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The worldwide headquarters of the Harnett Corporation occupied the top two floors of a sleek black-glass tower on Dearborn Street, in Chicago's Loop. Harnett was an international construction firm, but not the kind that put up skyscrapers in American metropolises. Most of its projects were outside the United States; along with larger corporations such as Bechtel, Vivendi, and Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, it contracted for projects like dams, wastewater treatment plants, and gas turbine power stations—unglamorous but necessary infrastructure. Such projects posed civil-engineering challenges rather than aesthetic ones, but they also required an ability to work the ever shifting zone between public and private sectors. Third World countries, pressured by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to sell off publicly owned assets, routinely sought bidders for telephone systems, water and power utilities, railways, and mines. As ownership changed hands, new construction work was required, and narrowly focused firms like the Harnett Corporation had come into their own.
"To see Ross Harnett," the man told the receptionist. "The name's Paul Janson."
The receptionist, a young man with freckles and red hair, nodded, and notified the chairman's office. He glanced at the visitor without interest. Another middle-aged white guy with a yellow tie. What was there to see?
For Janson, it was a point of pride that he seldom got a second look. Though he was athletic and solidly built, his appearance was unremarkable, utterly nondescript. With his creased forehead and short-cropped steel-gray hair, he looked his five decades. Whether on Wall Street or the Bourse, he knew how to make himself all but invisible. Even his expensively tailored suit, of gray nailhead worsted, was perfect camouflage, as appropriate to the corporate jungle as the green and black face paint he once wore in Vietnam was to the real jungle. One would have to be a trained observer to detect that it was the man's shoulders, not the customary shoulder pads, that filled out the suit. And one would have to have spent some time with him to notice the way his slate eyes took everything in, or his quietly ironic air.
"It's going to be just a couple of minutes," the receptionist told him blandly, and Janson drifted off to look at the gallery of photographs in the reception area. They showed that the Harnett Corporation was currently working on water and wastewater networks in Bolivia, dams in Venezuela, bridges in Saskatchewan, power stations in Egypt. These were the images of a prosperous construction company. And it was indeed prospering—or had been until recently.
The company's vice president of operations, Steven Burt, believed it ought to be doing much better. There were aspects of the recent downturn that aroused his suspicions, and he had prevailed upon Paul Janson to meet with Ross Harnett, the firm's chairman and CEO. Janson had reservations about taking on another client: though he had been a corporate-security consultant for only the past five years, he had immediately established a reputation for being unusually effective and discreet, which meant that the demand for his services exceeded both his time and his interest. He would not have considered this job if Steven Burt had not been a friend from way back. Like him, Burt had had another life, one that he'd left far behind once he entered the civilian world. Janson was reluctant to disappoint him. He would, at least, take the meeting.
Harnett's executive assistant, a cordial thirtyish woman, strode through the reception area and escorted him to Harnett's office. The space was modern and spare, with floor-to-ceiling windows facing south and east. Filtered through the building's polarized glass skin, the afternoon sunlight was reduced to a cool glow. Harnett was sitting behind his desk, talking on the telephone, and the woman paused in the doorway with a questioning look. Harnett gestured for Janson to have a seat, with a hand movement that looked almost summoning. "Then we're just going to have to renegotiate all the contracts with Ingersoll-Rand," Harnett was saying. He was wearing a pale blue monogrammed shirt with a white collar; the sleeves were rolled up around thick forearms. "If they're not going to match the price points they promised, our position has to be that we're free to go elsewhere for the parts. Screw 'em. Contract's void."
Janson sat down on the black leather chair opposite, which was a couple of inches lower than Harnett's chair—a crude bit of stagecraft that, to Janson, signaled insecurity rather than authority. Janson glanced at his watch openly, swallowed a gorge of annoyance, and looked around. Twenty-seven stories up, Harnett's corner office had a sweeping view of Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago. A high chair, a high floor: Harnett wanted there to be no mistaking that he had scaled the heights.
Harnett himself was a fireplug of a man, short and powerfully built, who spoke with a gravelly voice. Janson had heard that Harnett prided himself on making regular tours of the company's active projects, during which he would talk with the foremen as if he had been one himself. Certainly he had the swagger of somebody who had started out working on construction sites and rose to the corner office by the sweat of his brow. But that was not exactly how it happened. Janson knew that Harnett held an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern and that his expertise lay in financial engineering rather than in construction engineering. He had put together the Harnett Corporation by acquiring its subsidiaries at a time when they were strapped for cash and seriously under-priced. Because construction was a deeply cyclical business, Harnett had recognized, well-timed equity swaps made it possible to build a cash-rich corporation at bargain-basement prices.
Finally, Harnett hung up the phone and silently regarded Janson for a few moments. "Stevie tells me you've got a real high-class reputation," he said in a bored tone. "Maybe I know some of your other clients. Who have you worked with?"
Janson gave him a quizzical look. Was he being interviewed? "Most of the clients that I accept," he said, pausing after the word, "come recommended to me by other clients." It seemed crass to spell it out: Janson was not the one to supply references or recommendations; it was the prospective clients who had to come recommended. "My clients can, in some circumstances, discuss my work with others. My own policy has always been across-the-board nondisclosure."
"You're like a wooden Indian, aren't you?" Harnett sounded annoyed.
"I'm sorry, too, because I have a pretty good notion that we're just wasting each other's time. You're a busy guy, I'm a busy guy, we don't either of us have time to sit here jerking each other off. I know Stevie's got it in his head that we're a leaky boat and taking on water. That's not how it is. Fact is, it's the nature of the business that it has a lot of ups and downs. Stevie's still too green to understand. I built this company, I know what happens in every office and every construction yard in twenty-four countries. To me, it's a real question whether we need a security consultant in the first place. And the one thing I have heard about you is that your services don't come cheap. I'm a great believer in corporate frugality. Zero-based budgeting is gospel as far as I'm concerned. Try to follow me here—every penny we spend has to justify itself. If it doesn't add value, it's not happening. That's one corporate secret I don't mind letting you in on." Harnett leaned back, like a pasha waiting for a servant to pour him tea. "But feel free to change my mind, OK? I've said my piece. Now I'm happy to listen."
Janson smiled wanly. He would have to apologize to Steven Burt—Janson doubted whether anyone well disposed toward him had called him "Stevie" in his life—but clearly wires had got crossed here. Janson accepted few of the offers he received, and he certainly did not need this one. He would extricate himself as swiftly as he could. "I really don't know what to say, Mr. Harnett. It sounds from your end like you've got everything under control."
Harnett nodded without smiling, acknowledging an observation of the self-evident. "I run a tight ship, Mr. Janson," he said with smug condescension. "Our worldwide operations are damn well protected, always have been, and we've never had a problem. Never had a leak, a defection, not even any serious theft. And I think I'm in the best position to know whereof I speak—can we agree on that?"
"A CEO who doesn't know what's going on in his own company isn't really running the show, is he?" Janson replied equably.
"Exactly," Harnett said. "Exactly." His gaze settled on the intercom of his telephone console. "Look, you come highly recommended—I mean, Stevie couldn't have spoken of you more highly, and I'm sure you're quite good at what you do. Appreciate that you came by to see us, and as I say, I'm only sorry we wasted your time…."
Janson noted his use of the inclusive "we" and its evident subtext: sorry that a member of our senior management inconvenienced us both. No doubt Steven Burt would be subjected to some withering corporate scorn later on. Janson decided to allow himself a few parting words after all, if only for his friend's sake.
"Not a bit," he said, rising to his feet and shaking Harnett's hand across the desk. "Just glad to know everything's shipshape." He cocked his head and added, almost incidentally: "Oh, listen, as to that ‘sealed bid' you just submitted for the Uruguay project?"
"What do you know about it?" Harnett's eyes were suddenly watchful; a nerve had been struck.
"Ninety-three million five hundred and forty thousand, was it?"
Harnett reddened. "Hold it. I approved that bid only yesterday morning. How the hell did you—"
"If I were you, I'd be worrying about the fact that your French competitor, Suez Lyonnaise, knows the figures, too. I think you'll discover that their bid will be precisely two percent lower."
"What?" Harnett erupted with volcanic fury. "Did Steve Burt tell you this?"
"Steven Burt gave me no information whatsoever.
Anyway, he's in operations, not accounting or business affairs—does he even know the specifics of the bid?"
Harnett blinked twice. "No," he said after a pause.
"There's no way he could know. Goddammit, there's no way anyone could know. It was sent by encrypted e-mail from our bean counters to the Uruguayan ministry."
"And yet people do know these things. Because this won't be the first time you've been narrowly outbid this year, will it? In fact, you've been burned almost a dozen times in the past nine months. Eleven of your fifteen bids were rejected. Like you were saying, it's a business with a lot of ups and downs."
Harnett's cheeks were aflame, but Janson proceeded to chat in a collegial tone. "Now, in the case of Vancouver, there were other considerations. Heck, they had reports from the municipal engineers that they found plasticizers in the concrete used for the pilings. Made it easy to cast, but weakened its structural integrity. Not your fault, of course—your specs were perfectly clear there. How were you to know that the subcontractor bribed your site inspector to falsify his report? An underling takes a measly five-thousand-dollar bribe, and now you're out in the cold on a hundred-million-dollar project. Pretty funny, huh? On the other hand, you've had worse luck with some of your own under-the-table payments. I mean, if you're wondering what went wrong with the La Paz deal…"
"Yes?" Harnett prompted urgently. He stood up with unnatural rigidity, as if frozen.
"Let's just say Raffy rides again. Your manager believed Rafael Nuñez when he told him that he'd make sure the bribe reached the minister of the interior. Of course, it never did. You chose the wrong intermediary, simple as that. Raffy Nuñez took a lot of companies for a ride in the nineties. Most of your competitors are wise to him now. They were laughing their asses off when they saw your guy dining at the La Paz Cabana, tossing down tequilas with Raffy, because they knew exactly what was going to happen. But what the hey— at least you tried, right? So what if your operating margin is down thirty percent this year? It's only money, right? Isn't that what your shareholders are always saying?"
As Janson spoke, he noticed that Harnett's face had gone from flushed to deathly pale. "Oh, that's right— they haven't been saying that, have they?" Janson continued. "In fact, a bunch of major stockholders are looking for another company—Vivendi, Kendrick, maybe Bechtel—to orchestrate a hostile takeover. So look on the bright side. If they have their way, none of this will be your problem anymore." He pretended to ignore Harnett's sharp intake of breath. "But I'm sure I'm only telling you what you already know."
Harnett looked dazed, panicked; through the vast expanse of polarized glass, muted rays of sun picked out the beads of cold sweat on his forehead. "Fuck a duck," he murmured. Now he was looking at Janson the way a drowning man looks at a life raft. "Name your price," he said.
"Name your goddamn price," Harnett said. "I need you." He grinned, aiming to disguise his desperation with a show of joviality. "Steve Burt told me you were the best, and you sure as shit are, that's obvious. You know I was just yanking your chain before. Now, listen, big guy, you are not leaving this room before you and I come to an agreement. We clear about this?" Perspiration had begun to darken his shirt in the areas beneath his arms and around his collar. "Because we are going to do a deal here."
"I don't think so," Janson said genially. "It's just that I've decided against taking the job. That's one luxury I have as a consultant working alone: I get to decide which clients I take. But really—best of luck with everything. Nothing like a good proxy fight to get the blood racing, right?"
Harnett let out a burst of fake-sounding laughter and clapped his hands together. "I like your style," he said. "Good negotiating tactics. OK, OK, you win. Tell me what you want."
Janson shook his head, smiling, as if Harnett had said something funny, and made his way to the door. Just before he left the office, he stopped and turned. "One tip, though—gratis," he said. "Your wife knows." It would have been indelicate to say the name of Harnett's Venezuelan mistress, so Janson simply added, obliquely but unmistakably: "About Caracas, I mean." Janson gave him a meaningful look: no judgment implied; he was, speaking as one professional to another, merely identifying a potential point of vulnerability.
Small red spots appeared on Harnett's cheeks, and he seemed stricken with nausea: it was the look of a man contemplating a ruinously expensive divorce on top of a proxy fight he was likely to lose. "I'm willing to talk stock options," he called after Janson.
But the consultant was already making his way down the hall toward the elevator bank. He had not minded seeing the blowhard squirm; by the time he reached the lobby, though, he was filled with a sense of sourness, of time wasted, of a larger futility.
A voice from so long ago—another life—echoed faintly in his head. And this is what gives meaning to your life? Phan Nguyen asked that, in a thousand different ways. It was his favorite question. Janson could see, even now, the small, intelligent eyes; the broad, weathered face; the slender, childlike arms. Everything about America seemed to engage his interrogator's curiosity, with equal parts fascination and revulsion. And this is what gives meaning to your life? Janson shook his head: Doom on you, Nguyen.
As Janson stepped into his limousine, which had been idling on Dearborn just outside the building's lobby, he decided to go straight to O'Hare; there was an earlier flight to Los Angeles he could catch. If only Nguyen's questions could be as easily left behind.
Two uniformed women were standing behind a counter as he entered the Platinum Club lounge of Pacifica Airlines. The uniforms and the counter were both the same blue-gray hue. The women's jackets featured the sort of epaulets to which the major airlines were so devoted. In another place and time, Janson reflected, they would have rewarded extensive battle-field experience.
One of the women had been speaking to a jowly, heavyset man who wore an open blue blazer and a beeper clipped to his belt. A glint of badge metal from his inside coat pocket told Janson that he was an FAA inspector, no doubt taking his break where there was human scenery to be enjoyed. They broke off when Janson stepped forward.
"Your boarding card, please," the woman said, turning to him. She had a powdery tan that ended somewhere below her chin, and the kind of brassy hair that came from an applicator tip.
Janson flashed his ticket and the plastic card with which Pacifica rewarded its extremely frequent fliers.
"Welcome to the Pacifica Platinum Club, Mr. Janson," the woman twinkled.
"We'll let you know when your plane is about to board," the other attendant—chestnut bangs, eye shadow that matched the blue piping on her jacket—told him in a low, confiding voice. She gestured toward the entrance to the lounge area as if it were the pearly gates. "Meantime, enjoy our hospitality facilities and relax." An encouraging nod and a broad smile; Saint Peter's could not have held more promise.
Carved out between the structural girders and beams of an overloaded airport, venues like Pacifica's Platinum Club were where the modern airline tried to cater to the carriage trade. Small bowls were filled not with the salted peanuts purveyed to les misérables in coach but with the somewhat more expensive tree nuts: cashews, almonds, walnuts, pecans. At a granite-topped beverage station, there were crystal jugs sticky with peach nectar and fresh-squeezed orange juice. The carpeting was microfiber swank, the airline's signature blue-gray adorned with trellises of white and navy. On round tables interspersed among large armchairs were neatly folded copies of the International Herald Tribune, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. A Bloomberg terminal flickered with meaningless numbers and images, shadow puppets of the global economy. Through louvered blinds, the tarmac was only just visible.
Janson flipped through the papers with little interest. When he turned to the Journal's "Market Watch," he found his eyes sliding down column inches of familiarly bellicose metaphors: bloodshed on Wall Street as a wave of profit takers launched an onslaught against the Dow. A sports column in USA Today was taken up with the collapse of the Raiders' offense in the face of the rampaging blitzes of the Vikings' line-men. Meanwhile, invisible speakers piped in a song by the pop diva du jour, from the soundtrack of a blockbuster movie about a legendary Second World War battle. An expense of blood and sweat had been honored by an expense of studio money and computer-graphics technology.
Excerpted from The Janson Directive by Robert Ludlum
Copyright © 2002 by Myn Pyn LLC.
Published in 2002 by St. Martin's Press
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.