Chapter Thirty-Two

When Senator Bud Richmond had first started out in politics, he’d been just another hapless rich boy aiming vaguely for the top. The son of a Montana logger who’d worked his way up to become a multimillionaire industrialist, Bud had never done a proper day’s work in his life and was more concerned with his golf swing, his lady friends, his fishing trips and his beloved Porsche 959 than with serious business.

Two years ago, Irving Slater, his chief of staff and personal assistant, had been despairing of Richmond and on the point of handing in his resignation. As he saw it, he was still only thirty-seven and wasting a promising career on an indolent jackass who thought politics was just a game.

But then something had happened: a pair of unconnected incidents, six months apart, that had turned Bud Richmond’s world around and ended up presenting Irving Slater with the chance of a lifetime.

One day shortly after his fiftieth birthday, Richmond had been about to board an airliner heading from his home state of Montana to Washington DC when he’d had a premonition. Like a faraway voice in his head, he’d said later, telling him that under no circumstances should he get on that plane. To the great irritation of Irving Slater, he’d refused to board it and waited for the next one. When his intended plane had crashed on takeoff with few survivors, he’d started talking miracles.

The second miracle had taken place when Richmond was driving his Porsche along the mountain roads near his home. Rounding a bend, he’d suddenly and inexplicably been seized by the urge to stop and look at the beautiful sunset, something he’d never done before. After ten minutes of gazing at the sky, he’d climbed back in the Porsche and raced on. A mile down the road he’d come across the wreck of a coach. A massive landslide had just tumbled down from the mountain and crushed it. Out of thirty-nine passengers, only two survived – and according to their account, the rocks had hit the bus at the exact moment that Richmond calculated he’d have been in that spot if he hadn’t stopped to admire the view.

In Richmond’s mind there was only one explanation. God had spared his life for some higher purpose. The conversion was instant. Over the eighteen months since the second miracle had occurred, Bud Richmond’s political angle had changed dramatically. And it was actually working for him. He grew up, took himself seriously. And his followers loved him. Born again, suddenly Richmond’s zeal for life and work became unstoppable – and suddenly he was getting support from a whole new section of the community that had never shown him much interest before and one that Slater had never counted on: the massive evangelist movement. More than fifty million of them. Slater quickly saw the angle. Over fifty million votes equated to a heady potential for the White House.

Irving Slater couldn’t believe it. That the motherfucker had become a devout and driven man seemed far weirder than the miracles that he alleged had happened to him. But the wave was rising fast and the chief of staff was ready to ride it.

Suddenly Slater was buried deep in the Bible. His boss’s cast-iron belief in the End Time prophecies of the Book of Revelation led him to study that text in extreme detail and read every scrap that had ever been written about Bible prophecy. He’d been stunned by the power of the belief that so many American Christians held: that at any time, the world could be plunged into the Tribulation and Rapture events foretold in the Good Book. It struck him two ways. First, privately, as utter hooey. Secondly, and much more importantly, as the deepest and richest political goldmine that anyone had ever stumbled upon.

As he sat and watched the Richmond publicity machine gain more and more fervent support, the first germ of a crazy, ingenious idea had begun to form in his mind. Everywhere the senator held his conventions and rallies across the USA, auditoriums were packed with the faithful who flocked to hear him. His TV talk-show ratings soared. He was hot property. Donations flooded in.

And that, as far as Slater was concerned, was just the beginning. Here were millions of people believing deeply in the literal truth of these prophesied events. Millions of people actually wanting it to happen – if it was God’s will, if the fulfilment of prophecy was warfare, then so be it. Wanting the world to be plunged into darkness and chaos and war, so that God would come and rescue them from their drab, dull, stressed-out miserable lives and confirm to them, if there had ever been any tiny inkling of a doubt in their minds, that it was all true after all and their souls really were worth saving.

But before God could step in, the Book told of an incredibly bleak period of suffering through which even the most faithful would have to endure. All those millions of people would need a leader to follow through that time. A mythical figure, like Moses, leading the chosen people to glory.

And Slater watched Richmond and wondered. Richmond and Moses. It made him smile. But then he looked at the faces of the crowd and he began to believe in the possibility. If Richmond made it to the White House, it would be him, Irving Slater, the man behind it all, who would wield all the real muscle.

But to make all that happen, something incredible, something unspeakable, would have to be done. There would have to be a way of making those events actually come about. For that, Slater needed help. A lot of help.

He found it soon afterwards, when he met a fanatical End Time believer at one of Richmond’s social events. He met them all the time. But what made this man different was that he was a US Intelligence operative, and not a junior one. Slater had been stunned at what the man told him about the hidden vein of End Time belief deep in the infrastructure of America’s intelligence agencies.

Suddenly Slater’s crazy idea was taking quantum leaps towards reality. Through his new associate’s contacts he gathered together a core group of agents. Most were committed End-Timers; others, men like CIA Special Agent Jones, were more interested in the promise of power and the cash rewards that Slater was able to skim from Richmond’s political fund to payroll the growing operation. Around the central core was an outer circle of agents who would do what they were told by their superiors but had no more idea what was really going on than the unwitting Bud Richmond at the epicentre of it all.

Slater had been blown away by the speed and power with which he’d been able to build up his secret agency. The End Time Stratagem had been born.

They got planning.

The plan was grand in scale but simple in concept.

It was a plan of war. A war that, if the prophecy’s power to influence global behaviour were to be believed, shouldn’t be entirely impossible to provoke.

According to the prophecy, the conflict would start in the Middle East. That didn’t seem like a hard thing to manage. It was God’s will, after all. All it required was a helping hand to roll things along, a spark to set the tinderbox alight. A big spark, something guaranteed to outrage the Islamic world like nothing that had ever happened before. Slater and his associates had long ago figured out what that spark would be. It was just a question of giving it the green light.

For the plan to work, the blame for the atrocity had to fall on the heads of the old enemies of Islam – the Jews. It was all right there in the Bible. The war that would escalate into the beginning of the End Times would begin with the massive retaliatory attack by the Muslims on Israel. The fire and brimstone prophesied in the Bible would take the form of nuclear warheads. As the world teetered on the brink of devastating war, millions of US voters who recognised these as biblical events would be convinced that the end was finally nigh. End-Timer votes would flood in. Richmond would be unstoppable.

It was insane, atrocious. Millions of people would die, for sure – Jews and Muslims, maybe even Americans too. But Slater didn’t care about that. The logic was perfect, beautiful and elegant, as the simplest ideas often were. He didn’t believe for one moment that the war would kickstart the countdown to Armageddon. Just the countdown to power, for him. And time was on his side. All he had to do was slowly groom Bud Richmond for his future role as the leader of the faithful.

But Richmond had competition. He wasn’t the only influential figure banging the End Time drum. Slater had teams of agents watching every other potential Christian figurehead. One in particular, Clayton Cleaver in Georgia. Slater had been sitting with Richmond in the limo on their way to a press conference when he’d received the shattering report back from his sources that had turned everything around. It was the start of the Bradbury crisis.

As he thought back to all the events of the past months, Irving Slater paced up and down in his huge office in Bud Richmond’s Montana home base, the sprawling house nestling in the mountainside. The vast windows of his office gave him a sweeping panoramic view of the Richmond thousand-acre range.

He stopped pacing and took a swig of milk from the bottle on his desk. Then he flopped in a soft leather armchair opposite a giant TV screen on the wall, grabbed the remote and hit PLAY.

The DVD was of a current affairs panel discussion programme that Bud Richmond had participated in three months earlier. Slater couldn’t stop watching it.

The programme had been a great PR builder for Richmond. Slater had paid plants in the audience to fire tailor-made questions at the Senator, and he’d written all of Richmond’s responses himself. It was all going smoothly to begin with. Richmond had been in fine form, and Slater had been congratulating himself. The combination of the jackass’s sincere belief and Slater’s own smooth and witty script made for a great show.

But then, two minutes from the end and just when they were almost home and dry, some damn long-haired student in the back of the room had stuck up his hand and asked the fatal unscripted question out of the blue.

Watching the screen, Slater aimed the remote and skipped ahead to that terrible moment.

The student put up his hand. The camera panned across and zoomed in. ‘Senator, many scholars have doubts about the legitimacy of the Book of Revelation as a Bible text. What do you think about that?’

Cut to camera two, and Richmond filled the screen. ‘I’ve read all they have to say,’ he replied calmly. ‘But my faith remains solid and sure.’

The student had more to add. ‘But if someone could prove that St John hadn’t been the author – that Revelation wasn’t the true Word of God – would that not undermine your faith in it, sir?’

Watching the programme on live TV, Slater had been gripping the edge of his chair.

Richmond had hesitated a second, then nodded solemnly. ‘OK,’ he’d said. He’d inched forward across the table on his elbows, fixing the student with that fervent look of his. ‘Let’s say some scholar came up with real, concrete evidence that St John did not really write that book,’ he’d said. ‘Let’s say they could actually prove that the prophecies in Revelation were not truly based on the Word of God?’ He paused again for dramatic effect. ‘Then I would have to revise my belief in it. But I would also take that as a sign from God, telling me that I had to move in a new direction.’ Then Richmond had smiled broadly. ‘And I have to tell you,’ he added, ‘I’d be darn relieved, knowing we didn’t all have to go through the Tribulation.’ The crowd had laughed.

At the time, the sense of unease that Richmond’s ad-libbed answer had instilled in Slater had only been slight and temporary. He’d soon forgotten about it.

But then disaster had struck. When the surveillance team watching Clayton Cleaver in Georgia had informed him that Cleaver was under fire from a blackmailer, Slater had realised that in the light of Richmond’s comments all their careful plans were in serious trouble.

He’d never heard of any Zo? Bradbury before. When he Googled the name he began to worry even more. This was a legit Bible scholar with a high enough profile to blow everything apart. If what she was saying was true, and if she could give the critics the evidence they needed to prove that the Book of Revelation hadn’t been written by John the Apostle, that its very legitimacy as a New Testament text was in question – that the book was a fraud, for Christ’s sake – the End Time Stratagem was dead in the water. Revelation was the central pillar holding up the End Time roof. To undermine its authority would shake the whole movement down to its roots. Not only that, but Richmond was now saying he’d be happy to walk away from it if he thought it had lost credibility. His standing with the evangelical voters would deflate like a punctured football – and with it Slater’s visions of the White House.

Slater was a businessman, and his mind worked pragmatically. It hadn’t taken him long to figure out the options.

One. Buy her off. She wanted ten million from Cleaver, but why should she care where the cash came from as long as she got rich? He could double that figure to make her go away. But what if she kept coming back for more? What if she went ahead and spilled the beans anyway? How could she be trusted?

He’d preferred option two. Grab her and make her lead them to the evidence. They’d destroy it for good, and then they’d bury her along with her claims.

So Slater had called on his contacts. His chief associate within the CIA had delegated the task to his man Jones, who in turn had sent a team to Corfu to snatch her. Now Bradbury was in their custody, somewhere nobody would ever find her. But there were too many problems and complications. He couldn’t afford to wait. It was time for decisive action.

He turned off the DVD playback and sank back in the soft armchair, massaging his temples. On the low table in front of him was a hardwood bowl filled with chocolate bars. He grabbed three of them, tore off the wrappers and swallowed them voraciously.

Gulping down the last of the chocolate, he snatched his phone from the arm of the chair and stabbed the keys.

His associate’s voice answered on the second ring.

‘We need to talk,’ Slater said. Pause. ‘No. You come here. I’m alone. I sent the jackass on vacation for a few days.’

‘Give me three hours,’ his associate replied.

‘Be here in two.’

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