Washington insiders said that the most influential man in town was the president’s aide Sal Molina, a Hispanic lawyer who had been with him throughout his political career. Just what his title and official position at the White House were no one seemed to know. Or care. Molina was the man who got things done. The fact that he didn’t attend social events or make speeches or shake hands at fund-raisers only added to his legend.
The evening after Grafton’s meeting in Marblehead, he offered Jake Grafton a beer. “So, how’d it go?” They were sitting in the basement rec room of Molina’s house in Bethesda.
Grafton popped the top and took a sip before he answered. “There are seven of them, three of whom are Americans: Winchester, Simon Cairnes, a World War II veteran who runs the biggest bank in the United States, and Jerry Hay Smith.”
“Jerry Hay Smith, the syndicated columnist?”
“Yep. He’s the guy who said that AIDS is the last, best hope of African wildlife. Remember that crack? It lit a firestorm in the black community and the Hollywood raise-money-for-AIDS crowd. They tried to get him fired.”
“Have you seen his column today?” Grafton continued.
Jake removed a torn piece of newspaper from his pocket, put on his reading glasses and read, “Any religion that advocates the murder of anyone who isn’t a believer isn’t worshipping God — it’s worshipping the Devil.”
“Mr. Gasoline Mouth,” Molina muttered. “He’s a master of saying the unpleasant truth in a way calculated to piss people off.”
Grafton folded up the clipping and tossed it onto Molina’s table. “Winchester talked to him, and Smith suggested Winchester talk to the president. I suggested we leave him out. The problem is Smith already knows way too much.”
“Some of these reporters can keep their mouths shut.”
“If this little party explodes in their faces and Smith gets hauled in for questioning,” Grafton continued, “you, me, the president and every literate person in the country are going to read all about it every day.”
Molina sighed audibly.
“In addition to our American heroes, the group includes a Russian that Winchester does business with on a regular basis, Oleg Tchernychenko. He left Russia after he had a falling-out with Putin over oil deals. Winchester says he has ears in the Russian intelligence community, for which he pays dearly.”
“I’ve read about him in the intel summaries,” Sal Molina said.
“There’s also a German named Wolfgang Zetsche. He’s a socially committed, politically active businessman. Runs the largest shipping company in Europe and the Middle East. If it gets hauled to, from or through the Arab world, Zetsche hauls it. He’s big with the Green Party in Germany. Nobody hates polluters like Wolfgang Zetsche. Apparently he also has a powerful dislike for Islamic terrorists.”
“The sixth person?”
“A Swiss banker, Rolf Gnadinger. He’s chairman and CEO of one of the biggest banks in Zurich. Reputedly he has connections at banks all over Europe.”
“I’ve heard that name before.”
She is the chief executive officer and chairman of the Petrou family °r banks, which are the largest and most profitable banks in France. Her husband built the banks, but when he died a couple of years ago she took over. The word is she’s got a better head on her shoulders than he had, and is a better banker.”
“But isn’t there something—“
“Her daughter-in-law is Marisa Petrou.”
“Seven people, seven different motives for getting involved in a conspiracy to wage a private war.”
“We know Winchester’s motive.”
“You are the most pessimistic bastard I know,” Sal Molina grumped.
“I doubt that. Even talking about this to you shows that I’m the biggest idiot you know — I’ll give you that.”
“Do you ever take anybody at face value?”
Grafton ignored the question. “Security will be impossible,” he said pointedly. “Even if Jerry Hay Smith doesn’t write a column about how he and his friends are fighting the good fight that the government is too incompetent to handle, that little cabal will leak like a sieve.”
Grafton chuckled. “The amazing thing is that Winchester assumes that the United States government is not hunting very hard for the terrorist leaders. Even the president’s friends have lost faith. I’m supposed to use my contacts — unspecified contacts — to find key terrorists using the information our data-miners can glean from their computers and contacts, and send some hard-asses after them. Winchester et al will pay all expenses and salaries.”
“You told him you’re CIA?”
“Yes. I doubt that that impressed him, however. I’m a man his friend the president trusts, and right now that’s enough.”
“So what’s your recommendation?”
“I can tell you right now that the director”—he was referring to the director of the CIA, William S. Wilkins—“wouldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole. When the leaks start, everyone will assume this is a CIA operation, a poorly planned, incompetent, idiotic one, and if PR or legal pressure builds on these companies, they may decide that this whole operation was the government’s idea after all. Won’t be pretty.”
“Can you get information with their help that you can’t get now?”
“Maybe,” Grafton said. He sipped beer, looked at the baseball game on television, a league championship game, watched the pitcher shake off a couple of signs, then wind up and throw. “I don’t know. The kicker is that these people will all know what the agency is up to. I’d almost rather hack into their computers — and we’re doing some of that— so they don’t know anything to tell. The private army thing — I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“Winchester wants to help. He can make noise if he’s brushed off.”
Grafton ignored that remark. “The reason I think we must go forward with Winchester is that somehow, for some reason, Winchester included Isolde Petrou in his circle of conspirators. I know it’s a small world and all that, but still…”
“The daughter-in-law, Marisa,” Molina said. “I haven’t forgotten. You think she’s Abu Qasim’s daughter.” Qasim just happened to be the most wanted terrorist alive.
“She might be,” Grafton said, weighing his words. “Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe it’s our good luck, maybe it’s a dangle, but I think we have to go forward, get into this, see what we can get and where this thing goes.”
“You smell Qasim, don’t you?”
“I’m getting a little whiff of evil,” Grafton agreed. “And if he’s really hidden in there somewhere, some of those seven people are probably going to get killed. Maybe all of them. If we put bodyguards around them, we’ll never see the tiger.”
“Presumably Winchester and the others know what’s on the line.”
“I doubt it,” Grafton said sourly. “They think getting arrested is the big risk. They’ve all got tons of money, armies of lawyers, gilt-edged reputations. They know they can beat the charges or plead them out and get some minimum sentence. Here and abroad. They’re all filthy rich, so they don’t really care about money or bad publicity. The Americans will think a pardon is a possibility when the president leaves office. The last thing on their minds is winding up in a coffin.”
Sal Molina was not squeamish. “Innocent people get murdered every day by terrorists. Casualties are inevitable.”
Jake Grafton only grunted. He worked on his beer and idly watched the ball game on television.
Sal Molina took a long pull of beer, then said, “Car bombs alone kill dozens of people around the globe every day. True, Abu Qasim and his minions aren’t responsible for all of them, or even most of them, but they do their share. And they are the people capable of pulling off big, complex operations, such as shooting down airliners, blowing up trains, sinking ships, assassinating heads of state … How many casualties are you willing to take to get Qasim?”
Abu Qasim was the most dangerous terrorist alive, in the opinion of most of the people in the upper echelons of the intelligence community. Grafton had crossed swords with him once before, and Qasim escaped alive. And Marisa Petrou had been close by.
Sal Molina, the lawyer, bored in. “One … ten … a hundred … a thousand?”
“That if the question, isn’t it?” Grafton murmured. “Winchester and his buddies better update their wills and get right with the man upstairs.”
“You’ll give it a try, then?”
Grafton finished his beer and crushed the can in his fist. “I don’t think that using this cabal creates more risk for my people. In the final analysis, the job is fighting terrorism, one way or the other.”
“Winchester and his friends are all volunteers,” Molina said, “for whatever reasons they think are good enough. Your clandestine operators are also volunteers.”
“Don’t give me that shit, Sal. We don’t send people to commit suicide. Not for God, or Allah, or the holy flag, or any other reason under the sun. We send people to take calculated risks to achieve results that we hope will benefit all the citizens of this republic. And I’m the idiot who calculates the risks and has to live with the outcome, good or bad.”
The silence that followed that comment was broken when Molina murmured, “Sorry.”
“All things considered,” Jake Grafton finally said, “I think we should give it a try.”
Winchester’s estate in eastern Connecticut comprised almost fifty acres. His wife owned thoroughbreds, and although she was gone, the horses weren’t. They sported in pastures doing horsey things behind carefully painted white board fences. The barn was recognizably a barn, painted white and trimmed in red and blue. It had paved floors and stalls and mechanized hay-bale-moving equipment. I thought it needed a chew mail pouch sign on the side, but there wasn’t one.
I stood in the middle of the barn looking at the horses, some of whom were in their stalls looking at me. They looked a lot smarter than some of the people I spend my time with.
“It doesn’t even smell like a barn,” I said to Jake Grafton, who was standing beside me looking around in silent amazement. “Look up there.” I pointed. “Aren’t those odorizers of some type? I thought I smelled lavender.”
Grafton looked, shook his head and walked out of the barn without saying good-bye to the horses. I trailed along behind him.
I should probably introduce myself. My name is Tommy Carmellini, and I work for Jake Grafton, sort of. Officially I’m a tech-support guy, but Grafton, who is the agency’s head of European Operations, wants me to do nontech chores for him from time to time, so when I’m not bugging embassies in Bulgaria or tapping phones in Buenos Aires, I trail around with him doing whatever he tells me.
Today he led me across the paved parking lot behind Winchester’s mansion and past the row of limousines and their chauffeurs, who were standing around visiting and smoking and wiping invisible road grime from their chariots with white linen towels. As we went by the manicured flower beds, I nodded at the gardener, a lady in a wide-brimmed straw hat kneeling in the dirt, digging up the dying fall flowers, and followed my boss into the mansion.
The place was stunning. The back of the building held the living quarters, kitchen, dining room and guest rooms, while the front was one huge room. The second-story living quarters had a balcony in the room, the ceiling of which was at least three stories high. The largest white marble fireplace I have ever seen was on the left wall; the other two walls consisted solely of soaring glass windows — the entire walls. Sunlight streamed in. The ceiling pitched down away from the fireplace, and through the windows to the right, where it was lowest, I could see a patio, a pool and a cabana of some sort.
The floor of the room was broken up into seating areas, one around fireplace, one around a wet bar and piano and one around a library collection housed in bookcases under the balcony. Several nice bronze sculptures sat on coffee tables, and a large stone one stood in one corner. It was an Indian chief, I think, or perhaps a wood sprite.
I decided the architect either was a really far-out, avant-garde genius or had a serious drug problem.
The house sat on a low hill, so there was a view. Looking between the mature trees in the lawn, way out there I could see Long Island Sound.
I would have liked more time to gawk, but it wasn’t in the program. Huntington Winchester, whom I recognized from his pictures, shook Grafton’s hand and introduced him to the people standing around the fireplace area. Being the hired help, I hung back; no one tried to introduce me.
A dog came over to check me out. She was a collie, reasonably well groomed, dressed in a nice collar. She did her sniffs and moved on. I didn’t try to make a friend. It’s not that I don’t like dogs, but I can never bring myself to pet strange dogs. Been bit too many times, I suppose.
Grafton had given me the names of the people, so it was easy to put faces to them. Simon Cairnes, the American banker, was a tall, erect, elderly man with an enviable mane of white hair. He walked with the help of a cane.
Near him was Oleg Tchernychenko, the Russian who lived in England. He was a medium-sized guy, lean, in his fifties, dressed in a Scottish golfing outfit. Amazingly, even in duds like that, he fit right into this eclectic crowd.
Next Grafton shook hands with Wolfgang Zetsche, the German shipping magnate. He was a skinny, feisty fellow, full of nervous energy. This guy, Grafton had told me, was a lady-killer of some renown, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. Well, maybe the ladies would, but his charm escaped me.
Jerry Hay Smith, the American journalist, was also a little shrimp of a guy. He was in his early forties, I thought, whippet thin, a Boston Marathon type. I thought he was also probably one of those guys who go through life with something to prove and wearing a perpetual chip on their shoulder. He almost elbowed Zetsche out of the way so he could pump Grafton’s hand. He was wearing a cheap sports coat that he might have stolen from a used-car salesman.
The Swiss banker, Rolf Gnadinger, was wearing an Italian silk suit that must have set him back a couple of thousand euros. Unfortunately he had a paunch that was a little too big and round shoulders, so he didn’t cut quite the figure he was striving for. On the other hand, that was a heck of a nice suit. A nice watch, too — I got just a glimpse, but it looked like a platinum Rolex accented with diamonds.
Last but not least, Winchester introduced the admiral to Isolde Petrou, the French widow who was running the biggest banking operation in Europe. She was in her early seventies, I think, dressed in the latest French fashion; even so, she looked as tough as shoe leather. She was wearing small diamond earrings and a little blue stone on a necklace that complemented her tailored knit dress. (I don’t mean to bore you, but being a former jewel thief, I notice these things.)
Grafton asked them all to take a seat. He stood with his back to the white marble fireplace. “Tommy, check that we are indeed alone.”
I checked the doors, even went upstairs to ensure no maids were listening just inside the doors to the balcony. I gave Grafton the Hi sign.
“Mr. Winchester tells me you are friends of his,” Grafton began. “He also tells me you have agreed to allow my agency, the CIA, access to the records of your businesses for the purpose of finding money-laundering transactions that we can use to find terrorists. Except for Mr. Smith, of course, who doesn’t have a business. Is that correct?”
They all murmured assent. Then Jerry Hay Smith said loudly, “He didn’t tell us you are CIA.”
“An oversight on his part, no doubt,” Grafton said with a straight face, then motored on. “He also tells me you are each ready, willing and able to fund a small private army to hunt these terrorists, wherever on earth they may be… and kill them.”
Silence followed that remark. He looked from face to face. As he did so he called the roll, beginning with Huntington Winchester.
“Yes. I am on board,” Winchester said.
Each of the others murmured assent.
Satisfied, Grafton discussed the malignancy of the people who directed and funded terrorism. “Terrorism is cold-blooded murder of the innocent,” he said. He went on, not mincing words: “These people were dangerous, and they might come hunting those who were hunting them. Not to mention the fact that prominent, wealthy businessmen and women were prime kidnapping and terror targets in their own right.
My attention wandered to Jerry Hay Smith. Big writer … it seemed like he should be taking notes. Maybe he was.
I also watched Isolde Petrou while Grafton was talking, and wondered about her. Last year her daughter-in-law, Marisa, was up to her gorgeous eyeballs in Abu Qasim’s scheme to assassinate the leaders of the G-8 nations. Which side of the street was Isolde really on?
Grafton also talked about security, the need to keep secret the fact that the records were being mined by restricting its circulation to those in their employ with a need to know — and those people were very few.
“Who will you get to mine the records?” the Swiss banker asked.
“I can find some competent tech-savvy people for the job. If I couldn’t, I’d be the wrong man for this job.”
“How do you know they’ll keep the secrets?”
“I only hire people I trust. You see, the world you are entering runs on trust, on faith in your fellow man. In the end, that is the only value that really counts.”
“Of course, if terrorists who dealt with your institution are arrested or killed,” Jerry Hay Smith pointed out, half turning so he could see Gnadinger’s face, “they or their friends will know who they dealt with.”
Isolde Petrou fixed a cold stare on the journalist. “If we are afraid to search for and apprehend these people, we are already defeated.”
“Well put,” Winchester said, nodding.
“Heck, every bank in this country has systems in place to identify money laundering,” Simon Cairnes said roughly. “It’s required by law. Our systems will just get improved. I don’t see what the big deal is. A bank is just a big corporate box.”
Grafton talked about a few specifics, such as how each person there would be told who to hire, and how the undercover data-mining experts would actually proceed. Then he opened the floor for questions.
“You know who we are, but we don’t know you,” Simon Cairnes pointed out. “Tell us about yourself.”
“My name is Jake Grafton. I retired as a two-star admiral from the Navy.”
“Weren’t you involved in that revolution in Hong Kong a few years back?” I was.
“And the turmoil in Cuba after Castro died?”
“And didn’t you testify before Congress about the loss of USS America a couple of years ago?”
“You’ve done your homework, I see.”
“Will you tell us the results you achieve?” Jerry Hay Smith demanded. “In other words, what will we get for our money?”
“Blood,” said Jake Grafton.
No one spoke. Or coughed. Or breathed.
Jake Grafton broke the silence.
“It is my hope that with the information we get from your companies, and with the valor and skills of the men and women I will recruit to help us, we will achieve significant results. How significant remains to be seen. But I will tell you this — we are hunting the most virulent vermin alive today, and when they find out they are being hunted, they will strike back. I want you to think about that. Perhaps you already have. If you want out, don’t want to help us search your records, don’t want to contribute money to Winchester’s enterprise, now is the moment to withdraw. Once we begin, it will be too late. Let there be no mistake, none whatsoever: You are putting your lives, your families’ lives, your businesses and your employees at risk.”
None of his listeners twitched. They sat like graven statues. I wondered if any would chicken out.
Isolde Petrou spoke first. “So our choice is to actively take a stand and lead the fight, or to hide in the crowd and share its fate.”
Grafton nodded. I thought I could see a trace of a smile on his face.
“Well put again,” Huntington Winchester told her. He stood and looked at the others. “Civilization has treated us well. We have built institutions that provide employment for tens of thousands of people, allowing them to support and educate their families. We enable other people and other businesses to do the same. And we have earned enormous fortunes. The real question is, Are we going to allow these fanatics, these xenophobes, these religious zealots, these madmen to destroy civilization and drag us back into the seventh century, or are we going to fight back? Are we going to take a stand?” Winchester faced Jake Grafton. “Admiral, I am with you, even if you and I stand alone.”
“You’ re not alone,” Oleg Tchernychenko said. There was iron in his voice. The others murmured their assent.
“I suggest we all have a glass of wine and a snack,” Winchester said, trying to lighten the moment. He went off toward the kitchen to summon the staff.
Later I heard him say softly to Grafton, “It went well, I think. They’ll all cooperate.”
While Grafton mixed and mingled with the zillionaires over caviar and wine, I zeroed in on Mr. Smith. As fate would have it, I managed to spill a glass of good chardonnay on Mr. Smith’s atrocious sports coat.
“Oh, my heavens,” I said. I got busy trying to clean him up with a couple of the waiter’s napkins.
“Take your hands off me,” he said loudly, trying to push me away.
“I’m so sorry, but that stuff will ruin your coat if we don’t get it off,” I said. I held him and dabbed and swabbed vigorously.
“Who are you, anyway?” he demanded as he searched my face.
“Well, stay away from me.” He pushed me with both hands.
“You bet.” I gave the napkins back to the waiter.
The other folks were watching, so I beat a judicious retreat.
Later, when we were in the rental car on the way to the airport, I gave Jake Grafton the little digital recorder I had snagged from Jerry Hay’s pocket and told him where I got it.
“I didn’t know you could pick pockets,” he remarked.
“One of my many talents,” I replied humbly.
Grafton glanced at the recorder, then tossed it over his shoulder onto the back seat.
“You know,” I said conversationally, “if the activities of this little group become public, it’s going to be bad. Really bad. A private war, with the unofficial aid and encouragement of the president and the agency — it’ll be a first-class firestorm.”
Grafton merely grunted.
“How did this operation get approved?” Proposed covert ops had to go before layers and layers of lawyers and committees. This is the new CIA we’re talking about, one that the worthies in Congress don’t think could spy a bomb on the Capitol steps.
“Well,” he said with raised eyebrows, “I don’t think it was approved. I’m sort of doing what the White House ordered me to do, and if it goes bad, heads will roll, mine, Sal Molina’s, Bill Wilkins’…”
“The president’s,” I suggested.
Grafton eyed me. “I sorta think so,” he said softly.
I searched for something to say and couldn’t dredge up a thing.
“Of course,” Grafton mused, “I don’t think the big dog and Molina thought they were putting their dicks on the chopping block when they sent me to talk to Mr. Winchester. They thought they could send me to keep him happy, let him spend some money and think he and his friends were doing some good, and, who knows, maybe it would. That was the upside. If it went bad and started to stink, I would take the fall; they would tell Congress that they were trying to fight the good fight and I botched it.” He shrugged. “This terror war has got them twitchy. They must be seen to be fighting the good fight, giving it their all. Their mistake, they would explain, was trusting an incompetent — that Grafton fool. But, by God, they tried.”
“Why are you telling me all this? I kinda wish you hadn’t.” I silently promised myself that I would never, ever again complain about Grafton not telling me things.
“I need your help,” Grafton said, his eyes pinning me again. “If we can kill Abu Qasim, this whole mess will have been worth whatever it costs, including a prosecution and trip to the pen for me.”
“The terrorists have lots of soldiers,” I pointed out.
“And damn few really good generals. Qasim is unique. He speaks five or six languages, has a network all over Europe and the Middle East — maybe even in America — and he thinks big. Most of these guys think small. They are small. Qasim is a great white shark with brains.”
I watched his face, which mesmerized me. The years had left crow’s-feet around his eyes and weathered his skin. Still, behind those gray eyes I could see the fire. Jake Grafton was a warrior to the last drop of blood. Sitting there beside him, I could feel the heat of that flame.
Maybe I’m a fool, but I would have followed the man through the gates of hell to shoot it out with the Devil — and it looked to me as if that was precisely where he intended to go.
“The key is Marisa Petrou,” he said. “She knows this bastard better than anyone alive, and I’ve got a hunch she knows what he’s planning.”
His eyes were focused on infinity. I had seen him like that before when he was trying to see what other men could not.
The admiral was silent for a while. Then he said, “The Islamic jihadists want to destroy civilization. They reject religious freedom and the right of others to live as they choose. They want to deprive us of our right to think. In the name of a bloodthirsty, vengeful, merciless god, they are trying to drag the people of the earth back into a new dark age.”
He thought for a bit as he drove along. When he spoke again, Jake Grafton said, “Those people in Winchester’s living room are willing to make a stand. They’re willing to risk everything they have — their reputations, their fortunes, their freedom and their lives. So am I. I’m going to help them if it’s the very last thing I do. And, God willing, I’m going to lay hands on Abu Qasim.”