Authors: Stuart Woods
Stone napped a little, and at six o’clock there was a rap on the door. “Come!” Stone shouted.
A valet pushed a cart into the room. There was a rack where Stone’s clothes hung and another at the bottom, containing his personal luggage. Everything was put away. Stone very nearly tipped the man but reconsidered. Who knew what the local custom was?
There was a bottle of Knob Creek in among his shirts and underwear, and he thought of having a drink, since, in a Muslim society, he was not likely to be offered one later. Instead, he had a soak in his large tub, then he shaved, showered, and got dressed in his dinner suit. After some thought, he unlocked the trunk, removed his pistol and holster, and put them in his briefcase, then he relocked the trunk.
At precisely seven o’clock, the colonel returned and collected
Stone and Brio and led them for a bit of a walk through the palace. It was more elegant and in better repair than Stone had anticipated. They were finally admitted to an indoor garden space with a ceiling height of about forty feet. An area like a living room had been set in its midst.
Two men stood in the middle of the room, one a Westerner dressed as Stone was, but with gray hair and horn-rimmed glasses. The other wore an evening suit with a silk brocade jacket of a floral design; he had iron-gray hair and a Vandyke beard and mustache.
The colonel spoke, “Your Majesty, may I present Ms. Brio Ness of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Mr. Stone Barrington of the law firm of Woodman & Weld. Mr. Barrington is also an associate director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Barrington, may I present His Majesty, the Sultan of Saud and the Honorable Henry Wilcox, ambassador to His Majesty from the United States of America.”
Stone and Brio both executed a slight head bow and a how do you do. Wilcox shook both their hands. The sultan stood with his hands behind him.
“I am very sure that each of you would like a drink,” the sultan said, with an English accent born at Eton. “My imam has declared this room neutral territory in that regard.”
They both assented. Brio asked for a dry martini, and Stone was handed a glass of Knob Creek without asking for it.
The sultan accepted a whiskey, too, and the ambassador had one already clenched in his fist.
Glasses were raised.
“The president of the United States,” the sultan said, and a drink was taken.
“The Sultan of Saud,” the ambassador said in return, and they drank again. Then things became more relaxed.
“I hope your travel here was not a punishment,” the sultan said.
“We were very comfortable,” Brio replied.
“Ah, yes, in Mr. Barrington’s beautiful Gulfstream.”
“Which I am fortunate to have,” Stone replied, with as much modesty as he could muster.
“I also admired the FBI’s choice in aircraft,” the sultan said. “I once owned such an airplane. It was very nice, but it was not a Gulfstream. They are in a class by themselves. I once toured their factory in Savannah, Georgia, and was impressed with their attention to every detail. If I were not an honorable man, I would confiscate your airplane.”
Everyone chuckled at the mere suggestion that the sultan might not be an honorable man.
“Mr. Barrington,” the sultan said, “I am told that you have come bearing gifts.”
“I have, sir. Perhaps we can find a more opportune time later in the evening for me to present them?”
“As you wish, Mr. Barrington.” He smiled at them all. “Now I am beginning to think that this may be more a business meeting, than merely a social one.”
“I hope that the sultan may find it a pleasant transaction,” Stone said.
“I have been reading up on Mr. Barrington,” the sultan said, “and he has led a fascinating life.”
“Only because I have the good fortune to meet such fascinating people,” Stone said, raising his glass in the sultan’s direction.
“My condolences on the loss of your beautiful wife, Arrington,” the sultan said.
“Thank you, Your Majesty. She is greatly missed by our son and me.”
“Ah, yes, your son, Peter, the film director. I have ordered his films, but they have yet to arrive.”
“Had I known of Your Majesty’s interest, I would have brought them to you. I shall see that their delivery is expedited.”
The sultan beamed. “I shall look forward to receiving them. I am disappointed, I must say, not to meet your good friend, New York’s Commissioner of Police Bacchetti, who I was told is your constant companion.”
“A frequent companion, certainly,” Stone replied, “but not a constant one. The commissioner has a wife and job, both of which occupy much of his time.”
“And Ms. Ness,” the sultan said. “There are rumors that you will soon become an assistant director of your organization.”
“As we say in America, Your Majesty, from your lips to God’s ear.”
The sultan laughed uproariously.
“I am very taken with your garden,” she said.
“Come, and let me show you some rare plantings,” the sultan said.
Brio set down her glass and took his offered hand.
“If you would excuse us, gentlemen.” They walked, arm in arm, into the garden.
The ambassador faced Stone. “I must say, this is all going very well. I was afraid I would have to intercede to keep the conversation light.”
“You may have to yet, Ambassador,” Stone said.
“Please call me Henry.”
“Of course, Henry. May I question you on a point of diplomacy and gift-giving?”
Stone explained what he had in mind.
“Well,” Wilcox said. “I don’t see why not. It’s no skin off the nation’s nose, after all.”
The sultan returned with Brio, and they were called to dinner.
As Brio brushed past Stone, she said, “The old dog propositioned me.”
“Careful that you don’t end up in his harem,” Stone replied.
After more conversation, but no discussion about Stone’s mission, they were escorted behind a hedge of ferns, where an elaborately set dinner table rested: tableware and goblets of gold, and two bottles of claret—Château Mouton Rothschild, ’61—stood beside decanters that had received the wine. The center of the table was occupied by a large, roasted fowl, decorated with a peacock’s fantail.
A servant expertly carved the bird, nearly the size of a turkey, and distributed the plates, finished with a risotto and fresh
. The sultan tasted the wine and signaled his approval. Stone approved, too. It was a rare treat. Stone thought the bird delicious, and he was relieved that it didn’t have a hump.
When they had finished and drunk both bottles of wine, crêpes Grand Marnier were served, along with a Château d’Yquem, ’59—the finest dessert wine of Bordeaux.
After dinner, port—a Quinto de Nationale, ’29—was passed to the left in a Baccarat decanter, and a perfect Stilton accompanied it.
“Your Majesty,” Stone said, raising his glass, “I have never experienced a more perfect repast, nor had a feeling of more perfect contentment, than at your table. On behalf of all your guests, I thank you.” There were “Hear, hears” all around.
The sultan beamed at them. “Nor have I had more perfect guests.” Then his face changed, and Stone was not pleased by what he saw there. “Now, to business,” he said. The sultan turned his head and nodded at his colonel, who stepped into the garden and returned, not alone
Stone heard a sound that immediately made him think of the Ghost of Christmas Past, from Dickens—the sound of chains being dragged over stone. He looked up to see a frowning man in a wrinkled and dirty suit with a collar around his neck, and his wrists and ankles shackled.
“May I present Mr. Viktor Zanian,” the sultan said.
The colonel poked the man in the ribs with a bejeweled dagger.
“How do you do?” Zanian said.
“I regret that you must meet the gentleman in reduced circumstances,” the sultan said, “but he did not dine on peacock and French wines this evening.”
Stone reflected that he appeared not to have dined at all, looking gaunt and shrunken.
“Now,” the sultan said. “What am I offered?”
It took Stone a moment to understand that he was referring to Zanian.
Brio was quicker. “On behalf of the United States Government,” she said, “I will take him off your hands.”
“Once again,” the sultan said. “What am I offered?”
“A quarter of a million dollars,” Brio replied.
“I fear that Mr. Zanian is a more expensive commodity than that,” the sultan replied.
“Your Majesty,” Henry Wilcox said, “I ask you to remember that Ms. Ness is a civil servant and does not have access to great wealth.”
“Well, then,” the sultan said. “Perhaps Mr. Barrington can improve on her offer.”
“Your Majesty,” Stone said, “I would not insult your throne by bargaining with you over a criminal. Instead, I will simply offer you everything at my disposal: two million dollars, if your servant will bring my large case.” Moments later, the trunk was wheeled to the table. Stone unlocked and opened it. The cash smiled back at them.
“I am grateful for your offer,” the sultan said, “although it lacks a certain flair.”
“But I have not finished,” Stone said. “If you will permit me to continue.”
“But of course,” the sultan replied, with a wave of his hand.
“I also bring you, with the personal compliments of the president of the United States, a fleet of twenty-four Jeep Grand Cherokees.”
The sultan’s eyebrows shot up, and he smiled. “To be delivered when?”
“In due course,” Stone replied.
The sultan’s smile vanished.
Henry Wilcox stood. “Your Majesty,” he said. “The fleet now reposes in two large aircraft at the airport in Riyadh, and they will depart for the Sultanate of Saud at your command.”
The sultan beamed again. “Mr. Barrington, your country’s offer is accepted. Where would you like Mr. Zanian placed?”
“Aboard our second airplane, Your Majesty, where he will be secured.”
“It shall be done immediately,” the sultan said, motioning to the colonel, who went for Zanian and rushed him out of the building.
The ambassador produced a cell phone and pressed a button. “You are authorized to fly to the Sultanate of Saud,” he said, then hung up. “The automobiles are on their way and will be here by sunrise.”
“All is well, then,” the sultan replied. “And now, if you will forgive me, I shall retire for the night. Mr. Barrington, Ms. Ness, it has been my great pleasure to entertain you. Your luggage awaits you on Mr. Barrington’s airplane.”
Stone and Brio were escorted from the palace and into a Range Rover.
“That was swift,” Brio said.
“I’ve no complaint with that,” Stone said. “I want to get out of here before the sultan changes his mind on some whim or other.”
Stone, Brio, and Henry Wilcox arrived at the airfield to see no one in sight. After a moment, two men dressed in military desert fatigues departed the FBI aircraft and trotted over to their car, as Stone and Brio got out.
“Ness,” one of them said, handing her a folded sheet of paper, “a personal message for you from the director.” She read it and smiled, then handed it to Stone, who read it aloud.
My dear Brio,
Congratulations on the success of your mission. It is my pleasure to promote you to the post of assistant director for Criminal Investigations. I look forward to seeing you and your arrestee in New York.
“Congratulations,” Stone said, kissing her on the cheek.
“And my congratulations, too,” Wilcox echoed.
“Forgive me if I blush becomingly,” she said.
“Is our mission complete?” the FBI agent asked.
“As long as our perpetrator has been secured aboard your airplane,” Brio replied.
The agent looked puzzled. “Ma’am?”
“I believe Colonel Said delivered Viktor Zanian to you a few minutes ago.”
The man looked slightly ill. “No, ma’am,” he replied. “We haven’t seen either of them.”
“Did someone arrive here in a Range Rover?” Stone asked.
“Yes, sir,” the man said. “They drove into the big hangar over there, and after a few minutes, they came out in some sort of half-track desert vehicle and drove away.”
Stone and Brio were struck dumb for a moment.
“In which direction?” Stone asked.
The man pointed down the runway. “Thataway.”
“In which direction is Saudi Arabia?” Stone asked.
“That way, to the north,” the man replied.
“Well,” Stone said, “he won’t go there. He wouldn’t get a friendly welcome.” Stone got a map of the country out of his briefcase and flattened it on the back of the other agent as Faith walked up.
“Faith, where is the nearest major airport, south of us?”
Faith looked at the map, then tapped a finger on it. “Dubai,” she said, “right there on the Persian Gulf, to the ESE. Are we thinking of our Gulfstream?”
“I’m thinking more of Zanian’s Gulfstream, and where he
might have left it. Maybe we can cut him off there since he’s traveling through the desert.”
The ambassador spoke up. “We’ve no assurance that he’s gone to Dubai,” he said. “We might be better off tracking him on the ground.”
“In what?” Stone asked, looking around at the airport. “There’s only the one Range Rover, the one they left in the hangar.”
“There are no keys in it,” the FBI agent said. “We looked, and none of us knows how to hot-wire a Range Rover.”
“Let me make a call,” Wilcox said, taking out his cell phone and walking a few feet away. He returned shortly. “Ten minutes,” he said. “We might as well get our luggage out of the sultan’s car.” With the help of some FBI agents, they unloaded the car and stacked the luggage beside it. Stone saw his trunk and his valise among them.
“Please keep a close watch on these two pieces,” he said to the FBI man. “Their contents are valuable.”
The man turned to Brio. “Ma’am? Is that all right with you?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “The contents of that trunk belong to the FBI.”
“But not the valise,” Stone said. “Unless we lose it, then it’s all yours.”
The man didn’t seem to understand, but he assigned another agent to watch the luggage.
“There comes our transport,” Wilcox said, pointing to the north.
“That’s big,” Faith said.
“It’s a C-17 Globemaster,” Wilcox said, “and there are two of them, each containing twelve Jeep Grand Cherokees.”
“We’re going to steal the sultan’s Jeeps?” Stone asked. “I understand he removes peoples’ heads for less serious offenses.”
“They are still the property of the United States Government,” Wilcox said, “until I turn them over to the sultan, and I have not yet done so.”
Shortly, the two giant aircrafts were on the ground, and after a conversation with the commander of the flight, the armed military crews—with the help of the FBI agents—began unloading the cars, while the FBI agents moved their luggage, weapons, and many cases of water to the Jeeps.
“They’re dealer-prepped, gassed up,” the commander said, “and ready to go, Ambassador. And they have the GPS map software for this part of the world.”
Finally, they were ready. “I’ve been out here for five years,” Wilcox said, “so I’m generally familiar with the area.” He used Stone’s map, spread on the hood of a Jeep. “Just about here, too small to be on your map, is an oasis called Ben Hur, named after the movie. It’s likely Zanian and Said will head there, since it’s the last stop for fuel and water for a long time. Fortunately, there’s a road, so we don’t have to go over land.” He entered the Ben Hur name in the GPS, and the map popped up. “Here it is, so let’s get going.”
“How fast can that half-track go?” Brio asked.
“Over open territory, they’d have a big advantage, but not on a road,” Wilcox said. “We may be able to outrun them.”
“Let’s find out,” Stone said.
Brio turned to her FBI agent. “Report only to me,” she said, “not to the director. I’ll do that myself.” She got into a Jeep with Stone and Wilcox, who took the shotgun seat, so that he could operate the GPS.
“You’re not keeping the director updated?” Stone asked her.
“No, I want to be an assistant director of the FBI, at least for a little while.” She got on her handheld radio and confirmed that she was communicating with the other Jeeps.
Stone put the car into gear and followed Wilcox’s directions. Shortly, they were on some sort of road, with twenty-three Jeeps, all painted a gleaming white, strung out behind them.