I received a series of calls on my cell phone from Jake Grafton as I drove past Paris and headed for the ferry to England. We were a few miles northwest of Paris when Grafton informed me that the U.S. ambassador to France, the French intelligence service — the DGSE — and the French police had been told about the murders that morning at the Petrou chateau. The police demanded that Marisa and Isolde Petrou return to the chateau. With Grafton’s concurrence, I kept driving northwest. I started watching for police cars — and saw them everywhere. They took no notice of us … yet.
Nor did anyone seem to be following us. I spent so much time looking in the mirrors I almost crashed twice.
Twenty minutes later Grafton called again. The French police, he said, were now only demanding that the Mesdames Petrou not leave the country. The police had found four bodies and six people alive, huddled in the basement, where they had fled after a masked gunman had killed the butler and one of the maids. He also told me the Swiss banker, Rolf Gnadinger, had been found dead the day before yesterday on the stoop of his house. Stabbed to death with an icicle, apparently. The Swiss police were investigating.
When Grafton hung up, I informed the women. “You’ll need a new butler, maid and day security man,” I said. “Bet you have a hard time finding new people.”
Marisa didn’t say a word, which didn’t improve my mood. The problem here, I decided, was that Jake Grafton had given me only background without telling me who was really doing what to whom. These women probably knew enough to write a book. The old woman hadn’t said ten words to me, and Marisa only went in for cryptic comments to be passed on to Grafton. I felt completely out of the loop. The darkness was stygian.
A black Porsche got behind us and settled in. I changed lanes, and he did, too. Not that I could see the driver, because the windshield was slanted too much and the sky reflecting on it made it opaque.
I sped up. He stayed right with me.
Fearing the worst, I slowed down. A minute later the Porsche passed me — the driver, a woman, was using me to clear the road of police looking for speeders. I had been doing ten over.
“And Rolf Gnadinger is dead. Murdered. On his porch, apparently.”
“Rolf?” That was Isolde.
Isolde Petrou had been hit hard today, and she winced as she took this body blow. Marisa turned and looked at her. They stared at each other for a long moment before Marisa turned around.
In the next call Grafton said the coast was clear; I could take the ladies to England. “Roger that.” I flipped the phone shut.
“You’re off the hook,” I informed Marisa in a nasty tone of voice. “You won’t have to spend tonight in jail.”
She turned her head and gave me The Look. She had, of course, heard my side of the calls, which mainly consisted of a series of grunts and yessirs. In keeping with my role as loyal, obedient slave, I hadn’t asked any questions.
After checking again for tails, I glanced at Marisa. She was examining her hands. Probably looked the same as they had this morning, I suspected. Her face looked thinner, though, and drawn. The second time I looked, I could see some of the hairline scars, little white lines, that the plastic surgeon had apparently been unable to eradicate from her adventure in Paris last year.
“So,” I said conversationally, “is Abu Qasim your father?”
“He says he is.”
“Well, he oughta know. He was there at the conception or he wasn’t.”
Silence followed that flip remark. Okay, okay, that was ill-advised.
“Do you believe him?” I asked, glancing her way again.
She took a moment to reply. “I used to. It doesn’t matter now.”
“There’s such a thing as DNA testing, you know.”
Those brown eyes swiveled my way. I met them and then put my attention back on the road, where it belonged. Every so often I glanced her way, trying to decide if she was part Arab. She was a lovely woman, perhaps a shade darker than your average French chickadee, but so were a lot of women. Dark brown hair, almost black, those big brown eyes, perfect lips. No hook nose — nothing like that. Just a nose. Actually, a nice nose.
“It’d be nice to know,” I said after a while.
“No,” she said softly. “It would not.”
Isolde Petrou leaned forward and put a hand on her shoulder.
Eide Masmoudi didn’t tell his fellow spy, Rahwan Ali, about the bottle of binary poison in his pocket. In his life as a spy he had learned that a secret is a secret only as long as no one knows it. The fact that Jake Grafton knew about the poison didn’t count — he had supplied the stuff. Anyway, Eide thought he knew Jake Grafton, and the admiral would never tell a soul. Rahwan wouldn’t, either, for the simple reason that his life was also on the line. Still, if he didn’t know, he didn’t have to carry the secret around. The other thing Eide had learned was that secrets had mass and radiated energy. The more powerful a secret, the more it radiated, like a glowing pile of plutonium, and when a secret reached critical mass, the possessor had to tell somebody.
Eide was surrounded by young men, Muslims from the mosque, who couldn’t keep secrets. They lived in rented flats, as many as could be packed into a small apartment. The mosque was the center of their lives, where they worshipped, where they hung out, where their friends were. They told everything they knew to their comrades, every hint they picked up, everything they heard, everything anyone said. After all, they were involved in a great quest, were planning glorious deeds that would earn them entrance into Paradise. So of course they talked to each other, incessantly. The mullah, al-Taji, and his lieutenants, knowing this, told them as little about the planning of the glorious deeds as possible. Still, the young men got hints, and they speculated. These speculations and hints were the raw intelligence Eide and Rahwan passed to Jake Grafton, and he forwarded them on to his opposite number in MI-5.
Eide’s secret was giving off light and heat in his pocket — he thought everyone could see it. Could see the bulge in his trousers, could feel the heat, could see his guilt. Could see in his face that he was a traitor to jihad, their holy war against the infidels.
Not that he believed in jihad, because he didn’t. His mother’s death— murder — had convinced him. Jihad was an evil, a betrayal of Allah.
Still, the sooner he got rid of this bottle, the better. And the sooner he got out of this mosque, this gathering of the Devil’s disciples, the better.
He thought about getting out a lot now. Going back to America, back to Brooklyn. Back to the friends he had known all his life, the mosque where he had grown up, the cleric there who had been his friend and mentor ever since his father died in a construction accident, eight years ago. A year after his father’s death, his mother was murdered.
He had watched the television in horror as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. He knew she was in there, on the fifty-second floor. That was where she worked.
He remembered that day as the most horrible of his life. He had stayed glued to the television … and his mother never came home.
They never even found her body.
Later, in the days that followed, when the police would let spectators pass, he had gone to Ground Zero and stood looking. That was the horror the jihadists wanted, that they planned and plotted and schemed for as they dreamed of murder and Paradise, with houris who would give them sexual pleasure beyond their wildest fantasies. Because they murdered infidels — and fellow Muslims if they happened to get in the way.
Shit happens, the people in Brooklyn said.
Yeah, Eide Masmoudi reflected. Indeed it does. And simpleminded fools who have no idea of the harm they are causing make it happen.
Still, the bottle was hot in his pocket. He was going to kill a man with it.
That was no small matter.
Nor was the fate awaiting him if the holy warriors who followed al-Taji found out — or even suspected — he had been the agent of the great man’s death. In their anger they would torture and murder him as fiendishly as they could. They were like children, or savages, assuming that torture and murder of their enemies would solve the problems they saw in their world. When you hate enough, they thought, you can change the world. Hate was their motivation and their salvation. Hate enough and Paradise awaits.
Allah would watch over him, Eide thought. His life would go as Allah wished. God is great. Allah akbar. Put your trust in Allah and go forward. At least the holy warriors had that right; in fact, that was the only thing they had right.
All he needed was an opportunity. So far it hadn’t come.
Let it come soon, he prayed.
Jake Grafton had two men shadowing Huntington Winchester, so it was a simple matter to call them and find out where he was. New York City, they said, in an office building on Madison Avenue, across the street from Madison Square.
The helicopter that had brought him from Washington deposited him at the West 30th Street Heliport. He went to the street and hailed a taxi.
So that was how he came to be sitting in Madison Square when Huntington Winchester and two people, a man and a woman, came out of the building across the street and paused to shake hands. There was a limo waiting for Winchester, but before he could get into it, one of Jake’s men spoke to him and nodded at Grafton, sitting on a bench across the street. After speaking to the limo driver, Winchester jaywalked and joined the admiral on his bench. The two attorneys, if that was what they were, managed to flag down a taxi and climb in.
“Lawyers?” Jake asked, nodding toward the departing taxi.
“I’m putting a couple of their kids through Harvard,” Winchester said. “Divorces are the cost of socially sanctioned sex. Hell, everyone I know is divorced, getting divorced or wishes they were divorced.”
Jake Grafton, who had been happily married for many years, didn’t bother to comment.
“That man over there who spoke to me and pointed you out — he works for you, doesn’t he?”
“For a few days. I needed to keep tabs on you, and the folks at the FBI were kind enough to help.”
“He’s an FBI agent?” Winchester was incredulous.
“He’s still standing over there. Go ask to see his credentials.”
Winchester waited for a break in traffic and jaywalked again. The FBI man glanced at Grafton, who nodded, then produced his credentials for Winchester’s inspection.
When Winchester returned to the bench, he dropped beside Grafton and said, “Why didn’t you just call me?”
“We’ll get to that,” Grafton replied. He stood and glanced behind him to see who might be listening. That glance was not lost on Winchester. “Let’s take a walk,” the admiral said.
They walked through the park, and there was another limo waiting on Fifth Avenue. The driver held the door open for Grafton and Winchester as they approached.
“My wheels,” Grafton said, and motioned for Winchester to get in first. When they were rolling south down the avenue, Grafton said, “We can talk here.”
“So this isn’t some kind of giant scam,” Winchester said glumly.
“Jerry Hay Smith said it was?”
“I’d take anything he says or writes with a grain of salt, if I were you.”
Winchester rubbed his eyes with his fists. Finally he took them down and took a deep breath. “I’ve been a fool,” he said savagely.
“We both have,” Grafton said. “I should never have agreed to this charade.” He smacked his thigh with his fist. “Well, I did and you’re in it now, right up to the roots of your hair.”
Hunt Winchester stared at the admiral. “What am I in?”
“We’re trying to find a terrorist,” Grafton said softly, “named Abu Qasim. And now he’s trying to find you.”
Winchester couldn’t believe his ears. “Me? Find me?”
“He wants to kill you,” Jake Grafton said, smiling’to take the sting out of his words.
Grafton brought him up to date on events in Europe. When he fell silent, a badly shaken Winchester said, “I need to think. How about taking me back to my hotel?”
“Sorry. I have a suite reserved for you in a different hotel, under another name, and two FBI agents are waiting there. They’ll be just outside the door all night.”
Huntington Winchester tried to say thank you, but it wouldn’t come out. He nodded instead.
Oleg Tchernychenko and his two bodyguards rode in the back of the limo. The bodyguards rode on the jump seats facing aft, and Tchernychenko rode facing forward. As usual, he used his limo time to read contracts and proposals and memos from his small staff.
The limo driver, who had been with Tchernychenko for two years now, was a retired policeman. He drove too fast and, when he got stopped for speeding, never got a ticket.
The driver had brought the limo to Scotland from London to pick up Tchernychenko, who refused to fly unless there was no other way to get to where he had to go. As they rode the motorway south, the driver and bodyguards kept a wary eye on traffic.
They were well aware of the fact that criminals and terrorists had a variety of ways to stop a limo and kidnap or murder the occupants. A handful of determined men would be very difficult to thwart, especially since this vehicle was not hardened, wore no armor or bulletproof glass. The bodyguards had automatic weapons — old Sten guns, for which they had permits — on the floor at their feet. In holsters under their arms they wore pistols. The driver was also armed. They were competent, alert, fit and ready.
They had been in the car a little over an hour and were rolling along at about seventy miles per hour when the bomb under the floorboards exploded. It contained almost five pounds of plastique and sprayed glass and auto parts in every direction. The main frame of the car and the engine and what was left of the passenger compartment skidded along the road, smoking. The two rear wheels were blown completely off the vehicle. As the wreckage decelerated amid a shower of sparks and smoke, it caught fire.
Cars and trucks on the motorway swerved desperately. One large truck went into a guardrail and overturned. Another car smashed into it.
The burning wreckage of the limo came at last to rest on the edge of the pavement. There were no survivors.
Jake Grafton heard about the limo bombing an hour and a half later. “A bomb in his car,” the London station man said. “Probably set off by radio, perhaps a cell phone. They won’t know for sure for days.”
“You’re sure it’s Tchernychenko?”
“It was his car, and they’ve found a wallet they think is his. The bodies are in badly burned bits and pieces. Not much left for the coroner.” I see.
“I’m sorry, Admiral.”
“Damn it all to hell, so am I.”
The safe house that the agency’s London office wanted the Petrou women in was actually a guest cottage on an estate in Kent. I don’t know who owned or lived in the big house, but they avoided the cottage and anyone who stayed there.
It was dark when we arrived. The key was in the usual hiding place, so I didn’t have to pick the lock or do the Santa thing down the chimney. I aired out the place a bit and looked through the cupboards. Essentially bare, although there were containers of salt, pepper and baking soda. I left the women there and went looking for grub in a nearby village. Bought bread, milk, wine and cheese, cold cuts, some stuff in cans and tea — all the essentials.
When I got back to the cottage, the women were making beds and sweeping up. It was gratifying to see two aristocrats hard at the household chores. Maybe there is hope for mankind, after all.
I made a sandwich of meat and cheese and poured myself a glass of wine before either of the women had a shot at the groceries.
As I sipped vino, I reported to Grafton via cell phone. “Stay there tonight, Tommy,” he said. “Leave your telephone on. Call the office and let them know where to find you.”
“Got something going down?” I asked. “Something besides assassins with their hair on fire hunting Isolde and Marisa?”
“If the duty officer calls, someone will need you badly.”
I thought I knew who that someone might be. Grafton could have told me, of course, but he didn’t, which was par for this course. No need to burden ol’ Tommy with excess information.
I rendered a snappy salute as I put the phone in my pocket. When the wine was gone I went back into the kitchen, where Marisa was cutting cheese. I would have liked another glass of wine but didn’t want to open another bottle.
Just to be on the safe side, I went outside for a stroll around the house. The night was overcast, with a gentle cold breeze. Every now and then a spatter of rain dampened things down. I pulled my coat collar tight and shivered. Little squares of light shone from the cottage windows, dimly illuminating the yard. There was also a small light by the front door, one apparently activated by a light sensor. I tried to memorize where the bushes and trees and decorator rocks were, just in case.
The possibility that someone followed us from the Petrou chateau, or picked us up when we exited the ferry, worried me. I hadn’t seen anyone behind us for the last two miles, but that didn’t mean we weren’t followed. It meant I didn’t see anyone. These guys were killing people; certainly they were capable of setting up a rolling surveillance with three or four or five cars. With two-way radios and cell phones, anticipating my destination, the chore would not have been difficult. Even now they could be out there in the darkness, planning an assault.
How much paranoia can one man stand?
I wondered if I should stay inside or outside tonight. If I could sit against the house, under a bush, out of this wind … Then I yawned, which decided the issue. I was whipped. If an assassin showed up, he was going to have to wake me if he wanted a fight.
A button on the limo’s key fob locked the vehicle’s doors. I tried them just to be sure.
When I got back inside, I made sure the outside doors were locked and tried all the windows. They were locked, too. I made a pit stop, then flaked out on the couch and used my coat for a blanket. I could hear the murmur of women’s voices in the bedroom — there was only one — but I couldn’t make out the words. Nor was I curious. I must have lain there on the couch tossing and turning for a whole minute before I drifted off.
Eide Masmoudi was in the kitchen, fixing dinner, when the opportunity came. Suddenly he was alone. The water pitcher was on the counter beside him, full. He didn’t wait, didn’t hesitate. He pulled the bottle Grafton had given him from his trouser pocket, poured the clear liquid into the water pitcher, and put bottle and cap back in his pocket. Twenty seconds, max.
He was taking the lamb from the oven when he heard the door open and someone came in. He didn’t turn around.
The person paused. “Looks good,” he said. Eide turned. It was Sheikh al-Taji. He leaned toward the platter, took a deep breath and said again, “Good.” He actually smiled. He seemed to be in an excellent mood.
Then he was gone.
Eide got back to the task at hand. Radwan came in to help carry the food to the table in the dining room. The men filled their plates, then sat cross-legged on the floor to eat, as if they were in a tent somewhere in the great wastes of the desert.
Radwan served the water, then got a plate and joined them. Sheikh al-Taji was in a fine mood. He held forth on this and that, discussed obscure points of the Koran, mentioned the glories of jihad, shook his head over the tribulations of the believers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wasn’t a conversation, it was a monologue.
Eide filled his glass and forced himself to drink the water. He watched in fascination as the sheikh sipped at his, and wondered how much he had to ingest to get a fatal dose. Well, he told himself, he would soon find out.
The dinner went well. The senior lieutenants remained behind with the sheikh as Radwan and Eide and several other young men carried the dishes and pans to the kitchen and began washing everything.
All the while Eide wondered if he and Radwan should leave.
Radwan knew nothing of the poison. Only he, Eide, knew.
Still, one second’s loss of control of his face, one second’s hesitation in answering a question … and Grafton had said that everyone would be under suspicion. Everyone.
He and Radwan were both spies, with huge secrets to hide. Could they do it?
That was the nub of it. All through training, all through the early days of this assignment, Eide had wondered. Could he do it? Radwan had once admitted that he also had secret doubts. A man would not be human if he didn’t.
Marisa lay in bed beside her sleeping mother-in-law staring into the darkness. She had often lain awake in the night as a little girl at the boarding school, looking at the darkness and wondering about her mother. And how she came to be the “daughter” of Georges and Grisella Lamoureux.
Grisella was a woman with a cold, brittle personality, a person who took every pothole in the road as a personal affront. A forgetful maid, a sloppy waiter, all the usual jolts and abrasions of life she regarded as personal insults; consequently she was never happy. Her face habitually wore a frown. Needless to say, she was never pleased with her “daughter,” Marisa, who was incapable of being the model of childhood perfection that Grisella envisioned; indeed, that she demanded.
Consequently Marisa often thought of her real mother when the other children were fast asleep, saw her in the glow of her imagination. Her real mother was a beautiful, kind, understanding, gentle woman who laughed a lot and loved her little Marisa. Although in fact Marisa had no memory of ever seeing her mother, over time she convinced herself that this woman she saw in her dream was indeed Mama.
Being a child, she finally told the dorm lady all about Mama, about how she looked, how she wore her hair, her smile and laugh and touch. The dorm lady told the headmistress, who mentioned it to Uncle when he came.
She remembered Abu Qasim staring down at her as the headmistress talked, the look in his eyes.
Years later she wondered about the hold Qasim had on Georges and Grisella, the hold that would make them pretend to be parents of someone else’s daughter. Was it money? Grisella certainly liked her jewelry and fashionable dresses… and after all, in the diplomatic service Georges undoubtedly had to keep up appearances. Or was it something else, a dark secret, blackmail? When she was a teenager Marisa loathed Grisella and favored the blackmail theory. The woman was capable of anything, she believed. Grisella had probably murdered someone, a deranged lover, perhaps— any lover of hers would have to be deranged — and somehow Abu Qasim had learned about it. Qasim … yes, with his air of knowing all, back then she thought him capable of blackmail. Years later she found that he was capable of the most heinous crimes imaginable. Blackmail would have been a misdemeanor for him. Had Qasim murdered her mother?
Tonight, in the cottage in Kent, Marisa Petrou lay in the darkness turning that possibility over and over in her mind, as she had done for thousands of nights, ever since she was a child.
It was almost midnight when Eide Masmoudi and Radwan Ali met on the sidewalk outside the mosque. There was a trash can on the street corner, full but not overflowing, and as he went by he stuffed the tightly capped bottle in there. Just having it on his person was a huge risk — he had carried the damn thing far enough.
They crossed the street and were walking down the sidewalk when Radwan glanced over his shoulder. “What did you put in the trash?” he asked.
Eide looked back. Someone was reaching into the can, pulling out trash. He didn’t recognize the figure under the streetlight. “Who is that?”
“Looks like Omar to me, that suck-up from Libya, the one who’s always spying on everyone. He must have seen you put something in there.”
Eide jerked at Radwan’s arm and kept walking. “I put a bottle in there,” he said. “Jake Grafton gave me a small bottle with a chemical of some kind to pour in the drinking water. It will kill the sheikh, stop his heart. Maybe tonight.”
Radwan stared into Eide’s face.
“It’ll look like a heart attack,” Eide said.
Radwan stood paralyzed, trying to process it. Eide grabbed his arm and forced him to keep walking. “Grafton wants us out of here. Now.”
“Oh, man …”
“I’m going to call Grafton and set up a meet. He’ll send us back to the States.”
“All my stuff is in our flat,” Radwan protested. “My money, everything. I gotta go by the flat and get my stuff.”
“Let me call Grafton first.” Eide removed his cell phone from his pocket and punched in a number he had memorized. They continued along the sidewalk.
As Eide waited for the phone to send the call through, Radwan said, “Man, if the sheikh croaks and we rabbit, the holy warriors are going to smell a rat. They’re going to be really pissed. I mean, like, really pissed.”
Eide snapped the telephone shut. “So what do you want to do?”
“Man, if that asshole just drops dead of a heart attack and we sit there with our mouths shut, looking innocent and heartbroken, who’s to know?”
“Grafton said the risk was too great.”
“He doesn’t think we have the balls for this.”
“I don’t know that I do,” Eide said as he forced himself to put one foot in front of the other. He had his cell phone in his left hand, his right in his pocket, and was staring at the sidewalk.
“Well, by God, I do,” Radwan Ali declared. “These jihad fools are pissing on believers everywhere. They’re pissing on the Prophet. They’re pissing on Allah!”
“It’s that kind of world.”
“Allah will help us. He’ll give us strength. The truth is we are on His side. Do you believe or don’t you?”
I came awake when I heard someone moving in the room. My pistol was a lump in my pants pocket, and Marisa’s Walther was in my coat. I lay frozen, listening. The glow from the light outside on the stoop gave the room a smidgen of illumination.
“Are you awake?” Marisa’s voice.
“Yeah,” I said. I moved then. I reached into my pocket and got the pistol in my hand. Slid it out. Since I had my overcoat over me she couldn’t see what I was doing.
I found her with my eyes. She was wearing some kind of robe and was barefooted. Since she hadn’t had a chance to pack when we left the chateau — yesterday? — presumably she found the robe in a closet. She held the robe shut with her arms, which were wrapped around her chest.
Marisa sat down in the stuffed chair across from me, so I relaxed a little. If she intended to stick a knife in me, she was going to have to come flying out of that chair to do it. She used a hand to brush hair back out of her face.
“I want to talk to Jake Grafton,” she said.
“Umm.” I checked the luminous hands of my watch. About 2:30 a.m. here, 9:30 p.m. last night on the East Coast. “What about?”
“One of his favorite subjects,” I admitted. What the heck. Grafton rarely said anything interesting, and Marisa might. After all, Grafton told me to pump her. I got my cell phone out, flipped it open and pushed the button. Grafton’s cell number came up. I pushed the green button and listened to the rings. He got it on the fourth one.
“Marisa wants to talk to you.”
“Quiet as a grave.”
“Okay, put her on.”
I threw the coat back and stood, reached, handed the phone to Marisa. Her eyes swept over the pistol I had in my right hand and fastened on the cell phone. She grasped the thing in both hands and said, “Hello.”
I went to the window by the front door and looked out. At least the limo was still there.
When I turned around Marisa was walking toward the kitchen, whispering into the telephone. I got a few words, but only a few.
I debated following her — after all, she was using my phone — but didn’t. I dropped into the chair she had vacated, put the pistol back in my pocket and yawned. Her voice was merely a low murmur.
Ten minutes passed, then fifteen. I was starting to nod off sitting up when Marisa came back and handed me my phone.
“Thank you,” she said.
When she turned away I caught the glistening of tears on her cheeks. I reached out, grabbed her, pulled her gently onto my lap. She didn’t resist. I wrapped my arms around her and she laid her head on my shoulder.
After a while I realized she was asleep.