U.S. E MBASSY, LONDON: 5:19 P.M. , FRIDAY
There was one telephone in the makeshift operations center that was never used for outgoing calls. It was attached to a sophisticated digital recording device and linked to the call-tracing network of the Metropolitan Police. The receiver itself was red, and the ringer volume was set to foghorn level. Only one person was allowed to touch it: Supervisory Special Agent John O’Donnell, head of the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group and the Bureau’s chief hostage negotiator.
The telephone had rung forty-seven times since the disappearance of Elizabeth Halton. Thus far none of the calls had been deemed credible by O’Donnell or his counterparts at the Met, though the demands of some of the callers had managed to provide a few brief interludes of comedy in what were otherwise very dark days. One caller said he would release Elizabeth Halton in exchange for the sum of one hundred thousand British pounds. O’Donnell agreed to the deal, and the man was arrested later that evening in the parking lot of a pub in West Sussex. One demanded a date with a famous American actress of questionable talent. One said he would free his American captive in exchange for tickets to that weekend’s Arsenal-Chelsea football match. One called because he was depressed and needed someone to talk to. O’Donnell chatted with him for five minutes to make sure Scotland Yard had a good trace and bade the man good evening as officers moved in for the arrest.
The call that arrived at the embassy’s main switchboard shortly after six that evening was different from the start. The voice was male and electronically disguised, the first caller to employ such a device. “I have information about Elizabeth Halton,” he calmly told the switchboard operator. “Transfer me to the appropriate individual. If more than five seconds elapse, I will hang up and she will die. Do you understand me?”
The operator made it clear that she did indeed understand and politely asked the caller to stand by. Two seconds later, O’Donnell’s phone sounded in the ops center. He snatched the red receiver from the cradle and brought it quickly to his ear. “This is John O’Donnell of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” he said crisply. “How can I help you?”
“The beach at Beacon Point,” the electronically altered voice said. “Look beneath the overturned rowboat. This will be our first and only contact.”
The line went dead.
O’Donnell hung up the phone and listened to the call again on his recorder, then picked up the receiver of a separate dedicated line that rang automatically at Scotland Yard.
“That sounded legit to me,” O’Donnell said.
“I concur,” said the Met officer at the other end of the line.
“Did you get a trace?”
“It was placed with a mobile phone. Something tells me we’re not going to catch this one. He sounded like a real pro.”
“Where’s Beacon Point?”
“The south coast, about ten miles east of Plymouth.”
“How far from central London?”
“About a hundred and fifty miles.”
“I want to be on site for the retrieval-whatever it is.”
“The Royal Navy has been kind enough to leave a Sea King at the London Heliport for just this kind of scenario.”
“Where’s the heliport?”
“South bank of the Thames between the Battersea and Wandsworth bridges.”
“Tell them to warm up the engines. Can you give me a lift through town?”
“I’ll have a pair of patrol cars outside the embassy in two minutes.”
“Send them to Upper Brook Street,” O’Donnell said. “There are no reporters back there.”
The flight to the south coast was ninety minutes in duration and thoroughly unpleasant because of high winds swirling ahead of a strong Atlantic storm front. As the Sea King swooped down toward Beacon Point, O’Donnell looked out his window and saw arc lamps blazing away on the little sand beach and blue police lights flashing along roads linking the surrounding villages of Kingston, Houghton, and Ringmore. The landing zone was a small patch of moorland behind the beach. O’Donnell was met there by the officer in charge, a stubby deputy chief constable from the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary aptly named Blunt. He briefed the FBI man as they walked down a sandy pathway to the beach.
“We’ve determined that the beach and surrounding grounds are free of bombs or any other weaponry,” he said. “About twenty minutes ago we used a remote-control robotic device to have a look under the overturned boat.”
“Anything there?” O’Donnell asked.
“Nothing that we could see with the camera, but it’s possible something could be buried beneath it. We decided to wait until you arrived before moving the boat.”
They clambered out of the dunes and stopped about twenty yards from the boat. An eight-foot dinghy with peeling gray and white paint, it was surrounded by a half-dozen policemen in blast-protection suits and visors. With a terse nod, Blunt spurred them into action, and the boat was soon resting on its hull. Taped to the seat in the stern was a DVD in a clear plastic case. Blunt retrieved it and immediately handed it to O’Donnell, who carried it back to the helicopter and inserted it into a laptop computer. As the image flickered to life on the screen, O’Donnell swore beneath his breath and looked at the British police official.
“I need a favor from you.”
“Anything,” said Blunt, his tone grave.
“Tell your men it was just a hoax. Apologize to them for the inconvenience, and thank them on behalf of the American people and Ambassador Halton for their fine work tonight.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Mr. O’Donnell.”
O’Donnell glanced at the screen. “This DVD does not exist. Now do you understand?”
Blunt nodded. He understood perfectly.