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Hot Stuff (1987)

Hot Stuff (1987)

©1987, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1987). Hot stuff. Unpublished novel.

Hot Stuff is a spy novel. When I wrote it the Soviet Union still existed. I did a minor re-write to turn the Soviet spies into Russian spies.

Hot Stuff is based on a real incident. In 1979 more than 20 pounds of enriched uranium turned up missing at a nuclear fuel-enrichment plant in Erwin, Tennessee.


Read the Sequel: Missing Goods


Hot Stuff

A Novel by Dallas Denny



Hot Stuff


I was looking for some light reading. There wasn’t much of a selection in the paperback rack in the hotel lobby. I grabbed a book called Hot Stuff. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but the cover drawing promised an exciting read. Grabbing a package of Certs, I strolled over to the cash register, where the cashier proceeded to ruin it for me.

“I read this. It’s about a fellow named Damon who is driving a truck from Denver to Florida. The truck is filled with a mystery cargo— some sort of high-tech gear. He gets arrested by the St. Louis police, who had received a telephone tip that there was contraband on the truck. The police were supposed to find a small quantity of illegal drugs. They were then supposed to call Damon’s superiors, who would find something much move damaging on the truck— evidence that Damon was double-dealing. He would be in big trouble.

“Damon was supposed to take it on the lam. His boss, C.J. Wood, wanted to make the CIA and the Soviets curious about him. They would note that he had a very large sum of money— much more than he should have had. The CIA, you see, is anxious to close down GB-12, the agency at which Damon works. And the Soviets are up to something. They are trying to buy something that C.J. doesn’t want them to have. The CIA is supposed to think that Damon got the money from the Soviets. The Soviets are supposed to think that Damon got the money from the CIA by selling out GB-12.

“C.J. figured that both the CIA and the Soviets would contact Damon in order to figure out what was going on. That would give Damon a chance to do two things. First, he could supply the CIA with information which Wood wanted to feed to them. And second, Damon could find out exactly what the Soviets were trying to purchase and buy it for GB-12. That’s what the money is really for. And I hate to ruin the story for you—”

“Don’t stop now,” I said dryly.

“The Soviets are after some missing plutonium. You see, a great deal of highly-enriched nuclear matter has turned up missing, just like it does in real life. Another man wants the plutonium. The real mission of the Soviets is to kill him. It really doesn’t matter to the Soviets whether the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. winds up with the stuff, just so long as some third world country doesn’t. And this guy would sell the fissionables— the hot stuff— to the highest bidder.

“Anyway— all this was what was supposed to happen. What really happens is that the police screw up. They don’t believe Damon is a federal agent. Instead of calling the number he gives them, they try to remove the contents of the truck. It blows up and takes some policemen with it. All of the evidence necessary to set Damon up goes up with the truck. It puts GB-12 in a very bad situation. Damon salvages things in a rather unorthodox way. When he is released from jail, he shoots the cop who fouled up the investigation. Two in the head. Right in the cop shop. Then he really is in trouble.

“So— both the CIA and the Soviets contact Damon. Damon teams up with the Soviet agent, who eventually kills her man, and dies in the process. And oh, yeah, she goes to bed with Damon. Of course, before she dies. What are you, sick or something? Damon finds the plutonium. A woman called Willadeen is keeping it in her trailer home. She and her kids have radiation sickness because her fool son has opened up some of the containers. But Bruno, the surviving Soviet agent, steals the plutonium from Damon. The information Damon feeds to the CIA is devastating for them, and ensures continued funding for GB-12.

“There’s more, of course, but I don’t want to ruin it for you.”

I put the book back in the rack and bought the Certs.




I stood on the outdoor platform with a profound itch in my upper middle back, waiting for the bullet. The boys and girls of the strategy department, who had been busy with their maps and rulers throughout the night, were sure the sniper would fire from an upper story of the Sheraton, which stood, windows gleaming, some 200 meters in front of me. I hoped so, for the second most likely spot, again according to the heavy thinkers, was a squat yellow brick building on a rise a quarter mile to the rear. Had I been the shooter and not the shootee, I would have chosen the yellow brick. I had tried to sell the idea to the ferret‑faced Secret Service agent in charge, who reminded me I was merely the target and told me to keep my yap shut. The yellow building was being watched, of course, but the bulk of the manpower was in the hotel, where more than 50 federal agents were disguised as cooks, desk clerks, bellboys, busboys, cleaning ladies, waitresses, hotel managers, parking attendants, bartenders, hookers, and customers.

What I feared most was a head shot, whether from front or rear. I was encased in protective gear from knee to neck, enough to stop anything short of an armor‑piercing round, but my head was relatively unprotected. There was a layer of molded impact‑resistant plastic and two of Kevlar beneath the presidential wig I was wearing, but the impact of a slug would make my brain rattle around in my skull like a marble in a blender. And my face, from brow to chin, was entirely vulnerable, unless you consider a half‑inch of latex and makeup protection. I knew it would be a head shot. Why? Because that’s how I would have done it.

In the quiet time that so often precedes moments of intense activity, and afterwards, in that twilight world between wakefulness and the first post‑danger sleep, it’s difficult not to wrestle with your private bugbears. Facing death, it was hardly surprising I was thinking about dying, which is not infrequent in my line of work. It wasn’t the first time I had occasion to have such thoughts, and it wouldn’t be the last, but it never gets any easier. I wasn’t afraid of being dead, of no longer being, but of the dying, the transition, the journey, the organic process of shutting down life’s machinery. I don’t know where we go when we pass. I don’t think I would mind being there, but I don’t relish the getting there. It’s a trip I would prefer to be either before me or behind me.

A man who looked too young to buy a legal drink was tugging at my sleeve. “Mr. President,” he was saying. I turned to face him. His freckle‑faced good looks contrasted with his deadly serious hazel eyes. “Mr. President,” he continued, “You’re on. Good luck.”

I knew he wasn’t wishing me luck on my impersonation, but that I would somehow come through the expected assassination attempt. From his occasional glances to the northeast, I knew he too was worried about the yellow brick building. “Very well,” I told him in the most presidential voice I could manage. “I’m ready. And keep your eyes forward.”

After some three hours of preparation by the cosmetics experts, my face had acquired age and character it didn’t ordinarily possess. I did, from a distance, look rather like the President. To the puzzlement of the press, cameras had been forbidden. My voice would of course never have worked, but the story had been circulated by the White House Chief of Staff that I— the President, that is—had laryngitis and would not be speaking. The ruse would hopefully fool someone looking through a telescopic sight.

The mayor— never mind the city, but it was a big northern one‑‑was concluding his introduction of me. “And now,” he said oratorically, “the President of the United States!” The crowd‑‑most of it, anyway‑‑cheered, and I strode to the podium, using the big steps for which the President was famous.

I’m not the President, of course. I’m merely an industrial grade civil servant. My duty today was to stand in the open and wave to the crowd, waiting for shots to come out of nowhere. I didn’t mind the risk, of course, but I did mind the policy of interdepartmental cooperation which had gotten me into this mess.

I hadn’t balked, though, when C.J. Wood had asked me to do it. C.J. isn’t a man one turns down. “Yessir,” I had said. “I’ll put me head on the chopping block. But why in God’s name don’t they use one of their own best and brightest? They’d have no trouble finding volunteers. They’re all loyalty and apple red cheeks and hormones and idealism over there.”

C.J. had merely looked at me with his sharp blue eyes and said, “Why use one of their own when they can use one of ours? Believe me, Damon, I have no desire to use you as a pigeon. But I have no choice. We are the counterassassination team.”

The reason for the use of my code name— few people know my real identity, but of course the head of the agency does— lounged against the wall directly behind C.J. Its name was Jordan Davis Shackleford. He was all gleaming teeth and crewcut hair, immaculate in his Brooks Brothers suit. Shack was one of the professional patriots who haunt the nether reaches of the spook community. He had hidden behind his mother’s skirts when he was small, and he hid behind the Stars and Stripes these days. He was big with the National Security Council and Homeland Security people. He was a paragon of virtue and national pride. He was a nasty piece of work. He was sneering at me now.

“Begging your pardon, sir,” I said to Wood, “but if we’ve been called in, why not send a team in and do this right? Why let him—” here I gestured at Shack—”screw it up?”

C.J. sighed. “I’m afraid our charter doesn’t give us authority to override the Secret Service on this, Damon. The protection of the President is, after all, their responsibility. The only help we’re being allowed to give is one man, in the form of a substitute for the President. And you, of all our agents, most closely resemble his physical type.”

Shackleford pulled himself away from the wall, rising to his full height of five feet and six inches. “I’m heading the operation. I’ve told Wood it’s imperative you follow my instructions precisely. There’ll be no questioning of my authority.”

I had looked at C.J., who had nodded grimly. “You will obey Mr. Shackleford, Damon. You will respond cheerfully and promptly to his every command. Is that understood?”

“Yessir,” I had said.

“Very well. You will go with Mr. Shackleford. Now. You need not worry about clothing or toiletries. They will be furnished.” He looked at Shack. “This is a valuable agent. I expect him back in one piece, unharmed. If you don’t take proper precautions, I’ll be upset.”

I held my breath, for those were strong words for C.J. But Shackleford merely jerked his chin and began moving toward the door. “Goodbye, sir,” I said, as I reached the doorway.

“Goodbye, Damon,” Wood said. “Trust your instincts with this one.” I wondered if he was referring to the mission, or to Shackleford.

That evening Shack grudgingly filled me in on the assignment. He had at first refused, but I had merely smiled and said if he wouldn’t tell me, I could call my office for the details. C.J. would never have lent me out unless he knew the particulars. He never gives me one iota more than the minimum I need in order to survive— he’s that way— but I always know exactly what I need to know.

Shackleford’s intelligence was, surprisingly, quite good. The CIA had managed to place an agent in the embassy of a small Middle‑Eastern nation. She had somehow learned that an attempt would be made on the President’s life. At no small risk to herself, she had been able to determine the place (here), date (today), the assassin (a lone marksman), and weapon (a scope‑mounted .223 caliber rifle).

The rub was this: the leader of the plot, although only a minor official in the embassy of his Emirate, had diplomatic immunity. Worse, he was the nephew of the Emir, the head of state of a country which sold a great deal of petroleum to the U.S. Word was the Emir was fond of him. Without concrete evidence of a plot, arresting him would almost certainly provoke the ire of the petroleum‑rich potentate. Of course, the Secretary of State could formally request the nephew be recalled by his government, but even that would be apt to arouse the Emir’s wrath at a time when the United States needed his oil. But if the nephew was caught in the act, the government would have enormous leverage on the Emir, a man who commanded respect from his Middle Eastern neighbors.

It had been decided at the highest levels to exploit the situation. The President, of course, would not actually be exposed to danger. A body double would be used. I was that stand-in.

The stand-ins for the governor and a senator or two, the mayor— he had insisted on appearing in person— and two retired generals had also been fitted with bullet-proof vests. The generals had been advised of the danger and ordered to stay home. They had raised holy hell about it, demanding to be here, and so here they were. I was proud of them.

The itch in my back was roaring for attention, but I ignored it and strode forward, smiling and nodding to the others on the platform and waving beneficently to the crowd. I tried to walk as if I weren’t wearing iron underpants. As I reached the podium, a prearranged scuffle broke out in the front rows, and Secret Service agents converged on the disturbance from all directions. As I had been instructed, I stepped around the podium to the front of the platform, giving a marksman, front or back, a clear target.

I had been right about the office building; it came from the rear. It was meant to be a head shot; his rifle was sighted‑in at too short a range, as it turned out. There came a clanking sound as the round hit my body armor and I was knocked violently forward into the heavy podium. I bounced. Staggering backwards, I tumbled over a chair, upsetting Senator McCleary’s body double. I landed with a thud, with him partially on top of me. I waited for the next shot. It came just as the sound of the first finally arrived, passing through the ersatz Senator McCleary’s jacket tail and again clattering off my body shielding. The ricochet took the mayor in the side, but his Kevlar vest kept him from being seriously damaged. Before the third shot came, we were both covered by a living wall of flesh as Secret Service agents flung their bodies across ours.

Fifteen minutes later, I was examining the armor I had been wearing. The bullet had struck near the top. A bit more elevation would have sent the large‑caliber projectile through my unprotected neck. Shackleford looked as if he would have rather it had happened that way. “The mayor wounded, two good agents dead, and the perpetrator not apprehended. A disaster!”

I shrugged. “I told you it would come from the office building. There should have been more than two men guarding it. And the Mayor is only bruised.”

He glared at me. “One of the agents was a woman. Our best intelligence indicated the hotel, and that’s where we concentrated our resources. Your group couldn’t have done any better.”

I shook my head and grinned at him. “We would have taken him out before he got the chance. Phzzzt!” I drew a finger across my recently‑threatened neck.

He was working himself into a good‑citizen fury. “We don’t operate that way!” he hissed. “It’s thugs and rapscallions like you who make it hard for the rest of us!”

“Rapscallions,” I mused. “Now there’s a word I haven’t heard in a long time.”

“Get out!” he roared. “You’re no longer needed here.”

“I’ll consider myself debriefed,” I said. I paused at the door. “I suppose a ride to the airport is out of the question?”

“I have friends in Washington,” he said threateningly. “One way or the other, I’ll see the end of you and C.J. Wood and the whole no‑Goddamned-good lot of you. There’s no place in a free country for you or the likes of you. I’ll finish you!”

He was almost as good as his word.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2


I found a nondescript motel and checked in. The room was clean, but small. A mass‑produced pastoral scene hung on the wall by the bed, and the furniture was made of sawdust held together by glue. The usual strip of crinkly paper covered the toilet lid, and the plastic glasses next to the plastic ice tub were covered with Saran Wrap.

After I made sure the air conditioner was on full blast, I went outside, leaving the door of the room open. The sun had set, but the heat was still oppressive. I sauntered around to the back of the truck, took the padlock key from my pocket, and inserted it in the Master lock which secured the back door. At that moment two black‑and‑whites screeched to a halt beside me. A battalion of plainclothesmen and policemen in uniform— or so it seemed—piled out and pointed their .38 service revolvers and 9 mm automatics at me. Some of them braced themselves on the hoods or doors of the cars, others stood with feet spread wide apart, and one lay flat on his stomach. All held their guns in both hands like they had been taught at police officer training school.

“Freeze!” yelled one of them, as if I would have been so foolish as to move.

I tried to grin. “Freeze? In this heat?”

“Away from the truck,” said the foremost cop. He gestured with his head, and not his gun. “Lay on the ground with your hands behind your head. Move!” I backed away slowly, keeping my hands in plain sight, and went to my knees. Instantly, a swarm of uniforms covered me, needlessly forcing my face into the asphalt, handcuffing my hands behind my back. Then they yanked me to my feet and half‑dragged, half‑carried me to a burly, red‑faced plainclothesman. The thought struck me that it would have been more convenient if he had come to me.

“I have the right to remain silent,” I said. He looked at me as if with pity, then drew his hand back and slashed me hard across the face.

“I have the right to an attorney,” I said. He slapped me again.

“Doesn’t Miranda mean anything to you guys?” I asked. He grabbed my lapels and pulled me up to his face. My feet barely touched the ground. He was a big man, perhaps six‑foot‑six. His gray eyes, inches from mine, stared holes through me. His brows were bushy caterpillars that had gone white, and his hair, what there was left of it, was like red winter wheat. He looked as if he might have once been a good‑looking man, but now his eyes were filled with tombstones and lies, his cheeks and nose criss-crossed with broken veins. He drank too much. He ate too much, too, and none too neatly. His big belly threw me off the vertical, and part of his last meal was on his necktie. I didn’t think he was a nice man.

“We’ve got you cold, you nutfuck,” he said out of the side of his mouth, then glared at the semicircle of policemen who stood behind me and said, “I didn’t hit him.” They nodded their assent. Two or three of them looked as if they didn’t like it.

My jaws hurt. “As much as you might wish otherwise,” I said, “the fact that you suspect me of a crime doesn’t mean I’m guilty.” I knew he was about to hit me again. I said quickly, “I hereby notify you that you are interfering with a Federal officer in pursuit of his duties.”

A flicker of doubt crossed his hard eyes like a speeding train. Then he hit me again. “You are a wise guy,” he said. “You’re lying.”

“Perhaps I am,” I replied. “We’ll just have to see what happens when you get me to the station. In the meanwhile, it would be dangerous to tamper in any way with that truck.” He pulled back his hand. “That’s not a threat,” I said. “It’s a statement of fact. It’s wired to go off when the doors are opened.”

His hand dropped to his side. Somewhere behind me, I heard someone break rank to call the bomb squad.

A young cop asked nervously, “Shouldn’t we stand away, Detective Lieutenant Murphy?” Murphy nodded, and his entourage, with me in the middle, moved toward a police car. When I was a kid, spending my summers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I had seen a circle of tourists, with a bear in the middle, move in much the same way. As the bear would wander, the circle would move with it. Now I knew how the bear felt.

Someone’s hand pushed my head down and I was thrust into the back seat of the cruiser. A burly uniformed cop sat on either side of me. A rangy plainclothesman got behind the wheel and started the motor. Murphy was in the passenger seat. He rolled down his window and told a man wearing sergeant’s stripes to have the motel evacuated. He turned and sneered at me, and after a moment the car pulled away. In the rear‑view mirror, I caught a glimpse of half‑dressed couples being rushed from their rooms.

I stared at the weathered plastic on the back of the front seat. Cracks chased each other madly across its expanse. The bodies pressing close to me at the left and right were sweaty and at least one of them smelled none too pleasant, but the predominating odors in the car were of desperation and old urine. As my hands were still handcuffed behind my back, I rubbed my sore jaw on a shoulder. Mine, not theirs. Nobody said a word during the drive.

When we arrived at the precinct, they pulled me from the back seat of the cruiser and dragged me up a short flight of steps, through a hallway into a busy room full of harried‑looking uniforms, plainclothesmen, prostitutes, and street punks. I was booked, then taken into another room and fingerprinted and photographed. There were a lot of charges. They took away my belt, shoelaces, and wallet. Then they took me to a small room with a table and chair that looked as if it had been designed to be uncomfortable. They sat me in the chair; it was indeed uncomfortable. I looked around the room. There was nothing to see but the one‑way mirror built into the walls and the naked fluorescent light on the ceiling. After a few minutes Murphy and a plainclothes policewoman came into the room. I knew others would be watching through the mirrors.

“Oh, no! Not Good Cop, Bad Cop,” I groaned.

“Shaddap,” said the policewoman, who wore a name tag saying her name was Madge Holson. She looked a lot like Cagney. James‑‑ not the one from the old TV show.

Murphy glared at me with disgust, or maybe it was just old‑fashioned hatred. “Tell me about the bomb,” he whistled through his teeth.

I motioned at his notebook with my eyes. He tore a page out and laid it in front of me. I sat there. Something occurred to him, and he got up, opened the handcuffs, sat back down, and rolled a pencil towards me. Someone had been chewing on it. The handcuffs had been too tight, and it was a minute or two before the circulation came back. When I could hold the pencil I wrote something down. “That’s a phone number,” I told him. “Call it. It’ll save us both a lot of trouble.”

He stared at me. “The bomb.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not a demolitions expert. I was just told how to turn it on and off. Call the number.”

Murphy made a fist with his right hand and hit me on the side of the head. The force of the blow knocked me from the chair. I got up from the floor and sat down in the chair.

“The bomb,” Murphy said.

“I told you. I don’t know how it’s wired, only how to switch it on and off. I was told to turn it off before opening the back door, and back on when the door is closed. There’s a pressure switch built into the door. It’s covered with black electrical tape. It takes a combination of presses to activate or deactivate it. The explosives boys are into electronics these days. Somewhere inside the truck, there’s a beeper of some kind. It sounds once when the device is activated, and twice when it’s deactivated. Before the bomb goes off, there’s a continuous beeping for 15 seconds. That’s to warn me or anyone else to get the hell away from the truck. The bomb isn’t meant to kill people. It’s meant to keep them from getting at what’s inside the truck.”

“Tell me the deactivation sequence,” he said.

“Two long and one short. Then another long. Like Morse. As a matter of fact, it is Morse. D‑A‑K. About one second for the longs, and just a touch for the shorts. One beep when activated, two when deactivated.

Murphy picked up the receiver of the phone which hung on the wall. “Got that?” he growled. He hung up the phone.

“Why D‑A‑K?”. This from Holson.

“I don’t know. The boom boys have a strange sense of humor. They don’t let me in on their jokes. It may stand for Drew Allan Kaplan. He was a guy who put out some wacky electronics catalogues in the seventies and eighties.”

“What’s in there?” Murphy demanded.

“I want to talk more about the bomb,” I said. He nodded his approval.

“Don’t mess with the truck. I don’t care how good the men on your bomb squad think they are. Ours are better. They’re tricky. Our antagonists are tricky. I was told only what I needed to know‑‑no more. And my only business inside that truck was to get my overnight bag. I was strictly warned not to touch anything in the truck. If your bomb squad goes into that truck‑‑even if they think they’ve deactivated the device‑‑all sorts of hell is going to break loose.”

Murphy stared at me bleakly. “You are sure determined to keep us out of that baby,” he said wistfully.

I shrugged.

“What’s in the truck?”

I shrugged again, and he hit me, harder than before. A little more shakily, this time, I climbed back into the chair.

“Listen to me, and listen good,” I said. “You check my story, and you check it fast.”

Cagney snorted.

I paid her no attention. I glared at Murphy. “I don’t particularly care for your velvet touch. And I’m afraid I’m a little bit vengeful. It’s a fault, but my superiors have learned to live with it. So far as you are concerned, you should behave as if I’m on a mission from God. And if you hit me one more time, you Irish piece of shit, I’ll take you out. I mean it.”

Murphy grinned; he had heard it before. But he made no move to hit me.

“If and when you call that number, things will start to happen. Before you know it, you’ll be up to your protect-and-serve ass in Federal red tape. You’ll feel like a sheriff of a one‑horse town after the James boys rode through. Make it as easy on yourself as you can.”

Murphy and Holson looked at each other and smiled.

Well, I had warned them. I didn’t say anything else. I was feeling pretty lousy. I had already blown my cover badly. It had been necessary in order to keep half the St. Louis bomb squad from being exploded to kingdom come. It wasn’t the first time my cover had gone to hell, and it probably wouldn’t be the last, and in this instance the cover was even supposed to have been compromised, but it rankled me. And in the red heat of my rage at being abused by this fat excuse for a policeman, I had blustered and bragged. I didn’t like myself for it.

A red light on the front of the phone came on. Murphy picked it up, listened for a second, and then touched a switch. “Would you repeat that, please?” he said softly.

A voice came from a speaker set high on the wall. “I said we have a make on our suspect. His name is Lawrence Sullivan, just like it said on his driver’s license. Four prior arrests, two convictions. Breaking and entering, one year, with all but ninety days suspended. Possession of marijuana with intent. Two to five years, parole after eighteen months. We have his suitcase. There was a .38 special Smith and Wesson revolver in it, loaded with Sabots. Unregistered.”

“That’s a cover ID,” I protested. “Call the phone number.”

Murphy put the phone down. Again, he and his partner exchanged grins. And then Murphy sucker‑punched me. I jerked my head to the left, negating some of the force of the blow. Even so, it nearly knocked me out of the chair. Murphy pushed the chair over backwards, kicked at me as I fell. As I landed, he planted another one, a solid one, in the ribs.

Cagney grabbed Murphy’s arm. At first, I thought she was trying to stop him from working me over, but it was only the red light on the phone. Murphy picked it up.

“Patching you through,” said a voice, and then a second voice said, “Detective Lieutenant Murphy?”

“Here,” Murphy grunted.

“We got the bomb. What do you want we should do now? You want we should open the boxes?”

“No. Bring the truck in. I want this flea‑bitten son‑of‑a‑bitch there when we open the first crate.” Murphy put down the receiver, thoughtfully delivered a final kick to my ribs, and told Holson to have me cuffed and brought to the impound area.

After Murphy left the room, Holson helped me to my feet. “He used to be a good cop,” she said.

I stared at her.

“He retires in three more years,” she said helplessly.

I put up a hand and rubbed my jaw. It didn’t seem to be broken.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4


They locked me in a cell, all by myself. There I sat until the next morning, when they led me, still minus belt and shoelaces, into a large room. A long polished table was flanked left and right by men wearing suits and ties. There wasn’t a uniform in sight. They installed me in a chair at the end of the table.

I knew many of the people in the room by sight. I had seen others on television. I was told the names and positions of the ones I didn’t know. It wasn’t an introduction, exactly. They already knew who I was.

Seated on my left side was Murphy. Next to him was a man who was trying to cover his bald spot with hair from the sides of his head. It wasn’t working. He was the Chief of Police of St. Louis; his name was Lewis Munser.

Next to Munser sat a sallow, dark‑haired man in his thirties. Even if they hadn’t told me his name, even if I hadn’t had a run‑in with him before, I would have known who he was from his All‑American good looks, his conservative haircut, his Brooks Brothers suit. But I had seen him before. His name was Jordan Shackleford. He had once been with the Secret Service. After he had bungled an assignment— that attempted assassination of the President— he had found it provident to jump ship. Now he was with the FBI. He was working hard to make his star rise.

The mayor of St. Louis sat next to Munser. He was a tall, thin black man named Eduardo Soza. He had curly silver hair and kind eyes. He looked to be in his early fifties. Something was worrying him; I suspected it was me.

Beside the mayor, there were a couple of empty chairs. Next were two black men on the staff of Neil Argo, the governor of Missouri. At the end of the table sat the Governor himself. He glared at me, as if angry I had caused so much trouble in his show‑me state.

Beside Governor Argo sat a thin young man with carrot‑red hair; his fingers flew over the keys of a dictation machine. On the table in front of him was a cassette recorder, of which he was apparently also in charge.

I knew the men on the right side of the table. Closest to me was Colonel Hubble, U.S. Army, retired. Hubble had retired a brigadier general, but the promotion was given upon retirement. I and almost everyone else called him Colonel. He had been a bigwig in army intelligence, and he presently served as an advisor for our organization. Although he was over seventy and appeared to be paying more attention to his liver spots than to the proceedings, I knew he wasn’t missing a thing. I had always been close to the Colonel, but now he favored me with a look that would have melted aluminum.

C.J. Wood sat next to the Colonel. His putty‑colored face was pale, and he avoided looking at me. Next to him sat Andrew Maxwell, Wood’s second-in-command. Max is short, with a thick shock of brown hair. This week his accent was British, his manner foppish. Next week he might be Armenian, with a slight limp. Max looked at me sadly, his lips pursed, and shook his head slowly. His large brown eyes were sad, like those of a basset hound. I wasn’t fooled. Max knows his trade. Crafty and cunning, he’s one of the most ruthless men I ever met. I once watched him order the deaths of more than a dozen innocent people. I heard the screams those people made as they fell to their deaths. Max had made the right decision; it was absolutely essential to our mission that we take our man out, and no way to do it without taking the other people with him. Max’s only other choice was to let the man go, and that was, according to our orders, unacceptable. If Max was bothered by his decision, it didn’t show in his face. But I can sometimes still hear those screams. And I sure am glad I wasn’t the one who had to make that call.

Nedman Waters, the Vice‑President of the United States, flanked by two Secret Service men, sat away from the table in a large chair. His war‑injured foot was propped on a hassock. He was that rarity, an old liberal. I had met him once, briefly, but he wouldn’t recognize me, for I had been in disguise. But he would know of me. I was well aware that in the Executive branch, only he and the President knew anything about the operations of GB-12. The Chiefs of Staff, the presidential aides, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, the Congress‑‑ everyone in the government knows of our existence. They know our function, but none know anything about our personnel or the specifics of our operations. In a government of checks and balance, we are the ultimate check. We are the ultimate balance. We are the ones who keep the rest of the crooks honest, and we answer only to the two top executives of the nation. And in the regimes of Nixon’s and Reagan’s, and in the regimes of George Bush’s the elder and George Bush the younger, we had damn well not answered to anyone.

The Vice‑President called the meeting to order. “We have a bad situation here,” he said. From the murmurs that came from around the room, I gathered the consensus was that was an understatement. “In the absence of the Supreme Commander, I am authorized to function as the head of Section GB-12. Mr. Wood, I would like your report.”

Wood, still not looking at me, turned towards the Vice‑President. “Mr. Waters, my assessment of the incident is as follows: The man at the end of the table is one of our agents. For the purposes of this mission, he was one Larry Sullivan, a two‑time loser, an unemployed and unemployable man. His actual name is classified information. His code name— that is, the name by which he is known to our organization‑‑is Damon. Agent Damon flew into a large western city three days ago. He was met at the airport by a liaison, who escorted him to a safe house. There, he was given his present identity and a set of keys and instructions to pick up the truck— the one which in fact exploded— at a warehouse. He was to then proceed to St. Louis, where he was to spend the night. There, he was to receive further orders. He had authorization to open the back doors of the truck, but only for purposes of parking his luggage and visually making sure of the integrity of the cargo. He had, of course, been given the key to the padlock which secured the doors. He was given strict orders to leave the contents of the truck alone. He was told the truck had a self‑destruct mechanism or mechanisms, and shown how to enable and disable them for the purposes I have specified: to retrieve his luggage and to ensure the crates in the back of the truck remained undisturbed. As I said, he was instructed not to move or lift the crates. He was told that if for any reason the self‑destruct mechanism were to be triggered, there would be an audible warning‑‑one which would give him time to get clear of the truck.”

He cleared his throat, then continued. “Damon was not given specific instructions about the nature of the self‑destruct mechanisms; in fact, we deceived him about the 15-second delay. There was no delay. He was not told about the backup systems which were— obviously— in place, although he guessed there would be and tried to convey this to Detective Lieutenant Murphy. Neither was he given specific information about dealings with local authorities.” His color began to rise. “Hell, Ned— I mean Mr. Vice‑President, we’ve had conflicts like this before. Usually a phone call will clear everything up. But not this time.” He favored me with a glare.

The Vice‑President nodded. “What were the contents of the truck? And why was the truck wired to explode?”

“Sir, the use of explosives to protect cargo of a sensitive nature is standard operating procedure in intelligence circles— although I expect Mr. Shackleford will deny that. The contents are classified, and most of those present don’t have the requisite clearance. I will say the contents were of a highly technological nature, and in my opinion the use of explosives was warranted. The United States absolutely could not have afforded for the merchandise to fall into unfriendly hands. We have brought in a team to sift through the wreckage. They will make sure no identifiable components are left.”

Mayor Soza spoke. “Weapons?”

Wood said nothing.

Soza asked, “Were there any illegal drugs in the truck? Did the cargo include narcotics?”

Wood shook his head. “No, it did not. Had they been present in quantity, it would have been evident from examination of the debris from the vehicle. Since you found less than a gram of identifiable contraband substance, I surmise Damon may have secreted recreational quantities of narcotics somewhere in the truck. Or, more likely, the contraband was already on the parking lot, and you swept it up along with what was left of the truck.”

Ned Waters said, “C.J., is it your opinion your agent carried out the letter and intent of your instructions?”

Wood nodded. “Yes, Mr. Vice‑President. Except for the matter of the possible contraband, he was behaving as ordered until the time of his arrest. I’ve heard the tape recording of his interrogation. Although he could perhaps have argued more forcefully that the truck, even though seemingly defused, might have still been dangerous, he did attempt to persuade Lieutenant Murphy to leave it alone. He did identify himself as a federal agent. He did give Murphy the telephone number at which I could have been contacted. He gave away his cover identify in order to do this. This is ordinarily a violation of regulations, but in my opinion, Damon was acting in the public interest by doing so. He was ignored, and from the sounds on the tape, he was beaten.”

“He slipped from the chair and hit his head,” said Murphy to no one in particular.

Again, Wood cleared his throat. “There is, however, no justification for Damon’s threats against Detective Murphy. Frankly, this worries me, for Damon has a talent for having his revenge in unorthodox ways. Somehow, it never seems to be directly his fault, but people who cross him eventually come to some bad end. Because of this, I’ve considered reassigning him to duties at which he can be closely supervised. End of report.”

Murphy turned a little pale. The Vice‑President turned to Mayor Soza and raised an eyebrow. The Mayor sat up a little straighter in his chair and looked at Murphy. Murphy swallowed and said, “It was a routine investigation. It seemed like a cock‑and‑bull story to me. We hear them all the time. The explosives boys swore the truck was clean.” He shrugged.

Soza looked at Chief Munser. Munser said, “Certain aspects of the investigation weren’t routine. Our Internal Affairs Division is looking into the situation. Maybe Murphy isn’t clean. There have been rumors. But we have three dead policemen, and a fourth who will be disfigured for life, if he lives. That’s intolerable. Someone will have to pay for it.”

Mayor Soza nodded. “We’ve three new widows in our town, Mr. Vice‑President. I’ve written a formal letter of protest to the governor. He‑‑”

Governor Argo broke in. “The police department of Missouri’s largest city—” here he looked at Murphy—” in more‑or‑less routine investigation— captured a truck which, it had been reported, carried contraband materials. The bomb squad encountered a heavily booby‑trapped vehicle which was operating with the apparent sanction of the highest levels of our government. Three men are dead, and a fourth is grievously injured. As Mr. Munser said, that is an intolerable situation. There must be explanation, there must be compensation, and there must be assurance that the state of Missouri will not again be party to such dangerous and apparently senseless intrigues.”

Ned Waters nodded. “You and I will have to talk some, Neil. I don’t mind telling you about this mission, if you’ll swear to keep your mouth shut about it. You have my personal assurance you’ll be notified before we undertake any further operations in your state. We;ll make financial reparation to the families of the deceased men. However, under no circumstances must the press find out what actually happened.”

Soza said hotly, “The press are camped right outside the building. What the hell do you want me to say to them?”

“Tell them an abandoned vehicle was brought into the impound lot. Tell them that upon inspection it exploded. Tell them you don’t know how it happened.”

Governor Argo looked at the man beside him, who leaned over and whispered something in his ear. “Despite the advice of my counsel,” Argo said, “we’ll do as you suggest. Mr. Mayor, Mr. Chief of Police, Detective Lieutenant Murphy‑‑that is the story. If a word of what actually happened leaks out, I’ll break you.” He turned back to the Vice‑President. “But if I’m not happy with your explanation, Mr. Waters, I promise you, I’ll tell the press exactly what occurred here yesterday.” He rose. “I’ve another appointment, gentlemen,” he said. “Ned, I’ll expect to hear your explanation within the week.” Argo’s henchmen scurried out of the room behind him. They looked a little like baby ducks following their mama.

Shackleford, the man from the FBI, weighed in. “Mr. Vice‑President, this sort of thing can’t continue. GB-12 is a public menace. It’s an anachronism, a needless expenditure of taxpayers’ money. Close them down. The FBI and CIA can handle the covert affairs of this nation.” It sounded more than a little like a prepared speech.

The Vice‑President said sadly, “Mr. Shackleford, this is neither the time nor the place to bring up that matter. You may take it up with me in private, if you wish‑‑although I warn you, I’m becoming bored with it.” He turned to the Mayor. “Mr. Soza, we’d like the charges against our man dropped. We’d like him to be released and his personal possessions returned. Can you and will you do that?”

Soza looked at Chief Munser, who nodded glumly. Murphy looked as if he were wanted to say something, but he wisely kept his mouth shut.

I looked at C.J. For the first time, he met my gaze. His blue eyes looked as if they were trying to communicate something to me. I wished I could be sure what.

Although I hadn’t said a single word, the meeting was over. I was taken into the next room, where I was given my belt, my wallet, my shoelaces, and the keys to the dear departed truck. My overnight bag was brought from a storeroom. I took the truck keys from my key ring and dropped them into a wastebasket. I laced my shoes. Then I opened a zippered enclosure and removed the Smith‑and‑Wesson, which someone had thoughtfully returned to its place. All around the room, cops froze or began to slowly move their hands toward their service revolvers. I put the piece on the desk and looked at Louis Munser, who stood in a corner of the room, keeping an eye on me. I raised one eyebrow. He nodded, and the cops relaxed.

I turned to Munser. “Why was I arrested in the first place?” I asked.

The Chief looked at Murphy, who stared at his feet. “We had a tip you were carrying narcotics,” he mumbled.

“A tip?” I asked. “A tip? Someone strolled into the police station and told you they thought I was carrying drugs, and you and a couple of carloads of the boys drove over into Kansas and picked me up and followed me right over to the Motel 6 to roust me?”

“He telephoned,” Murphy said. “The man with the tip telephoned. He told me he had helped load the truck with marijuana. He had phoned before. It had always panned out. I figured this time was no different. I went out in the unmarked with Detective Martin. We picked you up on the Interstate just outside St. Louis.” He looked at Chief Munser worriedly. “If he saw someone in Kansas, it must have been somebody else. When you were in the motel office, we brought in a K‑9 unit; the dog went crazy. There was marijuana in that truck. I know there was.”

“A goddamned gram,” said Munser.

Murphy seemed sad his bust hadn’t worked out. He stared at me through red eyes. “I figured we had you dead to rights. After you left the office, we watched you go to your room and we called for the black‑and‑whites.”

I knew he was telling the truth about everything except picking me up in Kansas. I knew because I had made the call from a phone booth in eastern Colorado. I had fingered myself, and yes, on orders, I had called twice in the weeks before with tips which had turned out to be legitimate. I looked hard at Murphy. “No reasonable cause? No warrant? No Miranda?” I turned to the Chief. “So those are the non‑routine aspects of the investigation? It doesn’t matter that your boy beat the batshit out of me? Or that he never bothered to call the phone number I gave him? If he had done his job, the truck would never have exploded.”

“No comment,” said the Chief. I shrugged, and picked up my revolver. I broke it, looked down the barrel, made sure it was still loaded, snapped it shut. I pulled back the hammer with my thumb, as if to test its action. Everyone assumed I would lower it and put the piece in my pants. But I didn’t. I had one chance to salvage the mission, and, although it was risky as hell, I was going to take it. I raised my arm and quickly shot Murphy twice in the head.

Chapter 11

Chapter 11


I stood on the sidewalk with the evening sun in my face, feeling like a boy scout on his way to summer camp. The little knife and the little camera were in my pocket, and the Minolta and its assorted gear, along with the Beretta Tomcat, were in a cheap gadget bag which was slung over my shoulder. In my right hand was a hastily assembled shaving kit. In my left was a large backpack which contained almost five million dollars. The rest was in my left hip pocket in Nick Manetti’s wallet, which was fat with one hundred dollar bills. At my feet was an overnight bag with several changes of the disgusting clothes Max had selected. I opened the bag and stuffed the shaving kit inside.

I passed a hopeful panhandler just outside the bus station. At first I ignored him, but the thought of five million dollars caused me to go back and give him a one hundred dollar bill. His grateful yell turned heads. It was supposed to.

We’re trained to be as inconspicuous as possible, but in this case I was supposed to be noticed. I smiled and bowed to the bystanders, then went inside and bought a one‑way ticket to Knoxville from a scowling agent with a pock‑marked face. I purchased a cellophane wrapped sandwich and a pack of Lay’s potato chips and put them in the knapsack on top of all that money. Then I strolled over to the row of pay televisions, sat down, put two quarters in the slot, and watched Masterpiece Theatre until the bus was announced.

Greyhound had done a good job of making the station look like a poor imitation of an airport terminal. There was even a series of gates leading to the departing busses. But the station was packed with the usual odd assortment of humanity that accumulates at bus stations everywhere‑‑ soldiers on leave, women with two or three small children in tow and a baby in their arms, men with three‑day beards, nervous‑looking effeminate males of varying ages, young girls with faded jeans and bleached hair, stooped old black grandfathers, young black men in gang jackets, and fat white women in K‑Mart slacks. I walked past the lot and went out Gate 4, where the coach to Knoxville was waiting. As I did, I saw an FBI haircut standing near a pay phone. He gave no indication of having noticed me, but that meant nothing.

I pulled the ticket from my pocket, gave it to the driver, and boarded the crowded bus, settling near the back. I looked out the window; the FBI haircut was carefully not looking my way. My seat companion was a grandmother from Jackson. I knew she was a grandmother because she gave me intimate details about the births, development, and life experiences of each of her seven grandchildren. She had pictures to back up her stories. I was relieved when the bus reached Jackson and she arose to depart. I followed her off the bus and made a quick call to Eric. “Contact has been made. I think I was spotted by the FBI. At the bus station in M‑town. I ignored him. Instructions?”

Max came on the line. “If it wasn’t one of Shack’s men, you would have been picked up. Continue as planned.” I hung up and bought a Welch’s grape drink from the vending machine beside the front door, and got back on the bus just as the driver was starting to get impatient. I ate the sandwich and chips, washing them down with the soda, then opened the overnight bag and removed a paperback I had picked up at Eric’s house, a dog-eared copy of Robert A. Heinlein’s Glory Road. I had read the book several times. I identified with Oscar, the protagonist. Like me, he was on a quest. Like me, the true nature of his quest had not been fully explained to him. Unlike me, he was in the company of a beautiful woman.

It was two in the morning and the coach was approaching Cookeville when I finally finished the book and put out the light. I have no trouble sleeping in a moving vehicle. I woke when the bus left I‑40 in Knoxville and the driver announced there would be a two‑hour layover before the coach continued to New York by way of Morristown, Greeneville, Johnson City, Bristol, and various other little pieces of America. I just had time to visit the bathroom. I carried the backpack with me into the crowded compartment, then picked up the rest of my paraphernalia and followed the last of the passengers off the bus. I didn’t see any unusual characters‑‑ or rather, anyone ordinary enough to stand out in the crowd of eccentrics that usually fills bus stations.

During the journey, we had passed into Eastern Daylight Time. The sun was up and it was nearly eight o’clock. It was time for me to start. Time to do the job I was being paid to do.

I stumbled to a McDonalds’ restaurant and ordered hotcakes and bacon. The person who took my order didn’t want to substitute bacon for sausage. I had to speak to the manager before I could get what I wanted. It made the hotcakes taste that much better. I was working myself into that kind of mood.

After I ate, I caught a taxi to the airport. The fare was just short of forty bucks. I gave the driver a five hundred dollar bill and told him to keep the change. What the hell. I was rich. His eyebrows went up, and he thanked me profusely and helped me get my knapsack and bags out of the trunk before he drove off.

I entered the terminal building and attempted to rent a car at the National counter. Because Nick Manetti didn’t carry any plastic, the greasy‑haired agent at the counter wouldn’t do business with me. That made me mad. “Just how much cash deposit would it take to rent a car?” I asked.

“I told you, sir. We don’t operate that way. We must have a major credit card. I’m sorry. It’s the same way with all the agencies.”

I got no further with the manager. “Damn it,” I said at last. “If I had gone to your office in the city, you would have rented me a car. I don’t see why you can’t rent me one here.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, as pleasantly as he could in the face of my growing hostility.

“Listen to me. I’m going to rent an automobile. I’m going to rent it from you. I’m offering cash. Greenbacks. The law of this country says they are legal tender for all debts, public and private. If you take the time to examine your currency, you’ll see it clearly states that. What the hell is wrong with you?”

The manager turned his palms up. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Sorry doesn’t get it. Do you have a Mercedes? This year’s model? An SL‑ whatever the hell the number is up to now. The convertible.”

“Yes, sir, but as we have tried to explain, we can’t let you have the car without a credit card. Perhaps you could contact a friend or relative or business associate.”

“I don’t have any friends. I don’t have any relatives. And I don’t like goddamned credit cards. I won’t carry one. And I won’t let not participating in a debit economy abrogate my rights as an American citizen. Do you understand me?”

He looked as if he were about to call security, or if he were trying to figure out what abrogate meant. “No, sir. I don’t think so.”

“Well, then, try this on for size. I’m an attorney. My major practice is constitutional law. If you don’t rent me an automobile, I’ll forthwith file a class‑action suit on behalf of all Americans without Mastercard and Visa and American Express cards. Your company’s lawyers will fight the case, but they’ll of course lose. They’ll appeal the case, but they’ll lose that, also. Do you know why that will happen?”

He was making a valiant attempt to keep his temper in control. “No, sir.”

“I don’t either. There are several legal precedents in which individuals have sued because another party refused to accept U.S. currency— but there are some fucked up U.S. District Court decisions that went the other way. Perhaps I’ll win. Perhaps I won’t. In either case, the legal costs to your company will be considerable. Perhaps more than considerable. And what is that balanced against? Very little. It’s balanced against me being able to rent a car.”

He looked at me. He was a little man in a little job, caught between the customer’s anger and the policy of the company. He said nothing.

“Listen carefully. This is what I want you to do. Please tell me the minimum amount I must pay in security in order to rent a Mercedes automobile. I will give you that amount in cash. You will then give me a receipt for it and have the car brought around. When I return it, you will deduct my charges and you’ll refund the balance to me, if any. You’ll make the refund in cash. As you demand I present you with a credit card, I demand you not try to give me a check or other worthless paper. Now, sir. I would like an answer, and I would like it as soon as possible.”

He gulped like a fish and ducked into his office. He dialed a number and talked animatedly into the mouthpiece. I glanced at the clerk who had originally waited on me. His mouth wasn’t hanging open. Not quite.

After about five minutes, the manager came back out of his office. He had a smug look on his face. I thought I knew what he was going to say.

He said it. “I’m afraid, sir, the national office will require there be a deposit equal to the value of the automobile.”

I didn’t move. He looked uncomfortable. “Perhaps, sir, you didn’t understand. Unless you have a credit card, you’ll have to make a deposit equal to the worth of the car. Although the car has depreciated, it’s still worth nearly one hundred thousand dollars.”

“Okay,” I said cheerfully. “How about I give you a hundred large?”

His mouth fell open. “Wouldn’t it be easier for you to just visit our office in Knoxville?”

“Nope,” I said. “Your offer is fine with me. I’ll give you the hundred grand.”

“Sir, I couldn’t possibly accept a personal check. Unless you have a cashier’s—” I thumped the backpack onto the counter and opened it. I pulled out the empty potato chip bag, the cellophane wrapper from the sandwich, and the Welch’s can, lay them on the counter, and pushed them away with an elbow.

His eyes went wide when he saw the first grape‑stained bundle of one hundred dollar bills. As I kept pulling them out and stacking them on the counter, his eyes became wider still. Again, he looked as if he were about to call for security.

A crowd had begun to gather as soon as the first bills had hit the counter. I winked at a bald‑headed skycap. “No problem, partner,” I said to the rent‑a‑car man. “I told you I’d pay in cash. But I will be wanting that receipt.”

Chapter 14

Chapter 14


The interior of the trailer was dark and smelled of cigarette smoke. I reached out my hand and found the light switch.

She was sitting on the edge of the bed, smoking a Virginia Slim. She had been using a styrofoam cup for an ashtray. “Nikki, darling!” she cooed. She stubbed the cigarette out in the cup, rose, and came into my arms. “Oh, Nick. It’s been so long!” As we embraced, she pressed a crumpled piece of paper into my palm.

I pushed her away and looked her over. She was a fairly close match for the photograph of Gloria Manetti. She was short, about five‑four, with a thin nut not-quite-boyish figure. She was dressed in jeans and sweatshirt. I could tell there was no bra under the sweatshirt. She wore no makeup. Her hair was lank and of the right color, and she held her right hand tightly curled against her body. She had limped as she had crossed the space between the bed and the doorway. But she was not‑‑could not possibly be‑‑Gloria Manetti. Although I was uncertain to what extent Eric Van Sant had drawn upon real life acquaintances when fabricating my new identity, I was sure he would have never used a real names. There was no Gloria Manetti. Nick’s ex-wife, like Nick Manetti himself, was a fictitious person. The woman in my arms more or less fit the description of Gloria, but who was she? I somehow got the impression she would have felt more comfortable in stockings and high heels, an expensive hairdo and cosmetics than in her current state of casual, and even sloppy, dress. I knew she wasn’t alone. Her vehicle had not been apparent; that meant she was working with a partner.

But it wouldn’t hurt to play along. I said with what I hope sounded like surprise, “Glory! My God! How did you get here? How did you know where to look?”

She pointed fiercely at the note she had given me. “When they said you had gone camping, I knew you would have come here.”

As I said, “Well, I’m glad as hell you came,” I was uncrumpling and reading the note. In a cramped handwriting, I read, “Bugs in here. Bugs in car. Need to talk in safe place.”

“Are you hungry?” I said. “I haven’t had lunch.”

“Yes, I’m starved.”

“Good. I’ll show you my new car. She’s really something.”

We made small talk as I drove past Townsend. I pulled into the large gravel lot of a place called Wilson’s Restaurant, and we went inside. As it was three‑thirty in the afternoon, we were the only customers. A dour middle‑aged woman with thin brows plunked glasses of water on the table, handed us menus with countrified spelling on them, and walked away.

“It’s a good act,” I said, “but you’re not Gloria.”

She looked hurt. “You wound me, Nikki! I’ve missed you so. I can’t remember why we ever divorced.”

I chewed on my lip.

She took a box the size of a pack of cigarettes from her oversized purse and waved it around. The green LEDs on its face stayed green. She put the box back into her purse.

When she spoke, her West Tennessee drawl was gone. She spoke in perfect, unaccented American, like a television announcer, but her phrasing and spacing was unusual. It was as if she had two levels of English— the perfectly imperfect speech of the average Southerner, and a “let down your guard” eastern‑bloc English. “In your Shastatrailer, there are two listening devices. One is inside the vent for the furnace. The other is inside the mattress of the large bed. I found a small slit where it was inserted.” She removed one of her thin cigarettes from a silver case and waited for a light. I didn’t have one. She rummaged in the purse and pulled out a disposable lighter and lit it. “I glanced at my little electronic friend while we were driving. There is at least one bug in the Mercedes. It is a directional sender only. The others transmit voices— the devices in the Shastatrailer.” She ran the last two words together: Shastatrailer. I liked that.

The waitress came over with a tin ash‑tray. “Ordinarily, this is the non‑smoking section,” she said, “but seeing as how there’s no one else here, I don’t reckon it matters much. You folks made up your minds what you’ll have?”

I looked at the menu, at the supposedly provincial spelling. It took my appetite away. “Coffee,” I said. “And a small glass of milk.”

“I would like the ‘hen aigs’,” she said. “Two. Over light. And toast. Two pieces. With butter, not margarine. Bacon, crisp. Orange juice to drink.”

The waitress went away. I said, “Not much orange juice in Mother Russia, even in these post-Soviet days, is there?”

She looked down her short, cute nose. “You assume I am employed by the Russians?”


She shrugged. “Perhaps yes.” She knocked the ash from the cigarette. “Perhaps no.” After a wait, she said, “The men who were in your Shastatrailer. They had that look. You know the look I mean. They are FBI, no? I’m not sure of that, but I should have positive identification soon. Why are the feds interested in you?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said casually.

The waitress came with my coffee and milk and her orange juice. Gloria— I was still thinking of her as Gloria— examined the glass for cleanliness before she brought it to her lips. Her left hand, which she had previously kept close to her body, reached to pick up her cigarette from the ashtray. She remembered it was supposed to be nearly useless and pulled her arm close to her body. “It’s a damned nuisance, that hand,” she said. “I have a pebble in my shoe to remind me to drag my leg, but there’s no such cue for my hand. I did not have long to practice with the hand. Why did you have to make her handicapped?”

I shrugged. “Somehow, I can’t quite picture you choosing the clothes you’re wearing. Look at you. No makeup, hair in disarray. You’re a mess.”

Involuntarily, her hand went to her hair. She caught herself, put the hand down, and laughed. “Yes. I hate the way I look. I have ruined a brand new hairdo. I have chopped off my beautiful salon nails. Fifty dollar nails. I have dressed in these rags. And for what? To sit in this hillbilly restaurant and eat ‘hen aigs’.”

“Speaking of hen eggs,” I said. “They’re arriving.”

She buttered her toast with exacting rotations of her wrist. I imagined how she would look after a trip to the beauty shop. She had a vaguely Asian look. Her cheekbones were high, her eyes brown, undistinguished without cosmetics. They would be her best feature when she was made up. Although she was thin, her breasts were substantial; I had become aware of them upon our initial embrace. I had to guess about her legs, but there was little doubt in my mind they would be shapely. Under the grimy sweatshirt and tattered jeans, there were the makings of an attractive woman. And me, I was a sexist, rating her by her appearance.

“We were talking,” she said between bites of egg, “about why four men in a car with U.S. Government tags would be curious enough about you to place listening devices in your Shastatrailer.”

“Before I answer that,” I said, “tell me why you’re here. Why were you in my Shastatrailer, and why are you posing as Gloria Manetti?”

“Darling Nikki, my poor unemployable ex‑husband. How is it you suddenly have money to buy a handsome red car and a motor home? Have you come into cash lately?”

I gave her my best guilty look. “The car is rented,” I said lamely.

“Yes it is,” she said. “Did you know your unusual deposit made page four in The Knoxville Journal?”

I knew; I had phoned in the tip. “It’s my life savings,” I said lamely.

“And the Shastatrailer, it is brand new, no? And you don’t rent it. You purchase it. It was not difficult to find that out.”

“Okay,” I said. “My rich uncle died. I got lucky on the horses. I robbed a bank. Publisher’s Clearinghouse came to my door. I broke the bank at Monte Carlo. I brought in a load of cocaine from Colombia. Take your pick.”

“I am noticing your hair is of a different color than it has been in the past. Also, your Manetti ID is good, but not as good as your usual. The social security number was valid, but at the university, there were irregularities in your records. But your Manetti ID is too good to have been picked up just anywhere in the underground. You had to have help with it, no?” She leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner. “There are stories circulating in intelligence circles. One finds them hard to believe. Could it be you are really wanted by the police? That you are persona non grata at your small and ineffective agency?”

“I fail to see of what concern me or my small ineffective agency is to you.”

She tried to look shocked. “Why, my duty as an American, of course. I should turn you in to the authorities, should I not?”

The waitress came by and refilled my coffee cup. When she left, I asked to Gloria, “Are you telling me you’re trying to reconcile the facts that I’ve been relieved of my duties, that I’m wanted by the police, that you think I’m in possession of large sums of money with the fact that some chumps came to visit me in my trailer?”

“Something like that, yes.”

I poured a healthy dollop of milk into the coffee. “There’s no need to deny it. I’m finished,” I said. “Kaput. Wood has washed his hands of me. I can’t blame him; that was a stupid thing for me to do, shooting that cop.”

“You don’t usually do stupid things.”

I shrugged. “Anybody can screw up. I screwed up.”

She put a slender hand on my wrist. “You are indeed wanted by the police?”

“Yes. But this is an easy country to hide in. Unless I’m unfortunate enough to run into somebody who knows who I am‑‑”

“—Like me?”

“Yes, or like those FBI goons, I’m fairly safe. As you said, the Manetti ID is reasonably good.”

She took her hand away from mine. “You’ve not explained about the money.”

“It’s not that much money,” I said. “And I’d rather not say.”

“Your Mr. Wood, he is not popular with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” It was a statement, and not a question. “And a number of senators, they’re unhappy with him, no?”

I sighed. “It’s always been that way.”

“But before, there weren’t five dead men in St. Louis.”

“Four,” I said automatically.

“Five,” she said. “The man in the burn hospital died. And not just ordinary men. Policemen. Brave men who risk their lives daily, struck down in the line of duty. I have information your Mr. C.J. Wood is having some rough sailing. His enemies have seized upon the St. Louis incident. He needs but one more push to send him over the edge.”

“It’s no skin off my teeth,” I said.

“He was your supervisor,” she argued. “For six years? Seven years?”

“Ten years.”

“Ten years, then. Do you feel no loyalty to him?”

I put my thumbs in front of my face and blew on them. “He was okay. We got along.” I raised my voice. “It was a good job, okay? The pay wasn’t much, but I got to go neat places, meet swell people, then kill then. It didn’t matter who told me what to do. It was the doing it that counted. It was waking up every morning, not knowing if it was going to be my last day on earth. It was the sense of doing something important. It was the feeling the only rules I and my adversaries were playing by were that there were no rules. It was‑‑it was an OK job.”

I looked at her bleakly. “Now, what the hell do you want?”

She softened. “I could say you’re a good‑looking man. I could say I want you to take me back to your Shastatrailer and make love to me.”

“And I could say you’re full of it. I’m a pro. You’re a pro. I could go to bed with you one morning, and shoot you the next. And it’s the same way with you.”

She laughed. “Of course, darling. But given, as you say, the only rules are no rules, why not go to bed?” She placed her bare toes at the cuff of my trousers and moved her foot up and down on my shin.

I smiled. “It’s not the same without hose, is it?”

“Damn it, no. It isn’t. And I don’t think I would prefer to make love to you in this condition. I’ll make you another proposition. Come by the Star Motel in Maryville at eight tonight. I’ll look dramatically different. You can take me out for dinner and drinks. We can talk. We’ll perhaps do more than talk.”

I stood to leave. She remained seated. “Don’t worry about me, Nikki,” she said, reverting to her West Tennessee accent. “I’ll have somebody stop by to pick me up.”

I drove back to the campground. As I was getting out of the Mercedes, Mrs. Oswald stuck her head out of the Pace Arrow and said, “Those men were by here again right after you left. They wouldn’t leave a message. One of them went inside for a few minutes. I haven’t seen them since.”

I thanked her and opened the door.

Chapter 17

Chapter 17


I got back to the campground at Cades Cove at about six in the morning. Shackleford and his boys had been back inside the Shasta, but I didn’t mind. I fell into the bed and didn’t awaken until nearly noon.

After I got up, I looked out the window. Sunlight made a dappled pattern on the bed of pine needles covering the ground. There was a vacant campsite next to me; the Hendersons had gone. I smiled ruefully. I would miss Granny Oswald.

Shack’s brown‑and‑white Winnebago had a neglected look. I circled around through the woods and retrieved my Beretta, none the worse for the night’s wear. I walked over and knocked on the door. There was no answer. I rattled the doorknob. It was locked. The flimsy door wouldn’t have been much of a problem, but I left it alone.

Back in the Shasta, I put on a stiff new pair of Levis and a chambray shirt. I pulled two pairs of socks on my feet, and then laced up the new hiking boots I had bought in Gatlinburg. They made my feet feel heavy after the running shoes I had been wearing. The Vibram soles made a clumping noise as I walked around the trailer.

It took me about a half‑hour to find and pack all the gear and provisions for an overnight hike. There was still plenty of room in the big Kelty backpack when I was ready to go. I took it outside and laid it on top of a picnic table, turned, and leaned over backwards, pulling the straps over my shoulders. I adjusted the waist fastener, slung the strap of my canteen over one of the supporting posts, and set out up the mountain.

When I reached the Appalachian Trail, I headed northward, towards Clingman’s dome. About a half‑hour later, I sat on the naked summit of Rocky Top, watching two men climb toward me. I looked at them though tiny Nikon field glasses I had picked up in Gatlinburg. They weren’t Shackleford’s men; they didn’t have that clean‑cut federal look. One was large and beefy, with the pushed‑in face of an ex‑boxer. The second was short and dark, with the look of a street fighter. They weren’t any better in the woods than Shackleford’s men had been. I lost them on Thunderhead by stepping off the trail and doubling back. I made slow progress as I waded through chest‑high piles of rotted rhododendron bushes which had been piled there years earlier, when the AT had been re‑routed. Finally, I was clear of them. I skirted Spence Field, cutting through the woods, eventually re‑joining the AT. By then, it was evening. I walked all the way to Fontana Dam, lighting my way with a Mini‑Mag flashlight when it became too dark to see. I stopped every hour or two to change to dry socks, for I couldn’t afford for my feet to blister. Hikers hailed me from the occasional shelters I passed, wanting to quiz me about trail conditions to the north. I ignored them, keeping up a steady pace.

The distance from Spence Field to Fontana Dam is only about ten or twelve miles, but they’re Appalachian Trail miles. I had plenty of time to think.

The key to the whole situation, of course, was the money. Both factions, the feds and the Reds— well, the Russians were no longer Reds— had seemed to assume the money had come from the other. That was the way we had hoped it would work. There was, of course, no chance they would get together and discuss it. The money had been a brilliant idea. What puzzled me was the amount of it. It had taken only a couple of hundred thousand conspicuously stashed and spent to get the ball rolling. Five million dollars was entirely too much for me to have been given. Wood had as much as told me the money was integral to the real nature of my mission. What, exactly, was the money to be used for?

Something big was afoot. I felt it in my bones. Something worth five million dollars. What?

Well, if Wood had wanted me to know, he would have told me. When I had to know, he would tell me— I hoped.

Still, I needed a lot more answers than I had.

Chapter 19

Chapter 19


I got one of my answers right away. I had reached the trail which led down the mountain to the Cades Cove Campground and started along it. I was about a half‑mile down the path when I spotted something that didn’t look right.

It was a bright spot of red in the brush, about 150 meters downhill. Although there was no wind, it was in motion. I stopped and looked at it through binoculars. It resolved itself into the sock of one of the thugs from the day before‑‑the plug‑ugly ex‑boxer. He had his foot on a fallen log, his shoes off, and was rocking his toes up and down. Stupid. He realized he was made. He spoke into a walkie‑talkie and began crashing rapidly through the brush toward me in his stocking feet.

Even if I hadn’t spotted the glint of the pistol in his hand, I could tell from the way Plug‑Ugly was approaching he was trying to find a clear spot to get off a shot. My little Tomcat would be no match for anything he would be likely to have.

Downhill and to the right of my red‑socked friend, his companion was rapidly sliding down the steep bank to the trail. They had selected a spot from which they thought I couldn’t leave the trail.

There was a drop‑off of perhaps fifty feet on the left side of the trail; to the right, the steep slope of mountain would necessitate four‑footed scrabbling, slow-going. They had planned to let me pass the first man, and then step onto the path above and below me, cutting off all escape.

The ambush would have worked if I hadn’t spotted Plug-Ugly’s impatient foot‑twitching. It would have been impossible to move in any direction fast enough to prevent them from filling me full of holes. But now there remained three other directions‑‑although only one of them offered any real hope. Behind me, the trail led dizzily up the mountain. That was out. To my right, there was an even steeper slope. Ditto. That left the cliff to my left, and that was the direction in which I found myself moving.

Well, it really wasn’t a cliff, but I expect it seemed like one to two city boys. I leapt from the trail, half‑running, half‑falling down the steep incline. Saplings caught at my backpack, and I fumbled at the waist cinch as I ran, dodging the larger trees. I managed to shuck off the pack before it got me tangled in the undergrowth. As I ran, I heard something rustle the leaves above my head. Another something whispered into a tree trunk. I changed my line of flight slightly, glancing back to see the Plug‑Ugly’s friend standing wide‑legged about ninety meters behind me and to the right, holding what I knew must be a silenced small‑caliber target pistol. I could hear Plug‑Ugly, cursing, crashing through the underbrush directly behind me, and then I heard the rapid fire of a semi‑automatic pistol.

I burst through a screen of rhododendron and mountain laurel, landing in a small stream. I teetered crazily and almost fell on the moss‑covered rocks, catching myself at the last minute on a laurel branch. Veering to the right, following the stream, hoping desperately I wouldn’t slip and put an ankle out of commission. After about thirty meters, a gully came into the stream from the left, and I ran up it. A short distance uphill, I scrambled out of the gully, crested a small rise, and saw an unbroken expanse of descending hillside. I ran like a deer, dodging around the large trees and letting the small ones lash my face and arms. Although I was no longer hearing sounds of pursuit, I didn’t slacken my pace until the campground came into sight.

It had been a simple trap, and I had been foolish not to have taken an alternate route into the campground. I regretted not having brought along more firearms, or at least one that would shoot accurately more than 50 feet, but things weren’t supposed to have worked out this way. Shackleford needed me breathing, at least until he confirmed my information, and the Russians, for godsake, were trying to recruit me. So who were Plug‑Ugly and his pal?

I doubled back along the road to the trail head and found a spot to hide. After a while, my two trigger‑happy friends came crashing down the trail, carrying my Kelty pack, got into the blue pickup I had spotted two days ago in Townsend, and drove away.

I discovered I had turned an ankle. Limping, I bore down on the Shasta. On the way, I passed Shackleford’s silent Winnebago. I knocked on the door. The same as before; there was no response. I stuck Nick Manetti’s plastic‑covered driver’s license through the crack in the door and pushed the barrel of the lock back.

I had smelled the smell before. I went inside. Shackleford wasn’t present, but three of his men lay in grotesque positions on the floor. It looked as if they had been forced to kneel and had then been shot in the back of the head. Belvedere, the man with the gaunt face, must have struggled, for the back of his skull had a caved‑in look. I stepped over him and looked about the inside of the Winnebago until I found what I wanted. In the closet beside the little shower stall hung a vest and jacket and a shoulder rig. In the holster was the usual 9 mm automatic. I took off my denim jacket, put the rig on, and pulled the jacket over it. It didn’t work so well without a sports coat, but it wasn’t all that conspicuous. I looked in the closet for C.J. Wood’s one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, but it wasn’t there; I hadn’t really expected to find it. Shackleford would have taken it. I did find a box of 9 mm cartridges, which I stuffed into a pocket.

I left the Winnebago, making doubly sure the door locked behind me. As I walked through the peaceful campground, My thoughts were dark.

A young black man and woman had erected a two‑man pup tent in the lot next to mine. I smiled at them and looked at the door of the Shasta.

Somebody had been inside; the tell‑tales were disturbed. There was a note on the dining table. It read, “Darling Nikki, you must leave this campsite immediately. I’ll be watching for your red car— G.”

I knew why she wanted me to leave. They were lying on the floor of the motor home across the way. Three of them. Briefly, I considered whether she had been the responsible party. She was capable, of course, but I couldn’t see how it would have suited her ends to have eliminated them. Besides, somehow the execution‑style killings had seemed to have a masculine touch.

Proper procedure would have been to get the hell out of Dodge. But finding my appetite stimulated by my recent exercise, I was ravenous. The dead men would keep for a half‑hour or so. Keeping an eye out for blue pickup trucks, I did away with a tub of pineapple‑flavored yogurt, then thawed a package of pork chops in the microwave and went outside to cook them on the barbecue grill. Standing there, turning the chops with a fork, I might have been any slob on vacation, and not a man with three dead neighbors and an ersatz ex‑wife hiding somewhere in the forest.

The meat was good, and I ate it all. I have friends who frown on eating pork. One of them is thirty‑five. He took perfect care of himself, ate right, watched his cholesterol, avoided red meats and saturated fats, exercised properly, drank the recommended six glasses of water a day. All that stuff. And then‑‑pow! When he was thirty‑three, he began having heart attacks. He’s had three so far, and the doctors have told him he won’t survive another.

And then there’s me. I take terrible chances. I don’t eat right. I don’t get enough sleep. I never take vitamins and never see a doctor unless some unsavory character has managed to damage the machinery so it won’t function properly. I sleep around, which is a dangerous proposition these days. I drink too much. I’ve experimented with drugs. I drive too fast. I play with guns and explosives. I’ve been stabbed, shot, exploded, poisoned, and hit over the head, each on more than one occasion. I’ve fallen out of trains, jumped out of airplanes, and been run over by cars. And so far, despite various nicks and scars, I remain in good working order. So you figure it.

Chapter 20

Chapter 20


After I ate, I searched the convertible until I found the directional sender Marta had warned me about. I stuck it under the fender of the car of the couple in the next lot. I went back inside the Shasta and placed five one hundred dollar bills under the ice tray in the refrigerator. I packed my clothes and threw them into the trunk of the Mercedes, then drove away. As I was leaving the campground, Marta Alexandrovich moved onto the roadway. She was wearing her Gloria Manetti costume. I stopped beside her, and she opened the door and got in. She smiled at me brightly.

“Hello, darling,” she said.

“Hello to you.”

“It’s a marvelous day, is it not?”

“It is not. Do you need to get your toothbrush?”

“Oh, Nikki, are we going somewhere?” She thought for a moment. “I would of course like to get a few things, darling, but they’re at my motel. Surely you didn’t think I would sleep on the cold ground merely to keep an eye on you.”

“Unless you needed to,” I said. “There’s a Winnebago back there with three dead men in it.”

“I know that,” she said brightly. “Why do you suppose I was hiding beside the road, waiting for you instead of lying on the bed in your decadent American travel trailer?”

I stopped at the little post office in Townsend and went inside. A bald‑headed clerk brought me my manila envelopes. I opened one and looked inside. The money was there, all right. By chance, I had opened the one with the keys to the safety deposit boxes. I tossed the keys into the trash.

The envelope also contained the photo of Katherine. It brought back both good and bad memories. I was married once, for a brief time. My wife was named Elise. She’s gone now— not dead— just gone. Katherine came after Elise. We were never married. We came close on a number of occasions, and damned close once, but somehow we just never managed to do it. My present occupation was to a large extent responsible for our breakup, and it was the one thing that pissed me off about C.J. He had seen it coming, and had never warned me. My relationship with Kat had been an emotional roller coaster, and it had ended on a down note. She had just slipped out one evening and never come back. She was the only person I couldn’t feel good about. I felt good about my mother and father, both dead. I felt good about my kid brother, Sammy, who dealt blackjack in Vegas. I had shot, stabbed, strangled, and exploded a number of human beings, and I didn’t lose much sleep over them. Murphy didn’t bother me— much. But Katherine— Katherine made me feel lousy. She was an unfinished chapter in my life.

I bought a small envelope from the clerk. I put Kat’s photo in it and mailed it to a post office box I keep somewhere. If I survived, I would pick it up when this crazy mission was over. I was going places of which she wouldn’t approve.

Back at the Mercedes, I stuffed the envelopes in the trunk. Marta was fixing her face with a little compact. I thought it was out of character for her Gloria persona and was about to tell her so, but as I drove off, she said, “Two of them. In a blue pickup truck.”

I looked at her. “Do you know who they are?”

She shook her head, but she didn’t mean it.

I drummed my fingers on the dashboard. “You’re quite sure about that?”

“Darling, I never saw them before today.”

“But you know who they are?”

“I think so, yes. Of course, I can’t be certain.”

“Are they the ones you were sent here to deal with?”

She looked surprised. “But, Nikki‑‑”

“I hate that damned name. Call me Damon.”

“Yes, Nikki. But Damon‑‑ I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“We’ll discuss it,” I said through gritted teeth, “later.”

The blue truck was behind a heavily‑loaded station wagon, full of kids and frustrated-looking adults. “They won’t try anything here,” I said. “I’m going to find somewhere they will.”

“You are my hero,” she said breathlessly.


I knew just where I wanted to go. I kept the blue truck behind me until I reached the Foothills Parkway, then turned left and accelerated up the long slope. There was no traffic on the parkway, and I pushed the little Mercedes hard. The blue truck started falling behind when I reached ninety.

“Hang on,” I said. “We’re getting off this road, and the going will be rough.” I watched for the turn‑off I had in mind, swerved to the left onto a dirt road. The potholes were bigger than the last time I’d been that way, but the suspension of the little convertible took it. I slid the car sideways onto a small, crooked macadam road.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to be a tour guide. “This is called Six‑Mile Road, or sometimes Happy Valley Road,” I said as I threw the car around a curve, “because it leads to Six‑Mile or to Happy Valley, depending on which way you go.” We passed under the Foothills Parkway and rounded a curve, and suddenly the misty view of the Smokies was replaced by the relative flatness of the Tennessee River Valley. In the misty distance I could see the Cumberland Mountains.

I heard Marta gasp beside me. I knew how she felt. The view is spectacular, and I was counting on it to distract Plug‑Ugly and his friend.

We were nearing a sharp curve which never fails to give me the fly‑on‑the‑wall syndrome. The road swings out close to a sheer bank as it turns, and you feel like an honest‑to‑God insect as you look out over miles and miles of flat land from a vantage point several thousand feet up. As I started to come out of the curve, I pulled on the emergency brake and cut the wheel to the right, causing the Mercedes to swing around and block the road. I jumped onto the trunk and leapt down onto the ground, leaning on the side of the car with the Tomcat aimed at the curve. Marta, cursing her tight pants, was standing on the seat, preparing to jump to the ground, when the truck suddenly rounded the curve.

Plug‑Ugly was driving. There were just two things he could have done‑‑well three, actually, but he wasn’t about to deliberately drive over the steep drop‑off on his left. He could hit the Mercedes. That would probably knock Marta out and push the car right over top of me, unless we managed to get out of the way in time. But it meant driving into my line of fire.

The only alternative was to try to drive up the bank on his right. And that’s what he did, passing the Mercedes high up before his momentum was lost and he came to a halt.

The truck had come to rest on the steep bank on the uphill side. It tilted at a crazy angle. Plug‑Ugly and his pal were leaning heavily to the right, trying to prevent it from overturning. Plug‑Ugly’s pal had his silenced .22 caliber pistol in his hand, but Plug‑Ugly’s mass was keeping the man’s arm pinned to his body. I ran up, grabbed the bumper of the delicately balanced truck, and lifted. The little pickup turned lazily over, hitting on its top in the road bed, and continued to tumble. I helped it by pushing again, and this time Marta was beside me. The truck toppled, landing on its top on the side of the hill. It slid for a ways in the loose dirt before going over a small ledge, and then it flipped three or four times before coming to rest against a stand of trees.

Marta was down the hill before I was. I came up beside her just as she stood up from Plug‑Ugly, who had been thrown clear of the truck. “He’s dead,” she said. She turned to the other one, who lay half‑in and half‑out of the truck. There was a lot of blood, but he was still alive. But not for long. Marta slid her hand in her pocketbook, brought out a tiny nickel‑plated automatic pistol, and did exactly what I had done to Murphy, and then some. She shot him three times in the head.

Chapter 24

Chapter 24


It was eleven o’clock before we were ready to go. We weren’t exactly your crack-of-dawn spies.

“Don’t worry, darling,” said Marta, when I commented on the time. “I must be at a phone booth at a quarter of two. There’s nothing to do before then.”

“And when are you going to tell me about it?” I asked.

She looked at me. “Soon, darling. Very soon.”

We sat around until one-thirty, and then piled into the car. The phone booth was just outside a convenience store. I read the local paper while Marta sat on the hood of the Mercedes, waiting for the phone to ring. One of our boys, I noticed, had made the front page. Amos Burke claimed he knew nothing about a body found in his car, but the police said several witnesses had seen him leaving a bar with her on the night of her murder. There was a photo of him as he was being led into the police station. His shackled hands were in front of his face.

The phone rang, and Marta strolled casually over and picked up the receiver. I listened, but traffic noises and the humming of the box that controlled the traffic light on the corner made it impossible to hear the conversation. I looked around for Bruno. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he wouldn’t be far away. I decided he was a good kid in a dangerous profession. I wished him the best of luck. He would need it.

The dead girl was identified as Marcia Stallings, 23. She was a student at East Tennessee State University. Her major was drama. She was originally from Baltimore; efforts were being made to contact her parents.

I doubted her name was really Marcia Stallings. Her manner had been too hard. Her ID was probably fabricated and would fall apart upon close inspection. She had a Semitic look. Her parents were probably from Tel Aviv, if she hadn’t murdered them. I suspected she was one of Shaw’s lieutenants.

I thought about Shaw. Marta was unlikely to tell me his real name, for the Russians wouldn’t want us to know which of the former Soviet agents had defected. Wood would almost certainly have that information, but at present, there were no secure channels of communication— at least, no direct ones— to headquarters. It occurred to me the safe house in Memphis might have so far escaped the notice of whoever it was that was watching over GB-12’s phone lines.

Marta was still on the telephone. She was talking animatedly into the receiver. Finally, she hung up the phone and came back to the car.

“It’s as bad as I thought,” she said.

“Tell me now?” I asked pleasantly.

She sighed. “I’ll tell you on the way to our rendezvous. We may need the help of your government. And we will most certainly need your money.”

“But my agency is hardly in the position to offer help, is it?”

She stared at me. “You’re clever, Nikki, but somehow I think your Mr. Wood is even more clever. He will bring GB-12 through this bad period.”

I shrugged. “I hope so. What do we do now?”

“We pick up Bruno and drive about twenty miles, to a place called Horse Creek. There we will meet face-to-face with a certain person.”

“This person— is it Hammond Shaw?”

“No, it’s not Hammond Shaw.”

I rubbed my chin. “I see,” I said. “Is it the person who has what Shaw wants?”

She nodded.

“A local?”

She nodded again.

There was something about Erwin, Tennessee that had been troubling me. It was starting to come to me. By the time we picked up Bruno, I had a pretty good idea what we were looking for. I hoped I had figured it wrong, for it wasn’t good.

With Marta scrunched in the back of the two-seater, we motored down Tennessee 107, a two-lane road which eventually would have taken us to Greeneville, Tennessee. As I drove, I told Marta what she had been hesitant to tell me.

“I remember about Erwin now,” I said. “There’s a uranium separation plant there. Fissionable material is removed from uranium ores, or else enriched plutonium is extracted from spent nuclear fuel. Perhaps both. Do they get it from ore, or just from spent fuel rods? I don’t remember. Anyway, some time back, in the late seventies or early eighties, a great deal of highly enriched plutonium turned up missing. More than twenty pounds, more than enough for a nuclear bomb. It was never found. I can’t think of any other reason for this game of international intrigue. Not in Erwin, Tennessee. It’s turned up, hasn’t it? After all these years.”

“Yes,” said Marta.

“And your Hammond Shaw is negotiating for it.”

“Yes, he is. He’s been in this area about two weeks, and there would be no other reason for him to be here.”

“Who has the stuff?”

“Shaw doesn’t, or he would be gone with it. I don’t have a name of the man who does,” she said. “We— the Russian government, I mean— got a call from one of Shaw’s regular customers. Although the informant is a thoroughly unscrupulous man, not above profiting from the misery of others—”

“An arms dealer,” Bruno said. “A capitalist.”

“In the worst sense of the word,” said Maria. “No offense, darling Nikki. This man sells arms to the highest bidder. But he is by no means a fool. He doesn’t want fissionables falling into the hands of any of the third-world countries, or to come into the possession of terrorists. He knows the detonation of a nuclear weapon would plunge the world into chaos, and quite likely lead to world war. This man takes the long view. He wants the world to be around so he can continue to sell arms for many years, so his sons and grandsons after him can sell arms, as his father and his father’s father did before him.”

“To make a long story short,” I reasoned, “Shaw is still negotiating for the material in question. He hasn’t yet received it, for if he already had it in hand, we would no longer be here. I assume he’s haggling over the price. He approached your informant and offered to sell him the plutonium. Which prompted your informant to call you.”

“He offered the arms dealer a 50-50 split,” she said. “He didn’t have sufficient capital to meet the asking price, and the seller was being stubborn and too cagey to lead Shaw to the stuff. The asking price is high and getting higher. Shaw had no choice but to go to others for money. Turn here. Go left.”

Chapter 26

Chapter 26


We found Bruno trussed to a tree, facing the woods, about halfway back down the hill. “There were three of them,” he said, as I untied him. “They came out of nowhere. They had shotguns. I was sure they were just guarding the back door. I thought it best not to resist.”

Bruno walked with us to the Mercedes. As I reached for the door handle, I saw the rubber gasket I had pulled out when I had shut the door wasn’t visible. “Marta—”

Marta shut her eyes. “Darling, you must remember my primary mission is not to recover the plutonium. Open the door.”

It wasn’t the easiest thing I’d ever done, considering this same group had already tried to plant one bomb, but I got in the car, inserted the key, and turned on the ignition. Things didn’t go boom. But the car didn’t start, either. I looked up. We were covered by three men. Two carried ugly, large-caliber automatics, and the third had something that looked much like an Uzi. Marta, half in and half out of the car, stopped trying to get in and stood still. Bruno, sitting beside me, already had his hands in the air. He said, “Not the same three.” I slowly raised my hands.

We were motioned out of the car. Carefully, their weapons at the ready, the three marched us a little way into the woods to a small clearing, where they searched us and removed our hardware. Then our hands were taped securely behind our backs. After that, nothing much happened. They were waiting for somebody.

It wasn’t long before a thin man strolled into the clearing. He had the look of old money. He was dressed in an L.L. Bean flannel shirt, canvas pants, and topsiders. He looked a lot like John Denver. His demeanor was overweening.

“Don’t let him fool you,” Marta said to me with a voice full of irony. “He’s not as friendly as he looks.”

“You’re wondering why I don’t kill you,” he said. He smiled at Marta. “You I don’t kill because I know you have a considerable amount of money. I mean to have it. When it is in my possession, then I will kill you.” He looked at me. “My men Constantine and Vladimir— about whom I am worried— told me you have recently spent a great deal of money. I’m wondering if perhaps you have some more.”

“I’d rather not say,” I said.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to have you made to say, Marlowe.” He smiled. “Raymond Chandler.” He turned to Bruno. “Poor boy. You have no money. I fear that limits your usefulness.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ridiculously small automatic pistol.

I knew what was coming next, and so did Bruno. To his credit, he lifted his foot and brought it down savagely on the instep of the man I knew only as Hammond Shaw. Shaw screamed, and the little pistol made a sharp sound. A bright spot of blood appeared on Bruno’s forehead. He fell heavily, bringing Shaw down with him.

In a movie, it would have been a good time to make a break for it, but this wasn’t a movie. Shaw’s local talent, the two with the pistols, looked at the man with the Uzi. He was smiling nastily, and the muzzle of the Uzi didn’t waver. The other two looked nervous, but kept their guns trained on us.

Shaw struggled from underneath Bruno. For a moment I thought he was going to put another couple of rounds into the body. I hoped not, for I didn’t think Bruno was dead. Although the entry wound suggested the bullet had gone straight in, I could see the shallow furrow the round had made as it had plowed its way across his forehead, under the skin, not penetrating the skull. It had come to rest behind the ear. Bruno would be out of it for some time, but with any luck, he would live.

One of the pistol men squatted beside Bruno and looked at his face, at the little round hole in his forehead.

“He’s sure ‘nough dead,” he said.

“Leave him,” snapped Shaw, who was leaning heavily on the man with the Uzi. “The other two are coming with us. Put them in the back seat. Andre will sit with them. Alex, you will drive.” He nodded at the remaining man. “You bring the other vehicle.”

“What about the Mercedes and the body?” asked Andre, keeping his Uzi pointed carefully at my middle.

“Screw the Mercedes! I think my foot is broken! Drag the body a little further into the woods and cover it with leaves. We’ll take these two to the house and put them in the cellar. Then Alex will take me to hospital. He and Mason can come back later for the car and the stiff.”

They put us into the back seat of a big Cadillac which was parked a little way in the woods. Shaw limped away to supervise the hiding of the body, leaving Andre leaning against a tree, smoking a Camel cigarette and looking as if he wished we would give him an excuse to use the Uzi.

I looked across the seat at Marta. “Do you even want the damned fissionables?” I asked her.

“Certainly. But I don’t think it likely my superiors would authorize spending thirty million dollars for it. The plutonium is, after all, not primarily our problem, but the problem of your government.”

“What do you want from me?”

“When Shaw comes back, I think Andre will get into the car beside you. I ask you to take care of him while I deal with Shaw.”

“There’s no way. If I hit him, it’ll take him only a second or two to push me away.””A second or two is sufficient,” she said.

“All right, then, goddamnit. When?”

“Just before we reach the main road. You’ll know when I’m ready to act.”

We sat in silence for several minutes. Then we heard leaves rustling as the others returned. “Nikki, darling.”


“It was nice, wasn’t it? Our display of international cooperation. And us.”

“Nice, nice,” I said. “Very nice.” I looked at her and tried to smile. “Break a leg.”

“No,” she said. “A neck.”

Once inside the car, Shaw insisted on removing his shoe and examining his foot. In the distance, I heard a second vehicle start up and drive away.

“That would be Mason,” I said.

“Shut up,” declared Andre. For emphasis, he poked me in the ribs with the Uzi.

As we drove along the winding country road, Marta began sobbing. Alex, who was driving, grinned. Shaw stopped griping about his foot long enough to say something witty. Even Andre smiled sardonically when she kicked her shoes off and sat huddled crossways on the seat, her head resting on her knees, weeping.

True to her word, Marta made her move just before we reached the highway. I felt her tense beside me. Andre and the men in the front seat seemed not to notice. Suddenly, I nudged the barrel of the Uzi upwards with an elbow and slammed my body against Andre’s. He made an oofing sound, and for the next five or six seconds I was kept busy, trying to keep the barrel of the Uzi pointed at the roof. But out of the corner of my eye, I did see Marta suddenly reach out with her gymnast’s feet, hook one on each side of Shaw’s thin neck, and make a violent twisting motion. I saw Alex turning away from the wheel, bringing his pistol over the seat, trying to get it into firing position. After that I was entirely busy with Andre, keeping the Uzi pressed into the top of the car with my head while he gouged at my eyes with one hand and tried to yank the weapon clear with the other. Then two things seemed to happen at once; a pistol spoke, and the world turned upside down.

Chapter 28

Chapter 28


It seemed like hours before I reached the Mercedes, but it was really less than a mile from the wreck. The keys, with the little Minox camera dangling, were still in the ignition. I tried to start the car. Nothing happened. Cursing, I opened the hood and found one of the battery cables had been pulled loose. I replaced the cable, hand‑tightening it. Disregarding the “no vehicles” signs, I drove into the woods to retrieve Bruno. I found him in a semi‑comatose state. I unbound his hands and helped him into the passenger’s seat.

I drove carefully, trying to find an alternate route back to the highway. Eventually, I found myself back on Tennessee 107. When I passed the road on which the wreck had occurred, I saw blue lights flashing by the drainage ditch. I drove a few miles more and found a pay phone at a convenience store.

It was time to stop pussyfooting around. I called Eric Van Sant’s number. “Damon here. Is this line safe?”


“Can you get hold of Max?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said.

“Good. Be sure someone is there at all times to answer the phone. You’ll probably be hearing from me again. Don’t call the GB-12 main number. It’s not secure. Have Max phone you on a clear line. Tell him I need some further cleanup action.” I told him where. “It’s a wrecked Cadillac. The cops have already found it. There are four dead bodies in it. One has a pistol wound in the torso. The other three have wounds which could conceivably have occurred in the wreck. Tell Max he can probably explain it as a simple abduction, or as a rape. The one with the gunshot wound was female, attractive, about thirty. She was a Russian agent. Name: Marta Alexandrovich. Front passenger seat contains Hammond Shaw; it’s an alias. He’s an ex‑Soviet agent, real name unknown. He’s recently been engaged in gun‑running. The other two are his hired help. The driver is, I believe, local. Name’s Alex. The man who shaved too close on the left side of his face was one Andre. He’s been around. He probably travels with Shaw. A man named Mason was in another car; he’s still loose. Have you got all that?”


“Good. The body of a young woman was discovered last night in the truck of a local man. Place: Erwin, Tennessee. Autopsy will show she died of the effects of a nerve agent.

“Tell Max to sit tight on both incidents. If word of either gets out, we’re sunk.”

“Don’t I know it. You been watching the news?”

I laughed. “I’ve been too busy making it.” I hung up.

Back in Erwin, I found the motel and got Bruno into his room. I couldn’t locate a flashlight. I raised his eyelids and held a lighted match in front of his face. His pupils contracted equally and normally. That was good, for there was no way we could call on a doctor. He would have to make it on his own. “It’s a rough business,” I said to him. “Sleep tight.”

In my own room, I lay on the bed in which Marcia Stallings had died. Yet as tired and in pain as I was, I couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing. I felt as if the vultures were circling, about to close in. I got up and took a painful shower, and put on clean clothing. I retrieved Marta’s purse from the chair in which I had tossed it. I upended it on the bed and waded through its contents. I found nothing unusual except her electronic bug detector. I had a clear image of her sitting beside me in Wilson’s hillbilly restaurant, waving it around. I thought of her as I had first seen her, with her hair limp and her arm drawn against her side, of how she had looked when I left her in the back seat of the Cadillac. As I had told Bruno, it was a rough business.

I studied her little medicine kit. Well, if she had wanted to take poison, it was her misfortune, and none of my own. I had no business being pissed off at her about it. I would sort out my feelings when I had time, and in the meanwhile try to ignore the horrible emptiness that kept welling up inside me.

I went through the adjoining door into her room and searched her luggage and clothing. Finally, I found what I was looking for. It was a key to a safe deposit box. There was no clue as to which bank the money was in, but I didn’t think it would be hard to find out in a town the size of Erwin. I put the key in an envelope along with a note, addressed it to Max’s private post office box. I stamped the envelope and limped over to the motel office. The clerk that morning was a young woman with a red dot in the center of her forehead. Hindu. Weren’t Pakistanis muslim? Why were Hindus and Pakistanis running the same motel? Weren’t they, like the Russians and the Americans, not supposed to get along? The forehead dot reminded me of Bruno’s.

“I’d like to pay for another couple of days,” I told her. “And would you please tell me where I can mail this?”

“I’ll mail it for you,” she said. I handed her the envelope and retrieved my five million dollars. Rather than in the safe— if there indeed was a safe in such a ratty place— the envelopes full of money had been stacked on a shelf underneath the counter. As I watched her pile them up in front of me, I wondered how many people had rented rooms, never suspecting they were within two feet of a fabulous fortune, and what they would have done if they had known. I made my way back to the Mercedes with the envelopes and put them in the trunk.

I found the library just before it was due to close. A frowning librarian showed me the city directory. I thumbed through it. There were two W. Carters. I wrote down the addresses on a scrap of paper and limped toward the door. The disapproving librarian locked the double doors behind me when I left.

One of the addresses was in town. The other, the one I wanted, was in the countryside. I didn’t have a map, so I pulled into a Gulf station and asked the attendant for directions. He ruminated, giving me a course highly dependent upon previous knowledge of the area. You know. Stuff like, “You know where the Raintrees used to live. The house that burned down. That’s where you’ll turn. Left on Happy Hollow Road.”

When I turned the key, the Mercedes refused to start. I borrowed a wrench and tightened the battery cable. “Damned foreign cars,” the attendant said when I returned the tool. “They’re purty, but I wouldn’t give you a nickel for all of ’em.”

I was lucky. I found what I was looking for with no more than two or three wrong turns. It was a tan‑and‑grey mobile home. A battered Ford was parked in front.

A gaunt woman with salt‑and‑pepper hair opened the door, said, “We ain’t a‑buyin’ what you’re a‑sellin’,” and tried to shut the door. I pushed against it with both hands and it flew open.

The trailer smelled of vomit and starchy food. Willadeen shrank away from me. A tow‑headed child of about three took one look at me and began crying. Willadeen ran to it and picked it up and wedged herself into the corner of the living room.

I was trying to say something, but it was difficult to make myself heard above a whistling sound. The sound seemed to be coming from the pocket of my trousers. In amazement, I pulled the Minox from its case and looked at it. From somewhere inside it came a high‑pitched shrieking sound.

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “It’s here, isn’t it? Isn’t it!” Willadeen said nothing, trying to shrink even further into the corner of the room.

“Goddamnit, where is it? Don’t you know you’re in danger?”

That got through to her. “It’s— it’s in the second bedroom,” she said weakly.

It was: a lead‑lined container with the familiar yellow‑and‑purple warning symbol. A fishbowl sat nearby. Two or three fish swam languidly, their gills pumping.

The container was partially open; I could see the dull gray of the metal inside it. In my hand, the Minox was wailing like a banshee. I ducked out of the room and grabbed a towel from the laundry basket which sat against the wall of the living room. I tied it over my mouth and nose, walked over, picked up the top of the container, and screwed it firmly back on. The wailing of the Minox dropped in pitch, but it was still screaming.

I backed out of the bedroom. Willadeen had started to edge toward the door. I yelled at her and shooed her through the door and away from the trailer. “Keep your kids out of here! Stand in the middle of a field and throw your clothes away. Don’t let anyone near them. Scrub yourselves off in a creek. Scrub until your skin bleeds. Then go somewhere and shower again. Shower three or four times. Then call 911 and tell them there’s been a radiation contamination incident. Do you understand what has happened?”

“I think so,” she said. “He said— he said it wasn’t dangerous. He said since it was so old, it wasn’t dangerous.”

“Who did?”

“Bradley.” She put her hand in front of her mouth. “I shouldn’t of said his name. But Suzie and Kimberly Dawn have been sick, and I’ve felt porely myself. Mister—are we gonna die?”

“I don’t know,” I said through the towel, miserably. “If you do what I say, you probably won’t. Just get out of here.”

“It was stored under the trailer. Bobby brought one of the tubs in and took the top off. I was afraid to go back in there to close it. I thought keeping the door shut would help. I sent him and the others to visit their Mamaw. They’ve been sick, too.” Sobbing, Willadeen hugged the baby close..

A row of larger containers was stacked underneath the trailer. I pulled out the one which was open, carried it inside, inserted the inner canister, and closed the top securely. Then I turned the hose from the sink on it and scrubbed it thoroughly. I moved all of the canisters into the yard, soaped them thoroughly, and rinsed them with the garden hose. I moved them to a dry spot and repeated the process. Then I took off my shirt and pants and washed myself as thoroughly as I could. I was dressed and about to load the canisters into the Mercedes when a voice said, “Mister, that woman sure is dumb. I tole her that was some hot stuff. I reckon this place would glow in the dark now.”

It was the man who called himself Ben. The woman had called him Bradley. He cradled his 12-gauge in his arm.

“I reckon this kind of messes up things,” he said. “I told that fool woman the stuff wouldn’t hurt her if she didn’t open the containers. Reckon she didn’t listen. I knowed the kids was feelin’ poorly, but I never thought it was the radiation that had did it.”

“Shaw is dead,” I said. “Marta is dead. You’ll have to find a new buyer for this.”

Bradley pulled a pouch of Red Man from the pocket of his overalls and added to the wad already in his mouth. “Something tells me you might be interested,” he said, and then turned his head to spit.


“You a U.S.?”

“U.S.” I said.

“I knowed you was when first I seen you.” He studied me for a minute. “I could plug you, but then there’d be forty or fifty more of you to deal with.”

“I don’t have thirty million dollars,” I said.

“Things have changed. It don’t have to be thirty million dollars.”

“Go look in the trunk of the Mercedes‑Benz,” I said, tossing him the keys. He did.

“How much money is this, son?”

“Less than you’d like. Will it do?”

“It’ll do if you promise one thing. Make that two things. You get that woman and her younguns some treatment for the radiation sickness, and you keep the laws off my ass. I got roots here. I can’t run, and I don’t aim on goin’ to prison.”

“I can do that,” I said. “Things have happened in this town that will have to be hushed up. It should be possible to hide one more thing.”

“I hadn’t ought to believe you,” he said, “and maybe I don’t. But you just take them cans and get the hell out of here.”

I loaded the cans and got.

Chapter 30

Chapter 30


After talking to Max— after learning Marta was alive, I paced the room until I heard a helicopter approaching. Before the rotors had stopped, two men in space suits had opened the door of my room. At least I thought they were men, and they looked like space suits. In actuality, they were radiation suits, and inside were two women. One of them made amorous advances with a wand which was attached to a radiation counter, and then they hustled me across the macadam toward a big twin‑rotored Sikorsky which sat on the lawn by the swimming pool.

Two other spacesuited figures were setting up a portable decontamination booth. When they had finished, the first two women cut away my clothes— all of them— with scissors and scrubbed me to within an inch of my life. It seemed to go on for hours. Someone had told them about the little Minox, and they fished it out of my trousers, sealed it in a plastic bag, and sent it away. When they finally finished with me, they handed me a disposable hospital gown and thrust me unceremoniously out the door so they could begin on Willadeen and her kids, who had been zipped into plastic suits and flown in a smaller chopper. The kids were crying, and Willadeen’s face was pale and drawn behind the plastic visor of her helmet. She was still wearing the clothing I had seen her in. “I had ought to of done what you told me to,” she said glumly, in her flat voice, just before she was hustled into the tent.

I sat by the swimming pool, watching the crowd that had gathered behind the barrier which had been hastily erected by the local police department. Everyone was ignoring the big yellow‑and‑purple danger signs posted everywhere, hoping to see something worth seeing. But they were much more colorful than anything on my side of the fence. When I tired of looking at the local populace, I turned and watched the decontamination team at work in the motel rooms.

Max arrived in a third chopper. He went immediately to the woman in charge. She was large and vociferous, and she didn’t like what he was saying. Suddenly she threw up her hands and gesticulated in my direction, and then in the direction of one of the spacesuits. The spacesuit walked over and handed Max a flat strip of plastic. He looked at it anxiously, and then grinned and walked over to me.

“How is Marta?” I asked.

He took a portable cellular phone from his briefcase and extended his arm. “Hit ‘pound one’,” he said. “The number is in memory. An hour ago they said her condition was critical. She was medivacked to Nashville for surgery.”

Vanderbilt Hospital confirmed what Max had just told me.

Max said, “I’ll be wanting you to leave right away, then, for Washington. To testify before Congress.” He thought for a minute. “Is there any chance your Mad Russian will turn up at Marta’s bedside?”

Bruno’s feelings about Marta were no secret to me. “Not before he passes on the plutonium,” I told him. “Not a chance of that. He’s a kid, but he’s not that young and not that inexperienced.” I looked around in the twilight. The black Stanza was skewed across two spaces, as if it had been hastily parked. The Mercedes was nowhere in sight. “He appears to have taken my car,” I said, giving Max its description. “The license number is on the receipt in my suitcase.” I grinned at him. “Hold onto the receipt. I left a deposit on the car.”

Max placed a call on the cellular phone, then said, “There was a dosimeter in the Minox. You’re bloody lucky. Your exposure was minimal. You would have had more exposure in a dentist’s office, with a full set of X‑rays. If you had been screwing the dentist’s wife.” He grinned toothily. “You don’t seem to have inhaled any particles.” He jerked his head in the direction of the Sikorsky. “‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ wanted to take you to Oak Ridge for further tests. I told her you had unfinished business. She was insistent. I showed her my security clearance, and yours. She grudgingly gave you to me, saying your blood was on my hands. Are you ready to go? I have a chopper I can spare.”

“As soon as I get some clothes,” I had said.

“The clothing in your suitcase has been inspected and cleared. It won’t even have to be washed.” He pretended to be miffed. “What happened to the nice things I bought for you in Memphis?”

The pilot flew the Huey low over the hills of Virginia, stopping once to refuel. Shortly after noon he set down at the Senate helipad. Wood was there to meet me, wearing a windbreaker because of the unseasonably cold weather the Capitol was having. He briefed me about what to expect. At one‑thirty I found myself facing a panel of U.S. Senators. They asked a lot of unfriendly questions, and some of the answers made me look bad and Wood look worse. But I was aware the threads I was spinning were part of the scaffolding that would hang Jordan Shackleford and his superiors and other assorted nuisances. I was brought back the next day, and the next, for more than two weeks, forced to tell things I was sure would damn us. Wood, however, was unperturbed, and rightly so, for we eventually came out smelling like a rose. The swivel‑chair crew had for once earned their paychecks. Jordan Shackleford was there, at first, giving me looks that would curdle milk. And then I didn’t see him any more. All I saw were the two human mountains Wood had assigned to protect me.

There had been no sign of the plutonium, of course— or of Bruno. I had monitored Marta’s condition daily, via telephone. It had been touch‑and‑go— she had been gut‑shot, after all, and there was peritonitis, and she had nearly died from loss of blood. She pulled through, and by then the doctors in Nashville were assuring me she would eventually be not much the worse for wear.

I don’t know how Wood managed it, for I was to be called once more to testify, but one morning he summoned me and told me he was driving me to the airport.

“Nashville?” I asked.

“Nashville,” he replied.


“No, he’s probably out of the country by now.”

“Jordan Shackleford?”

He nodded. “He was seen in Chicago; he’s on a flight that will pass through Nashville. He’s ticketed for another city, but he won’t be on the plane at the other end.”

“What is his motivation?”

“His superiors, correctly anticipating a rough ride, needed someone to blame for their own shortcomings.”

“He was the scapegoat,” I said.

He nodded. “They made it look as if the money he took from you was a payoff— a bribe. His witnesses are conveniently dead. They’re hinting he killed them. The money, which he had trustingly turned in to them, was conveniently re‑planted in his office, and even more conveniently discovered in the presence of witnesses. What they didn’t plan on was his reaction. He knew exactly what they were up to, and his response was quick and untypical for him. He was armed. He dropped one of his superiors and wounded a second, leaving with the money. One of our spotters saw him, in heavy disguise, get on board that plane in Chicago. His own agency’s spotters didn’t recognize him.”

We were stuck in traffic, with Wood driving. I turned to him. “Marta, then? Why her?”

“Bruno is out of the picture. You’ve been under heavy bodyguard. His subordinates are all dead. Marta is the only other person who can confirm or deny his story.”

“So he needs her statement? She can provide evidence that he wasn’t bribed?”

“That’s what I would have thought. But Parkinson doesn’t think so. He thinks Shackleford has gone off the deep end. He thinks he’ll kill her. And then he’ll come after you.”

“Unless he gets the chance to go for me first?”

“My Dear Boy,” said Wood. “What a thought! You’re like a son to me. I merely thought you would like to renew your acquaintance with Miss Alexandrovich.”

The Airport Limo dropped me at Vanderbilt Hospital, a place that had played significantly in my early adult years. Marta was ensconced in the new wing, under heavy guard. After I had been cleared, I went to her room and stood there, looking at her lying there, sleeping. She seemed so small, lying there full of tubes taking fluid in and tubes taking fluid out. God, I thought. I wondered how much stuff they had hooked up to her when they were trying to save her life. I thought of my earlier visits to this hospital, of a similar small figure hooked up to machines. It was not with dry eyes that I left her room. I rode the elevator down to the first floor, made my way across the lobby, and went out the automatic door.

I stood there, in the darkest part of the night, thinking about the vague look I had seen in Wood’s eye. He had known, of course, or else correctly guessed, that Marta and I had slept together, and that I would want to see her. He also knew I would have killed her had it become expedient. He knew regardless of her personal feelings she would kill me if told to do so. And he knew damned well it wasn’t impossible that Bruno would show up at her bedside once he was rid of the plutonium. Was Shackleford my only reason for being here? Or was there another, a hidden reason, for my presence in Nashville? I sighed. Such were the intellectual games of my trade. I would find out soon enough.

My real purpose for being in Nashville manifested itself when it moved from its hiding place behind an Osage Orange tree. He wasn’t happy with me, but then no one seemed to be happy with me these days. I half expected him to shoot me on the spot— but money was involved, so maybe he wouldn’t. He didn’t. He showed me a nasty‑looking piece and motioned for me to walk. I did as he wanted, and he moved me across the deserted quadrangle. When we were in the middle of the quad, with large labeled trees all around me, he motioned for me to sit down. I sank down beside the sidewalk. He walked over and slammed me full in the face with the butt of the gun.

“I knew you would be here sooner or later,” he said. “I knew if I waited long enough you would come.”

“Why?” I asked. I was talking through a mouthful of blood.

“Because you wanted to sleep with that little Russian tart, that’s why. The bitch! She screwed up a sure thing. And because you’re going to tell me where I can find the plutonium.”

I sighed. “I know you’re upset, but don’t be. Look, the trees all have labels on them. How bad can the world be?”

He hit me again. “Where’s the plutonium? And where’s the Russian money? And where is that hillbilly?”

I looked at him. “Bruno has the plutonium. It’s out of the country by now. The money is stashed somewhere in Washington. So is the hillbilly.”

“If you’re not Bruno, then you’re of no use to me.” He started to raise the gun.

The bullet spun him around, and he crumpled at my feet. It was messy. I stepped back and let him bleed. After a moment I bent and felt for a pulse, felt it flutter and stop.

Max came out of the bushes, carrying a rifle with a sniperscope. He looked at the corpse. “How about a spot of middle‑of‑the‑night breakfast?” he said. “There’s an IHOP within walking distance.”

“Who the hell is he?” I asked, kicking at the soles of the dead man’s shoes.

Max laughed. “Makes you feel like a pawn, doesn’t it?”

“Hell, I am a pawn, but this need‑to‑know shit gets old.”

“His name‑‑the name we know him by, rather, is Marsala.” He paused for a moment. “Was Marsala. He’s an arms dealer, one of the biggest. We knew he was in the area. He was Shaw’s partner in the plutonium deal. We think he sunk twenty million dollars into it. We knew he had come to Nashville in hopes of salvaging something, either the plutonium, or some of the money. We thought it likely he would assume you were Bruno and confront you in a quiet place like this.

“Well, hell,” I said. “Glad I could be of help. But what did he want with Maria— or me?”

“We think he hoped Bruno would show at Marta’s bedside. Instead, it was you. He indeed assumed you were Bruno. As we hoped he would.”

The confrontation with Shackleford came the next day, in the crowded hospital corridor. I had driven Max to the airport, and was on the way to Marta’s bedside. Shackleford was wearing hospital greens, and I didn’t see him until he put a service revolver to my head. “I’m not going down alone,” he said. I heard the click as he pulled back the hammer.

“Well, hell,” I said. I was getting good with well, hells. “If you’re going to shoot me, do it right. I don’t want to suffer.”

“You’re not wearing Kevlar this time, you son‑of‑a‑bitch,” he said, swinging the gun in the direction of my abdomen. But at that moment, a big red gorilla, or perhaps, as I had noted earlier, a friendly bear stepped close behind him, and he fell limply to the floor.

“Hello, Damon,” the red man said. He was holding a stun gun.

“Hello, Eric. Is this the special assignment Max had you on?”

“Yes. We were sure he would show here. Max thought he—”here he stuck his chin out at Shackleford—”might try something like this. At least, I think that’s what Max thought. He paused for a long moment. “Max doesn’t let on much, does he?”

“He gets it honest,” I told him. “From Wood. Wood says a lot at the same time he’s not saying anything at all. I’m all the time having to guess just what it is he wants. Max is in training.”

Shackleford, on the floor, moaned, “I think I’m going to be ill.”

He was.