St. Martin's Press
The limo pulled up to the front door of the Hay- Adams Hotel after a short jaunt across Lafayette Park. A Secret Ser vice agent standing there opened the passenger door. The president got out and walked into the hotel, accompanied by two agents. He didn't look right or left, just walked straight across the lobby to the elevators and went into the first one. One agent joined him. Together they rode in silence to the fourth floor. Another Secret Ser vice man was standing there by the elevators when the door opened.
At the end of the hallway, the agent with the president rapped on the door. When it opened, the president went in. The agent stayed outside in the hallway.
"Thanks for coming," the man who greeted the president said. He was in his early fifties, with graying hair and a square chin, still trim and .t and apparently as vigorous as he had been when he played cornerback for Boston College.
"Sorry about your son, Hunt," the president said. He held on to the other man's hand, grasping it with both of his own. The president had had plenty of practice at this and knew damn well how to do it.
Huntington Winchester nodded, extracted his hand from the president's grasp, and led the way to a portable bar. "I know you don't drink, but I'm having one. You want a Coke or something?"
"Club soda with a twist."
With the drinks in hand, the two men sat in easy chairs near the window. The White House was visible through the bare treetops of Lafayette Park.
Winchester took a sip of whiskey, then spoke: "The Marines tell me Owen, a sergeant named Martinez, and an Iraqi soldier named Abdul Something tried to pull a wounded Iraqi woman from a car with a bomb in it. They knew it was there and tried to rescue her anyway. Martinez said it was Owen's idea, and I believe it. That was Owen; that was the way he thought. If there was a way, he would have tried it.
"The bomb exploded when they were only a few feet from the car. Killed Owen instantly, mangled Martinez's arm. The Iraqi soldier escaped with only a concussion. The woman they were trying to rescue died in the helicopter that took her and Martinez to the hospital."
The president didn't say anything. Sometimes there isn't anything to say.
Winchester took another pull on his drink, which looked like Scotch or bourbon. Then he said, "They're trying to save Martinez's arm. He may lose it."
After a while, Winchester added, "You know the amazing thing? I don't personally know anybody else who has a son or daughter in the military. None of the people on my staff, none of my executives, none of our friends, none of the people at my clubs, no one."
The president sipped at his club soda.
"Kids from our socioeconomic group aren't supposed to join the military," Winchester continued. "They never think of it, and if they do, their parents demand that they change their minds. And having a draft wouldn't change that. I was too young for Vietnam, but all the older men I know managed to avoid the draft back then some way or other, or if they did get drafted, they wound up on a general's staff in Europe or Tokyo. Caught the clap three or four times and had a marvelous time. Not one of them actually went to Vietnam and risked his precious ass."
The president shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He was old enough for Vietnam, yet somehow ended up in the National Guard, which in those days rarely got called up for active ser vice overseas. Today, in the absence of the tens of thousands of young men a military draft would bring in, the National Guard and reserves were getting called up for extended active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Just how he managed to land that Guard billet when the waiting list had hundreds of names on it was a question that he had asked his father, who merely shrugged. "I didn't call anyone," his father the senator had said, and the president had believed him. The truth was the senator didn't have to call— his influential friends would take it upon themselves to ensure that the senator's son didn't have to join the common herd in the Army and risk life and limb in combat. And no doubt that is what happened. That's the way it has always worked in America for the scions of wealth and privilege.
Of course, the president had known all that even then. The question to his father was the sop to his conscience. He didn't want to go to Vietnam— no one he knew did— and since he was his father's son, he didn't have to. Being mortal clay, he had let it go at that. Still, the memory of that little compromise with fate wasn't anything to be proud of.
"Owen enlisted in the Naval Reserve three years ago," Winchester continued, "after his sophomore year in college. He was in premed, knew he wanted to be a doctor, help people. Signed up to be a corpsman. Took all the training, did the drills on weekends, all of it, and then four months ago his unit was called up and sent to Iraq. He was in his first year of Harvard Medical School.
"His mother didn't want him to join the military three years ago, and she threw a .t when his unit was called up. Demanded that I pull strings— call you and our senators and Admiral Adams." Adams was the chief of naval operations. "Yeah, I know Adams, too. We've bird hunted in South Dakota together."
He sighed and took another slug of his liquor. "I refused. Told her this was Owen's choice, and I was proud of him. The truth was that if I had pulled strings and denied him his opportunity to serve, an opportunity he sought, he would have felt betrayed. I couldn't do that to him." He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly.
"When the news came last week that he was dead, Ellen told me she was divorcing me. She's moved out, hired a lawyer. The process servers are probably looking for me right now."
"I'm sorry, Hunt," the president said. He put the club soda on the stand beside the chair; he didn't want any more of it.
"Owen was our only child. God fucking damn!" Winchester finished his drink. "So here I sit, dumping all this shit on you, as if you weren't carrying enough of a load as it is."
"You're my friend, Hunt. Have been for twenty years."
"You have a lot of friends," Huntington Winchester said. He went to the bar and poured himself another, came back and resumed his seat. He eyed the president carefully.
"The real problem is that people in my class view the war on terror as a nuisance, something that doesn't really affect us. Blue- collar kids join the military and risk their lives and limbs; not our kids, who are getting first- class educations and going to med school, or law school, or getting a finance degree and joining some Wall Street .rm. We sit in our big houses with maids and chauffeurs and modern art collections and all the rest of it, reading in the newspapers about suicide bombers murdering people and watching the mayhem on television. We think it is someone else's fight. It isn't. That's what Owen understood. It's our fight."
"We are fighting the terrorists, Hunt," the president said. "The best way we know how. Is it going well? Depends on whom you ask. But we're doing our best. I assure you of that."
Winchester wasn't buying. "Our enemies are not the thugs who kidnapped that man from that car in Iraq, murdered Owen and that woman. Our real enemies are the people who put them up to it— the imams who preach hate, who are defending a fossilized religion that has been unable to come to grips with thirteen centuries of change, and the people who are financing terrorism, the scum who enjoy seeing other people suffer or who want to buy peace for themselves. Those people are the enemy."
He picked up the daily paper, which was lying on the couch. "Look at this— another ignorant, illiterate holy man hiding in Pakistan has exhorted the faithful to attack Americans, anywhere they can be found." He tossed the paper across the room. "Car bombs in London, shaped charges in Iraq, nuclear threats from Iran . . . 'Death to America!' "
"Trying to silence individual voices won't do much good, Hunt. The war will be won when Muslims classify these people as lunatics and ignore them."
"By God, those bastards want a fight," Winchester snarled. "We should give them one. How many innocent people have to die to satisfy these fanatics' thirst for blood before that wonderful day comes?"
The president didn't reply. He glanced at Winchester's drink, wishing he could have a sip of it.
"I have some friends," Winchester continued, staring at the president's face, "some of them Americans, the rest Europeans. We've talked about this for years, about the fact that we owe civilization more than paying taxes and tut-tutting at the fucking golf club."
"You've given your only son, Hunt. Sounds to me as if you've put more than your share into the collection plate."
"My friends and I are businessmen, bankers and shippers. The thought occurred to us that locked somewhere in the records of our daily businesses are the money trails that terrorists leave behind whenever they move money or material across borders. We do business worldwide. We can help find the people who are moving the money, and behind them, the people who are financing the terrorists. From there we can work backward to the preachers of hate who are firing up the fools."
"Who are your friends?" the president asked.
Winchester gave him names and companies.
"And after you identify these people?" the president asked.
"We'll put up the money to finance assassination squads to kill them."
The president didn't say a word. He didn't really want to hear this. Any of it.
"I want your help," Winchester continued, his eyes holding the president's. "We have money, enough to fund an army, and we're willing to spend it. But we need some help data- mining our records. It's all there if we can just dig it out. And we need some hard men who can pull the trigger and thrust in the knife. I want you to find the people who can help us."
"If this ever comes out," the president said frankly, "the least that can happen is your companies get a black eye for violating privacy statutes. Customers may sue—"
"Damn them!" Winchester exclaimed. "Terrorists have no privacy rights, and everybody else can just go hang."
"Oh, there's more," the president added. "If you do anything beyond giving information to the government, you'll probably go to prison. Conspiracy to commit murder, murder for hire, money laundering— maybe they'll even throw in a terrorism charge."
Huntington Winchester didn't say a word.
The president rose and went to the window. He stood there with his arms crossed looking at the war protesters in Lafayette Park, at the trees, at the top of the White House and the Washington Monument beyond. He thought about the last few years, about the politicians and promises and coffins and kids brought back on gurneys, maimed for life.
Finally he turned and faced Winchester. "I'll think about it."
Winchester wanted more of a commitment than that, but he held his tongue.
"If this blows up in your face, Hunt, I'll make sad noises. Nothing else. There will be no presidential pardon, so don't even entertain that possibility in the back of your mind. You and your friends want to play a very dangerous game, and your lives and your fortunes and your freedom are the stakes."
" 'We pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.' Wasn't that the way the phrasing went?" Huntington Winchester asked softly.
The president wouldn't let it rest. He walked forward until he was three feet from Winchester and scrutinized his face. "You aren't proposing business as usual, Hunt. This isn't doing market research for a Wall Street tender offer, buying an oil concession from some impoverished dictatorship or launching a new brand of toothpaste. I want to make sure you understand precisely how big the pile is that you and your 'friends' are shoving out onto the table."
"I do understand. Goddamnit, man, Owen was my only son! What do you think he gave to his country? What the hell do you think Ellen and I gave?"
"Owen was wearing a United States Navy uniform. You aren't. There's a huge difference."
"I understand. I'll not ask you for anything else. Ever."
The president made a gesture with his right hand, one hundreds of millions of people had seen him make countless times. "Who knows, if you help us find a few of those bastards, it might actually do some good."
He stuck out his hand. Winchester rose from his chair and took it.
One firm shake, then the president headed for the door. "I'll think about it," he said, almost to himself. He opened the door and passed through and closed it behind him.
A week later Huntington Winchester received a call from the president. He was at home, in his empty house. The cook left after dinner, and the maid and butler had the evening off. He answered the ringing telephone. There were no social preliminaries. "The Java Hut in Marblehead. A man will meet you there tomorrow morning at ten. He knows what you look like."
"Thank you," Winchester said.
"Good luck," the president muttered and broke the connection.
Downtown Marblehead was a cutesy tourist town, and this late- autumn morning the tourists were out in force, filling every parking place, cramming the sidewalks and shops. Huntington Winchester was ten minutes early when he walked into the Java Hut. The place was packed, with every seat taken. He glanced at the faces, saw no one he recognized and got in line. When he made it to the counter, he ordered a medium- sized cup of gourmet coffee. After he paid, he went to the stand where thermos bottles of cream, skim milk and 2 percent were located. He poured in a little skim milk.
As he turned around with coffee in hand, a man said, "Come with me. Let's get outta here."
Winchester followed the man, who was a little over six feet and lean, with thinning hair going gray.
Out on the sidewalk, Winchester got a better look at the man who had spoken to him. His short hair was combed straight back, his nose was a trifle large, and he had the coldest set of gray eyes Huntington Winchester had ever seen. He was wearing jeans and a dark blue jacket. Under the open jacket he wore a golf shirt. The skin on his face, neck and arms was weathered— at some time in the past, probably a lot of times, he had been exposed to too much sun.
"Name's Grafton," the man said. "I think there's a boardwalk just up the way where we can talk."
Winchester walked along, his coffee in his hand. When they were both leaning on a rail looking at the bay, the man named Grafton said, "I hear you have a proposition."
Winchester glanced around to ensure there was no one in earshot and repeated the plan he had told the president. "I asked our mutual friend to find someone who could pull it off," he said. "Apparently he thinks you are the man."
During Winchester's explanation, he examined Grafton, who had his hands folded, his forearms on the rail. He was wearing a wedding ring and a cheap watch on a flexible band— no other jewelry. He looked, Winchester thought, like a truck driver, one close to retirement.
Grafton said nothing, just looked at the bay and the boats and the people strolling on the boardwalk. "Mr. Winchester," he said after a while. "I came today to size you up. I am not committed to anything, and you aren't. Right now we're just doing a little preliminary shuffling to determine if we really want to dance."
"What do you want to know about me? Ask away."
"There's nothing to ask. I did a little research. You were born in 1955 to Robert and Harriet Peabody Winchester. You were the second of three sons. Your older brother is a banker with Merrill Lynch and your younger brother is a thoracic surgeon. You were educated as an engineer at Boston College, worked for several oil firms for the first five years after you got out of school, then founded a company that made oil field equipment. You sold that company ten years later for cash and stock, about six hundred million dollars' worth. You bought another company, grew it, bought out a couple of competitors, and are now supplying oil field equipment to major producers all over the world. You have a net worth in excess of two billion dollars."
Grafton's lips moved into a smile. The gray eyes crinkled, but they had no warmth.
Winchester wasn't impressed. "You could have gotten that information off the Internet."
"As of the close of business last night, you had a checking account balance of six hundred thirty- two thousand, three hundred and twelve dollars at the Bank of Boston. Your wife, Ellen Stalnaker Anderson Winchester, .led for a divorce on the nineteenth of October, but this isn't the first time. Eleven years ago you had an affair with your secretary. Ellen found out about it and .led for a divorce then, but you reconciled. You gave the secretary a hundred thousand in return for a release of liability, .red her and haven't ever seen her again."
"Okay, okay. I'm impressed. Just who are you, anyway?"
"Name's Jake Grafton."
"Were you in the Army?"
"Do you work for the government now?"
"Got some ID on you?"
Grafton removed his CIA building pass and handed it to Winchester, who inspected both sides of it. It was about the size of a credit card, but heavier, and had Grafton's photo on it. Under the plastic, out of sight, were magnetic strips that could be read by turnstiles, door locks, and scanners hidden in ceilings.
"Jacob L. Grafton," Winchester said, reading the name on the card. He handed the card back and sucked at his coffee, which was getting cold. "You aren't what I was expecting."
"You thought your friend would send you a snake-eater?"
"Something like that."
"As I understand it, Mr. Winchester, your company does business in every oil patch in the world."
"Our problem, Mr. Winchester, is not .nding men and women to .ght terrorists, it's .nding the terrorists. That is the most pressing problem facing the Western world today. We are looking for violent criminals who hide among the innocent, look just like them, behave just like them, except for that few seconds when they become soldiers for the Devil.
"To hunt these men and women, there are things we can do and things that we can't do . . . legally. On the other hand, private industry doesn't suffer from some of the restrictions that government employees must deal with on a daily basis. As you mentioned to the president, moving money is one of the things terrorists must do. The holy warriors must pay their bills, buy food and transportation and shelter and weapons and bomb materials and everything else they need. Someone must provide that money."
"Two of my friends are bankers," Winchester said.
Grafton nodded and kept talking. "Currently the terrorists are washing money by buying and shipping commodities, such as food or medicine . . . any unrestricted commodity. For example, vegetable oil is used in cooking worldwide. A terrorist might buy a quantity in one place and ship it to another, where the consignee sells it and gives part or all of the money to local terrorists or a terror organization. Drug smugglers have been using this technique for years to wash money, and now the terrorists are using it. We need access to shipping records to find the transactions that look suspicious. To identify the people involved, we have to trace the money at both ends of the transaction, which brings us back to banks."
"Wolfgang Zetsche is the chairman and chief executive officer of one of the largest shipping firms in Europe and the Middle East," Winchester said. "He has offered to help."
"Is he trustworthy?" Grafton asked innocently. He had already gotten that name from the president and done some research on Herr Zetsche, but wanted Winchester's opinion.
"If I had a daughter I wouldn't let her in the same building with Wolfgang, but I'd trust him with every dime I own."
"Better tell me all of their names and what banks or companies they are with."
Winchester did so. One of the names he threw out was Jerry Hay Smith. When he had finished, Grafton said, "Why Smith? He's a journalist— writes syndicated columns for newspapers."
"Jerry Hay is an old friend. We went to school together. He called me immediately after the news of Owen's death was in the newspapers. I talked to him, asked him how I could personally get involved in the fight against terrorism. He suggested I talk to the president, and he knows I did."
"Hmm," Grafton said. "Since he doesn't have access to anything we need, can't we leave him off the invitation list?"
"We could, I guess, but he'll be mighty curious."
Jake Grafton flexed his hands, then glanced at Winchester's face. "Security is always a problem. Through my agency, I can put people in the banks and shipping companies, and they'll look and act like all other employees, yet they are our people and working for us. We'll have cover stories, such as they are working with auditors or bank examiners or gathering data for some government entity. The fewer people who know their real identity and what they are doing, the better— and those people must keep the secret."
"Security in business is always a problem, too,"
Winchester said. "We trust people until they get greedy and betray us. Then we .re them or turn them over to the prosecutors, or both. What else can I say?"
Grafton turned around, leaned back against the railing and casually scanned the crowd.
"What are you going to do when you find terrorists?" Winchester asked.
A smile crept across Jake Grafton's face. "Why, we're going to prosecute them, of course, if all the governments involved decide to cooperate."
Winchester made a rude sound. "Why don't we hunt them down and kill them?"
"Assassination squads are hard to justify, get approved and manage through a bureaucracy. Then there are the lawyers. And congressional oversight. And people talk . . . to writers like your friend Jerry Hay Smith. Journalists need scoops, and that would be a big one."
"Sure as hell," Winchester agreed. "But could it be done?"
"As I told our mutual friend, my friends and I have the money to finance a private army."
Grafton smiled again, and this time his eyes had warmth. "I think we might be able to do some business. You envision me recruiting the people and pointing out the targets, and your group will fund the adventure. All that's well and good. But we need to have an understanding here and now: I will be running the show and you will be taking orders from me. You will do precisely what I say, when I say to do it, precisely the way I say to do it. If you follow orders diligently, thoroughly, without question— and maintain ironclad security— we might just be able to pop off some of these bastards and get away with it."
"There's one more thing. I don't want you telling a single living soul that I work for the CIA. If the others suspect it, you must tell them you don't know. I'll tell them myself. Can you do that?"
"I can keep a secret."
"I hope so."
"How about these soldiers? Who will you get?"
"I'll be able to find some good people. That is the least of my problems."
"Pay them anything you want."
Grafton looked at Winchester, capturing his eyes.
"You're entering a world where money doesn't mean much, Mr. Winchester. The men I want will work for the pay they would have gotten in the military. Everyone has bills to pay, but money isn't what motivates them. That said, you and your pals are going to get stuck with the expenses, and there will be a lot of those. Weapons, equipment, transportation, bribes— you're going to be amazed at how fast the money disappears."
"How about you? How much do you want?"
"The government pays me. The extracurricular activities I'd do for free."
Grafton's brows knitted, as if he were thinking about this question for the first time. He started to say something, obviously thought better of it and simply said, "This is what I do."
"That's a popular, trite phrase that explains nothing."
"Perhaps," said Grafton, eyeing the billionaire.
"Let's put it this way: This is what I know how to do."
Winchester sighed. "Well, it's new ground for me."
"Even with the leads from the various companies, finding the bad guys will take a lot of doing. It'd be nice if they wore distinctive uniforms, but they don't. Still, I kinda think this might be worth a try. We might get some bad actors that deserve to be sent on their way."
Winchester's face brightened. "I hope so," he whispered.
Grafton turned back around and again put his forearms on the rail. "Personal revenge is hard to come by in this day and age. It takes a team to sail a ship or catch terrorists. Every member of that team is responsible for its success or failure." Grafton rubbed his chin, then said, "I might as well tell you the rest of it. Sooner or later the bad guys are going to figure out what is going down. That's if some government entity hasn't gotten wind of it first and tried to prosecute you for violating bank secrecy and privacy laws, money laundering, conspiracy to commit murder and a dozen or two other crimes. Your stock prices will go to hell and you'll be up to your ass in lawyers, trying to stay out of prison. You will also be in line to make some real enemies."
"Terrorists," Winchester whispered.
"They'll put your name on the bullet."
"I can live with that."
"The question is, Can your friends live with it? Why don't you invite them to your house, perhaps a week from today, and let me talk to them, too?"
"I don't know anything about you," Winchester said. "I'm in the dark here, and I don't like the feeling."
"Better get used to it. It'll get dark as a coal mine at midnight if I agree to get involved with you people."
"Tell me about yourself."
"I'm a retired naval officer, retired as a two- star. If you want to check me out, do it discreetly. If I hear you're asking questions, or anyone is, you failed the test."
Winchester was silent for a while, apparently lost in thought. Finally he said, "Next week."
"See you there," Jake Grafton said. With a wave of his hand, he walked away.
Huntington Winchester watched him go. After Grafton was lost in the crowd, he jammed his hands in his pockets and headed for his car, thinking about his son, Owen.
Excerpted from THE ASSASSIN by Stephen Coonts
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen Coonts
Published in August 2009 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.
STEPHEN COONTS is the author of fifteen New York Times bestselling books, which have been translated and republished around the world. A former naval aviator and Vietnam combat veteran, he is a graduate of West Virginia University and the University of Colorado School of Law. He and his wife live in Nevada.