Calamities come like the blizzards, never the same, and never a man’s choosing.
— Tilok proverb
When Sam heard Raval’s voice on the phone, he knew that something had gone terribly wrong.
“She says she’s not coming back right now. She says I have to get ready to give her the materials.”
“What else did she say?”
“We spent almost no time on the terms of my contract with the French government. But then she had told me before she left that I would not be working for the French gov ernment. And she winked. I don’t know how she winks about such grave matters. I hope she is not making promises she cannot keep. I am supposed to print out and sign docu ments at seven tonight. We are faxing signatures. I will e-mail the documents into escrow. I am to provide the official Grace documents via FedEx to escrow. You must know from Benoit that they are phony records because Chellis was so paranoid. He made sure the official records were false and the real papers privately held. Now I have them all.”
“We should talk,” Sam said.
He met Georges at the Plaza Hotel in the same conference room where he had met Benoit, only this time they were alone. Georges always wore a blue blazer and tonight was no exception. Although he appeared worried, he also appeared collected. He was a strong man. It was 5:00 p.m., two days after the meeting in the park.
“I will send the Grace documents and the contract from the attorneys, like she asked,” Georges began.
“She knows what she is doing, we have a plan.”
“You know the real Chaperone document is in the safe-deposit box.”
“Yes. I know. Benoit knows it as well. She knows what we’re doing, Georges.”
“I don’t want to endanger her in any way.”
“We passed that point when she went to Gaudet. We have to stick with the plan.”
“What in the hell is the plan? I thought she was coming back.”
“Georges, we were going to keep it between ourselves- Benoit and me-but things are changing. So, I’m briefly going to give the broad outlines of what is happening. She’s going along with Gaudet because we’re trying to stop a terrorist attack on the United States. This attack is for money, not for revenge or ideology.”
“What kind of attack?”
“Using the raging soldier vector on millions in the streets of major U.S. cities. Gaudet calls this plan Cordyceps.”
“Oh, my God, that will be a disaster.”
“We know. Georges, to get the information about Cordy ceps, we need to go along with a sale of technology to the French government. But as you’ve figured out, it’s a fraud. We intend to stop the sale before it closes. Rogue French agents are involved. We are risking France’s two hundred million, but as I said, we’ll stop the sale before money changes hands, if we can. We will halt the escrow immediately after we get all the information on Cordyceps. But if Benoit can’t get away from Gaudet, or if we don’t get the info on Cordyceps, then the deal will close and France may release their money without getting all they’ve bargained for.”
“So then I will be involved in a swindle.”
“Not exactly. You will have no legal problem, but we will explain that later. You just need to know that Benoit is going to try to leave Gaudet, and if Gaudet holds her, we are going to try and get her out.”
“What if you can’t?”
“That’s a problem. I won’t lie to you.”
“This is not comforting.”
Sam put his hand on the scientist’s shoulder. “We are going to do everything humanly possible to get her back.”
Sam left a stunned Georges and stepped into the hall, where he found a pay phone to call Jill. He wasn’t com pletely certain the cell would be free of tapping.
“What do you think?” Jill said.
“It wasn’t supposed to go this fast. She was supposed to come out. I’m guessing Gaudet doesn’t trust her. Either that or I misfigured her, and if that’s the situation, I don’t know where this thing is going.”
“We don’t dare tell the Feds to warn the French and stop the deal.”
“No way. It will totally compromise Benoit and it will ruin our chances to get information through her.”
“Yeah. It is hard for dead people to talk,” Jill pronounced.
Benoit and Gaudet were in the St. Regis Hotel, near Central Park. They had been there two days with adjoining rooms, and Benoit’s outer door came complete with a couple of guards. Her room was equipped with a high-speed Internet connection and an Inspiron 8500 laptop provided by Gaudet and an “assistant,” by the name of Big Mohammed, who watched every move she made. Gaudet was in an easy chair in the next room and didn’t come into Benoit’s room unless Big Mohammed was absent. Often Trotsky was present; that plus Spring’s magic had kept Gaudet at bay. She wondered how long it would last.
Unfortunately, the laptop computer left whenever Big Mohammed left. Benoit had opened the double escrow with Credit Suisse. Pursuant to contracts between Gaudet’s company in Quatram and the French government, Gaudet ac knowledged in the documents that his company had no claim to the ownership of the Chaperone technology. Raval attested that he was the primary inventor of the technology and that the official Grace Technologies record of Chaperone would be deposited into escrow. For political and legal reasons Raval’s attestation was critical because France’s claim to the invention came through the bankruptcy of Grace Tech nologies, which owed massive sums in back taxes. Grace’s ownership in turn came through Raval’s employment by Grace, since for patent purposes he was the inventor. The entire transaction would be handled over the Internet, except for the phys ical signing of escrow instructions. In Gaudet’s case it was agreed that an electronic signature would be acceptable. Benoit, on behalf of Gaudet, deposited electronically into escrow all of the manuals and information that he had obtained from the original laboratories in Malaysia, and even more critical, the Grace document provided by Raval, explaining Chaperone. Much of this material was new to the French laboratory, which had received only information from Grace labs in France.
France deposited the $200,000,000. The moment it was in the account, Benoit advised Gaudet. Returning to her room, she discovered the following message from Baptiste.
You need to return to France immediately. We need to work on your pardon. And we need a week for our scientists to verify the technology. Seven days from today should suffice. We will then need seven additional days in order to close.
Benoit printed the message and took it to Gaudet.
“This was not part of the deal. They are reneging. You know that the Chaperone document is correct… Hell… you have staked your chance for a pardon on it. That has to be good enough for them. Write that. Tell them no way. It must close now.”
“It is like the government. They are used to making demands,” Benoit said. She went back in her room and composed a message consistent with Gaudet’s directive.
Big Mohammed was asleep with his chin cupped in his hand. Working fast she put the message into an e-mail by making it an attachment and sent it off to Baptiste. Next she went to the sent items, then re-sent the message to Sam’s e-mail address. Then she double-deleted the forward to Sam.
“The government will not close without a chance to verify,” came the almost instant response from Baptiste.
At that moment Gaudet stuck his head in the room and saw Big Mohammed asleep. “Wake him up and tell him to get out. Leave the computer.” Gaudet stepped out of the room. She woke Big Mohammed and explained that he had been sleeping in front of the boss. The man sprang instantly awake and tried to explain.
“Forget it. He’ll cool off, but just leave for now. We’ll call you.” She was hoping for a break like this.
“You should see this,” Benoit said when Gaudet returned.
Gaudet came and read over her shoulder.
“Bastards. They never said anything about this. Tell the bank the deal is off and they are to permanently delete all documents immediately. I can live without the two hundred million.”
“Let’s give them one more chance.”
“I propose the following response.”
We’ll send the following message immediately to Credit Suisse if you do not retract: To Credit Suisse es crow holder — Permanently delete all documents as per escrow agreement clause 17.
They waited. Benoit could imagine Baptiste on the phone with the admiral. Baptiste would be taut as a bow string, his retirement on the line; Admiral Larive would be cursing, imagining his career, his honor, sliding into a garbage pit.
“I will kill that bastard if he backs out on me. I have done harder things than kill an admiral,” Gaudet said.
“He is not just an admiral, he is the head of an intelligence agency. Don’t worry. They will not back out. They want this too badly.”
“Even so, they won’t get their five before Cordyceps. I’ll give them three days maximum.”
“Wait. You can’t do that. Baptiste must believe I am play ing ball with him and that he will be rich and we will be lovers. The admiral must believe the same. I need my pardon. I can’t change the play.”
“Damn the pardon. You will be with me.”
“Of course I will be with you, but I will not forsake the pardon. That was our agreement.”
“You’ll stay with me. I will protect you.”
By force of will she did not argue with him. In fact, with the power resting in his hands, it was the perfect moment to ask: “How will you bring down the United States?”
Gaudet’s eyes were shining. Her heart beat in her ears as she stood on the threshold. She was looking at a man energized by intrigue, a man who got high on risk.
“Cordyceps is a perfect analogy. We will first eat away at their innards and then take the brain.”
“The U.S. is such a large place, though…”
“I have men already in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington. They have enough of the vector to transform a million people in each city. Imagine a total of maybe four million people, all driven to kill, all for no reason. At the same time, imagine fifty million computers dying during the crisis. Police, fire, transportation, FBI, CIA-all crip pled, sodomized with a baseball bat.”
“But how will so few men spread the vector?”
“Helicopters that have been made to look like police helicopters.” Then Gaudet’s eyes seemed to regain their focus. “Now you’ll have to sleep handcuffed to my wrist.”
She studied Gaudet. Even through his disguise she could see the energy in his body.
With no preliminaries he stepped back behind her chair and lifted her hips so that she was bent over the computer. He put his hand under her dress. She put her mind in the faraway place of her meditation and then straightened herself up. Deliberately she turned in his hands until she faced him and looked in his eyes.
“You have changed,” he said. “Not nearly as much fun as you used to be.”
“Maybe I’ve changed my ideas about fun.”
“I haven’t changed mine.”
He ran his hands up under her shirt. When she grabbed them, anger flashed in his eyes and she struggled to put her mind at rest and to draw strength from her we pac maw. Any moment he would pull out his knife and that would be the end of resistance. For a second he looked like he might really hurt her. Gradually she loosened her grip on his hands so that he was free to continue while she held his gaze. He said nothing while he pondered what must have seemed like a new Benoit Moreau.
The computer made an audible tone and broke the ten sion. She turned away from his hands, sitting back down to the computer.
“Baptiste is responding,” she said.
We will do the deal with only a 24-hour review win dow, but only if you first send us Benoit so that we can receive appropriate reassurances.
It was an unexpected shock.
“I’ve got to think.” Gaudet stepped away and paced across the room. “I wonder what I can offer them?”
“I have to go back,” she said.
“Now that you know about Cordyceps? Out of the question. So now what?”
Benoit wrote a message.
You may have 24 hours for your review of the vec tor and Chaperone documents, but you must view them in escrow. No documents may be removed from the offices of the escrow holder until closing, no copies made while you are determining their authenticity. I cannot come immediately. Gaudet wants the same assurance that France wants. For him, proof of straight dealing means holding his knife to my throat. Close the deal and release the funds in 24 hours. Or I cannot consummate a transaction at this end.
Gaudet read it.
‘Tell them five days until Cordyceps. Tell them four P.M. EST, on the fifth day.” She wrote it.
“They will never give me a pardon.” “You idiot. They won’t give you a pardon anyway.” They waited for Baptiste’s reply.
“How are we doing with the scan? It should be a simple matter to trace the IP addresses on Benoit’s last e-mail.” Jill stood over Grogg while he typed with amazing speed, running through all manner of queries on Big Brain. Sam was watching as well over the video monitor in New York. They were working on two vital puzzles at once. One was the whereabouts of Benoit Moreau.
“I can’t believe I have to ask a computer where Gaudet has taken Benoit,” Sam said.
“Oh, come on, Sam, give me a break. We did the best we could. Besides, the idea was to get her in with Gaudet, not keep her out.” Jill was unusually tense because, like everyone else, she was afraid for Benoit and she knew the stakes.
“I’m sure we did that. She’s in him, he’s in her… in out, in out.”
“Grogg, don’t be such a prick,” Jill snapped.
Grogg smiled wickedly, and Sam shook his head.
“You two have almost achieved domestic bliss,” Sam said. “Next you start marriage counseling.”
“Forgive a guy a little levity, huh,” said Grogg. “You know if this goes bad, it’s gonna be hell. You think your port folio sucked after the last attack…”
“People are gonna die,” Jill said.
“I know that, damn it. Shit.”
There was silence for a while as they waited. No one was saying a word about the second item on their minds. Sam and Jill were waiting to see if Grogg’s latest attempt to break into Gaudet’s Cordyceps Windows folder would succeed.
“Damn, it disappeared again.”
“Oh crap,” Jill said.
“I gotta try the next idea,” Grogg said.
“How’s the work on the antivirus coming?” Sam asked.
“I’ve got twenty people in a contractor’s shop working on it, along with four of our own. It’s based on the assumption that they get in through Windows SMB/CIFS. I have made a lot of other assumptions. Like what I would do if I were an evil genius.”
“Instead of just Grogg?” Jill patted his head.
A phone rang in LA.
“It’s the FBI,” Jill said, putting the call through to Sam in New York.
“This is Ernie.”
“The director isn’t into this yet?” Sam said.
“I’m the designated Sam expert. Around here they think you’re a little crazy. They do take the threat seriously, on the one hand, but on the other, there isn’t any evidence that anything is going to happen. Obviously, Gaudet is selling out to the French government, but maybe the Cordyceps thing is a hoax to hold the price up.”
“Maybe. Let’s hope so.”
“But you don’t think so.”
“I think it’s real.”
“Our scientists don’t think this can be delivered as easily as anthrax and the DNA in the vector would be damaged in the irradiation of the mail.”
“Nobody says he has to send it through the mail.”
“The CIA is considering destroying Gaudet’s entire facil ity in Quatram. Defense, of course, would love to lend a mis sile or two,” Ernie commented.
“Good idea. That way you can destroy Gaudet’s main server, thereby making it impossible for Grogg to break in and read the Cordyceps files.” It was a rare moment of sarcasm for Sam, but he was losing patience with the government’s nonsense.
“Yeah, well, the State Department will like that argument. They aren’t as fond of blowing things up. Arab countries tend to take issue.”
“Tell them to wait until after we hack into the computer.”
“When I tell them this, they’ll want the CIA to try hacking in.”
“That’ll be good. They hire us to do that sort of thing, but now with millions of lives at stake, they want to learn. Tell them to do their hacking and rocketing after we access the computer.”
“You gotta understand, Sam, this Cordyceps is like a bogey man that’s everywhere and nowhere. We have no intelligence on it except what you dig up. The French claim they don’t know anything about it. They’re just buying technology that they already own-that’s according to them.”
Sam thought briefly of Figgy, whose voice had been oddly absent of late.
“I understand the frustration. I guess you can tell we’re not too happy either.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“Check every delivery system for the vector that you can think of. Check everybody coming into the country. Especially Mexico and Canada. Look for mercenaries, not terrorists. These people are not likely to be Arab or French. This is a money deal.”
“How in the hell do you profile people like that?” Ernie was exasperated.
“You’re the expert on that. Not to mention that you have the invaluable assistance of customs and the border patrol. While you’re at it, you might consider shutting down all private aviation until we sort this out. Also look for phony gov ernment aircraft that could be used as a delivery mechanism. Lastly, if you’d like more good news, I’m guessing that the people who will deliver Cordyceps are already in the coun try.”
“You know we don’t have enough evidence to shut down private aviation. People will go nuts if we don’t find anything.”
“You are exactly right. If we don’t find anything, hun dreds of thousands of people are going to go nuts and start killing people. So let me get back to what I’m doing. If we find out anything, I’m sure we’ll need all the manpower of the federal government. Until then… I’ve made my suggestions.”
“They want you at a meeting.”
“Put some Tilok war paint on your face and go in my place. Either that or arrest me. I’m busy.”
“Sam… the government pays you…”
“So put a stop payment on my check.” Sam sighed. “We can video-conference if you must.”
“Fine. One more thing. I ran this antivirus thing up the flagpole, and even though they are paying to build it, they think releasing gazillions of antiviruses on the Internet is way too risky. The cure could be worse than the disease. It’s never been done. It’s not tested. Off the record, they are going to say no. And whatever you do, don’t release it without permission from Homeland Security. I think they have their own ideas.”
“Hey, look at it this way, Ernie. We’re on orange alert. What could go wrong with such vigilance?” Sam didn’t bother commenting on the fact that the government was now apparently paying for an Internet antivirus that they were certain they would never use. It didn’t matter, because Sam figured he might use it anyway.
“Our government does a good job,” Ernie said.
“For a government it does. But it is a government.”
“I’ve heard enough.”
“No, no, Ernie, don’t go away. I need your help.”
“Sam needs the government?”
“I want to go talk to Benoit Moreau and you could be of assistance.”
Jill’s mouth dropped at that one.
“And how might you do that if neither you nor the U.S. government has the faintest clue where she is? Somewhere in the U.S., I believe you said?”
“Well, actually, I’ve narrowed it down a little. Let me off the line for just a second.” Sam put Ernie on hold. “Jill, I know you like to hear things first.”
Even on the video monitor Jill looked like an egg would fry nicely on her forehead.
“I also had a team following Benoit.”
“I was in charge of that,” Jill responded.
“You were. And you did an excellent job. But I had a radio locator device.”
“You said that was too dangerous.”
“It was. That’s why she had to drop it shortly after she left the train. But we had her long enough. I wanted both teams to be completely independent. This way, because they didn’t know about each other, they were. Can I do something to win back your goodwill?”
“I’ll give it some thought.”
“Now that I’ve told you, I guess we better tell Ernie because we’re a little tight on time.” They conferenced Ernie back on the line: “Ernie, I believe I’ve narrowed it down a little, but you have to promise this is off the record.”
“There’s no such thing anymore.”
“Okay. I’ll call a rent-a-cop.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Where in the Constitution does it deny me my right of free association and free speech?”
“All right, all right. It’s not off the record, I just didn’t hear it.”
“I need you to call the St. Regis Hotel, the housekeeping department, and tell them I’m a government contractor and whatever else you have to tell them to get their full and silent cooperation.”
“Just tell me one thing and, of course, I never heard it.”
“And how’s that different than off the record?”
“Quit being a wiseass. What room?”
“Is that a joke?”
“Damn,” Ernie said, and hung up.
Jill still looked pissed.
“Grogg thought of dropping the transmitter.”
“Don’t blame Grogg, you dirty rat bastard,” Jill said. “I knew there was a reason I never married you.”
“There was. It was my stupidity.”
“So, tell me what happened!”
“We knew she went behind some small shops. They took her out of Grand Central in a crate. Once we knew about where she was… Well… how many huge crates come out of small shops in Grand Central? The crate was one of several suspicious activities that we checked on. We followed it to the hotel and used off-duty cops to check it out. They nar rowed it down to a particular floor from staff who saw a crate, and then we got a match for Benoit with a description of a woman in one of the rooms from one of the maids.”
“And that’s it? Why were we trying to trace the e-mail?”
“Confirmation never hurts.”
“He could be torturing her, Sam. Millions could die. Why confirmation? Why not storm the place and see what she knows?”
“Because she doesn’t want to come out until she knows enough about Cordyceps to stop it. She signed up to be a hero. You take her out too soon and we may lose the whole war.”