voices low and hollow in the echoing chamber, with only occasional polite laughter; chairs soundlessly lifted and moved by attendants so they didn’t drag on the hardwood floor; and a sense that this scene had been repeated over and over throughout the years, throughout the centuries, with the same people: those who had power, those who wanted it, and people like Hood who were the buffers between them.
Hood took a sip of water. He wondered if divorce turned all men into cynics.
Chatterjee had left the president’s side and was being shown to the table. Hood rose as the New Delhi native neared. The attendant pulled out her chair. The secretary-general thanked him and sat down. Without obviously ignoring Hood, the forty-three-year-old woman managed not to look at him. Hood had no patience for that.
“Good evening. Madam Secretary-General,” Hood said.
“Good evening, Mr. Hood,” she replied, still without looking at him.
Other people began arriving at the table. Chatterjee turned and smiled at Agriculture Secretary Richard Ortiz and his wife. That left Hood staring at the back of the secretary-general’s head. He exited the awkward moment by reaching for his napkin, putting it on his lap, and looking the other way.
Hood tried to put himself in Chatterjee’s position. The attorney-turned-diplomat had only been on the job for a short while when the terrorists struck. She had joined the United Nations as an avowed peacekeeper, and here were terrorists executing diplomats and threatening to shoot children. Chatterjee’s negotiating tactics had failed, and Hood had embarrassed her publicly by infiltrating the Security Council and ending the crisis with quick, violent action.
Chatterjee was further humiliated by the way many member nations loudly applauded Hood’s attack.
But Hood and Secretary-General Chatterjee were supposed to be putting that ill will behind them, not nurturing it. She was an avowed advocate of first move detente, in which one party demonstrated trust by being the first to lay down arms or surrender land.
Or maybe she only believes in that when she advocates others to make the first move. Hood thought.
Suddenly, someone appeared behind Hood and spoke his name. He turned and looked up. It was the First Lady.
“Good evening, Paul.”
“Mrs. Lawrence. It’s good to see you.”
“It’s been too long,” she said, taking his hand in hers and holding it tight.
“I miss those Los Angeles fund raisers
“We had fun,” Hood said.
“We made some history, and hopefully we did some good, too.”
“I like to think so,” the First Lady said.
“How is Harleigh?”
“She took a very hard hit, and is having a rough time,” Hood admitted.
“I can’t even imagine,” the First Lady said.
“Who’s working with her?”
“Right now, it’s just Liz Gordon, our staff psych at Op-Center,” Hood said.
“Liz is getting a little trust going.
Hopefully, in a week or two, we can bring in some specialists.”
Megan Lawrence smiled warmly.
“Paul, maybe there’s something we can do to help each other. Are you free for lunch tomorrow?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Good. I’ll see you at twelve-thirty.” The First Lady smiled, turned, and went back to her table.
That was strange. Hood thought.
“Maybe there’s something we can do to help each other.” What could she possibly need his help for? Whatever it was, it must be important. A First Lady’s social calendar was usually well-booked months in advance.
She would have had to move her engagements around to make room for him.
Hood sat back down. The table had been joined by Deputy Secretary of State Hal Jordan and his wife Barri Alien-Jordan as well as two diplomats and their spouses who Hood did not know. Mala Chatterjee did not introduce him, so he introduced himself. The secretary general continued to ignore him, even after the president rose at his table to offer a toast and say a few words about how he hoped this dinner and its show of unity would send a message to terrorists that the civilized nations of the world would never yield to them. As the White House photographer took pictures and a C-SPAN camera unobtrusively recorded the event from the southwest corner of the hall, the president underscored his faith in the United Nations by announcing officially, and to great applause, that the United States was about to retire its nearly two billion dollar debt to the United Nations.
Hood knew that paying off the debt had very little to do with terrorists. The United Nations didn’t scare them, and the president knew it, even if Mala Chatterjee didn’t.
What the two billion dollars did was get the United States out of the doghouse with poor countries like Nepal and Liberia. With thawed economic relations in the Third World, we could then convince them to take loans with the provision that they buy American goods, services, and military intelligence. That would become a self-perpetuating source of income for American companies, even when other nations started putting money into those countries. That was the great thing about a government budgetary surplus and a politically expedient moment. When they came together, an administration could look benevolent and score points on the stock exchange.
Hood was only half listening to the speech when the president said something that drew him back in.
“Finally,” the president said, “I am happy to inform you that American intelligence leaders are presently earmarking personnel and resources for a vital new initiative.
It is their intention to work closely with governments around the world and guarantee that attacks against the United Nations cannot, do not, and will not happen again.”
There was mild applause from tables where there were delegates. But the statement had caught Hood’s attention because he knew something that the president apparently did not.
It wasn’t true.
Hellspot Station, the Caspian Sea Monday, 3:01 a.m.
The white Cessna U206F flew low over the dark Caspian Sea, its single engine roaring loudly. Its only occupants were a Russian pilot and the man seated beside him, an Englishman of average build and average appearance.
This trip had started out off the coast of Baku. After taking off, the seaplane had headed northeast and had traveled nearly two hundred miles in the past ninety minutes. It had been a smooth, quiet ride. Neither the pilot nor his passenger spoke a word the entire time.
Though forty-one-year-old Maurice Charles spoke Russian–along with nine other languages–he did not know the pilot well and did not trust even those people he did know well. That was one reason he’d managed to survive as a mercenary for nearly twenty years.
When they finally arrived, all the pilot said was, “Below, four o’clock.”
Charles looked out his window. His pale blue eyes fixed on the target.
It was a beautiful thing. Tall, brightly lit, majestic.
The semi submersible offshore oil drilling platform stood approximately 150 feet above the water and was surrounded by sea. There was a helipad on the north side of the platform, a 200-foot-tall derrick beside it on the northwest side, and a network of tanks, cranes, antennae, and other equipment in the oil processing area.
The rig was like a lady standing on a deserted avenue under a streetlamp late at night by the Mersey back home. Charles could do what he wanted with it. And he would.
Charles picked up a camera that was sitting in his lap.
He popped the button on the tan leather carrying case and removed the top. The camera was the same thirty five-millimeter reflex that he had used in his first assignment, back in Beirut in April 1983. He began snapping pictures. A second camera, the one he had taken from the CIA operative on the beach, lay on the floor of the cabin between his feet along with the man’s backpack. There might be names or numbers in there that would prove useful. Just like the operative himself would be useful, which was why Charles had left him alive.
The airplane circled the oil platform twice, once at 600 feet and once at 300 feet. Charles exposed three rolls of film, then indicated to the pilot that it was all right to leave. The seaplane swung back to its cruising altitude of 2000 feet and headed to Baku. There, Charles would rejoin the crew of the Rachel, which by now would have removed the white banner with the fake name. They had ferried him to the plane and would be his partners in the next part of the undertaking.
But that would only be the start. His employers in America had very specific goals, and the team Charles had put together were experts in achieving those goals:
turning neighbor against neighbor, nation against nation, through acts of terrorism and assassination. Before they were finished, the region would be awash in fire and blood from around the world.
And though he had already made a lot of money in the terrorist game, he had spent a lot of that wealth buying weapons, passports, transportation, anonymity. With this job, he would be richer than he had ever dared to imagine. And he had a fertile imagination.