Authors: Stephen Coonts
Tags: #Qaida (Organization), #Intelligence officers, #Assassination, #Carmellini; Tommy (Fictitious character), #Fiction, #Grafton; Jake (Fictitious character), #Suspense, #Espionage, #Thrillers, #Suspense fiction, #Undercover operations, #Spy stories
“Sure as hell,” Winchester agreed. “But could it be done?”
“As I told our mutual friend, my friends and I have the money to finance a private army.”
Grafton smiled again, and this time his eyes had warmth. “I think we might be able to do some business. You envision me recruiting the people and pointing out the targets, and your group will fund the adventure. All that’s well and good. But we need to have an understanding here and now: I will be running the show and you will be taking orders from me. You will do precisely what I say, when I say to do it, precisely the way I say to do it. If you follow orders diligently, thoroughly, without question—and maintain ironclad security—we might just be able to pop off some of these bastards and get away with it.”
There’s one more thing. I don’t want you telling a single living soul that I work for the CIA. If the others suspect it, you must tell them you don’t know. I’ll tell them myself. Can you do that?”
“I can keep a secret.”
“I hope so.”
“How about these soldiers? Who will you get?”
“I’ll be able to find some good people. That is the least of my problems.”
“Pay them anything you want.”
Grafton looked at Winchester, capturing his eyes. “You’re entering a world where money doesn’t mean much, Mr. Winchester. The men I want will work for the pay they would have gotten in the military. Everyone has bills to pay, but money isn’t what motivates them. That said, you and your pals are going to get stuck with the expenses, and there will be a lot of those. Weapons, equipment, transportation, bribes— you’re going to be amazed at how fast the money disappears.”
“How about you? How much do you want?”
“The government pays me. The extracurricular activities I’d do for free.”
Grafton’s brows knitted, as if he were thinking about this question for the first time. He started to say something, obviously thought better of it and simply said, “This is what I do.”
“That’s a popular, trite phrase that explains nothing.”
“Perhaps,” said Grafton, eyeing the billionaire. “Let’s put it this way: This is what I know how to do.”
Winchester sighed. “Well, it’s new ground for me.”
“Even with the leads from the various companies, finding the bad guys will take a lot of doing. It’d be nice if they wore distinctive uniforms, but they don’t. Still, I kinda think this might be worth a try. We might get some bad actors that deserve to be sent on their way.”
Winchester’s face brightened. “I hope so,” he whispered.
Grafton turned back around and again put his forearms on the rail. “Personal revenge is hard to come by in this day and age. It takes a team to sail a ship or catch terrorists. Every member of that team is responsible for its success or failure.” Grafton rubbed his chin, then said, “I might as well tell you the rest of it. Sooner or later the bad guys are going to figure out what is going down. That’s if some government entity hasn’t gotten wind of it first and tried to prosecute you for violating bank secrecy and privacy laws, money laundering, conspiracy to commit murder and a dozen or two other crimes. Your stock prices will go to hell and you’ll be up to your ass in lawyers, trying to stay out of prison. You will also be in line to make some real enemies.”
“Terrorists,” Winchester whispered.
“They’ll put your name on the bullet.”
“I can live with that.”
“The question is, Can your friends live with it? Why don’t you invite them to your house, perhaps a week from today, and let me talk to them, too?”
“I don’t know anything about you,” Winchester said. “I’m in the dark here, and I don’t like the feeling.”
“Better get used to it. It’ll get dark as a coal mine at midnight if I agree to get involved with you people.”
“Tell me about yourself.”
“I’m a retired naval officer, retired as a two-star. If you want to check me out, do it discreetly. If I hear you’re asking questions, or anyone is, you failed the test.”
Winchester was silent for a while, apparently lost in thought. Finally he said, “Next week.”
“See you there,” Jake Grafton said. With a wave of his hand, he walked away.
Huntington Winchester watched him go. After Grafton was lost in the crowd, he jammed his hands in his pockets and headed for his car, thinking about his son, Owen.
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.