CHAPTER 21

Jean Marquez” was how she answered her phone.

“Jean, it’s Bob Swagger.”

“Oh, you!” she said. “I’m so happy to hear from you. I thought you’d disappeared.”

“I can be hard to find at times. My old crank’s suspicion.”

He was calling from his cell in the arrival terminal at Baltimore/Washington International. Vacation in Baltimore? In the real world, it’s been known to happen, but in this case, he was on duty, as it were. It wasn’t exactly Marquez he wanted to see; nor did he want to rent her inherited tommy gun – yet. He had another purpose.

“I heard about some Russian driver-murderer killed in Dallas,” she said. “I know I can’t ask you questions, but–”

“That was part of the deal. He was the wheel man. He tried his trick on somebody who was waiting for him. It was part of an FBI sting.”

“You–”

“I had a little to do with it. But the job ain’t finished. Have you got time to talk?”

“I’m a newspaper reporter. I chat, that’s what I do. Go ahead.”

“Ah, this is sort of hard to explain, but some evidence has come up that suggests a puzzle of some sort, many years old, might be involved and has to be solved. I know, it sounds goofy. It is goofy. But that’s how they worked back then.”

“I’m listening.”

“Did your husband ever make a connection to the Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov?”

“I must say, the last two words I ever expected to come from your mouth are ‘Vladimir’ and ‘Nabokov.’”

“They were the last two words I ever expected to say, believe me.”

“The answer would be no. Jimmy’s literary period was long past. He read about guns and he read history and politics. I don’t think I ever saw him read a novel.”

“Long shot here: did he ever show any interest in a gun called a Red Nine, an old German automatic pistol?”

“You know, it was always one gun or another, but they didn’t stick in my mind. I could check his books, I suppose. He was forever buying gun books from Amazon. The one-click shopping was his financial ruin.”

“That would be a help. I have one other question. This one is strange. It’s so strange, I can’t believe I’m asking it.”

“Wow, I can’t wait,” she said.

“It’s about literature.”

“Not exactly a small topic. I’ll try.”

“This puzzle, which involves both Nabokov and Red Nine, was put together by a guy who loved literature. His office was crammed with fiction books, up, down, everywhere, with underlines and commentary on what he was reading, all of them alphabetized, all of them in good shape, which I take to mean that they were of great value to him. He knew, loved, dreamed, and breathed literature. Fiction stories, anyway. So the puzzle might reflect that, and guess who’s stupid about it? Me.”

“I doubt you’re stupid about anything, but go on.”

“My question is, do you know somebody who really knows literature? I have to find a principle to uncork the message in the bottle, and I don’t even know what the cork would be, much less the bottle. I thought if I could talk to someone who knows and loves it, maybe that person would see something I never could or would say something that might organize my thinking in a helpful way.”

She paused. “There’s a creative writing department at Johns Hopkins that’s supposed to– No, no, wait, I have another idea. There’s a nice woman in town named Susan Beckham. She’s published a series of novels that have been extremely well received. She sent me a wonderful note when Jimmy died. She doesn’t talk to the press. She doesn’t want to ‘give too much away,’ she says. She’s the only writer left in the world who doesn’t court publicity. I could call her. This is exactly the kind of intriguing question that she might like. And as I say, she’s nice.”

– – – –

She was nice.

They met at three the next afternoon in a coffee shop in a utopian village in Baltimore called Cross Keys, where it was possible to forget the ugliness of the rat- and crime-infested city just beyond the fence.

She was willowy, her reddish hair shot with gray, her freckles still visible into her fifties. Well-turned-out in pantsuit and glasses and low heels, she could have been a mom, a vice president, a lawyer, a teacher.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Swagger. Miss Beckham?”

“Mr. Swagger,” she said, rising, offering a hand, “it’s nice to meet you. Jean told me you were an extraordinary man, a real hero in the old-fashioned sense.”

“She got the ‘old’ part right, anyway. All that was a million years ago. Even then I was lucky. The real heroes came back in boxes. Only us fakes came back on two legs.”

“I saw a limp as you walked in.”

“Okay, a leg and a half, then.”

That got him a smile. He sat down across from her.

“I’ve never solved a puzzle in my life,” she said, “so I don’t know how I can help you. But I’ll give it a try.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Here it is. There was an old CIA fellow whose job was making up phony biographies for agents overseas. He was good at it, because he had a creative mind and he knew a whole lot of stuff. He may have made up a name for someone, and I’m trying to find that man. Here is what I’ve found out so far.”

Swagger told her of the office full of novels, the special love of Nabokov and his puns and gamesmanship, and finally, the synesthesia that Niles and Vlad shared. “I know it’s hard to believe, but–”

“Mr. Swagger, I happen to be an expert on the tricks the mind can play on people. I believe it completely.”

“So that’s it. I’m thinking you’ll see a pattern or come up with a question I should ask, or might have an idea that–”

“Tell me what writers he had in his library.”

“Some I knew, many I didn’t. A few years back I read a lot of post-World War II novels. So I recognized The Big War by Anton Myrer, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Away All Boats by Kenneth Dodson, and The War Lover by John Hersey. And famous important writers, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Updike, all the famous foreigners, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Trollope, Woolf, le Carre, a lot of those Modern Library classics.”

“He had refined tastes.”

“Not quite. There was also a lot of what you might call junk. Crime stuff, thrillers, that sort of thing. A couple of books by James Aptapton. Lots of paperbacks, people like Hammond Innes, Jim Thompson, Nevil Shute, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, someone called Richard S. Prather, John D. MacDonald, another Mac-Ross Macdonald-books that, from their title or their cover, seemed to be about crime or murder. It was all mixed up. He wasn’t a snob, I’m guessing. If it had a good story, he’d learn from it. All the books felt read – you know, all the spines were limber, most were marked up, he had one of those ex libris labels in each one with his name. He was a hard, serious reader of stories. Nabokov, he had every Nabokov thing, some in Russian, even. Are you getting anything?”

She sighed. “No, not really. Only this, and I don’t see how it would be any help at all. It has nothing to do with synesthesia, colors, Russian lit, Nabokov, anything.”

“Please, who knows, maybe it’s the key.”

“One thing he would have learned over a lifetime of reading assiduously in both serious and pop literature is the difference between the cliched and the authentic.”

“Yes ma’am,” Swagger said. “Cliched and authentic.”

Without humiliating him by asking if he knew what that meant, she went ahead, after a sip of her coffee. “Cliched. Meaning written to a formula, familiar from a hundred other stories, with certain expectations. If you’ve read it before, it’s a cliche, but cliches are so insidious that many fine professional writers don’t notice them. And they’re comforting, like the furniture in an old house. They’re prominent in some of the pop writers you mentioned. Examples: the rescue in the nick of time. The hero and heroine falling in love at first glance. The hero winning the fight every time and never getting shot.”

“You do get shot in gunfights,” Bob said.

“Exactly. You know that, but many of these writers don’t. They just know that for the formula to pay off, the hero has to survive.”

“I get you.”

“On the other side – and please understand it has its own pitfalls – is what I’m calling the authentic. By that I mean the normal, the undramatic, the small. The world is never at risk. No one ever mentions a sum of a million dollars. People misbehave, get angry, forget things, come down with colds, lose the grocery list. The hero has terrible flaws that cripple him. No plan ever works right. The universe is largely indifferent to the fate of the characters. But life counts, love is important, pain is real. You have to find a way to dramatize that.”

“I understand,” he said. “Could you give me more cliches? Somehow that idea, what you’ve identified, I have a feeling it’s something Niles would have enjoyed thinking about.”

“It’s not just plot elements. It’s also language. Words that have been put together so many times, they’re as comfortable as an old bar of soap. ‘Dark as night.’ ‘Sky blue.’ ‘Wine-dark sea.’ ‘Raven-haired beauty.’ All those are familiar, so their meanings have eroded. They don’t carry any electricity. They remind you of a movie.”

“What about ‘Passion’s Golden Tresses’?”

“Perfect. Good God, where’d you get that?”

“It’s from an old magazine. Anyhow, I think I’m getting it.”

“Characters can be cliches too. Compare, say, Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe with Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. Marlowe is incorruptible, smart, and brave, and he sees through everything, every motive, every feint, every lie. He’s too good to be true. Humbert, though he’s super-intelligent, makes every possible mistake, is in the grip of a pathetic obsession, can’t control his own behavior. Even when he shoots Quilty at the end, it’s not some terrific, highly choreographed gun battle but a pathetic transaction, where, shooting wildly, he runs after a begging, crying man. So Marlowe is the cliche, Humbert the authentic. Nabokov wouldn’t write about a cliche, except maybe to joke about it, to turn it on its nose, to make a game out of it.”

“I see,” said Bob. “Would Niles, after Nabokov, make a game of a cliche?”

“Well,” she said, “as you know, Nabokov loved games, so I suppose Niles had to pick up on that. He might have. His ‘code’ may involve a spirit of play. You know him better than I do.”

“Can you give me some other plot cliches? Nick of time was one, the hero never getting shot was another.”

“The most famous would be ‘The butler did it.’ That’s from a type of English crime novel in the twenties, when murder was considered an upper-class occurrence and the books were pure puzzle. The temptation of the butler was too delicious to resist: he was invisible, he was discreet, he was loyal, he knew the house and grounds perfectly.”

“There were a lot of books with a guilty butler, then?”

“Dozens. Hundreds. Then they reversed the cliche. Since everyone expected that the butler did it, it turned out the butler didn’t do it, even if he was the chief suspect. That became just as much of a cliche. But if you wanted to do that today, the real joke would be a game on the game. That is, the butler really did do it.”

“I see,” Swagger said.

“Here’s another one. It’s prevalent in a modern thriller: nothing is what it seems. The hero’s in a situation, and he continually interprets the signs for guidance. What he doesn’t know is that some evil genius has purposely constructed false signs to lead him astray. It never happens in real life, but it’s a great, if cheap, device. Most such books or movies dramatize the process by which the hero sees behind the manipulations and figures out what’s going on.”

“Got it. And if Nabokov, or even Niles Gardner, were to do a game on that, his version would make you think that nothing is as it seems, but actually–”

“–everything is exactly as it seems,” she said. “I see, by the light in your eyes, I might have scored a point.”

“Yes ma’am. I’m realizing that was the principle of the Red Nine. I thought it stood for something or labeled something or meant something else – say, a code name for an agent, a radio call sign, a chess move, something like that. In the end, it turned out to mean nothing else. It simply was what it was. He saw nine as red. He saw all nines as red, that’s all.”

“It was literal, not metaphorical. So it was the subtlest of codes, yes. The code was that there was no code. Who would ever figure that out except maybe a Bob Lee Swagger? No college professor would figure it out, because no college professor would be capable of thinking that clearly.”

“I’m thinking that maybe he used the same principle on the next step. Something seems like a code, but it’s not. It just is what it is, in plain sight, but you could look at it all day and not get that. The code is that there is no code. The secret is that there is no secret.”

“It’s too clever,” she said. “I could never use it in a book. Real life is never like that.”

– – – –

It is all right to fail if you learn from your failure. Here is what I learned from the Moscow debacle. Swagger, at sixty-seven, was still very, very good. He could not be taken by run-of-the-mill criminal gunmen. He was too smart, too swift, too calm in action, too determined. Moscow had hardened him while confirming his suspicions, and he would move more directly to the target, which was, alas, me.

The second thing I learned (I have had to learn this lesson over and over again; maybe it will stick by the time I reach ninety!) is that you can’t rush things. They will happen at their own pace, at their own place in time. The more you rush, the more you cut corners, the more damage you do to yourself. I should have flown in my kill team at first notice and not tried to make do with a crew of uncertain talents and dubious motivations. To take professionals, you need to have professionals, so that issues of pride are involved, not just greed and the will to violence. My world-class killers wouldn’t have panicked, would have planned better, would have shot better, would have had more contingencies in play, would not have been thrown off their game when their sitting ducks proved to be armed.

The third thing I learned (I knew this too, but I forgot it also!) was to prepare the ground. Our team took Stronski at a place he, Stronski, knew best. He knew all the shooting angles, the paths through the bushes, the locations of the bench pedestals, which would stop incoming, and the trash cans, which would not.

I resolved to do better next time. For one thing, it would be the full focus of my attention. There would be no tending to empire and pleasure and turning to tactics in spare minutes between soirees. No, I had to go to war footing to win the war, which meant it had to be a 24/7 operation. I had to put aside my decadence and find my war brain again, and become the hard and ruthless Hugh of Clandestine Service, that old legend who’d killed a president and hundreds more in his time.

My first resolution was: take the fight to the enemy.

I knew I could not back off and let him find a new angle of attack to which I would react, because in the reaction would be encoded my failure. I was not going to live in anticipation of a move against me by this genius operator at the time and place of his choosing and pray for the luck of my guards. No, I had to go to him, I had to net him, I had to lure him to prepared ground where we knew the locations of the trees and benches and all the escape routes were predetermined, the sights zeroed, the weapons tested. It had to be done not just professionally but at the highest levels of professionalism.

I did have one advantage: I knew where he had to go. He had to go to Texas.

The only sure link to me was through the man who’d been his mentor in Dallas, and he suspected that man was an agent of mine. He’d have to reengage and infer from that a way to me. Who paid him, what were the arrangements, how did he report, how could he be played? He’d have to confront those questions.

In Texas I’d put something before him. Something so seductive, he could not resist its temptation. He would have to go after it; it would be his grail. He would study the approach, sniff a dozen times, seem to go, then back off. He’d circle around, he’d look for signs, for disturbances, for indicators of preparation and ambush, and I’d have to prepare carefully enough to survive that scrutiny. And finally – weeks down the long and winding path before me – he’d make his approach, and then we’d have him.

Since he was by nature a gunman, and since guns were in a way his Yoknapatawpha, I understood instinctively that he’d come at me through the guns. He would have no choice. They were what he knew, his terrain; he was the master navigator of that small world, and he would feel the most confidence in that arena. But there was more. I could feel it as if it were just beyond a screen or covered by a sheet, its outlines barely visible, no details yet to be seen. It had to do with guns. Guns were at the heart of it. Alek’s junky little war-surplus Italian clunker, Lon’s sleek, excellent Winchester, the whizz of the bullet to the target, the extraordinary damage such a small piece of matter could engineer within flesh if propelled at the proper speed and–

Then I had it. The breakthrough. Quite a moment, when it feels as if God is whispering in your ear. No, He is otherwise busy, I’m sure. The rapping at your chamber door is from your subconscious, which has been engaged with the issue full-time, trying facts against possibilities, seeing if parts fit or must be discarded, testing, testing, testing all the time until that moment when, miraculously, it all comes together in perfect, stunning clarity.

What I needed was a physical object, a file, a confession, something tangible and palpable, which would prove the existence of our plot against Kennedy. I needed something Swagger would kill to get and, at the same time, risk death to get. To make it real, I needed a plausible narrative to sustain it. I had to invent documents to validate it, I had to have unimpeachable witnesses to verify it, I needed a realistic chain of events that would account for its whereabouts since 1963 and that put it within Swagger’s reach today. This is what my imagination created in one gushing rush of fact and detail.

I came up with a gun case containing Hugh’s Model 70, the suppressor, and some of the hybrid .264/Carcano ammunition, locked and sealed with shipping tags proving it was shipped from Dallas to Richmond on the night of November 24, 1963, by Braniff. I imagined a backstory by which it was lost and then found by a writer doing a bio on Lon/John who would need the help of someone with practical ballistic experience. I imagined Richard bringing them together.

The one thing I could not imagine would be Swagger’s refusal.

– – – –

I must say that, though they cost me a fortune, the Joneses turned out to be worth every pretty penny. The profusion of old documents they produced was amazing. It turned out that Mr. Jones was some sort of paper expert who knew about thread counts, finishes, manufacturing processes, the effects of aging, and all the minutiae of what I suppose could be called the paper game. His true expertise was chemical; using a variety of magic potions out of little brown bottles that produced vapors, he could give a routine sheet of papyrus the brittle yellowness of age so accurately that it was laboratory-proof as to time of origin.

That product was dispensed to various nimble professional criminal figures under contract to people who were under contract to various other people who were under contract to me, and in a bit of time we’d inserted a document in the necessary file, which appeared to be the files of the Madison Avenue seventh-floor gun room of Abercrombie & Fitch, a legendary place that shipped Lon most of the rifles he decided he couldn’t live without.

The Joneses had access to a whole range of criminal fabricators I had no idea even existed. They were able to hire a contractor who built an exquisite replica of a 1958 Abercrombie gun case and had it suitably aged; they came up with a Model 70 of the appropriate vintage, a Unertl scope, aged bottles of Hoppe’s gun oil, and an ancient .264 brass brush. No luck on the German Schalldaempfer, so they settled on an ancient Maxim silencer that at least was time-frame-appropriate. They used a noted arms expert to fabricate the cartridges, and he did so on brass of the proper historical pedigree, loaded on dies of the proper historical pedigree, and the bullets loaded into the shells were authentically from the rare lot 6003 of the Western Cartridge Co. 6.5 Mannlicher-Carcano white-box ammo. Don’t ask what it cost. I’d rather not know.

Then there was the man who’d play the “writer” in whose care the gun case would be left. I couldn’t hire a con man or a real actor for this tricky role. It had to be an authentic firearms expert with great knowledge and a list of published volumes with whose work Swagger would be familiar. He had to be able to talk guns with Swagger, while Swagger was secretly monitoring the conversation, looking for telltale signs of a fraud. It had to be someone who was known to others in this field, so Swagger could get personal recommendations. Nobodies need not apply. Hmm, how would we settle this? I chose the expensive course, and the mission was given to my Israeli manhunters, those bird dogs of deceit and human weakness. In time they produced. They came up with a fellow named Marion “Marty” Adams, who, helpfully, had a character defect: a tendency toward larceny. As a known expert, he became a broker on many fine gun sales, the man who assured the buyer that it was indeed a rare first-model Henry rifle he was spending his $150,000 on and not a counterfeit. But there was so much more money in the counterfeits. Marty, it seems, was in the process of being sued by one enraged buyer, and if that became known, his reputation would be shattered, his career destroyed, and his bridge to the high end of the gun biz forever burned. Marty was approached; the offer was one he couldn’t refuse. He would quietly settle out of court with the plaintiff, paying an exorbitant punitive fine, and the case would disappear before causing damage to Marty’s reputation. Since Marty was an idiot with no money, cash and legal guidance would be our contribution. In return, he would be prepped to play a part in a larger deception, the point of which would never be clear to him.

There was one more figure, the lynchpin. That is, Our Man in Dallas, Richard Monk.

I decided to run him myself. I would do so by encrypted satellite phone, the most secure form of verbal communication in the world. I arranged for him to be given the implement, already dedicated to my number alone, so he couldn’t dial up sex talk from Vegas or make anonymous dirty calls to teenage girls in Tennessee at my expense. He would be the one man in the world who could reach me instantly and directly when the situation demanded it.

I knew I could not tell him he was tasked with leading Jack Brophy to his death in a violent commando ambush in which he might himself be winged or even terminated. He would flee to the moon by tomorrow noon. Or if he didn’t, Swagger would read the sick anxiety on his face like a road map. I told him a little fib as part of the briefing.

“I represent a venture group that has its eye on a nice collection of corporations. Alas, the sole owner of this group, a discreet, elderly WASP, cares not to discuss selling them to us at a reasonable price. Since we don’t kill, we have targeted the crown jewel of his collection for ruin, and when it collapses, it will drag down the stock prices of his other holdings. We will pounce, and he will wake up the next day a minority stockholder. We will buy him out for pennies on the dollar.”

“I see, but–”

“The crown jewel is an old and prestigious New York publishing house. We will swindle it, through your good efforts, into paying an outrageous sum for a book that ‘solves’ the Kennedy assassination, with the physical proof to make the case stick. That is why everything is arranged so carefully, as if we were the CIA. This is a deep deception. When the book is published to much huzzah, we will prove, through friendly journalists, that it is a hoax and that the publishing house has been deceived and is selling a fraudulent product that must be recalled. And thus falls the house of cards. Do you understand?”

“So it has nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination? Just some big-dough guys trying to outhustle each other?”

“No Q-and-A, Richard.”

“Yes sir.”

“Let us return to business. We expect in some time the man you know as Jack Brophy will make contact with you. Your job is to steer him, very carefully, to the man called Marty Adams. This should all be familiar to you.”

“It’s been pounded into my head.”

“You will brief me before and after every meet with Brophy.”

“Yes sir.”

“You will take extreme security precautions. He must never see this communications device, never suspect you are in real-time communication with me. He will penetrate your house, he will go through your underwear, your collection of dirties, he will read all the squalid details of your failed marriages, Richard. Where is the phone secured?”

“It’s in a book safe in the basement shop. It’s in Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, which was the only thing big enough to conceal it. But there are thirteen thousand other books down there.”

“That’s the guy, Richard. You make me so proud.”

– – – –

We started getting responses from the operation almost immediately. Pings, blips, echoes, readings, whatever you want to call them. Swagger was on my trail, and it was impressive. It wasn’t just his courage and his skill with a rifle that made him a standout. By some queer mutation, he had been given a superb mind for analysis and deduction. It is strange how genius occasionally shows up in a single generation, then vanishes. Yet as impressive as his skill and determination turned out to be, they didn’t answer the one question that most intrigued me. Why?

I suppose he needed a mission, and this was the one that came along. He was the type who couldn’t live without a mission. There was also the issue of grief: he had lots, beginning with his father, then moving on to his spotter, Donnie Fenn (he was married to Donnie’s widow, Jen), and finally, an Agency officer named Susan Okada, killed in his most recent foray into our world, which ended with a missile detonating in the Rose Garden. Was grief driving him?

Or was it something else? Could it be a love of Kennedy? Was he a JFK groupie whose world had been shattered at Lon’s shot heard ’round the world? Was he in love with Jackie, with Camelot, with the children, John-John and Caroline? Did he see himself as their avenger? It seemed unlikely to me that a man so relentlessly pragmatic would have a soft core, particularly in devotion to something he had never experienced himself but only read about and saw on TV as an American teenager. I remained baffled.

Nevertheless, he was a formidable opponent. And he was getting closer and closer. Could he win? I honestly didn’t see how, as I knew who he was, and there was an impenetrable wall between who I had been and who I was now. Even if he determined, as he was sure to do, that Hugh’s death was fiction, I had removed all traces from my records of who I might become. Anybody who knew me then was dead; only their children survived, and we of the Agency did not, as a rule, share with our children.

I knew this: he had to return to Texas.

The satellite phone rang at 5:55 p.m. my time.

“Yes?”

“He’s back in Dallas.”

“Richard, he approached you?”

“Out of nowhere. Like nothing had happened. I was sitting in McDonald’s a few minutes ago, eating my usual Egg McMuffin, and suddenly – there he was.”

Richard continued with his report, the upshot being that Swagger was back in town, as I had anticipated, and was playing Richard again.

“How did you leave it?” I asked after hearing the nuts and bolts of what had happened to Brophy, where his researches had taken him, where he wanted to go now.

“I’m going to look into the possibilities he’s interested in. He wants me to be discreet, because of the value of his ‘intellectual property.’ He’s afraid of a claim jumper or someone beating him to the punch. So he’ll contact me in a couple of days.”

“Do you know where he’s staying?”

“No. He made a joke about that. If I don’t know where he’s staying and I’m captured and tortured, I can’t give him up. Ha, ha. Not funny, in my opinion, but I laughed anyhow. He said it’s better if he finds me than the other way around. Just protecting his intellectual property.”

“Excellent, Richard. Do go ahead and help him. Don’t mention Marty Adams until you’ve gotten him what he wants. Don’t force it; it’s an afterthought, not a main point. If he doesn’t respond, don’t mention it again. He’s paying attention, even if he pretends he’s not. He’s mentally recording everything you say and will spend hours going over it. He’ll look into Marty, sniff, paw, howl a little, head up one trail, come back, circle around, and return. If he senses you’re trying to force him in a direction, he’ll be suspicious of you.”

“Sir, are you the type who kills people if they fail?”

“No, Richard. You will be tortured exhaustively, but not killed.”

“Thank you, sir.”

– – – –

I will spare us all the tedium of close reporting on the game. I will say only that its one amusement was the image of Richard, a fat lake trout with two hooks in his jaw, being played by two expert anglers. Poor Richard, trying to please me and trying to please the mysterious, slippery Brophy, with his far-seeing eye and almost supernatural gift for anticipation.

On the fourth meet, I felt that Richard was confident enough to work the Adams angle and authorized him to do so. He reported that Swagger reacted with indignity, even anger, but in the end seemed to warm to the idea of a collaboration. His final instructions: “Hold off a bit. Let me look into this guy. I’m not a writer, I’m an engineer. Maybe he could help me, I could help him. But goddammit, don’t tell him no more about me!”

He checked into Marty through the auspices of the FBI. Our computer wizards determined that another deep data search was done on Marty Adams, and circumspect inquiries were made in the publishing world and the high-end gun-sales world and so forth and so on, and we knew that they’d come back positive, since we had interceded before any stain on Marty’s honor could be recorded (just barely; he’d left many unsatisfied customers, so it was only a matter of time).

In week four, we got the news: our two fictions would meet. Jack Brophy and Marty Adams, each not who they said they were, each with a different agenda, but each eager to continue the charade.

– – – –

It seemed to go well. Marty, as anticipated and confirmed by Richard, was a blowhard autodidact, and he bored both Richard and Swagger out of their socks with his various pontifications. In the end, Swagger/Brophy was intrigued enough to agree to another meeting. Clearly, his interest had been snagged, particularly by the mysterious “thing” that Marty had promised would tie a ribbon around the case.

The wait. I am required to show that my craft discipline hasn’t eroded over the years. It wasn’t easy, but enough was happening to keep me busy, and for nights, I had Viagra, Shizuka, and forties musicals and melodrama. The Israelis, monitoring through their various cyber-penetrations, reported a more thorough hunt for Marty Adams particulars and now a network of field interviews by anonymous young men. Even Marty Adams’s agent was interviewed, seemingly on another matter, but the well-trained investigator managed to divert focus to Marty and spent most of the time unearthing details on him.

I realized the time was appropriate to initiate the tactical phase. The famous Meachum luck provided that Marty’s inheritance included an estate in western Connecticut, the last remaining relic of the fortune that his father lost trying to sell high-quality .22 target pistols to a country gone mad on fast draw and mock combat shooting in the fifties and sixties. The place, about a hundred miles outside Hartford, was hard against a scut of mountains in the low northeastern configuration, hills with trees to anybody who’s seen real mountains. On the property was a decaying house, and Marty’s taxes were in arrears, so we paid them off (ouch!) to preclude municipal interest. It wasn’t gated or fenced or up to modern security requirements, but it was remote from neighbors, and Marty retired there to write and shoot often enough that gunshots didn’t necessarily cause the police to drop by. It was also nice that he had a Class III license, so the sound of full automatic weapons, if heard, was not another police signal.

I had an engineering firm discreetly map the place, as I had an aerial photographer record its nuances from his Cessna. This documentation I provided my shooters in New Mexico. I asked them to prepare a plan from the documents, then to journey up there one at a time, infiltrate the property, and spend a few days exploring it and learning the land. They were all equipped with digital cameras for close-ups on the cover-versus-concealment issue, for the angles of fire, for whatever other tactical concerns came up.

The plan was sound. The goal was to get him under all four guns, run them hard to empty, and take him out in one decisive assault. Marty and Richard, if there, might fall in the fusillade. I decided that was an acceptable price to pay, although I never told them that, as I never told Marty about the incursions on his property and my plans for the final moments. He would survive or not, depending on his luck. But he was strictly collateral.

There was some debate as to timing. I ultimately decided on hitting him after he’d had his conversation with Marty and examined the unopened case and was on the road out of the place. The reason was that coming in, he’d be wary, he’d have a tiny worry that it was an ambush, and all his senses would be extra-sharp. He’d be volatile, prickly, at high combat readiness. He might be armed. If Richard was with him, that could tangle things as well. So we’d let him come in, and once he saw the package and realized its significance and gamed out what it explained and what it made possible and examined it closely (without opening), and looked at Marty’s X-rays of it, once he’d swallowed that, he’d be far more relaxed and at the same time distracted. His mind would be going a hundred miles an hour; he’d be in a mode of triumph because he’d found the leverage at last to prove the conspiracy, get the case reopened, and loose the dogs of law enforcement on Hugh Meachum and begin the international manhunt that would shake that villain out of the trees, no matter where the trees were.

The hit would go down a quarter of a mile out of Marty’s rambling wreck of a house, on a dirt road with a 33-degree angle and no maneuverability due to the dense trees and sharp angles on either side. If he should escape – doubtful, given the firepower – there was only one way to run, and that was up a low Connecticut foothill where the trees gave out. He’d find himself on Robert Jordan’s hilltop in Spain – no, Jordan was at the bridge, not the hilltop, who was at the hilltop? – anyway, that person’s hilltop in Spain, unarmed, with only a few low stones as the four best operators in the world moved in. El Sordo, by the way, was the fellow on the hilltop. El Sordo didn’t make it off of his, and neither would Swagger.

The firepower and accessories (someone, possibly Anna Wintour, said: “It’s all about the accessories”): the boys had decided to go with deep ghillie camouflage and to infiltrate the property two days in advance. There’d be no movement on the place the day before, and to any observer, casual or professional, no sign, no trace, no indication of penetration. If they had to move quickly, the boys would shuck the ghillies and revert to digital-camouflage battle tunics and trousers. Faces would be blackened or painted green-brown (for some reason, these commando types love the touch of the painted face!). Hatwear: either the ubiquitous black wool watch cap or a suitably dappled boonie cap. Fashion is so important to high-end commandos, and I wanted mine to be up to Ms. Wintour’s standards.

As for the guns, the boys would each have as primary ambush weapon the MK48 light machine gun that had happily mowed its way across Iraq. This superb piece of combat engineering was ultra-reliable, even in the sand, and spat out its deliveries at a rate of about seven hundred rounds a minute of 7.62 mm ammunition. It was beloved by high-speed operators. The ammo, slung underneath the gun body in a hundred-round belt rolled into a canvas-wrapped container, would be standard military ball, for penetrating the body of the auto. Anybody inside that vehicle would be Bonnie-and-Clyded in the first few seconds. If, by some odd trick, Swagger survived the initial hose-down and headed up the hill, the fellows would dump their MK48s and default to the latest AR platform, the M-6 IC from LWRC on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, accessorized with Eotech hologram sights, LaRue flexible 3X magnifiers, and at least ten H-K mags with twenty-nine rounds of Black Hills 77-grain hollowpoint. And of course – nothing is too good for my boys – each would carry a Wilson CQB .45 ACP and a Randall knife. I know all this because I saw the invoices, and it added up to Pretty Penny no. 2,318,314. Too bad these fellows couldn’t have been deployed against a meaningful national target instead of my need to get another hundred or so blow jobs from Shizuka before the reaper came calling on me, but there you have it.

As far as the extract was concerned, I would have a helicopter in orbit on the outskirts of the estate. One of the pilot’s duties was to monitor law enforcement channels, to see if the gunfire attracted any undue attention. If squad cars were dispatched from the state police barracks, he’d notify the ground team, swoop in, and evac. If not, he’d wait until they’d policed the killing ground, removing and disposing of the brass and the body and that load. Finally, I’d made disposition that he had FLIR aboard, forward-looking infrared technology, so that if, by a one-in-a-million chance, Swagger got into the brush, the chopper could nose him out via his heat signature and direct the kill team to him, again in a few minutes.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the process ground slowly on. Swagger leaped at the rifle lure, as I anticipated, but insisted that he first establish the provenance, and Marty skillfully guided him to the Abercrombie & Fitch records in Rutherford, which we had penetrated and into which we had inserted a superb forgery establishing ownership. When Swagger saw that, he would be hooked through the gills! He would insist on being allowed to examine it, and a date would be set for his trip to Connecticut. That was it. No big deal. Swagger was so provoked by the rifle case that all other precautions were irrelevant. That was the whole point of the multimillion-dollar operation, and it was accomplished in a split second, as an afterthought.

I had him.

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