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Authors: Campbell Armstrong

Asterisk

BOOK: Asterisk
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PRAISE FOR THE WRITING OF CAMPBELL ARMSTRONG

“Campbell Armstrong is thriller writing's best-kept secret.” —
The Sunday Times

“Armstrong is among the most intriguing of blockbuster writers … near to unputdownable.” —
GQ

“While touching on suspense with a skill to please hard-core thriller addicts, he manages to please people who … warm to readable novels of substance.” —
Daily Mail

“Armstrong's skill is not just an eye for a criminally good tale but a passion for the people that will populate it.” —
The Scotsman

“Subtle and marvelous … This is a dazzling book.” —
The Daily Telegraph
on
Agents of Darkness

“A consummate psychological thriller … Without doubt, Armstrong is now in the front rank of thriller writers.” —
Books
on
Heat

“Armstrong has outdone both Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follett.” —James Patterson on
Jig

“A full throttle adventure thriller.” —
The Guardian
on
Mambo

“A wonderful puzzle that keeps us guessing right to the end.” —
Publishers Weekly
on
Mazurka

Asterisk

Campbell Armstrong

A book for Keiron

asterisk:
the character * used in printing or writing as a reference mark … or to denote a hypothetical or nonoccurring linguistic form

—
Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

1

Saturday, April Fool's Day

In his dark-blue suit the major general might have been a businessman awaiting the arrival of a client. He sat at a table in the cocktail lounge, a place of plastic plants and stained polyurethane ceiling beams, some Tudor fraud, and sipped from a glass of Seagram's and 7-Up. He held a leather attaché case in his lap. He looked at his watch. 12:10. What could be keeping Thorne? He hated unpunctuality at the best of times but now, especially now, it was quite intolerable. He lit a cigarette, turned the glass around between the palms of his hands, gazed across the crowded tables of the lounge.

Muzak played.
The King and I
. He had once been very fond of it.

But it was past and dead like so many things.

He stared at the door that led to the street. Thorne would come through at any moment. By the same token, so could any of the others. Lifting one hand from the edge of the attaché case, he rubbed his eyelids. Then he replaced his dark glasses.

He smoked another cigarette, ordered a second drink. In the old days there wouldn't have been these nerves. But something gives; something in the body yields and after a time you just can't cut it. You looked at death and what you saw was no longer an old enemy but something that grew increasingly familiar.
Come on, Thorne, come on
. He raised his glass to his lips and noticed that his hand was trembling. It had been a long time since he had last seen that. Still, he thought. Keep still. He put the glass down, spilling some of the drink on the surface of the table.

The tape stopped.

He listened to the babble of voices from all sides. He watched the door. His heartbeat, as if there were some quite desperate thing trapped in the cage of his ribs, was explosive. It was twelve seventeen. Thorne's father, old Ben, would never have kept a man waiting. Punctuality had been a law for Ben.
If a man can't be on time then it means his life is a mess
.

But Ben was dead. That was one of the worst adjustments of growing old; one by one, your nearest friends had gone.

And me, he thought. Me. How do you think of something so inconceivable as nonexistence? The door swung open, closed again. A young couple, hand in hand, a pair of lovebirds. She was smiling and lovely, he was tall and cool and unflustered. The major general considered his wife a moment, the track of some memory. A specter. He was twenty years older than her; had there ever been a time when they'd looked like the couple that had just come in?

He closed his eyes. There was new Muzak now. The sound of voices drowned it. Dying, he thought. The fight didn't seem worth it now. He tapped his fingers on the attaché case. They said young Thorne was smart, trustworthy, a man Going Places. All he could hope was that something of the old man had rubbed off on his son. Honor. At least that.

The door opened again. A middle-aged man, heavily built, constructed like some retired football player, came in and looked across the tables. How can I be sure? the major general wondered.
Please, Thorne, please
. The middle-aged man found an empty table some distance away and sat down and took a silver cigarette case from the pocket of his maroon leisure suit. You hardly ever saw cases like that anymore, the major general thought. They had once been all the rage. The man turned his head a little in the direction of the major general who glanced once more, once more, at his watch.

12:24.

Thorne.

He ran the tip of a finger around the rim of his glass. The trouble with fear, he thought, is the fact that it quickly becomes a constant. It becomes the norm of your life and not the exception. You live all the time on the dark edges. Because you can't live anyplace else.

He looked across the bar. Waitresses, like small panicked birds, darted back and forth between the tables and the bar, carrying trays, setting glasses down, flustered by the noise, the unseasonable heat. If Thorne didn't come, he would have to talk to one of the waitresses. That was the only course.

He looked at the man in the maroon leisure suit.

Then down at his attaché case.

Somehow, one way or another, the world would have to know.

A truck, a tanker of some kind, had slammed into the center strip of the highway and skidded about a hundred yards on its side. The driver, seemingly unconscious, was surrounded by medics; two cars of the highway patrol were parked some distance from the truck, their lights flashing. The ambulance sat sideways, blocking the fast lane.

Thorne got out of his car and looked impatiently along the highway. How long before they could get this thing moving? Behind him there was a long line of vehicles. A few drivers, like himself, had come out of their cars and were trying to get a look at the accident. He felt the kind of hopeless anxiety that goes nowhere but into some frustrated resignation. He got back inside his car and drummed his fingers on the wheel. How much longer?

He switched on his car radio, rolled down his window. The day was hot, the air uncomfortably humid. There was a news item or two on the radio: the possibility of another oil embargo, a coal-mine disaster in Kentucky, the unmanned spacecraft was sending back pictures of the Martian surface. He turned the radio off and wondered if the old boy would wait.

Up ahead now he saw the medics carry a stretcher into the ambulance. The truck, like some surreal metal elephant, lay on its side; a posture of death. If it were important, the major general would surely wait. Besides, what was the mystery? What was the reason for this meeting? And why in some suburban restaurant? Thorne realized he hadn't seen the major general in—what?—fifteen, sixteen years? The last time had been at the funeral. He remembered the small reassuring man in military uniform with a look of genuine sorrow in his eyes. They had shaken hands after the service, the only mourner, Thorne remembered, who had looked genuinely sad—apart from his mother. Having shaken hands, the major general had taken a handkerchief from his pants and blown his nose; his eyes were watery.
Your dad stood for something, John. He stood for a set of values that aren't so obvious anymore in this great country of ours
. And Thorne recalled the pain in the man's face, the obvious struggle to control his grief, the way the voice shook. It had been a rainy morning; rain had soaked the flag draped around his father's casket, it had fallen against the black veil of mourning worn by his mother, pressing it flat upon her face so that her shock, her loss, was apparent to anybody who looked.

Walking away from the graveside, the major general had put his arm supportively upon the widow's elbow, and something in the gesture had struck Thorne as incongruously
gentle
, something he would not normally have associated with a man in military uniform. But there it was—a certain softness, a consideration, a moment of compassion. It had touched him; it had helped alleviate, in a small way, the sorrow of the morning. On the way out of the cemetery, the major general had drawn Thorne aside and said:
Be true to his values, John. Try your best to be true
. A brief salute, one man to another, not a patronizing gesture made by a soldier to a kid. Then the small man had walked off into the rain, to the waiting car.

Every Christmas since then he had received a gift from the old boy—handkerchiefs, socks, an electric razor, and on the Christmas of his twenty-first year a wristwatch. It was always accompanied by a card whose message rarely varied:
I hope this finds you well … I hope the last year has been good and the next will be even better.…
Occasionally he heard from his mother that she had seen the major general, usually by chance, and that the old soldier was anxious to impart advice—on financial matters, on her late husband's papers, whatever. It was almost as if the major general were keen to make himself a surrogate member of the family, anxious somehow to please the ghost of a dead man.

And then the call last night. Incoherent, scared, urgent.
We must meet and talk. It's vital. Vital
. Thorne saw that the inside lane had been cleared now. A highway patrolman was signaling cars forward, passing them through slowly. He put his Volkswagen in first. The clutch was slipping. It had always slipped in first, right from the time he had bought it. Vital, he thought. What could be so vital to an old man on the edge of retirement?

BOOK: Asterisk
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