Book One: SANCTUARY
A MAN OF HABIT
The snow fell harder, blinding Saul. He skied through deepening powder, veering sharply back and forth down the slope. Everything-the sky, the air, and the ground-turned white. His vision shortened till he saw no more than a swirl before his face. He swooped through chaos.
He might hit an unseen tree or plummet off a hidden cliff. He didn't care. He felt exhilarated. As wind raged at his cheeks, he grinned. He christied left, then right. Sensing the slope ease off, he streaked across a straightaway.
The next slope would be steeper. In the white-out, he pushed at his poles to gain more speed. His stomach burned. He loved it. Vacuum. Nothing to his back or front. Past and future had no meaning. Only now-and it was wonderful.
A dark shape loomed before him.
Jerking sideways, Saul dug in the edge of his skis to stop himself. His pulse roared in his head. The shape zoomed past from right to left in front of him, vanishing in the snow.
Saul gaped through his goggles, hearing a scream despite the wind. He frowned and moved cautiously toward it.
Shadows gathered in the storm. A line of trees.
He found the skier sprawled against a tree trunk, flanked by blood in the snow. Beneath his mask, Saul bit his lip. He crouched and saw the crimson seeping from the skier's forehead, and the grotesque angle of one leg.
A man. Thick beard. Large chest.
Saul couldn't go for help-in the chaos of the storm, he might not be able to find this place again. Worse, even if he did manage to bring back help, the man might freeze to death by then.
One chance. He didn't bother attending to the head wound or the broken leg. No use, no time. He took off his skis, removed the skis from the injured man, rushed toward a pine tree, and snapped off a thickly needled bough.
Spreading the bough beside the man, he eased him onto it, careful to let the good leg cushion the broken one. He gripped the end of the bough and stooped, walking backward, pulling. The snow stung harder, cold gnawing through his ski gloves. He kept tugging, inching down.
The man groaned as Saul shifted him over a bump, the snow enshrouding them. The man writhed, almost slipping off the bough.
Saul hurried to reposition him, tensing when he suddenly felt a hand behind him clutch his shoulder. Whirling, he stared at a looming figure, "Ski Patrol" stenciled in black across a yellow parka.
"Down the slope! A hundred yards! A shed!" the man yelled, helping Saul.
They eased the skier down the hill. Saul bumped against the shed before he saw it, feeling corrugated metal behind him. He yanked the unlocked door open and stumbled in. The wind's shriek diminished. He felt stillness.
Turning from the empty shed, he helped the man from the Ski Patrol drag in the bleeding skier.
"You okay?" the man asked Saul, who nodded. "Stay with him while I get help," the man continued. "I'll come back with snowmobiles in fifteen minutes."
Saul nodded again.
"What you did," the man told Saul. "You're something else. Hang on. We'll get you warm."
The man stepped out and closed the door. Saul slumped against the wall and sank to the ground. He stared at the groaning skier, whose eyelids flickered.
"Keep your leg still."
The man winced, nodding. "Thanks."
Scrunching his eyes in pain, the man said, "Massive foul-up."
"It can happen."
"No. A simple job."
Saul didn't understand. The man was babbling.
"Didn't figure on the storm." The man scowled, his temples pulsing. "Dumb."
Saul listened to the storm, soon hearing the far-off roar of snowmobiles. "They're coming."
"Did you ever ski in Argentina?"
Saul's throat constricted. Babbling? Hardly. "Once. I got a nosebleed."
"Aspirin..." "...cures headaches," Saul replied, the code completed.
"Ten o'clock tonight." The man groaned. "Goddamn storm. Who figured it'd screw things up?"
The roar grew louder as the snowmobiles stopped outside the shed. The door jerked open. Three men from the Ski Patrol stepped in.
"You still okay?" one man asked Saul.
"I'm fine. But this guy's babbling."
Maintain a pattern. Every day, Saul kept the same routine, appearing at scheduled places at established times. Eight-thirty: breakfast at the coffee shop in his hotel. A half hour's walk, the route unchanging. Twenty minutes' browsing in a book store. Eleven o'clock: the slopes, again his route consistent.
For two reasons. First-in case somebody needed to get in touch with him, the courier would know where he was at any time and be able to intercept him, though it had just been demonstrated how an accident could jeopardize procedure. Second-if Saul was being watched, his schedule was so predictable it might bore his shadow into making mistakes.
Today, more than usual, he had to avoid suspicion. He helped take the injured man down to the ambulance. At the lodge, he chatted with the Ski Patrol in their office, waiting for his chance to slip away. He went to his room and changed from his ski suit to jeans and a sweater. He reached his customary bar exactly when he always did, sitting in the smoke-filled conversation pit, watching cartoons on the giant television screen, sipping a Coke.
At seven, he went to dinner, as always at the dining room in his hotel. At eight, he went to a Burt Reynolds car-chase movie. He'd seen the feature before and knew it ended at quarter to ten. He'd chosen the theater for its pay phone in the men's room. Making sure the stalls were empty, he put the proper change in the phone and dialed a memorized number precisely at ten o'clock as the man on the slope had instructed him.
A gruff male voice announced basketball scores. Saul didn't pay attention to the names of the teams. He cared only about the numbers, ten in all, a long-distance telephone number, mentally repeating them.
He left the men's room and, without being obvious, checked the lobby to see if he was being watched.
No indication of surveillance, though an expert shadow wouldn't let himself be noticed.
He stepped from the theater, pleased that the storm had persisted. Through the dark and confusion, he slipped down a side street, then another side street, waiting in an alley to make sure he wasn't being followed. With sight so restricted in the storm, a tail would have to follow him closely past this alley to keep up with him.
But no one did. He crossed the street and chose a pay phone in an unfamiliar bar two blocks away. Near the din of electronic games, he dialed the numbers he'd been given.
A woman's sexy voice said, "Triple A Answering Service."
"Romulus," he said.
"You've got an appointment. Tuesday. 9 a.m. Denver. 48 Cody Road."
He set the phone back on its cradle. Leaving the bar, he walked through the cover of the storm to arrive at his hotel precisely when he would have if, after seeing the movie, he'd taken his usual thirty-minute walk. He asked the desk clerk, "Any messages for Grisman? Room 211."
Avoiding the elevator, he walked upstairs to his room. The strand of hair at the bottom of his door remained exactly where he'd placed it when he'd gone out, assuring him no one had entered in his absence. One more routine day. With two exceptions.
Follow standard procedure. In the morning, Saul bought his ticket at the last possible moment. When the driver started his engine, Saul got on the bus. He sat in back and watched for anyone boarding after him.
But no one did.
As the bus pulled from the station, he eased back, nodding with satisfaction, staring at the condominiums of Vail and the far-off dots of skiers on the snow-covered mountains.
He liked buses. He could see out the back if he was being followed. He could buy a ticket without getting logged in a computer, the reason he didn't fly or rent a car-he didn't want to leave a paper trail. What's more, a bus made several stops along its route. He could get off at any of them without attracting attention.
Though his ticket was for Salt Lake City, he never intended to go there. He left the bus at Placer Springs an hour west of Vail. After waiting to see if anyone else got off, he bought a ticket for Denver, boarded the next bus heading east, and slumped in the back seat. Analyzing what he'd done, he decided he'd made no errors. Certainly if someone had been watching him, his shadow would be puzzled now, soon nervous, making urgent phone calls. Saul didn't care. He'd gained his freedom.
He was ready to do his work.
Tuesday, 9 a.m. The Denver wind brought tears to his eyes. Gray clouds hulking over the mountains made the morning seem like dusk. Despite his down-filled coat, he shivered, standing on a suburban corner, squinting toward a building in the middle of the block.
Long, low, and drab. Counting from the address on the corner, Saul guessed the building was 48 Cody Road. He walked through slush to reach it. Though he'd used local buses to get here, transferring often, he nonetheless glanced behind him, just in case. He saw few cars and none that looked familiar.
Turning forward, he stopped in surprise, gaping at a Star of David above the door. A synagogue? Himself a Jew, he wondered if he'd misheard his instructions. Granted, he was used to meetings in uncommon places. But a synagogue? His spine felt numb.
Uneasily he entered. He faced a shadowy vestibule. His nostrils flared from the smell of dust. As he shut the door, its rumble echoed.
Stillness settled over him. He chose a yarmulke from a box on a table, put the small black cap on the back of his head, and, lips taut, pulled another door.
The temple. He felt a pressure. The air seemed heavy and dense. It seemed to squeeze him. He stepped forward.
In a front seat, an old man stared at the white curtain that hid the Ark, his skullcap shiny from years of worship. The old man lowered his eyes toward his prayer book.
Saul held his breath. Except for the old man at the front, the temple was deserted. Something was wrong.
The old man turned to him. Saul tensed.
"Shalom," the old man said.
Impossible. The man was-
He stood. As always, he wore a black suit and vest. A matching overcoat and homburg hat lay on the seat beside him. A gentile, he was sixty-seven, tall and gaunt, gray-skinned, dark-eyed, his shoulders stooped, his face pinched with sorrow.
Smiling warmly, Saul replied, "Shalom." His throat hurt as he approached.
They hugged each other. Feeling the wrinkled kiss on his cheek, Saul kissed the old man in return. They studied one another.
"You look well," Saul said.
"A lie, but I'll accept it. You look well, though."
"In the stomach." Eliot shook his head. "When I heard what happened, I wanted to visit you."
"But you couldn't. I understand."
"You received good care?"
"You know I did. You sent the best."
"The best deserves the best."
Saul felt embarrassed. A year ago, he had been the best. But now? "A lie," he said. "I don't deserve it."
"By skill. A lesser man could not have escaped."
"I shouldn't have needed to escape," Saul said. "I planned the operation. I thought I'd allowed for every factor. I was wrong. A cleaning lady, for God's sake. She should have been on another floor. She never checked that room that early."
Eliot spread his hands. "Exactly my point. Random chance. You can't control it."
"You know better," Saul replied. "You used to say the word accident had been invented by weak people to excuse their mistakes. You told us to strive for perfection."
"Yes. But-" Eliot frowned, "-perfection can never be attained."
"I almost had it. A year ago. I don't understand what happened." He suspected, though. He was six feet tall, two hundred pounds of bone and muscle. But he was also thirty-seven. I'm getting old, he thought. "I ought to quit. It's not just this job. Two others went bad before it."
"Random chance again," Eliot said. "I read the reports. You weren't to blame."
"You're making allowances."
"Because of our relationship?" Eliot shook his head. "Not true. I've never let it sway me. But sometimes failure can have a beneficial effect. It can make us try much harder." He took two slips of paper from the inner pocket of his suit coat.
Saul read the neat handprinting on the first one. A telephone number. He memorized it, nodding. Eliot showed him the second sheet. Instructions, six names, a date, and an address. Again, Saul nodded. Eliot took back the papers. Picking up his hat and overcoat, he left the temple to cross the vestibule toward the men's room. Thirty seconds later, Saul heard flushing. He took for granted Eliot had burned the pages and disposed of the ashes. If the temple had been bugged, their conversation alone would not have revealed the subject of the notes.
Eliot returned, putting on his overcoat. "I'll use the exit in the rear."
"No, wait. So soon? I hoped we could talk."
"We will. When the job's completed."
"How are your flowers?"
"Not just flowers. Roses." Eliot shook a finger at him in mock chastisement. "After all these years, you still enjoy baiting me by calling them flowers."
"Actually," Eliot said, "I've developed an interesting variation. Blue. No rose has ever been that color before. When you come to visit, I'll show it to you."
"I look forward to it."
Warmly they embraced.
"If it matters," Eliot said, "the job you'll be doing is designed to protect all this." He gestured toward the temple. "One more thing." He reached into his overcoat, pulling out a candy bar.
Saul's chest tightened as he took it. A Baby Ruth. "You still remember."
"Always." Eliot's eyes looked sad. Saul swallowed painfully, watching Eliot leave through the back, listening to the echo of the door snicking shut. In accordance with procedure, he himself would wait ten minutes and go out the front. Eliot's cryptic remark about the purpose of this assignment troubled him, but he knew only something important would have caused Eliot to deliver the instructions in person. He squeezed his fists, determined. This time he wouldn't fail. He couldn't allow himself to disappoint the only father he, an orphan, had ever known.
The man with a mustache munched a taco. Saul explained the assignment to him. They used no names, of course. Saul hadn't seen him before and wouldn't again. The man wore a jogging suit. He had a cleft in his chin. He wiped his mustache with a napkin.
Baltimore. Three days later, 2 p.m. The Mexican restaurant was almost deserted. Even so, they sat at the remotest corner table.
The man lit a cigarette, studying Saul. "We'll need a lot of backup."
"Maybe not," Saul said.
"You know the protocol."
From the Trade Paperback edition.