With a whirr of pulleys and thick steel cables, the cable car glided smoothly out across the abyss. The cold mountain wind whistled around it, buffeting the metal capsule and making the floor judder under the feet of the two men inside.
Irving Slater loved it up here. Suspended high over the rocky valley, he could see for miles all around and it gave him a feeling of invulnerability. He felt like an eagle perched on his mountain vantage point. That’s what predators did – take the high ground, survey their territory from a position of complete control. Nobody could touch him up here, and nobody could listen in on sensitive conversations. The howling wind would kill the signal from even the most sophisticated listening device. Slater was fanatical about surveillance and even though he’d had the Richmond House swept for bugs a hundred times and never found a thing, this was the one place he was truly comfortable when it came to talking serious business.
The cable was five hundred yards long and stretched from the boarding platform near the Richmond House to a landing bay on the other side of the valley. He’d had a remote device rigged up that allowed him to guide the car from inside, move it out as far as he wanted and then let it hang over the thousand-foot drop like the last apple on the tree.
Nobody else ever came here any more. Dirk Richmond, Bud’s father, had installed the cable car system at great cost many years ago, soon after he’d bought the thousand-acre range on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, to allow the family to access the ski slope on the mountain across the valley. But neither Bud’s mother nor the indolent jackass himself had ever shown much interest in healthy outdoor pursuits, and old Dirk had gone to his grave a long time ago now, a vastly wealthy but embittered and disappointed man, largely thanks to his indolent waster of a son.
Slater aimed his remote at the control booth and stabbed the red button in the middle. There was a muted clunk of linkages and pulleys from overhead, and the cable car juddered to a halt. Slater dropped the remote in his coat pocket and stared out through the Perspex window across the valley for a few moments, hands on the rail, letting his body move to the gentle swing of the cable car as the wind whipped all around it.
Then he turned to face his associate, and smiled at the sweaty anxiety on the man’s face. ‘You should be used to it by now.’
‘This place gives me the creeps.’
Slater’s smile melted abruptly. ‘Progress report,’ he demanded.
The associate gave a nervous shrug. ‘Bradbury isn’t saying much yet. We’re still working on it.’
‘That’s what you said last time. Why are we even keeping her alive? And I don’t suppose you’ve located the lawyer either.’
‘You guys let any other lawyers slip through your fingers who might know where Bradbury hid the evidence and be totally able to sink us?’
‘We’re still looking.’
Slater’s eyes bored into him. ‘You do that. How hard can it be? What about Kaplan and Hudson? Go on, surprise me. Tell me they turned up.’
‘Not yet. And I have a feeling they’re not coming back.’
Slater made a dismissive gesture and frowned out across the mountain valley. ‘So you have nothing whatsoever good to tell me?’ He pulled a chocolate bar out of his pocket and tore the wrapper off. ‘Want some?’
The associate shook his head and coughed nervously. ‘There’s been a development.’ He reached into the briefcase propped between his feet. Handed Slater a slim card folder.
Slater munched and flipped the file open. The first thing his eyes landed on was a blown-up passport photo of a blond-haired man in his thirties. ‘Who is he?’
‘His name’s Hope. Benedict Hope. Englishman. A few days ago our agents reported he was on Corfu, Greek island. He went out there to meet up with Palmer. As you know, Palmer was there -’
‘I don’t need a history lesson,’ Slater snapped. ‘Palmer was there looking for Bradbury, and he talked to some Greek asshole. I know. But I thought it was all taken care of.’
‘We thought so too. The Karapiperis hit and the bombing were dressed up to look like a drug gang reprisal. But this guy Hope got away. We already knew that from Kaplan and Hudson, but we only just found out who he is.’
Slater brushed the photo aside and thumbed quickly through the printed sheets underneath. Military records for Palmer and Hope. He skipped through Palmer’s first, brows tightening as he scanned down the text. Hope’s record was much more extensive, and he took more time over it. By the time he’d finished reading, alarm was building up in his chest. He looked up. ‘Have you read this?’
The associate nodded.
‘Remarkable. The youngest major 22 SAS ever had. Decorations coming out of his ass. He’s either a goddamn hero or he’s a dyed-in-the-wool stone killer. Either way, he’s the kind of man who should have been on my team.’
‘We tried to dig up more about him, from after he left the army,’ the associate said. ‘There isn’t much. He operates as a “crisis response consultant”, moves around a lot, hard to pin down. He’s real careful about covering his tracks. We don’t even have a home address for him.’
‘Crisis response consultant,’ Slater echoed under his breath. ‘Kind of loose terminology. Covers a lot of ground.’
‘We think he took out Kaplan and Hudson.’
‘That would certainly figure.’ Slater shut the file. ‘What the hell’s going on here? How does a damn archaeology academic come to have two ex-SAS guys on her trail? How is a man like Hope mixed up in this?’
‘We don’t know. Maybe he was working with Bradbury.’
Slater looked up sharply. ‘Then he could know everything. He and Bradbury could be working together in this. Partners, for all we know.’
Slater glared. ‘So what you’re telling me is that this already fucked-up situation just got even more fucked up. We have a former Special Forces officer on the loose, who’s taking out our agents and may know everything that Bradbury and McClusky know. In other words, we just went from dealing with a dead-beat ambulance chaser and a frightened little girl to dealing with a trained fucking killing machine who’s at the very least the equal of any soldier ever produced by the US Army. You do realise that, don’t you?’
‘I realise that,’ the associate replied dully.
‘And have we any idea where this bastard might be?’
‘I was coming to that. He’s here.’
‘What do you mean, here?’
‘He passed through US Immigration, Atlanta, two days ago.’
Slater hung his head in frustration. ‘And you’re going to tell me the CIA can’t catch him?’
‘Our people got to the airport late. He slipped out of there.’
Slater stared hard at his associate. Shook his head in disgust.
‘We have to be cautious,’ the associate said. ‘This isn’t exactly official Agency business, Irving. And Hope isn’t exactly an ordinary guy.’
‘I pay you people a lot of money,’ Slater said. ‘He’s one man. One man. You have dozens of people on the payroll, and access to a hundred more at least. Is he really that smart, or are you really that inept?’
The associate’s temper was rising. ‘We’ve done everything you told us to do. We acquired Bradbury. Took care of Karapiperis. Brought in Herzog for the bombing. These things are not easy to do. It’s not like organising a press conference. One slip, we all go down.’
Slater snorted derisively. ‘If I’d known what a bunch of lames you people were, I’d have paid Herzog to do the whole thing.’
‘He’s a mercenary,’ the associate protested. ‘He believes in nothing.’
‘What does it matter what he believes in? The fucker could be a Satanist for all I care.’
‘That’s not what this is about.’
Slater looked at him levelly. ‘Oh, you think this is about doing God’s work? Let me tell you, this is business, first and last. Herzog gets the job done, and he doesn’t leave tracks that a blind man could follow.’
The associate was about to reply when his phone rang. He turned away from Slater and answered, talking softly. His eyebrows rose. ‘You’re sure?’ he said. ‘OK. You know what to do.’ He shut the phone and turned back to Slater with a grin of triumph.
‘That was Jones. He got Hope.’
Slater smiled for the first time in the conversation. ‘That’s more like it. Good. Now bring this bastard in, and let’s get him talking.’
‘You know I can’t be there,’ the associate said. ‘I can’t be seen.’
‘No, but I sure as hell will. I want to meet this character.’
‘I’m not sure you do.’
‘Oh, I do,’ Slater insisted. ‘And then I want to finish him.’