The videotapes arrive at television stations across the nation. Their chilling message: Al Qaeda has secured a rocket launcher on American soil. Their potential targets: U.S. civilians. Their ultimate threat: they will attack. Anytime. Anywhere.
Amid national chaos, the FBI calls upon one of its best agents for a final desperate mission. But no one—on either side—realizes how deep or how far the sphere of influence has spread.
“An interesting and enjoyable piece of work...the kind of dark romp that Lawrence Sanders or Ross Thomas might have produced in their heyday.”—The Washington Post Book World
“Great fun.”—The Houston Chronicle
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Read an Excerpt
"HOW many people here consider the government to be highly efficient?"
Charles Russell adjusted himself behind his lectern and watched his opponent warily. Dr. Terry Gale, a popular professor of criminal justice at Harvard, was good-looking by any standard, with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail and the obligatory tweed jacket and faded jeans.
Gale had abandoned his own lectern and was moving back and forth across the stage, preaching energetically to the large auditorium. He was halfway through a highly successful ten-city tour for his latest book and had polished his delivery to a lustrous shine. Crime Does Pay: The Inevitable Failure of America's War on Crime had clawed its way to the bottom of The New York Times Best Seller List and was likely on its way to a top-five spot.
"Come on, don't be bashful. Let's see some hands. Who thinks the government is efficient?" He motioned toward Russell. "My opponent promises me that he hasn't installed any surveillance cameras in the auditorium, so vote your conscience here."
Russell started to frown but caught himself and laughed easily instead. As the director of homeland security and overseer of America's law enforcement agencies, he had been the target of Gale's acerbic wit on more than one occasion. Best to just let it roll off his back.
"Okay, I see a few hands," Gale said.
It wasn't many-maybe five, all bunched together at the front. Russell glanced down at them for a moment and then out over young faces crammed into the American University auditorium. With no television cameras-something he himself had insisted on when he'd agreed to this debate-the lighting was a little softer and more academic, allowing him to discern detail despite his aging eyes. What he saw was hostility: young, wealthy intellectuals who were there because they bought into Gale's fatalistic antigovernment ranting; children whose lives were still skirting the edges of the real world. Their parents were largely supporters of the conservative values he stood for, but their sons and daughters were still in a rebellious stage. At this age, with their fathers' credit cards still firmly in pocket, they had the luxury to be idealistic. In ten years, though, their loyalties would change. They would want to protect their money from excessive taxation, they would want their opulent homes and neighborhoods kept safe, they would want their children to attend a drug-free school that didn't teach down to the lowest common denominator, they would want to be safe from bomb-wielding fanatics....
"Okay," Gale said, "it doesn't look like we're going to get a lot of hands. Big surprise. Let me ask another question: How many people think private industry is pretty efficient?"
Almost every hand went up.
"And I'll take that one step further. Obviously there are inefficiencies in private industry, but I'd argue that a lot of them are a direct result of government regulation. Compare the Post Office to Federal Express if you want proof."
"Is your suggestion to relieve private industry of excessive government meddling?" Russell cut in. "You're starting to sound like a Republican, Dr. Gale."
That got a titter from the crowd-something Russell knew he desperately needed.
"Of course not, sir. My point is simply that organized crime is, by definition, completely unregulated, making it almost infinitely efficient. And that, combined with the fact that the U.S. has no comprehensive policy on crime, makes the war on it a losing proposition."
Russell considered stepping out from behind his lectern, too, but then squelched the thought. He'd end up looking like Al Gore, trying to be hip. Better to just stick with...what did his son say? Old and crotchety.
"I'm not sure that's fair, Professor. Over the past few years we've increased the number of police on the streets, we've intercepted hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of narcotics coming into this country, we've had success in convincing narcotics producing countries to step up their output reduction efforts, we've put mandatory sentencing in place for a number of crimes, we've greatly expanded our antiterrorist efforts...I could go on. And we've seen results: a measurable drop in the use of various drugs as well as in some forms of violent crime-"
"But what was the cause of that reduction, sir? Additional arrests, convictions, and incarcerations? Statistics don't suggest that. The cost of drugs continues to go down as the quality improves, suggesting increased supply. Of course, some drugs go out of style and others come into style, but there's no net reduction in use. Typical of the government, we have initiatives and programs that are labeled successful simply by virtue of their implementation-it's all become just an expensive publicity stunt. We haven't had a repeat of the September 11 tragedy, but do I think that's a result of my no longer being able to take nail clippers on a flight? We see on TV that the American government has forced the Bolivians to reduce cocaine output, but no one talks about the fact that the Colombians immediately increased their exports to compensate."
Russell stiffened at the obvious personal attack. "Your suggestion, then, is that we concede? Throw our hands up and just let anyone do anything they want? Son, I'm guessing that you grew up in a nice neighborhood where everyone was rich and happy"-actually, he knew that for a fact-"but I grew up in a bad part of Detroit. I was scared every time I walked out my front door...."
"My suggestion," Gale countered, "is that the policy makers decide what they want to accomplish and create policies to get there instead of creating showy policies with no real purpose. I mean, come on, Mr. Russell, your own economists estimate the international narcotics trade as being two percent of the world's gross domestic product. During its heyday the Cali cartel had estimated profits of about seven billion dollars a year. That's three times what General Motors was posting. When Pablo Escobar was fighting U.S. extradition, he offered to pay off Colombia's national debt if they refused to give him up."
"Pablo Escobar is dead," Russell said.
"So what? His death didn't even cause a ripple in the coke supply to the U.S. My contention, and the contention of my book, is that America is facilitating the growth of enormously sophisticated transnational crime syndicates. We're just repeating the same mistakes we've made in the past. Prohibition financed an unprecedented upsurge in the power of the Mob, and this is Prohibition times ten. There are people with net worths that rival Bill Gates's who we know nothing about. They control enormous political and financial power, they interfere in the operation of sovereign governments and manipulate wars, they buy raw opium from terrorist organizations that then use those funds to wage war on us. They pay no taxes and obey no laws...."
"I found those chapters of your book to be very entertaining," Russell said, smiling sarcastically. "Who are these magnificent crime lords? I've never met one or even heard of one. It seems a little paranoid to assume that there's some 'man behind the curtain' controlling everything illegal that goes on in the world. I notice you gave no examples or suggested where we might find one of these people. You never even gave an indication of a pattern that would suggest central control. The criminals I've met and read about aren't all that bright or organized-and that includes people like Pablo Escobar."
"But that's the point, isn't it, Mr. Russell? These people don't want to be found. They move from country to country, they hold multiple passports, they provide money and arms to various regimes around the world to create safe havens for themselves, they use offshore accounts and corporations to move their money in a way that can't be traced...."
Russell laughed into his microphone. "Let me try to understand your logic here, Professor. These people must exist because we can find no evidence of their existence. Does that about sum it up?"
HE'D been there for more than an hour, but the dirt loosened by his helicopter's downdraft continued to swirl around him in the aimless breeze.
Squinting against the dust and darkness, the man who called himself Christian Volkov moved gracefully through the jagged rocks, edging closer to the sheer cliff just ahead. The wind increased as he approached, getting caught in his jacket and overpowering the silence with the sound of whipping fabric. He lowered his head and continued forward, not stopping until the tips of his boots hung off what felt a little like the edge of the universe. Below him seemed to be nothing-like looking into the bottom of a well hundreds of miles across. The moon, in the proper phase for the night's events, provided just enough colorless illumination to make the snow-covered tops of distant peaks glow dully, but not enough to create contrast in the valley beneath him.
He averted his eyes slightly and searched his peripheral vision for the small settlement that he knew was there. After almost a minute of uninterrupted concentration, he thought he'd found it-an almost imperceptible glow with an unnatural steadiness that suggested a human origin.
He sat, letting his legs dangle over the edge of the cliff and reveling in the emptiness around him. He'd piloted the helicopter himself and told no one where he was going. No one except Pascal, of course. Pascal, who had debated, argued, and finally begged him not to go on this pointless errand-or at least to take a contingent of trusted men.
In the end, though, Volkov had refused. He had never shared Pascal's confidence in security. The only real security was anonymity-the ability to die and be reborn, to be many people and no one, to exist only as ink on paper and electronic blips in distant computers. What people could see they could fear and hate. And what they could fear and hate, they could destroy.
These brief moments of peace were so rare now. It had been months since he'd been truly alone-since he'd had a few seconds that he could free himself from the endless game of chess he'd doomed himself to play. A few seconds that he could enjoy the illusion of safety and calm.
When it finally started, it started as a flash of light, blinding despite the distance. Volkov gripped the edge of the cliff as he watched the column of fire rise and illuminate the encampment that had been so nearly invisible moments before. It took a few seconds for the sound to reach him-a dull rumbling that seemed impossible in this nearly uninhabited corner of the world.
For years this part of Afghanistan had been unusually quiet-subject to a "peace" that had been enforced by the Taliban and was now enforced by the regime America had inserted. Recently, though, the region had been plagued by brief, localized eruptions of violence. These attacks, carried out by the newly reorganized and energized al-Qaeda organization, were always the same-fast, brutal, and effective. As far as Volkov knew, not a single man, woman, or child had ever survived being overrun by these battle-hardened fanatics.
By Middle Eastern standards, the assaults were meticulously planned and precisely executed. Al-Qaeda's men were well armed with new, high-tech equipment, and their pre-op intelligence was always flawlessly accurate. The fact that Christian Volkov was responsible for this increased operational sophistication was known by almost no one.
The explosions ceased abruptly, leaving a long, rolling echo before being replaced by the staccato sound of gunfire. Volkov leaned forward, teetering on the edge of the precipice and concentrating on what little he could see of the scene below. The crescent of rifle flashes advancing steadily toward a group of burning buildings was easily visible at first but then faded into the unsteady light emanating from the fires.
While it was true that this part of the Hindu Kush mountain range had a certain stark beauty to it, the area had garnered much more attention throughout history than the desolate landscape seemed to deserve. Brutal tribal wars, the Macedonian Greeks under Alexander the Great, the Arab armies that brought Islam to the region in the seventh century, the Mongols, and then finally the Soviets and Americans. Volkov wondered what the farmers eking out an existence in the tiny oases of cultivatable land had thought when they first saw the magnificent cavalry of Genghis Khan.
A sad smile spread across Volkov's face as he recognized his own misguided romanticism. What those peasants had seen was the same thing the modern-day Afghans below saw in the dirty and fanatical men advancing on them now: slavery and death.
He couldn't help wondering what the people inside that burning compound were thinking in these last few moments. While they had no way of knowing who had ultimately condemned them to death, they certainly saw death approaching. Did they have doubts about their myths now? Were they afraid to give up the life they'd held so tightly in their hands for an afterlife that might not exist?
He supposed that he would learn soon enough. At forty-three, he was smarter than he had been at thirty-five. The experience he had gained more than offset the slight slowing of his mind and body. But that wouldn't be the case for much longer. He could already feel himself getting tired, losing his grasp of the minute details that kept him alive. The bouts of depression that he had suffered since he was a child could no longer be controlled by willpower alone and now responded only to a cocktail of prescription drugs. It wouldn't be long before he made a mistake. And when he did, he would finally get his chance to play the victim.
Volkov closed his eyes and lay back in the dirt. The sound of gunfire was slowing and he strained to hear the shouts and screams of the people below, although he knew the distance was too great. Soon the sound of the wind was all that was left.
MARK Beamon dodged clumsily, narrowly avoiding being clipped by the bus as he jogged across the busy street, only to be hit by a searing blast of exhaust as it passed by. By the time he made it to the sidewalk, sweat was stinging his eyes and his heart was pounding dangerously. He let his momentum carry him forward, skirting the densely packed office buildings in an effort to stay in the 105-degree shade.
His secretary had called his apartment at nine a.m. and woken him up. It was after eleven now and he was still half a mile from the office. As late and as hot as it was, it would have made sense to have parked beneath his building in the well-located space he now rated as the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Phoenix office. But in the end his normal hike across the sun-scorched urban landscape had seemed more attractive.
He told everyone who would listen that he parked a mile from the office to force himself to get a little exercise. That wasn't really the reason, though, only a desirable side effect. In truth it was nothing more than a twenty-minute delaying tactic-thirty if he stopped for an ice cream.
When Beamon finally made it to the edge of the stone courtyard in front of the FBI's new building, he took a deep breath and made a break for the fountain in front. There he hopped up and sat on its edge, letting the water mist protect him from the July sun. After a couple of minutes he was feeling cool enough to light a cigarette as his cell phone rang uselessly. He smiled when the caller gave up but felt the smile fade when the ringing began again almost immediately. He finally wrestled the phone from his pocket and flipped it open.
"If I walk over to the window, am I going to see you sitting on the fountain, smoking?" his secretary asked.
Beamon threw his cigarette down next to the fountain and ground it out with his toe. "I got hung up in traffic."
"You realize it's almost lunchtime?"
from Sphere of Influence by Kyle Mills, Copyright © October 2002, The Putnam Pub Group, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission