Robert Ludlum's The Altman Code

A Covert-One Novel

Covert-One (Volume 4)

Robert Ludlum

St. Martin's Paperbacks

Tuesday, September 12
Washington, D.C.
There was a saying in Washington that lawyers ran the government, but spies ran the lawyers. The city was cobwebbed with intelligence agencies, everything from the legendary CIA and FBI and the little-known NRO to alphabet groups in all branches of the military and government, even in the illustrious Departments of State and Justice. Too many, in the opinion of President Samuel Adams Castilla. And too public. Rivalries were notoriously a problem. Sharing information that inadvertently included misinformation was a bigger problem. Then there was the dangerous sluggishness of so many bureaucracies.
The president was worrying about this and a brewing international crisis as his black Lincoln Town Car cruised along a narrow back road on the northern bank of the Anacostia River. Its motor was a quiet hum, and its tinted windows opaque. The car rolled past tangled woods and the usual lighted marinas until it finally rattled over the rusted tracks of a rail spur, where it turned right into a busy marina that was completely fenced. The sign read:
The yacht club appeared identical to all the others that lined the river east of the Washington Navy Yard. It was an hour before midnight.
Only a few miles above the Anacostia’s confluence with the broad Potomac, the marina moored big, open-water power cruisers and long-distance sailing boats, as well as the usual weekend plea sure craft. President Castilla gazed out his window at the piers, which jutted out into the dusky water. At several, a number of salt-encrusted oceangoing yachts were just docking. Their crews still wore foul-weather gear. He saw that there were also five frame buildings of varying sizes on the grounds. The layout was exactly what had been described to him.
The Lincoln glided to a halt behind the largest of the lighted buildings, out of sight of the piers and hidden from the road by the thick woods. Four of the men riding in the Lincoln with him, all wearing business suits and carrying minisubmachine guns, swiftly stepped out and formed a perimeter around the car. They adjusted their night-vision goggles as they scanned the darkness. Finally, one of the four turned back toward the Lincoln and gave a sharp nod.
The fifth man, who had been sitting beside the president, also wore a dark business suit, but he carried a 9mm Sig Sauer. In response to the signal, the president handed him a key, and he hurried from the car to a barely visible side door in the building. He inserted the key into a hidden lock and swung open the door. He turned and spread his feet, weapon poised.
At that point, the car door that was closest to the building opened. The night air was cool and crisp, tainted with the stench of diesel. The president emerged into it—a tall, heavyset man wearing chino slacks and a casual sport jacket. For such a big man, he moved swiftly as he entered the building.
The fifth guard gave a final glance around and followed with two of the four others. The remaining pair took stations, protecting the Lincoln and the side door.
Nathaniel Frederick (“Fred”) Klein, the rumpled chief of Covert-One, sat behind a cluttered metal desk in his compact office inside the marina building. This was the new Covert-One nerve center. In the beginning, just a few years ago, Covert-One had no formal organization or bureaucracy, no real headquarters, and no official operatives. It had been loosely composed of professional experts in many fields, all with clandestine experience, most with military backgrounds, and all essentially unencumbered—without family, home ties, or obligations, either temporary or permanent.
But now that three major international crises had stretched the resources of the elite cadre to the limits, the president had decided his ultrasecret agency needed more personnel and a permanent base far from the radar screens of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Hill, or the Pentagon. The result was this “private yacht club.”
It had the right elements for clandestine work: It was open and active twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with intermittent but steady traffic from both land and water that followed no pattern. Near the road and the rail spur but still on the grounds was a helipad that looked more like a weed-infested field. The latest electronic communications had been installed throughout the base, and the security was nearly invisible but of cutting-edge quality. Not even a dragonfly could cross the periphery without one of the sensors picking it up.
Alone in his office, the sounds of his small nighttime staff muted beyond his door, Klein closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his longish nose. His wire-rimmed glasses rested on the desk. Tonight he looked every one of his sixty years. Since he had accepted the job of heading Covert-One, he had aged. His enigmatic face was riven with new creases, and his hairline had receded an inch. Another problem was on the verge of erupting.
As his headache lessened, he sat back, opened his eyes, put his glasses back on, and resumed puffing on his ever-present pipe. The room filled with billows of smoke that disappeared almost as soon as he produced them, sucked out by a powerful ventilating system installed specifically for the purpose.
A file folder lay open on his desk, but he did not look at it. Instead, he smoked, tapped his foot, and glanced at the ship’s clock on his wall every few seconds. At last, a door to his left, beneath the clock, opened, and a man with a Sig Sauer strode across the office to the outer door, locked it, and turned to stand with his back against it.
Seconds later, the president entered. He sat in a high-backed leather chair across the desk from Klein.
“Thanks, Barney,” he told the guard. “I’ll let you know if I need you.”
“But, Mr. President—”
“You can go,” he ordered firmly. “Wait outside. This is a private conversation between two old friends.” That was partly true. He and Fred Klein had known each other since college.
The guard slowly recrossed the office and left, each step radiating reluctance.
As the door closed, Klein blew a stream of smoke. “I would’ve come to you as usual, Mr. President.”
“No.” Sam Castilla shook his head. His titanium glasses reflected the overhead light with a sharp flash. “Until you tell me exactly what we’re facing with this Chinese freighter—The Dowager Empress, right?—this one stays between us and those of your agents you need to work on it.”
“The leaks are that bad?”
“Worse,” the president said. “The White House has turned into a sieve. I’ve never seen anything like it. Until my people can find the source, I’ll meet you here.” His rangy face was deeply worried. “You think we have another Yinhe?”
Klein’s mind was instantly transported back: It was 1993, and a nasty international incident was about to erupt, with America the big loser. A Chinese cargo ship, the Yinhe, had sailed from China for Iran. U.S. intelligence received reports the ship was carrying chemicals that could be used to make weapons. After trying the usual diplomatic channels and failing, President Bill Clinton ordered the U.S. Navy to chase the ship, refusing to let it land anywhere, until some sort of resolution could be found.
An outraged China denied the accusations. Prominent world leaders jawboned. Allies made charges and countercharges. And media around the globe covered the standoff with banner headlines. The stalemate went on for an interminable twenty days. Finally, when China began to noisily rattle its sabers, the U.S. Navy forced the ship to stop on the high seas, and inspectors boarded the Yinhe. To America’s great embarrassment, they uncovered only agricultural equipment—plows, shovels, and small tractors. The intelligence had been faulty.
With a grimace, Klein recalled it all too well. The episode made America look like a thug. Its relations with China, and even its allies, were strained for years.
He puffed gloomily, fanning the smoke away from the president. “Do we have another Yinhe?” he repeated. “Maybe.”
“There’s ‘maybe’ remotely, and ‘maybe’ probably. You better tell me all of it. Chapter and verse.”
Klein tamped down the ash in his pipe. “One of our operatives is a professional Sinologist who’s been working in Shanghai the past ten years for a consortium of American firms that are trying to get a foothold there. His name’s Avery Mondragon. He’s alerted us to information he’s uncovered that The Dowager Empress is carrying tens of tons of thiodiglycol, used in blister weapons, and thionyl chloride, used in both blister and nerve weapons. The freighter was loaded in Shanghai, is already at sea, and is destined for Iraq. Both chemicals have legitimate agricultural uses, of course, but not in such large quantities for a nation the size of Iraq.”
“How good is the information this time, Fred? One hundred percent? Ninety?”
“I haven’t seen it,” Klein said evenly, puffing a cloud of smoke and forgetting to wave it away this time. “But Mondragon says it’s documentary. He has the ship’s true invoice manifest.”
“Great God.” Castilla’s thick shoulders and heavy torso seemed to go rigid against his chair. “I don’t know whether you realize it, but China is one of the signatories of the international agreement that prohibits development, production, stockpiling, or use of chemical weapons. They won’t let themselves be revealed as breaking that treaty, because it could slow their march to acquiring a bigger and bigger slice of the global economy.”
“It’s a damned delicate situation.”
“The price of another mistake on our part could be particularly high for us, too, now that they’re close to signing our human-rights treaty.”
In exchange for financial and trade concessions from the U.S., for which the president had cajoled and arm-twisted a reluctant Congress, China had all but committed to signing a bilateral human-rights agreement that would open its prisons and criminal courts to U.N. and U.S. inspectors, bring its criminal and civil courts closer to Western and international principles, and release longtime political prisoners. Such a treaty had been a high-priority goal for American presidents since Dick Nixon.
Sam Castilla wanted nothing to stop it. In fact, it was a long-standing dream of his, too, for personal as well as human-rights reasons. “It’s also a damned dangerous situation. We can’t allow this ship … what was it, The Dowager Empress?”
Klein nodded.
“We can’t allow The Dowager Empress to sail into Basra with weapons-making chemicals. That’s the bottom line. Period.” Castilla stood and paced. “If your intelligence turns out to be good, and we go after this Dowager Empress, how are the Chinese going to react?” He shook his head and waved away his own words. “No, that’s not the question, is it? We know how they’ll react. They’ll shake their swords, denounce, and posture. The question is what will they actually do?” He looked at Klein. “Especially if we’re wrong again?”
“No one can know or predict that, Mr. President. On the other hand, no nation can maintain massive armies and nuclear weapons without using them somewhere, sometime, if for no other reason than to justify the costs.”
“I disagree. If a country’s economy is good, and its people are happy, a leader can maintain an army without using it.”
Excerpted from Robert Ludlum’s™ the Altman Code by Robert Ludlum and Gayle Lynds.
Copyright © 2003 by Myn Pyn LLC.
Published in March 2004 by St. Martin's Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.