover that’s ten thousand covert agents you could save. Why me?”
“Some people say you were the worst.”
Case returned a bitter smile. “Some said I was the best.”
“Fact is, we were the worst.”
“I don’t need saving.”
“You’re living outdoors. Winter is coming. You’re hooked on Percocet and the docs have cut you off. When this month’s prescription runs out you’ll be scrambling to find it on the street.”
“Paul Janson’s famously accurate research?”
“You’ll be dead by Valentine’s Day.”
“Janson’s renowned discerning analytic tradecraft?”
“You need saving.”
“I don’t want saving. Get out of here. Leave me alone.”
“I’ve got a van with a ramp.”
Doug Case’s pale, grizzled cheeks flamed angry red. “You got a van with a ramp? You got a van with a ramp? You got shooters in the van gonna help you wrestle me up your fucking ramp?”
An awkward smile tightened Janson’s face. For the first time since appearing at the mouth of Doug Case’s railroad tunnel, he looked unsure. The man they called The Machine was suddenly vulnerable, and Doug Case pressed his attack.
“You’re falling down on the planning end, fella. No assaulters in the van. No rehearsal. No quick-reaction force backup. No contingency. You’re kind of, sort of, fumbling on impulse. Should have gone about this the way you’d plan a Cons Ops job. Tortured soul muddles toward atonement? And you’re going to get me straightened out?”
“More than straightened out. We’re going to put you back together with a life.”
“With a life? So first you’ll get me off the Perc? Then you’ll have shrinks fix my head? And when the docs get through you’ll find me a career that will employ my considerable talents? Go to hell.”
“You will be made whole.”
“Maybe even find me a girl?”
“If you want one, you’ll be whole enough to find one on your own.”
“Jesus, Paul, you’re as wired and freaked out as I am. Who in your mental wilderness do you imagine would pay for this fantasy?”
Janson said, “On my last job someone deposited a ton of money in my overseas accounts to make it seem I turned traitor. That someone no longer exists. Money will not be an issue.”
“If you ever do rope some poor fool into your pipe dream, you’ll need more than money. You’ll need help. Lots of it. You’ll need a staff. Hell, you’ll need an entire company.”
Again Janson looked unsure. “I don’t know about that. I’ve had it with companies. I’ve had it with institutions. I’ve stopped trusting any more than two people in one room.”
“Poor, tormented Paul. Trying to make everything right by saving the worst guy you know, single-handed? What are you going to call this outfit? The Paul Janson Institute for Raising Fucked-up Former Field Agents Out of Deep Shit? No, keep it simple: the Phoenix Foundation.”
Janson stood up. “Let’s go, my friend.”
“This guy ain’t going anywhere. And I’m not your friend.”
“Maybe not,” Janson agreed. “But we’ve worked together and I could be sitting where you are, so we are brothers.”
“Brothers? Is your halo pinching?” Doug Case shook his head, scratched an armpit, and covered his face with his dirty hands. After a while, he lowered his left hand and spoke through the fingers of his right. “They called you ‘ The Machine.’ Remember? Some operators they call an animal. Some a machine. A machine usually beats an animal. But not always.”
In a blur of coordinated movement drilled ten thousand times, Case’s left hand flashed from his knapsack, pinching the barrel of a Glock 34 9mm automatic between thumb and forefinger. His right hand closed around the butt, forefinger curling into the trigger guard, and his left pulled back the slide, loading a round into the chamber and cocking the pistol with the speed of liquid flame.
Janson kicked it from his hand.
Doug Case rubbed his wrist where Janson’s boot had connected. Should have remembered that Cons Ops combat instructors, the best in the world, had a saying: Lightning fast, nano fast, Janson fast.
Janson scooped up the gun. He was suddenly grinning ear to ear, optimistic, full of hope, and absolutely convinced he could fix what was broken. “I see you’re not completely screwed up.”
“What gives you that idea?”
Janson tapped the Glock. “You replaced the crappy factory sights with ghost rings.”
He removed the magazine and pocketed it, removed the round from the chamber, snapped the knapsack off Case’s lap, removed two spare magazines from a side pocket, pulled a third from the waistband of his sweatpants, and handed the empty gun back to Doug Case.
“When do I get the rest of it?”
1°19′ N, 7°43′ E
Gulf of Guinea, 260 miles south of Nigeria, 180 miles west of Gabon
Vegas Rules,” said Janet Hatfield, captain of the Amber Dawn. Her three-thousand-ton offshore service vessel was running up the Gulf of Guinea on a black night, pitching and rolling in following seas. Her voice rang with quiet authority in the near silence of the darkened pilothouse. “What you saw on Amber Dawn stays on Amber Dawn.”
“You already swore me to Vegas Rules when we sailed from Nigeria.”
“I’m not kidding, Terry. If the company finds out I snuck you aboard, they’ll fire my ass.”
“And a lovely ass it is,” said Terrence Flannigan, MD, nomadic corporate physician, globetrotting womanizer, world-class snake. He raised his right hand and gave Janet Hatfield a sleepy-eyed grin. “Okay. I swear, again, to keep my mouth shut about Amber Dawn, about oil in general and deepwater petroleum exploration in particular, cross my heart and hope to die.”
The captain, a solidly built blonde of thirty-five, turned her back on the snake and ran an uneasy eye over her radar. For the past several minutes the screen had been throwing out a ghost target. The mystery pinprick of light fading and reappearing was too dull to be another ship yet bright enough to make her wonder what the heck was out there. The radar was a reliable unit, a late-model Furuno. But she had the lives of twelve people in her care: five Filipino crew, six American petroleum scientists, and one stowaway. Thirteen, if she counted herself, which she tended not to.
Was the hot spot only sea clutter? Or an empty oil drum bobbing in the heavy seas, topping crests, hiding in troughs? Or was it something bigger, like an unreported, half-sunken hulk that she did not want to run into at fifteen knots?
It glowed again, closer, as if it was not merely drifting but moving toward her. She fiddled the radar, playing with range and resolution. Otherwise, the sea looked empty, except for some large oil tankers a safe twenty miles to the west. A single land target at the top of the screen marked the summit of Pico Clarence, the six-thousand-foot volcanic mountain at the center of Isle de Foree, tonight’s destination. “‘Foree’ rhymes with ‘moray,’” she told visiting company brass new to the Gulf of Guinea oil patch. “Like the eel with the teeth.”
She glanced at her other instruments. Compass, autopilot, and a wide panel of gauges monitoring the diesel generators that powered the twin three-thousand-horsepower electric Z-drive thrusters all gave her normal readings. She stared intently at the night-blackened bridge windows. She grabbed her night-vision monocular, shouldered open a heavy, watertight door, and stepped out onto the stubby bridge wing into equatorial heat, humidity she could slice with a knife, and the brain-numbing roar of the generators.
The southwest monsoon was blowing from behind, swirling diesel smoke around the house. The following seas had gathered ponderous momentum rolling three thousand miles up the African coast from Cape Town. They lifted the ship’s stern and plunged her bow nearly to the foredeck. The heat and humidity had the captain sweating in seconds.
Her night-vision device was an eighteen-hundred-dollar birthday splurge to herself to help spot navigation buoys and small craft. It did not magnify, but it pierced the dark dramatically. She glassed the sea ahead. The 2-gen image intensifier displayed everything green. Nothing but whitecaps swirling like lime chiffon. Probably just a barrel. She retreated back into the cool quiet of the air-conditioning. The red glow of the instruments reflected in Flannigan’s come-here smile.
“Don’t even think about it,” she warned him.
“I am merely offering to express my gratitude.”
“In four hours you can express your gratitude to the ladies of Porto Clarence’s massage parlors.”
Low-rent Eastern European and Chinese cruise ships had discovered the capital city. A mix of poverty, an embattled dictator desperate for cash, and the legendary beauty of Isle de Foreens’ West African and Portuguese bloodlines had sex tourism booming in the old colonial deepwater port.
Terry paced the pilothouse. “I’ve been company physician on enough oil jobs to know to keep my trap shut. But this voyage is the most secret I’ve ever seen.”
“Stop saying that.”
“You spent the week towing hydrophone streamers and air guns. When was the last time your OSV was Rube Goldberged into a seismic vessel?”
“Last month.” Janet Hatfield kicked herself the instant she admitted it.
Terry laughed. “The ‘captain’s curse.’ You love your boat too much to keep a secret. This isn’t the first time? Are you kidding? She’s an offshore service vessel, not an oil hunter. What is going on?”
“Forget I said that. I shouldn’t have—so it’s weird. So what? When the company makes me vice president of marine services, I’ll ask why. Till then, I’ll drive the boat. Now shut up about it. Jeezus, I should have left you in Nigeria.”
“I’d be dead.”
“Roger that,” Janet Hatfield agreed. It was easier than ever to die in the oil-soaked Niger Delta. Militants kidnapped petroleum workers right off their rigs, drunken soldiers strafed their own checkpoints, and fanatics rampaged in the name of Jesus and Mohammed. But catnip-to-women Dr. Terry had come close to getting killed the old-fashioned way: a jealous husband with a machete, a rich chief, no less, with the political connections to get away with hacking up the wife poacher.
“Janet, where did we go wrong?” Terry asked with another soulful smile.
“Our relationship collapsed under its own lack of weight.”
He made a better friend than lover. As a boyfriend he was treacherous, head over heels in love with himself. But as a friend Terry Flannigan had something steady deep inside that said he would take a bullet for you. Which was why Janet Hatfield had not hesitated to bundle him aboard before the angry husband killed him. For ten days she had hidden him from the crew in her cabin, “airing” him when it was her watch.
The bridge and her attached cabin stood in splendid isolation atop a four-story deckhouse near the front of the ship. Under it were crew cabins, mess and galley, and the lounge that the petrologists had taken over as their computer and radio room. The scientists had declared it off-limits to the crew. They even told her that the captain had to ask permission to enter. Janet Hatfield had informed them that she had no plan to enter unless it caught fire, in which case she would not knock first.
“You know what the petrologists are doing now?”
Terry was staring out the back windows, which looked down on the hundred-foot-long, low and flat cargo deck, empty tonight but for the OSV’s towing windlass, deck crane, and capstans.
“Get away from the window before they see you.”
“They’re throwing stuff overboard.”
“What they’re doing is their business.”
“One of them is crawling around with a flashlight— Oh, he dropped something.”
“What are they throwing?” she asked in spite of herself.
Belowdecks, jubilant petrologists peeled off their sweat-soaked shirts and did a victory dance in the now-empty computer room. They had worked 24-7 for ten days, trapped on a boat where possession of booze or drugs or even a bottle of beer would get you banned from the oil business for life. Now they were headed for a well-earned party in the brothels of Porto Clarence, having successfully uploaded multiple terabytes of the hottest 3-D seismic data on the planet.
The data acquisition was done, the client’s seismic model refined, the success of what oilmen called an elephant hunt confirmed beyond any doubt. The client had acknowledged receipt of the densely encrypted satellite transmissions and ordered them to throw the computers into the sea. Every laptop, desktop, even the fifty-thousand-dollar subsurface-modeling workstation that took two men to lift over the side of the ship. The monitors went, too, so no one would see them and ask what they were for, as did the hydrophones and air guns and their mil-spec satellite transmitter.
In a few more hours the petrologists would celebrate the discovery of the “mother of all reserves”—billions and billions of barrels of oil and trillions upon trillions of cubic feet of natural gas that would transform Isle de Foree from a remote plantation island trickling oil through a neglected infrastructure into a West African Saudi Arabia.
“Hey, Janet. How many dinosaurs died to make the oil patch?”
“Algae. Not dinosaurs.”
Terry Flannigan stared at the dark ahead of the boat. The big secret could only be about oil. The water was miles deep here, but if you took the long view in eons, eras, and epochs, the seabed was actually an extension of the shallow African coast. For more years than there were stars in the sky, the Niger River had been dumping sediment into the Atlantic Ocean. This slurry of mud, sand, and dead plants and animals had filled the troughs, rifts, and clefts of the Atlantic and had kept spilling across the continental slope into the deep and continued seaward, drifting, filling. A lady petrologist once told him that the compacted fill was eight miles deep.
“What did dinosaurs make? Coal?”
“Trees made coal,” Janet Hatfield answered distractedly, her eyes locking on the radar. She switched on the powerful docking lamps. They lit a brilliant hundred-yard circle around the OSV. “Oh, shit!”
An eighteen-foot rigid inflatable boat driven by enormous Mercury outboards swooped out of the dark bristling with assault rifles and rocket launchers. Janet Hatfield reacted quickly, grabbing the helm to override the autopilot. The RIB was struggling in the heavy seas. Maybe she could outrun them. She turned Amber Dawn’s heels to it, locked the new course, rammed her throttles full ahead, and yanked her radio microphone down from the ceiling.
“Mayday, Mayday. Mayday. This is Amber Dawn, Amber Dawn, Amber Dawn. One-degree, nineteen minutes north. Seven-degrees, forty-three minutes east.
“One-degree, nineteen minutes north. Seven, forty-three east. One-degree, nineteen minutes north,” she repeated her position. “Seven-degrees, forty-three minutes east.” They couldn’t help if they couldn’t find her.
“Pirates boarding Amber Dawn. Pirates boarding Amber Dawn. One-degree, nineteen minutes north. Seven-degrees, forty-three minutes east.”
There was never a guarantee that anyone was listening. But the 406 MHz satellite EPIRB, which was out on the bridge wing in its float-free bracket, would broadcast her position continuously in case of sinking. She pushed through the door again to switch it on manually.
The inflatable was so close she could see eight soldiers dressed in camouflage. Jungle camouflage on a boat?
They had to be from Isle de Foree, she thought, the only land within the inflatable’s range. But they couldn’t be government troops in that little commando boat. Free Foree Movement rebels? Pirates or rebels, what did they want? The only thing valuable on an offshore service vessel was the crew. To hold hostage or for ransom. So they wouldn’t kill her people. At least, not yet.
Muzzle flashes lit the inflatable like a Christmas tree and all the windows in Amber Dawn’s bridge shattered at once. Janet Hatfield felt something tug hard in her belly. Her legs skidded out from under her. She pitched backward into Terry’s arms and she almost laughed, “You never stop trying, do you?” except she couldn’t speak and was suddenly afraid.
A cargo net edged with grappling hooks cleared the low side of Amber Dawn’s main deck, clanged onto steel fittings, and held fast. Seven FFM insurgents scrambled aboard with their assault rifles, leaving their rocket launchers with one man in their boat. They were lean, fit, hard-faced fighters with the distinctive café-au-lait coloring of Isle de Foreens. But they took their orders from a broad-shouldered South African mercenary named Hadrian Van Pelt.
Van Pelt carried a copy of Amber Dawn’s crew list.
He sent two men to the engine room. Bursts of automatic fire echoed up from below and the generators fell silent, but for one powering the lights. The men stayed below opening sea cocks. Seawater poured in.
Two others kicked open the door to the improvised computer room. Van Pelt followed with the crew list. “Over there! Against the wall.”
The petrologists, shirtless and terrified, backed against the wall, exchanging looks of disbelief.
Van Pelt counted heads. “Five!” he shouted. “Who’s missing?”
Eyes flickered toward a closet. Van Pelt nodded at one of his men, who triggered a short burst, shredding the door. The ship rolled and the body of the scientist hiding there tumbled out. Van Pelt nodded again and his men executed the rest.
A burst of gunfire from the quarters on the levels above spoke the end of Amber Dawn’s Filipino crew. Eleven down. Only the captain to go. Van Pelt drew his pistol and climbed the stairs to the bridge. The door was locked and made of steel. He signaled a soldier, who duct-taped a chunk of C-4 onto it. They sheltered halfway down the steps and covered their ears. The plastic explosive blew the door open with a loud bang and Van Pelt vaulted through it.
To the mercenary’s surprise, the captain was not alone. She was sprawled on the deck, a pretty blonde in blood-soaked slacks and blouse. A man was kneeling over her, working with the sure-handed economy of a battlefield medic.
Van Pelt raised his pistol. “Are you a doctor?”
Terry Flannigan was holding death in his hands, and when he looked up from Janet’s riddled chest to the gunman standing in the door he was staring death in the face.
“What kind of doctor?” the gunman demanded.
“Trauma surgeon, you asshole. What does it look like?”
“Come with me.”
“I can’t leave her. She’s dying.”
Van Pelt stepped closer and shot Janet Hatfield in the head. “Not anymore. Get in the boat.”
221 West 46th Street
New York City
Paul Janson descended a steep flight of stairs to Sofia’s Club Cache in the basement of the Hotel Edison. The curly-haired brunette knockout who took his fifteen-dollar cover charge with the dazzling smile she reserved for new customers saw him as he intended to be seen: an out-of-town businessman hoping that Vince Giordano and his famous hot-jazz Nighthawks would liven up a lonely Monday evening. His navy suit, artfully cut to conceal his powerful frame, looked like a classic soft-shoulder Brooks Brothers sack suit, neither dapper nor expensive. His tailor had seen to that by eliminating bespoke sleeve buttons and bound buttonholes. The creases in Janson’s brow marked a man somewhere past his thirties, and he could have acquired the faint lines of scar tissue playing college sports.
Janson took his change, returned an unmemorable smile, and remarked, like half the people who came down the stairs, “The joint is jumpin’.”
Across the wide, deep low-ceilinged room the tuxedo-clad eleven-piece band of saxophones, clarinets, trumpets, trombone, banjo, piano, drums, and an aluminum double bass was storming through “Shake That Thing.” A hundred people ate and drank at the tables. A dozen couples danced to the music, many with great skill. The dancers older than thirty wore dresses and suits befitting the hot-jazz era. The younger favored T-shirts and cargo pants.
One of the younger, an attractive woman with strong, regular features, high cheekbones, full lips, and spiky brown “bed hair,” was dancing a high-speed 1920s one-step with the intensity and precision of a laser cutting machine. Janson concealed an appreciative smile. Jessica Kincaid demanded of herself, “Go fast till it hurts, then put on some speed and do it better.”
Kincaid shot Janson a glance that mingled fascination and envy. Paul Janson was master of the nondescript, and it drove her crazy. She worked hard at being a chameleon. With adjustments of clothing, hair, jewelry, and makeup she could make herself look twenty-five or thirty-five and pass for a Brooklyn video artist or a good ol’ girl juke-joint bartender or a buttoned-down banker. But she could never look nondescript, and when she tried Janson laughed that “nondescript” and “interesting” did not fit the same sentence.
Paul Janson was just there. Except when he was not there. Janson could hide in plain sight. If he chose to, Janson could fill a room, but he was more likely to enter without anyone noticing—as he had just now—and leave the same way. He even had a trick of shifting his shoulders to make his height look average. She glanced at him again. He returned it this time and drifted toward the stairs.
“Gotta go,” she told her dance instructor. Duty called.
The Town Car looked identical to a thousand black livery cabs in Midtown. But the kid behind the wheel had driven armored security vehicles for tanker convoys in Iraq and the interior lights did not go on when Kincaid opened the door.
“Where we going?” she asked the sturdy shape of Janson in the shadows.
“First stop: Houston, Texas. American Synergy Corporation’s HQ.”
Biggest oil company in the country. Snapped up the richest leases after BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster. “Then?”
“West Africa is my guess. If we take the job. Home if we don’t. We probably won’t.”
“Why go at all?”
“ASC’s president of global security is an old friend.”
Kincaid nodded in the dark. Janson had lots of them, and when old friends called he ran to them. He passed her a thick towel. “Don’t catch cold.” Soaking wet from dancing a heart-pounding two beats to a second, she was shivering in the AC.
“Y’all telling me I smell?” While a fluent student of several languages and possessing an invaluable gift for mimicking accents, Jessica Kincaid had not entirely erased from her own voice the Kentucky hill twang she had grown up with, particularly when she was alone with Janson.
“That’s why we have a shower on the plane.”
The car caught the green lights up Madison Avenue, crossed over to the Major Deegan, and swung onto the Hutchinson River Parkway. Late-night suburban traffic was light. Forty minutes after leaving the Edison, they pulled into Westchester Airport, bypassed the passenger terminal, and continued on to a fenced-off section with a chain-link gate. A voice on a security speakerphone asked who they were.
“Tail number eight-two-two-Romeo-Echo,” the driver answered, and drove through when the electric gate slid open. An attendant opened a second gate that led to the runways, a vast expanse of darkness dotted with blue, yellow, and green lights marking taxiways and runway edges and thresholds. The car parked beside a silver Embraer Legacy 650 jet with two enormous Rolls-Royce AE 3007 engines in the tail. The pilots were completing their checklists. Janson and Kincaid climbed aboard, retracted the self-contained deployable entry steps that permitted fast exits independent of airfield facilities, and locked the door.
The long-haul executive jet built to carry fourteen passengers had been made extremely comfortable for two. Embraer had reconfigured it to Janson’s specs, outfitting it to deliver two or three operators well rested and fed, suited up, and thoroughly informed for any kind of work anywhere in the world. The galley directly behind the cockpit had been upgraded, and the lavatory and the rearmost of the three seating areas had been converted to a dressing room and full bath. The forward seating areas had been turned into a study and dining room. The middle section had fold-down beds for transocean runs.
The plane had climbed to forty-one thousand feet and their pilot was radioing, “New York center, Embraer two-two-Romeo level at four-one-zero,” when Kincaid came out of the shower wrapped in a terry-cloth robe. Janson looked up from his green leather easy chair, where he was studying a dossier labeled: “ASC—American Synergy Corporation.” A laptop was open on the table beside him and he had a glass of water close at hand. An identical dossier and laptop were waiting beside Kincaid’s red chair along with water and a stack of lemon-lime Camelbak Elixir electrolyte tablets.
Janson peered over the wire-rimmed reading glasses that Kincaid called his innocent old guy specs and said, “If we could bottle the aroma of a woman in a shower we would be rich.”
“Folks I know would think we’re rich already.” She touched a fingerprint reader to unlock an overhead luggage bin, opened a hidden interior cabinet, and took down her Knight’s M110 semiautomatic sniper rifle. The weapon was spotless, but she fieldstripped it anyway, laying the parts on the fold-down galley table, cleaned and oiled each, checked for wear, and reassembled them. Janson likened her ritual to an already clean cat grooming itself into a hunting trance.
Kincaid would have preferred, before she locked the weapon up again, to open the accessories case and put her day and night scopes, bipod, and laser sight through the same close inspection. But the dossier was still sitting there beside her chair demanding to be read.
“Okay if I open one of your shirts?”
“Of course,” he answered without looking up.
From a built-in chest of drawers she took a freshly ironed pale blue Burberry dress shirt, carefully removed the laundry’s cardboard stiffener, and put the shirt back. She settled in her leather chair, covered her ears with noise-canceling headphones to help her concentrate, and opened the dossier on the American Synergy Corporation. She held the cardboard at the top of the first page and began sliding it down the page, covering each line of text as she read it. If she didn’t cover each line after she read it, she would go back and read over and over fearing she must have made a mistake.
“Not severely dyslexic,” she had explained when she first told Janson. “Just dyslexic. They didn’t call it that back in Red Creek. They all thought I was a little slow. Didn’t bother me much,” she added quickly. “I could outshoot the boys and fix any vehicle in my daddy’s gas station.”
She had taught herself the cardboard trick while struggling through college equivalency courses to join the FBI—her first step up the ladder to Cons Ops.
She read the ASC report cover to cover. Whenever she double-checked a detail on her laptop, she placed the cursor at the bottom of the screen and scrolled with the down arrow, concealing what she had already read. She knew she was getting too tired to continue when a letter b flopped upside down and became a p.
At that point she loaded in a promotional Blu-ray video titled American Synergy Corporation—New Energy for a New Tomorrow.
Paul had reclined his chair and fallen asleep. She pressed a button that laid her own chair flat and listened to Kingsman Helms, the president of ASC’s Petroleum Division, give a speech to shareholders. The handsome smooth talker reminded her of evangelical preachers down home.
“It isn’t a matter of telling our story better. We have to create a better story. Long-term growth means long-term survival. Oil is one type of energy we develop, along with wind, solar, biomass, nuclear, and coal. Our mission is to supply secure, safe, environmentally sound, cheap energy—not just today, but twenty years down the road.
“A lot has gone wrong, lately.” Helms paused to look straight into the camera with an expression that said that everyone knew that he meant Wall Street screwups, government meddling, and oil spills by mismanaged competitors. “Americans are counting on us more than ever. ASC will not let them down, because at ASC we never forget that leadership is not about now, not about today. Leadership is about then, about the future, about tomorrow.”
CatsPaw researchers had attached to the DVD a voiced-over addendum: “Of wind, solar, biomass, nuclear, and coal, the global corporation has steered clear of biomass, which a secret company memo rated ‘a huge joke perpetrated on the Congress by farm states,’ invested just enough to appear green in multiple solar-tech startups and wind turbine manufacturers, and has recently amassed huge holdings in Appalachian coal companies.” Kincaid’s hackles rose; that meant strip mining and blasting the tops off mountains. The researchers had highlighted ASC’s biggest challenge: direct competition for access to new “ground resources” from the China National Offshore Oil Corporation. “In plain language, as big and powerful a global as it is, ASC is being squeezed overseas by China. To remain on top ‘twenty years down the road’ ASC will have to conduct business ever more ruthlessly.”
The Embraer landed at Houston’s Hobby Airport at three in the morning. Janson’s pilots taxied to the Million Air private aviation terminal and woke their bosses for breakfast at six, cooked by the senior man. “My biggest fear, Mike,” said Janson, knotting a club tie with a small repeating pattern, “is one of these days you’ll quit flying and open a restaurant.”
“Car in two minutes,” said Kincaid, exiting the dressing room in a seersucker skirt and jacket. Her bed hair was now a sleek junior-executive bob that exposed her ears and high brow. Her manner was brisk.
The Million Air car delivered them to the Hilton Americas-Houston hotel. They walked through the marble rotunda, crossed the lobby, and joined crowds of businesspeople hurrying from breakfast to the adjoining Brown Convention Center. But when they emerged from the connector corridor Janson and Kincaid skirted the registration desks and went outside for a taxi.
They found American Synergy Corporation headquartered in a round thirty-story building set back from the Sam Houston Tollway like an enormous bronze silo. Surveillance cameras enfiladed the driveway, the front entrance, and the lobby. The lobby guards operating the metal detectors wore sidearms. Those manning the reception desk carried theirs concealed.
“Paul Janson and Jessica Kincaid to see Douglas Case.”
Printed visitor badges were waiting for them.
They rode a private elevator to the executive offices on the twenty-ninth floor. The foyer overlooked low-lying smog, which a hot sun was turning orange. The near-silent hum of a belt-driven electric power chair was punctuated by a glad shout of, “Paul!”
Janson intercepted the custom-built six-wheel vehicle and thrust out his hand. “Hello, Doug. How are you doing?”
“Great. Great. Terrific.”
They clasped hands and searched each other’s faces for a long moment. Two well-dressed white guys nearing middle age, thought Jessica Kincaid. Doug Case looked as rugged as Paul, clean shaven, with an expensive version of a military buzz cut, a four-thousand-dollar suit, a crisp white shirt, and a shimmering yellow necktie.
“Thanks for coming so fast.”
“Our pleasure. This is my associate Jessica Kincaid.”
Doug Case’s hand had the flexible power of laminated Kevlar. He inspected her with a piercing gaze, then called over his shoulder to Janson, “What does she know?”
“About us?” Janson asked with a significant glance at the empty but still-public space. “Special Forces. You got shot and I didn’t.”
“What about you, Jessica? Where’ve you been?”
“Where she’s been is not your business,” Janson answered for her, in a tone both friendly and final.
Case said, “Did you know, Jessica, that my former, your present, ‘associate’ was once know by his fellow covert field officers as ‘The Machine’?”
“That is a lame probe,” Kincaid retorted. Taking a cue from Janson, she said it with a smile.
“The Machine was the best of the best. You’ve heard that?”
Janson said, “Drop it, Doug. Off-limits.”
“Anyhow,” Doug said, “we’ve all moved on, haven’t we. These days my derring-do exploits are more along the lines of compromised SCADA systems.”
He looked challengingly at Kincaid, who kept her smile in place. “Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition is increasingly vulnerable to cybersecurity incidents as corporations switch from secure private networks to Internet-based networks to save costs.”
“But,” Janson said, “SCADA is not why you asked us down here, Doug.”
“Right about that. Come to my office.”
They followed Doug Case’s wheelchair down a wide hall lined with closed doors.
“How was your flight?” he asked over his shoulder.
In Doug Case’s front office an elegantly dressed middle-aged woman he introduced as Kate presided over a pair of assistants with polished Junior League smiles. His private office faced south. “You can see the Gulf of Mexico on a clear day.”
“But at this moment,” Janson said, “you would prefer to see the Gulf of Guinea.”
“Where did you get that idea?”
“What shape is ASC in?”
“Terrific shape. Our safety standards are the highest. We’re don’t screw up in the field and we’re tops at controlling costs so we pull more profit out of a barrel of oil than anybody. Plus, American Synergy kept its head when everyone else was going nuts for alternatives and sinking dry wells.”
“But you didn’t sink that many wet ones, either, and if there is anywhere in the world right now where ASC can boost its dwindling oil reserves it’s West Africa. Cullen hit it big off the Ivory Coast and you’re probably hoping for the same, before the Chinese snap it up. So your problem is in the Gulf of Guinea.”
“You’ve done your homework, Paul. Per usual. But not for this assignment. It has nothing to do with oil reserves.”
“What is your problem?”
“You may have heard that we lost an offshore service vessel last week.”
“I saw a report that an OSV sank with all hands in the Gulf of Guinea. I was not aware it belonged to American Synergy. It was registered to a Dutch firm.”
“We’ve since learned that the boat was attacked by Free Foree Movement insurgents.”
“They murdered the crew.”
“Who the hell knows? The problem is, the murdering lunatics snatched one of our people. We’ve got to rescue him. That’s where you come in.”
“That will be a tall order if the Free Forees took your man to their base on Pico Clarence,” said Janson.
“Pico Clarence is exactly where they have him, high on that mountain, deep in the interior.”
“Getting back to my questions, why?… FFM insurgents murdering your boat crew doesn’t make sense. FFM is winning its war. ‘President for Life’ Iboga is roundly hated.”
“Eating the testicles and brains of your political rivals tends to piss people off,” Case agreed. “Even in Africa.”
“Iboga is losing,” said Janson. “He’s about to be toppled.”
President for Life Iboga had wrecked the economy of Isle de Foree, which had broken away from Equatorial Guinea, backed by the Nigerian military. Iboga, opposition leader in Isle de Foree’s parliament and former fighter in the Angolan wars, seized power in a coup. Renaming himself Iboga after the rain-forest hallucinogen, the dictator had handed the coffee and cocoa plantations to his corrupt friends and let the island nation’s small, antiquated oil infrastructure go to hell.
“As I understand it, the rebels are buying munitions from Angolan and South African gunrunners. They’ve already cleared the sky around Pico Clarence of Iboga’s helicopters. And they just broke their leader out of Black Sand Prison, which is another reason why killing your people doesn’t make sense. Ferdinand Poe is a beacon of democratic hope. Why would Ferdinand Poe’s fighters endanger his righteous rebellion by slaughtering innocents? He can’t afford to outrage nations he needs to recognize his new government as legitimate.”
“Good question,” admitted Case. “But I repeat, who knows? Fog of war? A signals screwup? Revenge? It’s been a long, bitter fight with plenty of brutality on both sides.”
“Have they demanded ransom?” asked Jessica Kincaid.
“No. Our guy is a doctor. Looks like they wanted a doctor for Ferdinand Poe. You can imagine what the Black Sand jailors did to him.”
“But if the boat sank,” said Kincaid, “and the crew was murdered and the rebels didn’t ask for ransom, how did you learn that FFM took one of your people?”
“Guess,” said Douglas Case.
“Guess?” she said, shooting Janson a who-is-this-jerk? look.
Janson, already aware that Jessica and Doug had formed an instant dislike for each other, answered soothingly, “Since ASC holds positions in several Gulf of Guinea Joint Development zones, I would imagine that Doug takes time off from his SCADA exploits to maintain contact with African arms dealers to keep abreast of events in the insurgent camp. Correct, Doug?”
Douglas Case winked. “Score another for The Machine.” He turned to Kincaid and said, “The guys supplying FFM’s artillery reasoned that I’d be interested in what was happening on Pico Clarence.”
“Why don’t you hire the gunrunners to rescue the doctor?”
Case laughed and winked again at Janson. “Out of the mouths of babes.”
“What?” snapped Kincaid.
“They’re gunrunners. They sneak stuff in; they don’t sneak it out. Besides, they won’t do anything to disrupt the next sale. If FFM is winning like Paul thinks, the gunrunners are going to tread very lightly, hoping to move up the food chain from runners to dealers by selling more expensive weapons to their victorious friends in the new government.”
A cell phone buzzed. Case snatched it from a molded dock among the buttons and controls that studded his chair’s armrest. “I said no calls.… Right, thank you.” He hung up and said, “You’re about to meet Kingsman Helms, president of ASC’s Petroleum Division.”
“We saw the video,” said Kincaid.
Case grimaced. “Corporate arrogance embodied,” he said, and mimicked Helms’s speech, “ ‘It isn’t a matter of telling our story better. We have to create a better story.’ How about this for a story: Big oil and coal have squelched production of American natural gas for twenty years. For some reason the shareholders think the sun rises and sets on the son of a bitch.”
“You seem conflicted about your employer.” Janson smiled.
“Helms is top snake in Buddha’s nest of vipers.”
“Who,” Jessica Kincaid asked, “is Buddha?”
“That’s what we call the Old Man.”
“By ‘the Old Man’ you mean American Synergy’s CEO, Bruce Danforth?”
“Correct. Kingsman Helms is one of four men and two women who would eviscerate their own mothers if that’s what it took to replace Buddha as American Synergy’s CEO.”
“Are you another of those men?” asked Kincaid.
Case returned a cold smile. “Security is not on that career track.”
“Security,” Kincaid shot back, “just phoned you a heads-up that Helms is coming. You’re keeping tabs on the competition.”
“Security chiefs—and security consultants—are servants, Jessica. Which is something you’ll come to understand if you stay in our business. We protect; we don’t command.”
The door flew open. The tall, blond thirty-eight-year-old Kingsman Helms barged in without knocking. “Doug, I understand you’ve called in the Marines.”
Helms’s piercing blue eyes lingered on Kincaid. “Hello, Marines.” Then he bore down on Paul Janson. “Kingsman Helms,” he said, thrusting his hand out. “Who are you?”
Kincaid hid a smile as she watched Janson step into the space Helms was heading for, blocking his rush, forcing him to pull up short. “Paul Janson. CatsPaw Associates.”
“Which cat’s paw would that be? Keats’s ‘quick cat’s paws’ that kill the fat straggler? Or the cat’s paw the pope’s monkey used to pull his nuts out of the fire? Or our modern pry?”
“We’re a full-service outfit.”
Helms grinned appreciatively. “Nice.”
“This is my partner Jessica Kincaid.”
“Nice to meet you, Jessica.” Helms smiled, then turned on Janson in a tone all business. “So who are you two with, Janson?”
“CatsPaw Associates is independent.”
“Independent is small.”
“The clients we accept trust us to be nimble.”
“I question,” Helms replied coolly, “whether a small outfit can field the resources to do the job.”
Douglas Case surprised Janson by interrupting, curtly: “Back off, Kingsman. This is my call.”
Helms ignored him. “I cannot imagine the reasoning behind paying two individuals—one middle-aged, the other a woman, no offense to either of you—to execute the sort of military operation required to rescue our employee.”
Douglas Case spun his wheelchair in a half circle to face Kingsman Helms. Then Case stabbed a button in the armrest that raised his seat hydraulically while the base extended wheeled outriggers to balance the higher center of gravity. Eye to eye with the executive, Case spoke in a voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Imagine this: Our doctor is trapped in a war zone in the middle of a remote island by a bloodthirsty rebel army surrounded by a vicious dictator’s army. The kind of ‘resources’ you’re spouting civilian fantasies about would blow it into a three-way war and get the doctor killed in the process.”
“I am merely—”
Case cut him off, again. “Isle de Foree is two hundred and fifty fucking miles offshore and none of the jumping-off points on the African coast are all that amenable to corporate bullshit. Corporate won’t save our guy. Quick and light will. He’s in a hell of a jam, and I don’t know anyone better qualified to get him out of it than Paul Janson. I’ll stake my job on it.”
“That’s quite an endorsement,” said Helms. “It sounds like you got the job, Paul. What’s this costing us?”
“Nothing until we produce your man. We cover our expenses. Doug gets the family rate. Five million dollars.”
“That is a lot of money.”
“Indeed it is,” said Janson.
“All right! Here are your marching orders: Save the doctor at any cost; spare nothing. ASC stands by its people. We are a family.”
“We haven’t accepted the job,” said Janson.
“What? What’s stopping you?”
“We need to know more about the circumstances. What was the doctor doing out there?”
“Doing? He was doing his job.”
“What is his name?” asked Kincaid.
Helms glanced at Doug Case, who then said, “Flannigan. Dr. Terrence Flannigan.”
Janson asked, “What was Dr. Flannigan doing on an offshore service vessel? Six-man boats don’t carry company doctors. Or was the OSV ferrying him somewhere?”
Again Helms looked to Doug Case as if the job description of a company doctor was not his concern. Case said, “We’re presuming they were ferrying him out to a rig to care for somebody who got hurt.”
“Why didn’t they helicopter the victim to shore? That’s how it is usually done.”
“Look into it, Doug,” Helms told Case. “Find out where Dr. Flannigan was going.” He showed his teeth in a grin. “Better yet, Paul, if you manage to rescue him quickly you can ask him yourself. Pleasure meeting you. And you, too, Jessica. I must go. I really do hope you take the job,” he said, and left.
“What do you say, Paul?” asked Doug Case. He was deferential all of a sudden, even pleading. He certainly wanted Janson to take it. Janson did not put much weight on that. People preferred working with people they knew.
“We will look into the feasibility of the operation,” he said. “You’ll have our answer in twelve hours.”
Jessica got to the door first and held it for him. But Doug Case called, “Paul, could you wait a moment? I’d like to speak with you alone.”
Janson stepped back into Case’s office and closed the door. “What’s up?”
“I really appreciate what you’re doing.”
“I will do what is feasible.”
“Once again, I owe you.”
“I told you before: If you owe anything, pay the next guy.”
“Thank you. I will do that. Now, listen, whether or not Helms is our next CEO has no bearing on this kidnap situation. Buddha is not retiring tomorrow. So don’t worry about Kingsman Helms.”
“What I told him is true. I can’t think of anyone else who could pull this off without accidentally embroiling the company in a fucking civil war. All we want is our man back. And I don’t have to tell you that it would solidify my position here.”
“If I feel I can pull it off, I will take the job.”
“Is Jessica Kincaid the sniper you told me about? The one who was the best you’d ever seen?”
“None of your business.”
“I’m only asking because I’m hoping for both our sakes that if you’re working with a woman she’s someone you’ve worked with long enough to really count on.”
“I count on her,” Janson answered patiently. “She excels at everything she turns her hand to.”
“A Machine-ette?” Case grinned.
Janson reflected momentarily. As he had told Case already, Kincaid’s operator training, mastery of the “deadly arts,” and service record were nobody’s business. But Janson saw no reason to hide his admiration. “She is a perfectionist and hungry to learn—dance, saber, telemark skiing, swimming, boxing. She takes elocution lessons from an acting coach to learn how to mimic body language, she throws herself into foreign languages most people never heard of, and she’s close to getting certified to fly jets.”
“Are we a smidgeon smitten by our protégée?”
“Awed,” said Janson. “Is there anything else? I need to get going.”
He headed for the door and had his hand on the knob when Case said, “I’ve worked with women. They’re smart. A hell of a lot smarter than we are.”
“Based on all the evidence, I agree.”
“But I never worked with a woman in the field. At least not under fire, never when the lead was flying. What’s it like?”
Janson hesitated. Doug’s question—even if he was asking in general what it was like to work with a woman—caught him off-stride. That surprised him. He was a man who reviewed his life in small ways on a constant basis. But the survival habit of compartmentalizing his thoughts and emotions and desires ran deep. Was it possible that until this moment he had never fully considered, or allowed himself to consider, how central Jessica Kincaid had become to his life as protégée, business partner, and friend?
“Do you have a dictionary in that computer?”
Case rolled across the office, lowered his chair to desk height, opened a computer window, and poised his powerful hands over the keyboard.
Janson smiled, suddenly clear in his mind. “What is it like? Look up ‘Comrade-in-arms.’”
Doug Case typed in the old-fashioned warrior phrase, scrolled down the entry, then read aloud: “ ‘An associate in friendship, occupation, fortunes’?”
“That nails it.”
“But,” Case said, “the downside I see to working with a woman is that in the clutch, when the lead is flying, it’s only natural that you’d be distracted, worried about her getting hurt. Particularly if she’s your protégée. Devoted followers have a habit of getting killed in our line of work. I’ve lost them; so have you.”
“Jessica is predator, not prey.”
Doug Case touched his telephone the instant the door closed behind Paul Janson.
Bill Pounds, one of his ex-Ranger ASC field agents, was watching the lobby. “Yes, sir?”
“They’re on their way. Report where they go. Don’t let them make you.”
“No one makes the invisible man.”
Bill Pounds walked quickly to his metallic-green Taurus parked in the No Parking zone. His partner, Rob, a hard-eyed moonlighting Houston Police Department detective, was at the wheel. They watched a red and white Fiesta Taxi pull up to the building’s entrance. The middle-aged businessman and the gal in the seersucker suit climbed into the cab.
The Fiesta Taxi driver had been instructed to leave his cell phone on. Pounds and Rob heard the woman say, “Brown Convention Center.”
Rob wheeled the Taurus onto the Sam Houston Tollway after them and followed at a distance. “The Brown’s got two conventions showing this week, National Association of Black Accountants and the Texas Towmen, and they don’t look like either.”
“Pass ’em,” Pounds ordered. “I’ll wait for them in the lobby.”
Jessica Kincaid leaned close to whisper, “What did he say?”
“Tell you later.”
Janson sat back and watched the scenery, such as it was. Outside the taxi window Houston looked hot and dry, a flat, new land empty of people and full of cars. Janson looked through it, past it, to London with crowded sidewalks, ancient stonework, and lush green Regent Park the day that Cons Ops sent Jessica Kincaid to kill him.
She had been good then, already, among the best of the younger operators, but lacking the instincts acquired in the course of the miles that he carried. She was still ready to believe the bosses, completely sure of herself, and fiercely defiant. When he had pulled her out of her sniper perch and taken away her guns and put one to her head she responded, “You’re overmatched, Janson. No embassy lardasses this time. This time they cared enough to send the very best.”
The very best was Sniper Lambda Team. And Jessica Kincaid was their Janson expert, having made him the subject of the “Spy Bio Paper” required by the Cons Ops instructors. The Lambda snipers were operating as singletons—one reason he was still alive—each tasked with the complicated job of finding their own targets, instead of relying on a spotter. There were five of them, stationed on buildings and in trees. If he got out of the park they had strollers with Glocks waiting on the sideways.
He had pulled Jessica out of her tree not knowing she was a woman until he was on top of her. She had been astonishingly strong and agile, an extraordinary marksman, quick thinking, and a practiced liar. When he had taken his eyes off her for one second, she brained him with the nearest weapon at hand.
“What?” she said.
“I was thinking about our blind date in London,” he said with a smile for the benefit of the driver, whose eyes kept shooting to his rearview mirror. Janson could not see over the back of the seat, but he assumed that the cell phone was still lying faceup in the driver’s lap.
Jesse grinned back. “Remember laying in the grass?”
Janson touched his temple where she had dealt him half a concussion with a length of steel rebar. “Vividly.”
They had met next in Amsterdam. She had caught him flat-footed and he had seen death in her rifle barrel. He remembered looking back calmly. The memory sustained him. He was proud of how he had accepted the inevitable. For he had had no doubt he was about to die. She had been built to kill and nothing could stop her.
The cab slowed for the convention center exit.
Jessica Kincaid watched him peel two twenty-dollar bills off the roll he always carried. Cash for the driver. No receipts, no tracks, and a fast exit. Janson saw her watch the money. Cash had memories for her. Sixteen years old, lighting out of Red Creek, Kentucky, the day she graduated high school, buying a Greyhound ticket with a wad she lifted from the cash register in her father’s ramshackle gas station. The father who had raised her alone when her mother died, and taught Jessica to hunt, fish, fix cars, and shoot. The father who wouldn’t allow her to do anything girls did because the sight of her cooking, cleaning, keeping house, would twist a knife in the wound of losing his wife.
“You know, you could drive down there one day and pay it back with interest.”
“Don’t think I haven’t thought about it.”
“One of these days you’ll do it.”
“Is that a fact, Janson? And how do I pay back betraying him?”
“I’ve seen you do harder.”
“It only looked harder.”
“You’ll find a way.”
“Yeah. One of these days.”
Bill Pounds watched Janson and Kincaid pay off their taxi, enter the Brown Convention Center, and head down the connector to the Hilton, where they were either staying or going to another meeting or just maybe switching taxis. He followed, well screened by the crowds hurrying back and forth. All of a sudden they stopped. Rest rooms. The woman ducked into hers. The guy kept going. Pounds stuck with him. Seconds later the guy stopped, too, ten yards past the restrooms, turned around, and headed back like he’d decided to take a leak after all.
The ASC security agent did not break stride or swerve but continued coolly ahead, intending to pass close, avoiding eye contact, innocent as the others hurrying through the corridor. The guy bumped into him. The ex-Ranger was a well-built two hundred pounds, but it felt like crashing into a cinder block wall.
“Tell Doug Case to grow up.”
Slate-gray eyes were boring into him.
Pounds tried to bluff it out. “What?”
“I said, ‘Tell Doug Case to grow up.’ ”
“Do I know you?”
Now the woman was behind Pounds, calling in a friendly country drawl, “Hey, hon, how you doing?” and taking his elbow, and sending a jolt of unbelievable pain through a nerve he had not known existed in his arm. For half a second he couldn’t see straight. Then he was leaning on the wall and they were walking unhurriedly toward the Hilton.
The job would not be feasible without routes in and out of FFM’s Pico Clarence camp.
In the cab to Hobby Airport, Paul Janson exchanged circumspect text messages with a weapons dealer he trusted more than most, Neal Kruger, and the deputy national commissioner of the South African Police Service, Trevor Suzman. Jessica Kincaid Googled maps and charts on her iPhone, routed them to her computer on the plane, and queried the Frenchman who handled their helicopter needs in Europe.
They followed up with voice links as the Embraer soared off the runway. The plane’s secure Inmarsat satellite telephones employed IP Tor protocols in a virtual private network. Kincaid produced a slide show of maps and charts on their Aquos 1080 monitors.
Janson had a pretty good idea how he would prefer to go in—quick and light on the backs of the gunrunners—but to stay alive he and Kincaid would consider every available alternative, from the least obvious to the unlikely. Sometimes something better came along. And when the ground shifted and you had to change tactics, you could keep moving ahead if you didn’t waste time dreaming up options.
“The EC 135 with a long-range fuel tank will give us five hundred miles round-trip,” Kincaid answered. “It’s a powerful twin-engine machine, easy to get in Europe and findable in West Africa. Tough, but not impossible, to land in the jungle. I see three possible sites near the foot of Pico Clarence, but the topo maps suck and there’s no satellite shots that penetrate the canopy.”
Janson studied the topographic maps of Pico Clarence she had put on the screen. What was known about the volcanic mountain’s terrain was based on Portuguese government surveys in the 1920s. Then he scrolled through her maps of the African coast. “The problem with the helicopter is where do we base from? Five hundred miles round-trip, two-fifty one-way, tops, limits our takeoff point to Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon are waiting to see who wins, so definitely won’t give permission to launch from their territory. Which means if we launch from them we have to return elsewhere. Nigeria seems to have sided with Dictator Iboga. But I would hate to have to trust the Nigerians to keep their word.”
“Isn’t there a Nigerian lady you know sort of well?”
“She’s in London these days. Besides, even with the extra tank, the EC 135 will not offer much leeway range-wise.”
“The Super Puma doubles our range. So will a Sikorsky S-76. Plenty of them in the oil patch. Your pal Doug could get us one easy.”
“The S-76 would put Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Congo within striking distance, but those governments also want to be hands-off until someone wins the revolution. The Puma is an eighteen-passenger machine. Too big.”
“Another possibility is an EC 135 from a ship passing offshore.”
“Much better. Except how do we persuade FFM not to shoot it down thinking it belongs to Iboga? They’ve done a thorough job of clearing the sky.”
“Scratch the helicopter. What if we fly commercial or private into Porto Clarence? Drive inland to the end of the road. Walk into the jungle. Grab the doctor and walk back to Porto Clarence.”
Excerpted from Robert Ludlum's (TM) The Janson Command by Garrison, Paul Copyright © 2012 by Garrison, Paul. Excerpted by permission.
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