Sequel to Then Is The Power. James Foster is up against both superpowers in a manhunt to save his friend's life.
"They're away," Moore cried, pulling himself through the cockpit door with both hands. The chopper was bucking like a rodeo mustang, buckling his knees. He clutched the flight engineer's chair and hauled himself into it, needing both hands.
"Strap down!" Cynde yelled back. "We're outta here." She was monitoring the turbines and weather conditions, all her attention on the instruments in front of her. On her right, Lars was fully occupied, bouncing against his harness only slightly less than she was.
"You DOWN, J.C.?" Her phone boom was back, eye shield up. Lars had flipped his as well. They were both of the same mind, choosing to rely on direct voice with all its nuances for their communication with each other, that and eye contact.
"DOWN!" J.C. shouted.
She turned to Lars, slapping him hard on the shoulder. "Stand her on end. I'll mind the store."
He nodded, and the bottom dropped out. The S-61's nose pointed straight down, twisting away into the wind. They were screaming toward the ocean.
"ONE FIFTY." She called out airspeed as they dropped. "TWO HUNDRED. TWO FIFTY. THREE HUNDRED TEN. ROTOR TIP WARNING!"
Lars looked grim. The Mach speed warning was audible, but drowned out by other noise. He brought the nose slightly away from vertical as the whole airframe shook violently. Their speed, plus rotor speed, was nearly the speed of sound for the two blade tips slicing into the air ahead at any given moment. The turbines labored as the blade tips at Mach ran into a brick wall, even though all blade angles were essentially zero. The effect was no different than swishing a spoon through honey. Much more, and the blades would self-destruct.
"THREE TWENTY-FIVE. SIX THOUSAND FEET." She turned to J.C, locked into his seat behind the pilot's chair, his feet braced against it and both hands clinging to the engineer's console. "MONITOR 121.5 MEGAHERTZ." She was literally screaming over the combined noise of turbines, blades, outside wind and now the Mach warning. The vibration had changed to a much higher frequency, setting teeth on edge. The aircraft's top speed was specified at two hundred miles per hour, or less depending on the plane, and they were nearly twice that, diving for warmer air. The twin turbines were roaring at standard RPM with nearly zero blade load, sucking great gulps of fuel yet with air intake cowlings no longer operating as designed. Ice had already reduced their efficiency to near-stall conditions--partly offset by the speed of diving but compounded by heavier rain and sleet as the aircraft streaked toward the sea. There was no way to monitor their condition, to tell how severe the icing was, but one minute in the wrong conditions was all it took to bring a plane down, any plane. Just sixty seconds.
On the plus side, they weren't carrying two dozen soldiers in battle gear.
Supercooled water droplets were turning instantly to ice on the aircraft skin, on the blades--all the surfaces. The ice buildup could by itself make the craft too heavy to fly in the same short time, but long before that happened their airfoil surfaces would start to look like the coarsest of sandpaper, with ice 'horns' growing like caterpillars standing on end, all over the leading edges of all five blades plus the tail rotor. They'd lose all lift ability, if they didn't overload the turbines first. The plane would become a lead sinker twisting its way into the sea.
Lars had 'shaken' the blades once, but the ice had not all shaled off, so the five blades were unbalanced and now loading up even faster in spots where ice remained. The danger of rotor imbalance was increasing as fast as the ice was. He was already compensating for tail-rotor ice. The cyclic lever position was not where it should have been at all.
They were in big trouble, with nowhere to land, diving away from one problem only to confront another. There was no way out.
"THIRTY-SIX DEGREES." she shouted. The outside air temperature was deceiving, because the supercooled large drops, or SLDs, started in clouds above them, cooling to temperatures below the freezing point as they fell. "THIRTY-EIGHT DEGREES. FOUR THOUSAND FEET. THREE HUNDRED TEN."
"LEVELING OFF," he growled, hauling up on the collective and bringing up the nose.
"GO TO ONE THOUSAND FEET. WE JUST WENT UP ONE DEGREE."
Moore had stripped off his flight helmet. He freed a headset hanging top right of the console and plugged it into the HF receiver with great difficulty, punching the numbers for the EPIRB frequency, then jamming the single-earphone headband down over his head and flipping the mike boom back. He heard nothing but static. It was still early. They couldn't expect the EPIRB signal for another few seconds, maybe longer. He wasn't thinking about their own problems at that moment. It was all he could do to stay braced and hang on.
The aircraft shuddered as blades ragged with ice sledged and hacked and mushed their way into the denser, warmer air. Airspeed was down to two hundred fifty miles per hour, all due to gravity alone. The blades were laboring just to get enough lift to slow the plane down, bending and warping and flapping in ways their designers had never dreamed. The dive angle was one hundred thirty-five degrees, or forty-five degrees away from level flight, and they were still dropping.
Lars was growling at the plane, trying to bring her nose up. "Come on... come on... come on."
"TWO THOUSAND." She twisted around. "ANYTHING YET, J.C.?"
"I'LL SHOUT IF THERE IS."
"HANG ON!" Lars yanked the collective lever upward, cutting the rotor blades in for full lift. If there'd been vibration before, it was nothing by comparison. The headset shot off Moore's head, dancing on the end of its coiled cord. He hauled it back in and jammed it back in place, bouncing so hard now that his shoes were coming off the floor like a tap dancer's. The whole cockpit frame was shaking from side to side.
"TOO MUCH ICE ON HER," Lars shouted. "WE'LL HAVE TO GO LOWER."
"OUTSIDE IS FORTY DEGREES. SHE SHOULD BE MELTING OFF NOW."
"FEELS LIKE ONE BLADE'S HEAVY. REAL SLUGGISH. SHE'S NOT COMING UP. WHAT'S OUR ALTITUDE?"
"NINE HUNDRED. WE'RE LOSING IT. NOW EIGHT FIFTY."
"HANG ON." He cut in the collective again, hard, without effect. The Sea King threatened to shake itself to death. Grimacing, he shot a glance at Cynde. "GOTTA TRY ANOTHER SHAKE AND BAKE."
"OKAY. PASSING SEVEN FIFTY. OH, OH... BACK DOWN ONE DEGREE."
Lars took a breath, rolling his eyes at the overhead. "Come on, baby... shake it off." With that, he jerked the collective up and down twice, sharp movements--the kind never to be made--enough to make the plane jump and then stab into a hole as if they were driving over a series of sharp 'thank-you-ma'am's' in a car. The maneuver, if overdone, could snap blades or shred them, flexing them far beyond their limits, but there was really no choice. They were losing altitude, and without functioning blades they were dead.
"SIX FIFTY." Still severe vibration and now even more noise. "GOOSE THE CYCLIC," she screamed. "FIVE HUNDRED."
The cyclic control operated on individual blades as they passed over a selectable fixed point around their travel, constantly changing the blade angle of each blade with each pass and then returning it to what it had been. It was what caused a helicopter to change its nose-down or nose-up attitude, what caused it to be able to fly forward, backward, sideways. The collective, on the other hand, affected all the blades, which tended to twist less violently than when going through repeated cyclic changes. The collective was used to make the craft rise, or lose altitude if that were the desired effect. Goosing the cyclic would produce the maximum twist in every blade as it rotated through its cycle. It could also twist them to death, like twisting a stick of celery.
"GOOSING CYCLIC," he shouted back, hauling over hard and fast on the stick. The plane pirhouetted onto its right side and slid hard sideways. Any direction would have worked as well, but they'd paid for the maneuver in airspace. The collective was slow in its response.
"NO GO. IT'S WORSE."
"THREE HUNDRED FIFTY. YOU GOT RID OF SOME. GOOSE IT AGAIN."
"WE'RE OUT OF AIRSPACE, MAJOR."
"WE HAVE ENOUGH FOR ONE MORE TRY, COLONEL. DO IT!"
He turned and stared at her, a grim smile on his face. She had more ice than the plane. He shot the cyclic to the side and the Sea King again stood on her beam. For a moment it seemed the shaking was even worse, but then there was a sudden change. The blades sounded almost normal, and the noise dropped away to near normal. He leveled quickly and hauled up on the collective.
"DID IT!" Cynde cried. She slugged Lars on his left shoulder. "SEVENTY FEET. WE'RE DOWN TWO DEGREES. NOW THIRTY-SIX OUTSIDE. BELAY THAT. MAKE IT THIRTY-FIVE."
He grinned, easing the collective lever a bit. "SHE'S HOLDING. WE'LL HAVE TO CLAW OURSELVES BACK TO THAT WARMER LAYER. TAIL ROTOR'S STILL LOADED."
"WHY ARE WE SHOUTING?"
He suddenly broke out laughing. "Beats me, darlin'." He turned toward her, a broad smile conveying his relief. "You're one gutsy li'l cookie. I'll fly with you any day. Now about that date?"
"How's she handling?"
"Still sluggish." He eased the collective half an inch up, then back down, without the plane doing anything detectable. "But it's raining harder down here. Less chance of SLDs. How much ice on the pods?"
"Turning on landing lights." She flipped a switch, craning her head through the sliding window to see their port landing gear sponson in the wash of light. "Heavy. Half an inch at least. Looks like the ice palace. Another fifty feet and we might be taking a bath here. God, that looks ghastly down there."
"At four tons per inch of ice, we're pushing the hell out of design payload, but she's holding."
"Lights off." Cynde twisted around. "Hearing anything, J.C.?" She saw the gloomy expression on his face; saw him shake his head and squint at his watch.
"It's been more than long enough," he said. "They should have hit the thing by now. Been well over a minute since they jumped."
Lars made no comment. She checked the turbine monitor and outside temperature again, then slumped in her chair while he swept off his flight helmet. He scratched his head, staring at the encrusted windshield wipers. Sighing, he turned them off. They weren't doing anything anyway.
"Figure they had at least thirty seconds drop time before they opened their chutes," he said, "then another thirty fighting the wind and lining up. Maybe even forty-five, but not more. They're either on the tank or in the soup by now." He slid his own side window back a bit.
"Don't say that," Cynde moaned. She held her head. "I know, I know... you're right. But maybe they forgot to...." She trailed off, sliding her own side window back far enough to stick her hand out into the weather.
No one said anything.
Lars began nursing the Sea King back to the warm layer they'd passed coming down, unconcerned now about their drift in the wind. There was no one else out there, no one stupid enough. He hadn't even bothered looking at his radar screen. He took his time, testing the response of the controls and checking the turbine monitors. "How long now?" he asked.
"Two... almost three minutes."
Cynde pulled her hand back inside. "God... what if... what can we do?"
"Nothing," Moore said. "They understood that, Major Moore. Jim may be able to snap off a tree with that mind power of his, but...."
"Wait a minute," she interrupted. "I'm looking at our heading... Lars, hold our heading for a moment. That's it... so the wind is now almost due north... here at a thousand feet... but upstairs we had it at WNW. Lars, we dropped them wrong. Two compass points off! Oh, my God. We killed them, Lars. Two compass points!" Her palms went to her cheeks as she realized the horrible truth. Lars stared ahead at the console, not speaking. Behind them, Moore was reaching out to touch his daughter on her shoulder. He thought better of it, looking sick. That was most assuredly what must have happened, the reason they hadn't gotten the signal.
"Let's see... two points...." Lars began a quick calculation. "That would put them off the tank about two hundred...."
"HOLD ON!" J.C. was grinning ear to ear, holding his right thumb straight up. "I JUST HEARD 'EM!" He let out a cowboy whoop. "Four second signal, nice and strong. They're down. They're SAFE!"
Lars shook his head. "How can that be, J.C.? Huh? Tell me. They were off over two hundred feet. They had to be. It was downwind. They...."
Cynde's shriek stopped him. "They did it. My God, they DID it!" She grinned and started to slap Lars again on the shoulder, then realized something was wrong. She glanced at him, at his expression. "You don't believe... the signal?" She turned to her father, incredulous. "They made it, J.C. Didn't they?"
Lars shook his head sadly. "Cynde... there is no way they could have hit the tank. They'd have been downwind of it at least two hundred feet, maybe a lot more thanks to our error, so how could they possibly make up that much? Know what I mean? Downwind, get me? It's impossible."
"Then... why the EPIRB signal?"
"They're in the water. Jim's telling us it's over for them."
"I can't believe that. If they were in the water, why wouldn't he turn it on and leave it on?"
"Because he knows we can't do anything about it. He wouldn't want us to try. He's telling us it's over."
"Oh, come ON! Let's have a little positive thinking here. Is our sat phone turned on? He said he'd call us on it after the EPIRB."
Lars checked. "Nope, I forgot. Okay, I'm turning it on right now. Just don't get your hopes up. There is just no way."
"Why not? Who says Jim remembered to flip the EPIRB switch the very second they landed? Maybe things were dicey when they got there, okay? Maybe they had to climb all over stuff. They had to get out of the rain and find some shelter, and do it in the dark. Maybe they're...."
She stopped abruptly when the sat phone rang. Lars just stared at it, letting it ring a second time. It was J.C. who shot forward and grabbed for it. He extended the antenna and punched the TALK button, an unbelieving look on his face. The coincidence was unnerving. Who'd be calling, unless....
"Where you guys been all this time? Trish and I were gettin' a little concerned down here."
"The first time I jumped off this cliff I might have been all of four years old. And see that little ledge, Sweetheart, way down the rock face over there? That's where the wind put me down."
Luis Amaru, a.k.a. James Foster, speaking matter-of-factly as if a tour guide, pointed at a miniscule ledge perhaps two hundred feet below them, jutting out from sheer rock walls twice a football field distant across the yawning abyss. A split in the rock face behind the tiny shelf led through the otherwise-unbroken rock to open mountainside.
A solitary guanaco, looking like a ceramic miniature, had picked its way through the narrow crevice and was grazing on the grassy overhang. Tricia shaded her eyes against the last rays of the setting sun. A lingering spear of amber, stabbing its way through silver-lined clouds above the Andes, splashed color on the drab rock face, minting the miniature shelf and llama-like animal all gold. The expanse beneath had already filled with filmy shadows, a dusky netherworld with no distinct bottom.
Inches from their toes, a sheer wall of rock stretched nearly four thousand feet straight down to the broken jumble at the bottom. Bones and garbage lay strewn unseen among the rubble there, thrown off the cliff over the centuries and as recently as the previous day.
"You... jumped off this? Just jumped? Like in 'jump'?"
He grinned. "Yep, maybe a few dozen times. I'd stand barefooted just about here... none of us had shoes... with my toes curled over the edge." He teetered.
She grabbed the back of his safari shirt. "Careful, Jim!"
He laughed. "Nervous?"
"Yes I'm nervous, you rat. You know how hard it is for me to adjust to what James Foster can do. I can't just erase a lifetime of... well, it's just not that automatic."
"And I'd look up there at those condors flying over the mountains," he continued, pointing at the dozens of tiny black specks soaring in endless circles. "If there were lots of them I knew the wind would come. It was my sign. I'd close my eyes and wait for it, and when it roared up the rock walls right in front of me here, close enough to reach out and touch, I just stepped off and it carried me."
"And of course it always came." She squinted at the birds, miniscule dots against the darkening clouds.
"Must have. I'm still here, but I didn't know that part. I was just a runt-of-a-kid called Luis. I never knew how it happened or that I was involved in the process, only that it happened."
"But there had to be a first time on a smaller scale. You had to jump off a roof or a boulder... something."
"If I did I don't remember. One day I just did it, right from here. And I landed over there on that shelf. I had this weird feeling dozens of crooked sticks were all lashed tight around me like a woman's girdle, just my feet and head sticking out. I was spinning around in slow motion, just above the grass over there. Had to stretch my toes down just to land. The whole thing felt like a living nightmare, and of course I was scared out of my wits the whole way, but you know what? Soon as my feet were down I wanted to do it again, like riding a roller coaster the first time. I got out to the other side through that split in the rock, climbed all the way back up here and jumped off a second time. The same thing happened, but the girdle feeling never returned."
"You flew from here all the way over to that shelf. And nobody saw you?"
"Rode the wind," he corrected. "The other kids eventually saw me do it, and they told everyone else, but we were all gutter scum and nobody believed us. Adults mostly avoided the cliff. We sometimes got scraps of food as rewards for hauling stuff over here and throwing it off. We were Cuzco's garbage rats. And we saw people get thrown off the cliff alive, too, thieves mostly. You could count up to twenty before they splattered on the rocks. The vultures and big cats worked fast. Two hours later, if you were down there looking for the bodies, you'd never know they'd been people at all. Just a few little bone fragments and maybe some hair."
"Yuck! No adults ever saw you do this?"
"The only one who ever did gave me this...." He reached into his shirt and pulled out the carved stone amulet he wore around his neck.
"That shaman's charm?"
"He was the most powerful shaman around here and he'd heard the stories. He figured I had some sort of power and wanted it for himself. If I'd stayed here I don't know what would have happened. Maybe he'd have thrown me off the cliff, too, when he found out he couldn't even do it off a boulder. For sure he'd have tried it on a smaller scale. This stone was to be my reward for telling him my secret, but the very next day they hauled me off to Lima and put me on that plane to Boston, with this woman I'd never seen before, and you know the rest. I always wore his charm after that, until...."
Tricia inched up to the lip, holding him for support, and looked straight down. Even though she was a seasoned skydiver with over two thousand jumps behind her, the sight made her insides crawl. The basalt was smooth as far down as she could see, the farthest reach of the precipice blending into green mountainside at least a mile away. Through the gap where cliffs gave way to open space there was still enough light to see distant fields and terraces farther down, farmed by the Quechua. Beyond, if one continued, there were jungle valleys and even rain forests.
And almost a mile below the spot where they stood, an ugly moraine formed by broken chunks from the same rock walls turned its hungry face to the sky, waiting silently, expectantly for more offerings from the heights. Waiting for them.
"Do you want to think more about doing it?" Jim asked, stroking her black hair tenderly. A light breeze was flipping the ends at the small of her back.
"I made my decision, Darling. I love you far too much to back out now. It all began here for you, for a little boy called Luis, someone unwanted and thrown away. This is your spiritual home, the reason for our coming here. I want us to do it now, together. I believe in you, in your power. I'll prove it."
"If you're ready, so am I."
They stood alone, two diminutive specks on the lip of a terrifying chasm. He took one last look around, toward the city where he'd barely survived as a cholo gutter rat. Nobody had paid notice as they left Cuzco that afternoon, nobody watched them now. The hotel bill was paid, their luggage was all in the car parked behind the building. If they didn't return, no one would miss them for days.
The sun crouched low behind the rim of the Andes, and night's tentacles stretched forward from the eastern jungles as if to sweep them both into its maw. Tricia placed her forearm next to the man she loved, and he wrapped the foot-wide Velcro band around both, binding their arms together. They stepped to the extreme edge of the abyss and he smiled at her. The time for talking had passed. She knew what to expect, what she'd be thinking of in those first few seconds. This time there'd be no safety net, no parachute, not for this most-final lesson in trust. Even so, she was at peace as she focused on their higher purpose, shutting out everything else just as he'd taught her. She was James Foster's woman and she'd share everything with him; everything. There could be no exceptions, not for her.
She nodded and he closed his eyes, breathing deeply, rhythmically. He was outlined against the ever-darkening silver-edged clouds playing among the mountain peaks, a proud, confident man wearing the look of eagles; a gentle man but born with a power beyond imagination, a power now forcing them both into hiding, running. If others could not have Foster's power for their own aims, they'd kill him. They'd tried and were trying, still. They'd seen he was different, a deviant, superior to them. His power was therefore intolerable. They'd hunt him because of it, until he'd been destroyed.
She felt the wind rising--knew he was bringing it for them--but something was wrong. In one desperate fraction of a second she realized the condors no longer flew in the sky beyond his head.
"And I'd look up at the condors over the mountains up there. If there were lots of them, it meant the wind would come. It was my sign."
There were no condors over the mountains. No birds at all, anywhere. They'd all disappeared; the sky was barren!
Hot summer wind suddenly howled up the walls of cold stone. She felt its heat, felt the tug of his arm against hers. No time to react, warn him, reverse what they'd planned. He'd already leaned forward, pulling her with him.
"No birds! No birds!" screamed her mind, but too late. The wind howled no longer. It stopped. Everything stopped, except for her frantic pulse.
They plunged as a single person into the suddenly silent void. And from the murky depths a gruesome, grisly graveyard rushed gratefully upward to greet them.
You thought you were seeing a hairless hamster on steroids when you first saw Nils Van Oot, until you got up close. Then all you ever saw were his pale, dishwater eyes. Milky rings around pale-yellow irises, with red eyelids for frames. Ugly! You wanted to look away, you tried, but he was always blinking. Sand-in-the-eyes blinks, each one taking too long. He'd stare at a spot just behind your head and make you think he was sending Morse code to someone standing there. You waited for the next blink, and the next after that, like lightning flashes in a distant nighttime storm. Hypnotic, fascinating. Absolutely chilling.
You forgot you were facing one of the vilest bounty hunters the world had ever produced.
The immaculately dressed Dutchman sat opposite two uneasy men who scarcely hid their revulsion, but it made little difference to him. Their very presence was silent tribute, their quickness of response proof positive of his reputation. His message to one of the pair, FBI director Robert Allen, contained a name foremost on Allen's private 'most wanted' list.
How had Van Oot come up with the name? That was Allen's unanswered question. The name was unknown except to a small group centering about U.S. president Homer J. Winfield, but then there were the Russians. That was the most disturbing of all possibilities because, in terms of U.S. security, Van Oot had named the most dangerous man alive. Five months earlier, speaking privately to Allen, the president had sanctioned that very man's immediate death by any means, words not lightly spoken by any chief executive: murder, as directed by the President of the United States; summary execution forever hidden from all but a few--if it happened.
But the Mudslinger, creator of the world's newest symbol of ridicule, had disappeared without a trace. Nor had the rest of the world bought off on the UFO theory championed by America's media to explain away his handiwork. Something extremely unsettling had happened in Washington, D.C. on the 24th of June, 2005, and the world held its breath waiting for the other shoe to drop. America-bashers the world over had a new hero, except there was no name to go with the deed. So he became Mudslinger, a fitting title for whomever or whatever had slathered the White House with tons of muddy slime, laying waste to the fabled rose garden, great heritage trees and the south lawn. The least offensive new name for the White House was the Outhouse. Variations went downhill from there.
Howard Greenward, the remaining man at the table, was personal advisor to Winfield, and in this situation Allen's senior although Greenward had no official status. He was simply Winfield's alter ego as far as the extremely secret sanction was concerned, speaking for Winfield on all related matters. Formerly a bird colonel in the Marines, Greenward was a painter of pictures for the president--word pictures. Tough-looking, with a pockmarked face and gravel in his voice, Greenward could analyze a slab of stone, giving it features and a personality, even a history, explaining its potential for destruction or benefit. He presented the larger picture while describing sundry details deep inside, and he could do all of it ad lib. He had few equals.
He'd painted the Mudslinger as a terrorist waiting to be discovered, available to the highest bidder. "Too damn dangerous to be free" was the warning he'd given a president already struggling with the stresses of an impossible and deadly game, the fate of a country hanging in the balance. Evidence supported that warning. Events leading to the White House mud bath suggested the Mudslinger had already arrived on the world stage and had been paid handsomely for his feat. There was no end to the possibilities for more mischief, or worse, blackmail. If the latter, there'd be little chance of concealing the rest of it from the American public--all the rest of it. And that could not be tolerated at any cost. That would precipitate world conflict as surely as any atomic strike.
The terrorist could be brought into protective custody or he could be killed. The first option had failed; the second hadn't come to pass. Then came Van Oot's message calling out the Mudslinger's true name. How? There was no way to guess how much Van Oot knew. Possibly he'd overheard the name among the denizens of his own underworld, in spite of directives that it never be used by any of Allen's FBI agents. One of them might have let the name slip, however, and Van Oot was clever enough to take advantage of the slightest hint, no matter how it reached him. The FBI was unaccustomed to operating outside U.S. borders--that was a task more suited to the CIA--but the president was uncomfortable with the CIA and had no one else he could trust personally, beyond Allen. There could be no official search. The topic could never be allowed to reach the public, or anyone else in the government.
Greenward and Allen were not even officially sitting at Van Oot's table. Each had misgivings about being in the same country with the bounty hunter, but there was no denying his incredible record in ferreting out--eradicating or handing over--no fewer than eight world terrorists over a three-year period, leaders who'd sprung up in the vacuum left by bin Laden.
Van Oot was an accomplished computer hacker, able to enter and exit sophisticated mainframes without leaving trails. He retained an international network of informers and assassins, and he was ruthless. His skills produced results where others failed; his fees were beyond reach of all but governments.
His methods? One never raised the issue if the goal were to be correction of a serious problem. Collateral damage was best handled by looking the other way. If there were concerns, then Van Oot was not the man to call, but then governments knew everything there was to know about collateral damage. They'd written the book.
Van Oot had devoured most of a steak while listening to Greenward who, like Allen, had ordered only coffee. They didn't want to dine with him? A pity, as the food was excellent. He'd chosen the quaint, roadside inn mere hours earlier, arranging for a private dining room before his guests arrived. They were now recording everything said, no doubt, and had been extremely stingy with their choices of words, but at least there was little danger of others overhearing. The place was suffering its typical Monday-night dearth of customers.
When Greenward finished his carefully tailored monologue, Van Oot touched away a speck of gravy from his receding chin, dabbing at it with his dinner napkin. Huge diamond cufflinks flashed against a blue silk tailored shirt worn with a navy blue double-breasted Italian masterpiece costing over $2000. The combination did little for the part above the shoulders.
"Mr. Greenward, I have listened patiently during the past twenty minutes while you regaled me with a trumped-up story designed for your public. I do sympathize. You obviously wish to conceal all possible connections between your recent, rather slimy Pennsylvania Avenue embarrassment and the individual we are here to discuss, but I assure you it has been time wasted. Now let us all get down to some facts." He gazed at each man, noting neither was able to return his stare more than briefly. Clearly they were uncomfortable, and yet they wanted his talents and his results. Their presence at his table shouted it.
"I propose to tell you certain things. You will confirm what I tell you with the simple act of asking for more. If you do not want more, or solutions to your problem, then don't ask any questions and there will be no confirmation or denial. We part company and you will not hear from me again on the matter. I certainly do not need you. On the other hand, perhaps you are interested in achieving certain results I can guarantee. That is, after all, why I contacted you, Mr. Allen. My reputation…."
"Say your piece and get on with it," interrupted Greenward.
Van Oot blinked several times, absentmindedly fingering a diamond earring.
"We are speaking of the sailor James Foster, of course, who mysteriously disappeared from Bermuda on the eve of a highly visible sailing race he'd won so handily in past years. In disappearing, he left behind his rather expensive boat and various other loose ends. Certain Bermudians relate an incident involving two daylight killings, in which Mr. Foster and a Dr. Gordon Whittier appeared to be targets. I am using the term 'targets' in the context of assassination... you need not comment. Others confirm that Foster, Whittier and entourage shortly thereafter boarded a private jet flown into Bermuda from the U.S., which was subsequently turned around and immediately flown back to the mainland, landing at Andrews Air Force Base. Since private jets of the type involved do not very often land at Andrews, I became curious about reasons for the sudden interest on the part of your government in Mr. Foster."
"Why would that pique your curiosity?" challenged Allen. "And why would you think it automatically meant government involvement?"
"Are these questions your confirmation of my statements so far?" Van Oot blinked at a spot above Allen's ear. "If so, we should stop here and discuss my fee. Or, shall I continue while you hold your questions. Yes or no?"
Allen's expression was sour. "That shit won't work, Van Oot. If you want to get up and leave, go ahead. Otherwise forget the games and answer my questions when they're asked. Yes or no?"
"Foster and Whittier," Van Oot continued, cutting another bite of steak, "were flown to Washington in the company of four Secret Service agents, which by itself supports the previous statement." He stuffed the morsel into his mouth, deliberately dragging out the act while Allen and Greenward exchanged frustrated glances. Then he gestured with his upside-down fork, pointing the tines at Allen.
"Some days later... Mr. Allen... an unmarked helicopter was dispatched by your Military Office to a certain Grace Botanical Laboratories, the records of that flight rather amateurishly left for anyone with computer skills such as mine to read. Its instructions were to drop a package at that site and under no circumstances to land there. Now, ordinarily I would have gone on to other tidbits, but there was a definite lack of symmetry between your government's Military Office, whose function is to provide all sorts of official aircraft and ground transportation, and a sleepy, hundred-year-old botanical laboratory in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. To the trained eye such obvious departures from harmony are as waving flags. Why, I wondered, would such a facility warrant a covert helicopter mail drop instead of a common courier?
"Whittier and Foster had not yet surfaced, and there was no reason to connect them with the botanical place. I was, however, increasingly curious about the term 'botanical'. You understand there is a natural association between that word and various world-wide bacterial weapon fears, even though there is little reason to believe the United States would ever… well, I digress.
"Several days later... Mr. Allen... substantial squadrons of Blackhawk helicopters were scrambled from Quantico to the same location, a distance of perhaps twenty miles, clouding the sky like a horde of locusts and creating quite a local stir. That event was met with a shroud of government silence. Such an aerial spectacle was even more incongruous than the first, if one were hoping to isolate activities involving seeds... the Grace family business... from anything else. Something of significance was obviously going on at Grace Laboratories, so I set about to examine recent uses for that property and found it was not botanical at all, having been more recently used to study PSI, parapsychology. For many years it had been inactive even in that respect, and here quite suddenly it had become something of a beehive."
Greenward began twiddling a teaspoon, a puckering tilt to his mouth.
"A background check on Dr. Whittier," Van Oot continued, his diction precise to the point of nausea, "showed him working in the field of psychology, more specifically aberrations of the brain. I concluded, as would anyone, that the Foster and Whittier combination was in some way connected with PSI, that they were in fact both at that facility and there was a sense of urgency in their purpose. After all, Foster's departure from Bermuda was scarcely planned and was conducted in all haste. Could it be, I wondered, that he and Whittier were working on something so important your computers were deliberately bypassed? If that were true, then what extraordinary recent events might fit into a formula dominated by topics in parapsychology?"
Van Oot forked home a final piece of steak, chewing thoughtfully. Greenward and now Allen showed increasing but silent anger over Van Oot's ability to so easily put their secret story together. What had they expected, an amateur? Surely they knew how vulnerable their computers were. The rest was so obvious a schoolboy could have seen it. Greenward was the more expressive of the two, his jaw muscles tensing with each new revelation. It wouldn't hurt to rub a bit more salt into the raw flesh.
"Now," Van Oot said around the meat, "we simply add two and two." He paused, blinking several times in a row, seemingly reading his next words from the far wall. "Whittier holds a pair of medical degrees and one in engineering, whereas Foster seemingly has no background at all, so we ask which applies? Is Foster at Grace because Whittier wants him there, or is Whittier at Grace because Foster wants him there? Or are they both there because someone in your government wants them there, perhaps to use equipment available in that facility? In fact, Whittier goes to Bermuda expressly to get Foster, indicating the two men knew each other and had worked together other times, and Whittier is accompanied by Secret Service agents. Why? The agents are not in Bermuda for U.S. currency matters so their purpose must be one of protection for Foster, an extension if you will of presidential protection for any diplomatic choice by authority of your chief executive. Foster therefore turns out to be playing a pivotal role in the activity at Grace Botanical Labs, at the direction of your president, and is apparently well worth protecting. In fact, he is valuable enough to warrant an attempt on his life by others, there in Bermuda, in broad daylight. Why? For what country did the two would-be assassins work? Not Bermuda, I think."
Their waitress appeared at the head of the staircase with a fresh carafe of coffee. He nodded to her for a refill, waiting until she again descended the stairs to the main-floor dining room. Then he stared into his cup as though something floated there, speaking directly to the steaming beverage.
"We turn now to the other question of recent events suggesting the reason behind all these intense developments, and what do we find but two most interesting candidates. One is, of course, the destruction of Las Vegas and your Nellis Air Force Base, caused by the failure of millions of transistors in an instant, something your best experts could not explain. Here we have a major world power humbled by an unexplained event. Then, some three weeks later, an incredible display of nature that was obviously not natural at all. That one covered your White House with mud, symbolic in the world's eyes to some similarly colored animal byproduct, and gutted the old Russian embassy a few blocks away, both within minutes of each other. So now we have two symbols of world power, the U.S. and Russia, simultaneously humbled by the same unexplained event. Might this indicate that Russia and the U.S. were players in some unnamed play? More specifically, did either or both of these events suggest anything paranormal?
"First we must consider that these two events, separated only by a matter of days and completely different in character, were both attributed to UFOs in your press. U.S. government statements to the contrary were in both cases surprisingly absent, indicating to me and many others the UFO explanation was more acceptable, more preferable than some more-damaging official version. On the Russian side of the ocean the story was hardly different.
"But it was not UFOs, was it?" Van Oot seemed to be carrying on a conversation with his coffee cup. "Since the early 1950s your authorities have done everything possible to dispute and discredit all UFO sightings, personal accounts and recordings as being nothing more than swamp gas, reflections, even the aurora borealis. An overnight reversal on the part of your government would certainly shake the foundations of your society, and yet here was almost an admission by Washington that something even more disturbing than social fear of extra-terrestrial beings was tied into the two events, something… say… of international import involving the U.S. and Russia? I am not looking for comment, Mr. Allen, merely stating my version of your story."
He stopped to sweeten the coffee, almost humming as he stirred it. He set the spoon down, but made no move to lift the cup.
"Coincidentally, Dr. Whittier happened to be among those appointed to one of three ad hoc presidential committees named to study the Las Vegas phenomenon, which we have just said was supposedly due to UFOs. Whittier then turns up in… Bermuda?" Van Oot, shrugging, turned one palm up, his fat neck almost disappearing inside his collar.
"All the events, in my opinion, had a great deal to do with our man Foster, one taking place before his appearance on the scene, the others after. In Roman times Foster would have become a new name in the heavens, as with Venus. Give the populace something that frightens or amazes them, and a new god is born or else becomes suddenly prominent. And yet, two days after the world-famous White House mud job, Grace Botanical is sealed off from public view, the good Dr. Whittier is twiddling his thumbs sitting at home and Foster is glaringly absent from the scene. Several weeks later, Dr. Whittier's clinic announces the closing of its doors after years of successful financial management, prompted by sudden government-prompted allegations of medical abuses and threats of lawsuits. This from a government that, days earlier, thought highly enough of Whittier's reputation and knowledge to engage him in the way I described. It would appear that one or both of these men fell into disfavor rather quickly.
"What I have concluded is that Mr. Foster somehow became a man out of control, connected in some way to the inexplicable mud party, and Whittier was a subordinate player. In other words, James Foster is now a magician-turned-fugitive, a terrorist able and possibly willing to repeat his skullduggery if he wishes, tempted by any number of private terrorist organizations that have become my specialty. I also suggest to you, Mr. Allen, that recent oblique inquiries made to certain well-known international sources we both happen to share in our business were designed to find none other than the now-missing magician. You have been watching Whittier these past five months for the same reason, hoping to catch Mr. Foster if he contacted or met with the doctor, indicating to me you believe Whittier and Foster have something going between them, that they are indeed friends and old acquaintances."
"That's quite enough horseshit for one sitting," snapped Greenward.
"Dear me, I may have rambled. I apologize for boring you. Well, let me finish, then, by saying you will never find Foster without my help. Forgive me, Mr. Allen, but your agents are amateurs in a world where I operate professionally. They are apparently expecting to stumble into Foster strolling down the streets of Paris, or perhaps sitting in a barber's chair... as often happens in your Westerns. It will not happen. The world is not as small as you make it out to be, and you are looking for a man you know nothing about, who wants to remain hidden. You won't succeed."
"In what? What are you trying to say?" growled Allen.
"As I said at the start, you will be confirming what I have just told you by asking for more. I now believe you are asking for more. Tell me I am correct."
"Save your games, Van Oot." Greenward's expression was one of disgust. "You're free to imagine anything you like, reach any conclusion, but don't expect us to comment on any of it. Now just tell us what you came to tell us. We both have other things to do."
"A reasonable response." Van Oot folded his napkin and placed it across his plate. "I propose to find the James Foster you insist on denying. My fee for delivering him is fifty million dollars, half in advance, non-refundable. If you want him killed...."
"Well, why not?" Greenward oozed sarcasm. "Let's hear the bottom line, make it worth your time coming here, even if it isn't worth ours. Let's say we want this Foster person dead, and you're the only man out of millions to do it. Well?"
Van Oot smiled. "If you want the body delivered in such a way you can confirm it is him, then another twenty-five million, payable upon delivery, a reasonable surcharge in my opinion. You have spent quite a few millions already, and have less than nothing to show for it. You openly offer millions to anyone in the world for information alone on ordinary terrorists. James Foster is hardly ordinary. In this case you have already alerted everyone in the underworld to his importance, in the process undoubtedly sending him an undesirable message to hide even more carefully. Your organization, Mr. Allen, is scarcely prepared to hunt the world for a man determined to remain hidden, a man who has no files in your computers. One would think your CIA would have the assignment, but it may be we are talking of a private quest here. Perhaps even a sanction from the upper echelons of your government? Ah, well.…" Van Oot pushed his plate aside a bit. "The twenty-five million is to be wired to my bank in the Cayman Islands." He produced a business card and wrote instructions on the back, then handed it to Allen. "When the money is there, I will begin. You both understand that I run a considerable personal risk in every one of my undertakings, and the timetable will be of my choosing."
"You'll get no information from us," Greenward stated.
"Oh, I already have all the information I need. As you may have guessed, your computers are not as impenetrable as you'd like to believe. Why does that not surprise you, I wonder?"
Greenward sighed. "If you accessed our computers, prove it."
"You should not need proof. I have already told you more than you knew about the man you want dead."
"Prove it, Van Oot. There are thousands of stories being circulated about your so-called events, and our more creative journalists have touched on every item you just covered. Anyone with a magnifying glass, overworked imagination and a bit of guesswork could have put together the story we just heard, just from reading the papers. You don't think we're stupid enough to wire twenty-five million dollars to someone operating on the fringes of human tolerance for murder and deceit, based on a lot of verbiage. Or do you? Try giving us something concrete, anything that hasn't been read by millions of straphangers on their way to work. Then we'll see. There is not one single thing you can tell us that hasn't been theorized in one form or another, despite lack of names in the details. We have the world's most imaginative press."
"And if I do?"
"If you do, then we'll see. Just one item, Mr. Van Oot." He held up his index finger, silently mouthing the word 'one' a final time. Allen pushed back his chair as if to rise, tossing his napkin on the table.
Van Oot sipped his coffee thoughtfully, then reached for a fourth sugar packet.
"There was a second event associated with the destruction of your city, one that went unnoticed in your press because it was given immediate, top-secret treatment. At precisely 3:40 P.M. ZULU time on the 5th of June, your Extra Low Frequency communication system was destroyed. The cause was identical to that of Las Vegas. The destruction, however, was contained inside a very small circle, something on the order of just two miles according to a routine report filed by the Situation Room duty officer, a man by the name of Wilson, I believe. Coincidentally, Russian ambassador Kuchumov was, at that precise moment in time, paying a call on your president. I do not believe you will find reference to either event among even your most creative journalists who have touched on every item, because... as you now see... they have not touched on every item. Have they?"
Allen, halfway to his feet, slowly sank back onto his chair.
The ex-Marine with the gravelly voice stared back at the moon eyes, barely able to suppress his nausea. He glanced once at the FBI man, who'd never been told of the ELF incident, then took a deep breath. He spoke softly.
"Your money will be there tomorrow. Take care that you stay on the safer side of that extremely thin line you walk, Mr. Van Oot. Unlike James Foster, you are well known. We know how to find you."