SOLANO

Sergio Solano stood at the window looking down at the reporters on the pavement. In his left hand he carried a whiskey glass which he set down on the windowsill in order to adjust his suit. Solano had dressed immaculately for the occasion, in a light tan Armani and a $400 hand-stitched shirt that he wore open at the neck to reveal a gold cross and chain. His party had slipped into the hotel through a side entrance in the alley, bypassing the reporters so that he might settle in with a drink before Coleman arrived. But the President’s change of timetable had barely allowed him to wet his tongue.

“What’s their hurry, huh? What’s an extra ten minutes to them?” He turned away from the window and looked at the six bodyguards he had brought with him, each of them officers under his brother’s command. His only aide was downstairs in the lobby hooking up with Coleman’s group. “Huh?

None of the six presumed to offer an opinion, excepting a silent shrug which was all that he expected of them.

“All right,” he said. “Get out of here.”

As the last man filed out into the hall he looked back from the door.

“Shut it.”

Solano was pleased with himself. He had reclaimed Mexico’s oil. For this he would be remembered. He imagined the ghost of Lázaro Cárdenas to be sharing his victory. “Mexico for the Mexicans,” Cárdenas had said. Maybe even a little of America too, Solano thought. After all, he had their pre­cious aircraft, didn’t he? That was worth something. No, he reflected, it was worth a lot. Fifty-four brand new high-technology fighters? The Americans would pay dearly to get those back, and in doing so bring Solano closer to his ultimate goal.

He sat at one end of the couch, leaned back, and put his feet up on the coffee table. He sipped from his glass of chilled whiskey. He had done well. And things were going to get better. So much better. His deal with China assured him of that.

It didn’t bother him that he didn’t know exactly what the Chinese were up to — although any fool could guess it had to do with their surprise move on Taiwan. All that mattered was what they had promised him. In exchange for making sure the American’s never regained their fancy fighter planes, the Chinese would graciously supply him with an air force. As Solano saw it, this was the result of a brilliant piece of maneuvering on his part. Because for every three of the American planes verified by the Chi­nese Consulate in Mexico City as having been destroyed, Solano had managed to get the Chinese to promise him four new Su-27s direct from the factory in Shenyang, as well as pilot training for his people at Wuhu air base in Anhui, central China.

By his reckoning Beijing already owed him a plane and change for the F-22N his troops had brought down in the Gulf of Mexico. That he could earn himself another seventy-two Chinese-built Sukhoi Flankers as easily as he had the first, well, this was the proof of something Solano had be­lieved all along — that he was a savvy political player who deserved a good deal more attention than he’d received as Montoya’s Attorney General. By tomorrow, who would be able to doubt it?

Every time Solano thought about his windfall he broke out in a grin. After all, what good were the American planes to him? For one thing his pilots weren’t trained to fly them. On top of that they were missing vital fire control software. Perhaps the Americans had been foolish to think they could exploit the resources of his country to build their planes cheaply, but even he had to admit they’d shown sense withholding the critical software modules until the Raptors were in their possession. Without them the planes were about as useful as eighteen-tonne doorstops.

Of course, none of this mattered to Solano. As long as the planes were valuable to someone, be it the Americans or the Chinese, they were valu­able to him. And he would be reimbursed for them one way or another. The only question now was how badly the Americans wanted them back.

EMERGENCY

“Move aside!” he yelled. “I’m a doctor… Make way, please.”

Many of the people clustered outside the entrance to the lobby turned and stared at the tall figure in sunglasses pushing his way through them. The slow to step aside were almost plowed under as Anders’ big right arm cleared a path before him. “Emergency. Out of the way.”

Several of the TV cameramen, none of whom had anything better to train their lenses on, focused in on him as he pushed his way forward. Only a handful of reporters proved quick enough to get a microphone into his face and ask for the patient’s identity before he passed them — no doubt hoping to hear a name more newsworthy than that of some anonymous hotel guest.

Anders was counting on the power of the stethoscope around his neck to get him past the hotel guards. Until now they had been admitting only registered hotel guests, checking IDs against a long list of names. Anders strode up confidently to the entrance and selected the older of the two security guards to speak with.

“Are you the guy who reported the heart attack in Four-Oh-Five?”

“Heart attack?” The guard looked confused as the crowd pushed in behind Anders to listen.

“In Four-Oh-Five,” Anders yelled looking over the heads of the two guards. “Where is he?”

The security guard dropped his eyes to a clipboard and ran a finger down the page attached to it.

“Four-Oh-Five?” His finger stopped on a name. “You mean, the Craw­fords?”

“Husband’s had what his wife thinks may be a heart attack. That’s right. Crawford. Justice Crawford. Probably still in his room.”

Anders pushed his way through the door, but the second guard caught his arm. “Doc, I need to see some ID before I let you in here.”

Anders shook himself free. “I don’t have time for that shit right now. Are you going to let me see to the Judge, or are you going to detain me until it doesn’t make a difference?” Confronted with the idea that he might be obstructing the urgent medical care of a Supreme Court Justice, the guard hesitated, allowing an aperture of doubt for Anders to squeeze through. “You…” he said, briefly grabbing the elder guard’s elbow. “You come with me. I might need your help.” With that he strode away from the two guards into the lobby.

“You be all right?” the older man said to his partner as he handed the clipboard over and scurried off after Anders. “I’ll be right back. Just gonna give the Doc a hand…”

The elevator doors closed and Anders hit the button for the fourth floor. Mounted just above the numbered buttons was a raised yellow plastic guard. Beside it was a sign with writing on it.

Anders pretended not to see it. “What’s all the excitement about?” he said. “Out front?”

“President’s visiting,” the security guard told him. He nodded to the sign and the plastic strip blocking the keycard-access to the two uppermost floors. The temporary obstruction had originated with the Secret Service, who sought to discourage hotel employees from inadvertently traveling to the upper floors while the President was in the building.

“Oh,” Anders said. “This is the hotel?”

“This is the one…” The guard stretched his neck and Anders noticed the man staring at him.

“Something wrong?”

“You always wear your sunglasses inside?”

“They’re prescription lenses,” Anders told him. “You guys caught me off duty. Why? Does it bother you?”

“No… Just makes you look like one of those fellas up on the top floor, that’s all. Mean looking bunch, those guys.”

Anders managed a smile.

They reached the fourth floor. Seconds later they were outside room 405. The guard rapped on the door and waited. No one answered.

“You’re sure — ”

“Four-Oh-Five,” Anders said with a nod. “No mistake about the number.”

The guard looked at him. “I’m not sure what we — ”

“Do you have a key? Can you check, in case…”

“Yeah… Yeah. I guess we can do that under the circumstances.”

The guard took a set of keys from his pocket and located the master key for the guest rooms. As he did so, Anders spied a keycard in his posses­sion. Knocking once more on the door and getting no answer, the hotel security guard put the key in the lock. They went inside, the guard advanc­ing down a short passageway leading from the corridor. Anders closed the door quickly behind them as his host checked to make sure the room was empty.

“Well, that is strange,” he said with his back to Anders. “Don’t you think, doc?”

“Three against one? Hardly seems fair, does it, Mr. President?”

“We’re here to negotiate,” Coleman replied. “Not fight, Mr. President.”

Coleman took a chair next to the coffee table, directly across from Solano. Williams shared the couch with the Mexican leader, a respectful meter of space between them, while Stark hovered nervously about the window holding a briefcase which he had carried into the room.

“Gentlemen,” Solano warned. “Make no mistake. To preserve its sov­ereignty, my country will fight. To the last man, if necessary. The oil in the Gulf belongs to the people of Mexico!”

Fight to the last man? Neither Coleman nor the other two bothered to point out how ludicrous it sounded. Occupant of the Presidential Palace or not, this was a man who had seized his position in office. Had he been elected by the people of his country, his claim might have forced them to pay attention. But it was questionable just how far his support back home actually went. Plunging his country into a political crisis with the U.S. by shooting down one of its planes and confiscating oil platforms — not to mention taking hostages — was a dubious way to begin a presidential term.

“We’re not here to dismantle your precious Pemex,” Stark said irrita­bly, placing his briefcase on the floor.

“No? Then what are you here for?”

Williams swiveled on the sofa. “We’re prepared to concede the right to extract your own oil, and in doing so negate all contractual obligations Mexico has made with U.S. affiliates during the term of the Montoya administration. Under two conditions.”

Solano took his feet off the coffee table, glanced at Coleman, then positioned himself to face Williams. He appeared startled that the other side had apparently given in so quickly.

“I’m listening.”

“Number one. You immediately withdraw your troops from the dis­puted platforms and release the workers whom you have detained — with the understanding that compensation for assets lost through Mexico’s actions in the Gulf be negotiated at a later date.”

“That’s all?” Solano said with a touch of sarcasm.

“A formal apology for the death of the U.S. pilot whose plane you shot down would of course go a long way to smoothing things over.”

Solano sneered upon hearing the request. “And the second condition?”

“That you immediately release for shipment from Monterrey the re­maining quantity of Raptors unfairly denied us for the better part of the last year. In accord with fair trade practices, Mexico will undertake arrange­ments to have the planes transported across the border by tomorrow morning.”

On hearing this Solano let out a hearty laugh. “In return for what?

“Perhaps I didn’t stress the generosity of our offer — ”

“To what? Give us back our own oil? Let me remind you, we already have it.” Solano shook his head. “No. Please don’t insult me. You’re here to cut a deal, not to trample all over me, gentlemen.”

Solano announced that he was prepared to allow the foreign workers to return home. In exchange, he wanted a public admission by the U.S. that ownership of Mexican oil fields was a legal entitlement of the Mexican people. There would be no terms of compensation. That was the deal. Moreover, his offshore troops would remain where they were — at least for the short term. As for a formal apology, he told them, that was out of the question.

Coleman rose up in his seat. With as much restraint as he could muster, he said, “I’m afraid, Sir, that we’re going to have to demand you give those planes back.”

Demand?” Solano looked amused. “Somehow, Mr. President, I cannot imagine you demanding anything from Camilla Montoya, and it would please me if you accorded me the same respect. Yes?”

“You are no Montoya,” Coleman said undiplomatically.

Solano swore in Spanish and leaped to his feet. Coleman jumped up to face him — though he stood a full head taller than his counterpart. They glared at each other while Williams and Stark rushed to Coleman’s side, gently easing him away from the coffee table — the only thing that had kept the two leaders apart.

“Let’s take a moment to breathe,” Stark offered. “Surely we can sort this out amicably.”

The President grunted and moved off to the window to cool down.

Solano continued to stare at him. With a weak attempt to hide his remark, he challenged Stark. “For the so-called Leader of the Free World, your boss is a real jack-ass. Yes?”

Coleman heard this and shot a look in Solano’s direction.

Stark tried to guide Solano back to the couch. “Please. Would you take a seat?”

“I don’t know,” the Mexican leader grumbled, “that there is anything to discuss.”

“No?” Coleman said. “I’m sure we can find something. Jeremy?” He nodded to Williams, who took a slim cassette player from his jacket pocket and set it on the coffee table.

“What’s this?” Solano asked.

Williams started the tape playing. “It’s a segment of a longer conversa­tion which took place last night. We think you’ll recognize the parties involved.”

Solano frowned as he listened to the recording. The volume had been turned up, slightly distorting the voices from the tiny speaker, but the words came through clearly.

Did you really intend to sink that destroyer, or did it just piss you off by getting in the way of their carrier?

Williams stopped the tape. “You’ll have to excuse the sound quality. But the fidelity is vastly improved on a bigger machine, I promise you.”

Solano scratched his head. He looked down into his drink, swirled the ice around in his glass. “Was that supposed to be someone I know?”

“Come now,” Coleman said in mock exasperation. “Surely you’re not going to try telling us you don’t recognize your own voice?” Solano offered another feeble gesture of ignorance. “What about the rest of Mex­ico?” Coleman added. “You think ninety million people are just going to shrug their shoulders and claim to be tone deaf? Or do you think, Sergio… I mean, is it just possible they might be somewhat annoyed when they discover you actually took it upon yourself to go behind their backs and collude with representatives of the Chinese government to help bring down an American aircraft carrier?”

The words “aircraft carrier” had slipped out. Coleman had meant to say destroyer. But perhaps it was better that Solano understood the seriousness of his actions. The President stared quizzically at his adversary. “Huh? I know I’d be a little pissed about it. What do you think, Leon?”

Solano set his drink down on the table. “You know what?” he said calmly, unfazed by Coleman’s disclosure of the Eisenhower’s fate. “I think if it were true they might just, how do you say, applaud me?”

Stark prefaced a remark with a snort. “And would they also applaud you if it became known that you were the one who arranged for Montoya’s hasty exit from the National Palace? Yes, that’s right, Mr. President. We’ve actually been watching you for quite some time. All of Montoya’s Cabinet for that matter. Perhaps if we’d processed our intelligence reports a little faster we’d have put paid to the surprise visit you had waiting for her in San Diego. In fact, I believe you could even say we really screwed the pooch on this one, sir. Because in hindsight the records leave no doubt what you were up to. No doubt whatsoever… Now, it would be a shame, don’t you think, if those records somehow managed to get themselves leaked to the Mexican public?”

“Oh dear,” Williams said. “That could be nasty, couldn’t it?”

“You’re bluffing,” Solano told them. But the first hint of self doubt had crept into his voice.

“Are we?” Coleman said. He glanced at his watch and saw that it was 9:28. Stark was bluffing, but what mattered was it seemed to be working. “Are we really.”

The DO NOT DISTURB sign had been placed on the door handle of room 405. Inside, a pair of surgical scissors lay on the bed next to several scraps of black leather and a mutilated shoe. Anders had taken it from the security guard lying unconscious on the bedroom floor. The old fellow had been lucky. He at least would recover. Not the marine Anders had been “forced” to take care of back at the helicopter.

Sitting at the corner of the bed, he inspected the eye patch that he had quickly forged from the guard’s shoelaces and the tongue of one of his shoes. He turned it over in the palm of his hand. It wasn’t perfect, he admitted to himself, but how closely was anyone going to look?

The guard, of course, had been right. Wearing the sunglasses out in the hall, Anders hadn’t been able to see more than a couple of meters in front of him — which was why he had taken the time to fix the problem. Not only would his right eye now be concealed, but it was impolite to stare at a stranger’s disability. The idea was almost laughable — that so large a man as he could hide behind so tiny a device as this. But he did not doubt the extra work would be worth it.

Nonetheless, by the time he put the scissors down on the bed he was sweating profusely. The room seemed to him to have grown hot and muggy. He got up from the bed and went to the mirror to fit the eye patch. But before he could put it on he caught sight of the bloody and congealed mass beneath his drooping eyelid. A glue-like tear of fluid had oozed down the side of his face without his even noticing it. He touched his cheek with a finger. Somewhere in his mind he noted that the skin on his face had the distant and distinctly unpleasant feel of a silicone rubber. It was another side effect of the morphine.

Suddenly Anders experienced a wave of nausea. Brought on perhaps by the shock of seeing his eye injury so clearly in the mirror, he felt his mid­section constrict involuntarily. He bent over and vomited on the carpet. He was down on the floor for a full minute. When he had caught his breath he got back to his feet and stumbled into the bathroom, where he splashed cold water on his face.

He needed air.

Grabbing a fresh towel to dry his face, Anders came out of the bath­room and went over to the sliding door that led out to the balcony. He opened it and stepped out, instantly revived by the heavy cool air blowing up from the street below. The sky looked dark, as though it might rain at any moment. From his spot on the balcony he noticed the crowd of report­ers again. Instead of the unfocused meandering he had seen before the President’s arrival, they were now all huddled around a TV monitor, watching it with interest. Anders went back inside and found the TV remote. He switched on the television and started flicking rapidly through the channels, half fearing that Montoya’s face would appear on the screen.

“Should have taken better care with you, shouldn’t I?”

He flicked from one channel to the next. But he didn’t find her. Even­tually he stopped on the image of a U.S. Navy destroyer with a caption below it reading, “USS Paul Hamilton?”

Anders turned up the volume.

“ — sources expect the President will confirm this morning the Paul Hamilton as the destroyer lost yesterday during a possible Chinese attack on a U.S. naval task group in the Philippine Sea.” The anchorwoman appeared along with a new icon in the upper right part of the screen. This time it was an artist’s rendition of an oil derrick at sea, with an F-22 Raptor climbing away from the water in the foreground.

“In related news, President Coleman goes to work in Phoenix this morning in an attempt to restore relations with Mexico. The White House has stated that the President will try to bring home more than three hun­dred U.S. oil workers caught in the middle of a crisis that began Sunday morning. Coming just twelve hours after former Mexican president Camilla Montoya was abducted in San Diego by a suspected Mexican terrorist group, the new president Sergio Solano unexpectedly nationalized his country’s oil industry. In the process an American F-22 was shot down by the Mexican Army in the Gulf of Mexico, killing Captain Kristin Miller who was piloting the aircraft.

“Pentagon observers are saying that the President may be forced to seek more than just assurances for the safe return of the oil workers…”

Anders wandered away from the TV. He felt better knowing that Mon­toya was still considered missing. He threw the towel on the bed and — without looking in the mirror this time — adjusted the eye patch.

“We go now to Katie McGinn outside the Marriott in Phoenix, where the talks are currently taking place…”

Glancing at his watch, Anders saw that it was already 9:35 and turned to leave the room.

“If you’re still wondering what happened to Camilla Montoya,” the reporter said, “then you’ll probably be surprised to learn how the ex-President is making an appearance at this morning’s meeting here in Scottsdale, Phoenix.”

Anders froze in his tracks. He twisted back toward the TV.

“Foreign policy experts are predicting that last night’s attack on an American destroyer, and the actions in recent months of the former Mexi­can President, will have a major influence on the outcome of this morn­ing’s meeting between President Coleman and Sergio Solano. If you remember, the original reason for the President’s invitation to meet with Montoya was so that he might work out with her the terms for a long-awaited export from Mexico of a whopping five billion dollars worth of navy F-22s — planes that the U.S. had built there under special trade provi­sions. As a point of fact, this is the same aircraft that Mexican anti-aircraft troops surprised over the Gulf with a surface-to-air missile.

“Now, in the wake of the apparently deliberate sinking of the USS Paul Hamilton, say Pentagon analysts, the status of those disputed planes will once again become a major priority for the U.S. delegation meeting with Solano here in Phoenix — no doubt leaving President Coleman wishing it was the only problem in need of urgent attention…”

Planes. Anders thought it over for a moment, recalling as best he could what Tulloch had said about the “military development” in the Philippine Sea — the one which he claimed had brought the BDM750A mission ahead of schedule. And now the news about the Paul Hamilton. Suddenly it all clicked into place. Anders felt his head swim as he realized the implica­tions. “Shit,” he said drawing his eye shut briefly.

He understood now why the F-117 departure to Mexico City had been pushed up, and it was not good news. It seemed the government was no longer acting solely in the interests of the detained oil workers and men like Starfield whose paid lobbyists had pressed so hard in Washington for a speedy resolution to the situation. No. Any fool could see what was happening. The Pentagon wanted its planes back to hedge against devel­opments in the Pacific. And they were going to get them, one way or the other.

Anders knew what he needed to do. He left the medical bag on the bed, containing the gun and the remainder of the morphine. They were no longer needed. Neither was the stethoscope which lay beside the bag. He looked around. On the hotel dresser beneath the mirror he found a com­plimentary note pad. He picked it up and went back to the bag which he upended, spreading the contents across the bed. Amongst the items that fell out was a pen which he used to write a brief message on the pad, tearing off the page when he had finished. He folded the page neatly before plac­ing it in his pocket. He also caught sight of several chocolate bars, still in their wrappers, which had fallen from the bag. Anders picked up two and put them in his pocket. “Nice of you to offer, doc.” Finally he bent down beside the security guard, grabbed the set of keys attached to the man’s trousers by a chain, and tore them free.

Then he left the room, closing the door behind him.

“And you expect me to just hand them over?”

Solano circled the room slowly, his arms folded at his chest. He doubted that Coleman really had something on him. The trouble was, he couldn’t remember exactly what he had said to his Chinese contact over the phone the previous evening. He was usually so careful. In the months leading up to the botched San Diego operation he had taken pains to cover his tracks — only then to have been deprived of his due reward at the last moment. That double-crossing Velarde had screwed him over, the greedy bastard! She would have been dead but for him! Could be now for all he knew. What had it been? Nearly three days? And still she hadn’t shown up anywhere. Maybe the bastard had finally realized what was good for him and finished her off after all. Maybe.

And maybe he had said something last night which, in hindsight, was better left unsaid. But what was done was done. What was he supposed to do — simply abandon all that he had worked for? That was bullshit. He had come too close to give up now.

“I need something in return,” he told them.

Stark placed his hands together behind his back. “I think you’re forget­ting our concessions with regard to — ”

The oil was never yours to start with,” Solano said sharply.

“Nor have those planes ever belonged to Mexico,” Williams noted.

“I want a swap.”

“What sort of swap?” Coleman said.

Solano thought it might still be possible for him to come out of the meeting on top. It all depended on how badly they wanted their precious F-22s.

“F-16s” he said.

What?

“One for one. I give you your planes, you give me mine. You receive fifty-four Raptors, and in return, I get the same number of F-16s. I want the ‘C’ version. The F-16C, yes? Ready to go.”

“Ready to… Are you serious?” Coleman looked at Solano as though he had just asked for the keys to the White House.

“That’s absurd,” Williams said echoing the President.

Solano stopped circling the room. He came to a halt in front of the door. “Is it? I’m sure I could find a better deal elsewhere if I tried.” He grinned at Stark, whose mouth was now drawn into a tight thin line. “Don’t you think?”

Although he didn’t say so explicitly, there could be no doubt in their minds that he was talking about a deal with China. It was the only other country which could possibly have derived any value from acquiring the flightless F-22.

Solano repeated himself. “Yes,” he said. “I’m sure I could find a better deal if I were to take my time.”

Anders did not hesitate when he stepped inside the elevator. He raised his fist, smashed the plastic safety guard, and inserted the keycard for the top floor. Two diminutive Japanese tourists who had followed him into the elevator flinched in surprise as the plastic shards flew away from the bur­nished steel wall and fell about their golf shoes. The button for the top floor was now lit.

“If you can read English,” Anders said, pointing to the Secret Service warning on the wall as the doors began to close, “you’d know you might want to get out here.”

Hai!

The two men threw themselves between the closing doors, tripping over each other in the rush to get out. Their excited shouts were pinched off as the doors clanged shut, leaving Anders alone for the short ride to the top.

Lew Gallagher was pacing the hall near the elevator. He was a member of the Detail assigned to secure the floor. The other man stationed there with him was Reggie Snyder.

Both men had detailed often enough to know that a hotel full of people was about the last place any sane person would elect to protect a president.

“This is nuts,” Gallagher said. “Tell me how we’re supposed to do our job under these conditions, huh?”

As he had been doing for the last twenty minutes, Gallagher kept one eye on the floor numbers above the elevator as he swiveled on his heel and turned to his partner. Overhead, the Number Five button lit up as the eleva­tor passed the fifth floor.

The problem wasn’t that they hadn’t dealt with hotel security before. It was a routine part of the job. Both that floor and the one below it had been evacuated the previous night by hotel staff and then checked out twice — once in the early hours of the morning by local members of the Service attached to the Phoenix Field Office, and then again, briefly, by Coleman’s personal Detail only minutes before. This was standard practice — it wasn’t as though they hadn’t prepared for the day. What was unusual, and this was what bothered Gallagher as head of the Detail, was that Coleman — damn his macho ego — had insisted on cutting the size of this morning’s Detail by a half. The President had declared that there was no way he would be showing up for the meeting with more bodyguards than Solano. Never mind that there were three U.S. delegates, as opposed to just one in Solano’s party — namely himself.

Gallagher was pissed. Ordinarily they’d have one man riding the eleva­tor to check hotel staff absently attempting to gain access to the top floors. Today they were having to get by with a sign and a simple piece of plastic, while a second pair of agents roamed the corridors of the floor directly below them. It was not the optimal way to run a Detail.

While Gallagher grumbled, Snyder stared out the window. Stationed across from them on the roof of the next building was a third two-man unit. The Detail was rounded out by one other pair of agents standing outside the meeting room, and the two drivers of the cars down on the street. Of the pair on the building across from Snyder, one of the agents was no longer visible, having ducked momentarily below the roof-line. Only the top of his head could be made out, and Snyder guessed that he was kneeling to check the cache of Stinger missiles that traveled every­where they did. The second agent could be seen scanning the street below with binoculars.

“Those two don’t look especially worried,” Snyder offered.

Gallagher pulled the nine-millimeter semi-automatic from inside his jacket and displayed it on his palm. It was a SIG-Sauer P226. “Maybe if my weapon was as big as theirs I’d be a helluva lot cockier too.” He also carried a .357 caliber revolver for backup, a Ruger GP100 with rosewood “Secret Service” grips that remained holstered at the rear of his belt.

Snyder grinned and gestured to his shoulder weapon, a snub-nosed submachine gun which he had out and now raised to waist level. “Maybe you should trade up. Get yourself some real action.”

Gallagher rolled his eyes as he turned back to the elevator. “Reggie, my good man, I’m afraid you’re full of — ”

He saw the button light up for the floor below them.

“Shit!” he said. “We’ve got company.”

Snyder jumped away from the window and came toward the elevator brandishing his weapon at chest level. “Man,” he said. “This had better be room service.”

The light for the floor below blinked off as the elevator continued on its way up.

Gallagher lowered his chin as he keyed his microphone. “East Wing, this is West. Be informed, we’ve got a PIZZA DELIVERY on its way.”

“Roger that,” came a voice in both men’s earpiece. It was one of the agents stationed down the hall. “Keep us informed.”

Even as Gallagher leveled his weapon, he was not actually expecting to come face to face with anything more threatening than some foolish Mar­riott employee who hadn’t taken requisite notice of what was going on in the hotel. Even so, the camaraderie he’d enjoyed with Snyder seconds earlier vanished as the two agents went on full alert.

What Gallagher saw after the elevator bell rang and the doors slid open only put him further on guard. Standing in the doorway was someone large enough to have been a professional linebacker. He was a giant of a man, with one eye covered by a black leather patch. The most unnerving thing about him, though, was his stance. He stood there with his hands on his head, perfectly composed as Gallagher aimed the P226 directly at the center of his massive chest, the biggest target by far that Gallagher had ever had occasion to put in his sights.

“Freeze!” he yelled, going on automatic. “Put your hands above… Sir! Step out of the elevator now!

Without hesitation, the man stepped forward.

Anders rotated his head slowly, taking in his surroundings. The surprise was to have been met by a force of only two. He had expected more.

The elevator doors closed behind him.

“Turn around!” the agent in front of him commanded. Anders did as he was told. “Hands against the door!”

Anders made no attempt to resist as he was shoved ineffectually against the cold metal doors by a man perhaps twenty kilos lighter than himself. Maybe twenty-five. He allowed himself to be frisked by the black agent, who covered with what appeared to be an Uzi submachine gun. Unfortu­nately Anders found the barrel of a handgun pressing hard against the base of his spine. For the first time in nearly an hour he felt a fleeting pain in his back, causing him to flinch.

“Don’t move!”

The agent stepped back. “He’s clean.” He asked Anders what the hell he was doing up there.

“I have an urgent message for President Solano.”

The two agents scrutinized him.

“Listen, pal, I don’t know what your game is but — ”

Without warning Anders turned around to face them, causing his inter­rogators to go into a high state of readiness.

“Did I tell you to fucking move? Don’t move!” The revolver was shoved theatrically beneath Anders’ chin. “Who are you? What’s your name?”

“I’m the courier.”

Your name. Give me your fucking name!”

“…Velarde,” Anders said. “Tell Sergio that you have a message from Velarde.”

Anders already had a good idea that Velarde, the name Montoya’s abductor had given up that night at the Training Center, was merely a cover, a bogus ID his victim had been forced to pass over only seconds before Anders had ended his life with a shot to the back of the head. And it was only because Montoya had later been only too willing to identify Solano as the “chinless snake” behind it all, that Anders was confident the man would recognize the name.

“I take it back, Reg. If anyone’s full of shit, I think it’s this guy.”

“You want me to check it out?”

“You would certainly be advised to,” Anders told them. “It is urgent.”

The black agent took a moment to update the rest of the Detail on “Some clown with one eye who says he has an urgent message for Solano. Says his name is Velarde…”

“Tell him,” Anders said, reciting the message in his pocket that he would have preferred to have had passed in confidence directly to Solano, “that I have a message from C.M. He’ll know what it’s about.”

“Who’s C.M.?”

“Like I said… He’ll know.”

--

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In the storytelling tradition of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy comes a tale of climate-induced chaos sparked by the hottest year on record. High action follows page-turner suspense after an undisclosed ecological catastrophe changes the face of Northern China.

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Leonard Crane

Leonard Crane

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Heavily science-oriented. In the past I have spent time dabbling as a: physicist, novelist, software developer, copywriter, and health-related product creator.