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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Russian

A Novel

Ben Coes

St. Martin's Press

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

CHAPTER 1

Saint-Tropez

France

Three Days Ago

Tacoma took the RISCON Gulfstream G150 across the ocean and landed in Nice at 4 P.M. local time. He rented, with an anonymous Mastercard, a Ducati 1199 Panigale and took it at a furious clip down the coast of France to Saint-Tropez, along the D559, which zigged and zagged above the rocky Mediterranean coastline, like a rattlesnake on the side of a steep cliff. It was a sun-filled day and the waning bright light wreaked havoc on the roadway, blinding Tacoma for moments at a time as the light hit the tinted visor of the helmet, a black and silver Reevu MSX1, yet he pushed the Ducati to 156.7 mph, screaming into turns no sane man would take at 80. He slowed as he saw the outline of Saint-Tropez in the distance, cutting right onto a road called Boulevard des Sommets, which led through a pretty golf course. After a few winding country roads into the hills, Tacoma saw guards at the end of a driveway. He didn’t acknowledge them, as if he belonged, and they did nothing. He pulsed the bright yellow Ducati past the guards and up a steep hill, then pulled up in front of the crowded, brightly lit château, uninvited. He climbed off the bike and removed the helmet.

Tacoma was in a blue blazer with white piping along the edges. Beneath he wore a red T-shirt and white jeans. He had on a pair of Adidas running shoes.

He cut around into the backyard of the beautifully kept, sprawling limestone mansion built in the 1700s. Down a gravel walkway that led from the terrace, he walked through a sweeping garden of perfectly manicured boxwoods and wild bluffs of lavender, now at the seasonal apex of their purple-colored beauty. Ahead stood a large white tent, filled with people.

Music could be heard from inside the tent along with the sound of conversation, laughter, and celebration. Somewhere there was a band—and Tacoma entered the tent with his eyes scanning.

Tomorrow, the vows would be taken in the chapel, a small, pretty stone and brick structure, built by hand along with the villa, which loomed now behind Tacoma, back behind the geometric green gardens lit by lanterns in the dusk.

This was a celebration. A rehearsal dinner for the daughter of a billionaire, a man, in fact, worth more than $10 billion. It was one of the man’s many properties. She was his only daughter—the man had three sons—and her rehearsal dinner would cost him more than $2 million.

Much less than RISCON’s fee, a charge being footed by the father of one of the bridesmaids.

The temperature was in the seventies and there were no clouds in the sky. In the distance, the dark blue waters of the Mediterranean glimmered beneath an early evening that was painted tangerine, black, silver, and blue. Yachts were visible as small white appurtenances and appeared as if they weren’t moving, as if placed there by a small paintbrush in the hands of a master in an Impressionist painting of striking beauty.

Beneath the large white canvas tent, the rehearsal dinner was well under way. Several hundred people were there, spread out at big tables, men, women, and children, all dressed in stylish clothing, casual but neat. This was the highest echelon of society.

Tacoma knew no one at the rehearsal dinner, yet he soon blended into the alcohol-infused anarchy of the party.

He found a seat at a long, fancifully accoutered dining table, with a white tablecloth, crystal stemware, and beautiful women in low-cut dresses. The men were in button-downs and casual linen and khaki pants, and were, like the women, tan and good-looking.

According to the report, all the bridesmaids were from England. One was royalty, and all but one were the daughters of privilege, including the daughter of his client, who was seated next to the bride-to-be.

The table was packed. The lighting was low. The sound of music from another part of the estate whistled above conversation and laughter.

The château was located in the hills above Saint-Tropez. The meal was prepared by Yves Soucant, considered the best chef in France.

Tacoma’s dirty-blond hair was brushed back over a thick cowlick that jutted up slightly at his forehead, parted to the left, dangling Down to the lower ends of his ears. His face was tan. He was clean-shaven, with a sharp nose and big lips. Tacoma was thick and athletic, all muscle. The blazer pressed out, a little tight, accentuating Tacoma’s body.

* * *

RISCON had been approached through MI6 about the project.

This individual—the client—had received a call from a high-level SAP executive whose daughter had been pawned—that is, conned and robbed by a very adept thief who’d already stolen millions from women across Europe and the United States.

RISCON had been hired to penetrate the wedding and take action on a charming twenty-five-year old Dubliner with dashing Irish looks and swagger. He was at the wedding with one of the bridesmaids, the client’s daughter. His name was Jonathan Greene, but Greene was a fraud, a serial scam artist who’d run through Vienna, Amsterdam, Paris, San Francisco, and Dallas, and was now preying upon London. His methods were textbook and well executed. Get women to fall in love, propose marriage, then, in the interim period between engagement and wedding, steal millions.

According to the report RISCON had done upon being hired, the man, Jonathan Greene, was engaged to two different women in London, and had already pilfered more than nine hundred thousand dollars from the client’s daughter. His basic strategy was simple. Can I borrow a hundred dollars? Write me a check. Greene would then write “thousand dollars” after the “one hundred” and add a few zeros.

Nobody seemed to notice until after Greene had moved on to another city, another country, another woman. He left little trace.

RISCON took on the job based on its standard fee structure. A $10 million monthly retainer was required for a minimum of four months; oftentimes RISCON’s actions would lead to counteractions and their continued involvement would be necessary. After the retainer, RISCON proposed fees and such things as per diem, based upon the feasibility of the mission. The harder the objective, the higher the fee. Hiring RISCON wasn’t cheap.

In this case, if RISCON succeeded in removing the con artist, an $8 million bonus was to be wired immediately. It wasn’t the highest of RISCON’s success fees, but it wasn’t the lowest either.

The client, a New York City–based oil trader, had agreed to it immediately. He didn’t care what it cost to save his daughter from a scoundrel.

Tacoma ate ravenously but didn’t drink anything except water. He made small talk with a middle-aged couple from London.

* * *

The wedding party took limousines to a nightclub in downtown Saint-Tropez, Les Caves.

At Les Caves, Tacoma found himself seated in a big leather booth. He started talking to a girl in the wedding party near the bar. She was black and beautiful, had straight jet-black hair, and wore a sheer pink dress. Tacoma and the woman talked for almost an hour, and normally he would’ve been interested in her except he was working. However, he used her interest in him and soon he was in the same booth as the target, Greene.

Someone made a toast and pretty soon everyone was taking turns.

“To Thomas and Lizzy,” said one of the bridesmaids in a clipped English accent. “This rehearsal dinner is just so superb and you two are the most beautiful couple ever. Hear hear!

In the leather booth, Tacoma was seated beside a young blonde in a white dress. Her hair was curly and she had a British accent. Their legs were pressed against each other and she kept looking over at Tacoma, though she never introduced herself. Her dress was short, at the top of her thighs, and her legs were tan. Tacoma knew many models, and she was as perfect as any he’d seen. He saw a man across the table, a Brazilian whom he recognized, a soccer player.

The toasts went on forever. Eventually, Tacoma watched as Greene stood up at the far side of the table.

The lights were dim.

At some point her hand went down, beneath the table, to Tacoma’s knee.

She rubbed his thigh softly for several minutes, then turned, speaking to him for the first time.

“My yacht is down the street,” she said in a pretty British accent. “But we’ll have to be careful. I don’t want my husband to find out.”

Tacoma tracked Greene’s movement, a weaving, drunken gait toward the restrooms. After Greene went out of view, Tacoma stood up and moved along the same path Greene had just taken. He moved slowly, stopping near the bar and glancing about, buying time. By the time Tacoma reached the restroom, Greene was drying his hands at the sink on the far side of the dimly lit, marble-walled bathroom. They were alone.

As Tacoma shut the door behind him, he flipped the lock, then stepped toward the sink, meeting Greene as he was leaving.

“Excuse me,” said Tacoma.

“Perfectly all right,” Greene said in an aristocratic British accent.

“Jonathan, right?” said Tacoma enthusiastically.

Greene’s face took on a horrified look, but he hid it well, and extended his hand.

“Good to see you again,” said Greene, smiling. He reached out to shake Tacoma’s hand. “And you are?”

“Rob,” he said.

“That’s right. Good to see you again, Rob.”

As Greene extended his hand to shake Tacoma’s, Tacoma seized Greene’s middle finger and bent it sharply back, nearly snapping it. He pushed Greene’s arm down to his side, next to his torso, twisting brutally.

Greene winced and yelped.

“What the—” Greene shouted, then he tried to lunge his knee at Tacoma. But Tacoma held the finger tight, the bone at the breaking point. Tacoma suddenly lurched with his other hand as Greene tried to hit him and kick at him. Tacoma snapped Greene’s middle finger mid-bone as his other hand grabbed Greene at the nape of the neck, near the carotid artery, and locked his fingers around a small confluence of bone and nerve, gripping it tightly. Greene abruptly dropped to the floor, letting out a pained moan as he clutched at his neck. Tacoma calmly removed the P226R from beneath his armpit. He threaded a thin but long silencer, designed for maximum noise suppression, as Greene sought to breathe again. Tacoma finished preparing the sidearm just as Greene was able to finally get air into his lungs.

“There’s a car waiting outside for you, Jonathan,” said Tacoma quietly, in an even voice, aiming the gun at Greene’s head. “You’ll be driven to Nice, then flown to London. You’ll pack up your shit and leave London—permanently—by tomorrow night. You will never have contact with her or any of her friends ever again. If you ever contact her or anyone she knows again, I’ll come and find you,” said Tacoma, the silver spheroid cap end of the suppressor less than a foot from the center of Greene’s forehead. “And next time, Jonathan, I pull the trigger. Understood? Tell me you understand what I’m saying, Jon?”

From the ground, his face still contorted and beet red, Greene looked up.

“Yes, I understand.”

“Good. Now get the fuck out of here.”



CHAPTER 2

Aboard the Maxi Yacht Constellation

264 Miles North of Bermuda

Atlantic Ocean

A tall man with almost white-blond hair stood at the helm of an eighty-seven-foot-long offshore racing sailboat, a Maxi boat, as the sailing world referred to the sleek, speedy yacht, which was capable of racing around the world in the roughest of sailing conditions. The hull was obsidian black with red stripes below the gunwales. She was a “maxZ87,” the first of the new series by Reichel/Pugh and built by McConaghy Boats out of Sydney, Australia. She wasn’t a boat built for comfort. Belowdecks there was a large storage area that held eight separate sets of sails, along with a galley kitchen, two bathrooms, and a room stacked with bunks—and that was all.

Bruno Darré had another yacht, which he kept in Palm Beach, designed for comfort and luxury. The Constellation was designed to win.

The crew consisted mostly of Kiwis and Aussies, all young and extremely fit, all world-class sailors, with at least a dozen Olympic gold medals between them, and even more America’s Cups.

It was late summer and the occasion was the annual Newport-to-Bermuda race. It was a sailboat race waged by billionaires. Within that small group of type A overachievers, there existed certain annual rituals that showcased, outside the business world, the meaningless but cutthroat level of competition that had fueled their achievements, but also laid bare the odd, sometimes pointless rivalries that existed between very rich men.

In the case of sailboats, there was offshore racing. Egos and aspirations were expressed in one’s boat and one’s crew, including how well one’s crew was taken care of. The competition to be the best at offshore ocean sailboat racing was hypercompetitive and expensive. The fact that a man occasionally died, washed overboard in a gale, for example, his body never to be found again, made the competition all that more real.

Darré looked at a small, iridescent waterproof digital clock on the helm.

00:06:19:39

The clock, though simple looking, was tied in to a $14 million drone now in the sky at four thousand feet. Like the sailboat, the drone, too, was Darré’s. At the race’s start in Newport, Rhode Island, the cameras on the custom-built drone had snapped photos of each sailboat, a fleet of sixty-seven Maxi boats, and logged them in to a custom-built software program designed to track each boat as it moved south toward Bermuda. From that point on, Darré and his crew were watching the progress of his competitors and charting it against the Constellation.

According to the clock, the Constellation was more than two and a half hours ahead of her closest competitor.

Which was probably why Darré was being allowed to steer, at this ideal time; with a big lead and a purple sky even now, past nine o’clock, and a calm wind and placid, current-crossed black ocean beckoning them toward the finish line. It was exactly what his racing team had in mind when they crossed the starting line in Newport. They wanted to win yet another race for him. To a man, they all loved Bruno Darré. He paid them better than anyone on the racing circuit, gave them great benefits, and, when mistakes were made, as they always were, he never showed even a moment of anger or regret. He treated them like family.

They built the two-and-a-half-hour lead not just to win the race, but for Darré.

Pinckney, the captain, emerged from below deck with a tray. On it were several dozen shots of tequila, poured into small plastic cups. Pinckney was a handsome twenty-six-year-old from Christchurch, New Zealand. He was tan, like all the crew.

“Mr. Darré,” he said with a thick Kiwi accent.

Darré looked up and smiled.

Behind Pinckney came the rest of the crew. Sails had been tied off and secured. The yacht would sail itself for a few minutes.

As Pinckney and the others approached, Darré heard the sat phone chime twice. He looked at the screen.

Assets in place

Awaiting your final approval

Darré registered the words as he lifted a shot of tequila into the air.

“To the best boat in the fucking water!” yelled Darré. A chorus of yells and hear-hears echoed across the sleek deck. He put the shot to his mouth, threw it back, and slammed it down. He grabbed another and slugged it quickly, then looked at Pinckney.

“Thank you,” said Darré. “I need to make a call. Can you take the helm?”

Darré walked to the front of the yacht and pressed a speed dial. He listened from the bow of the sailboat as the sat phone rang.

“It’s about fucking time,” came a gruff male voice. He had a thick Russian accent. “We’re minutes away from losing the window.”

“You’re sure the exit strategy is bulletproof?” Darré said.

“Nothing is bulletproof,” said the man. “But yes, everything is in place. There should be little to no trace. Now make a fucking decision, Bruno.”

Darré paused and looked up at the mainsail against a crimson sky.

“Do it,” said Darré.



CHAPTER 3

Marriott Hotel

Des Moines, Iowa

The crowd was growing restless, though not irritated. They were excited and upbeat. More than two thousand Iowans milled about the windowless ballroom. The event should’ve been over hours ago. Instead, it had yet to begin.

The hotel was a typical Marriott, with clean, patterned carpets, large, comfortable leather sofas and chairs for guests, gaudy chandeliers, mirrors on most of the walls. All anyone on this night cared about was trying to get closer to the stage.

Most people were standing. Immediately in front of the stage were several dozen seats reserved for senior citizens. The dais was empty. On the front of the dais was a slick-looking rectangular sign.

NICK BLAKE FOR PRESIDENT

TOUGH LEADERSHIP FOR A BETTER AMERICA

An abstract, bright, red, white, and blue flag covered the wall behind the stage. The only word: BLAKE. It looked as if made by a professional advertising agency and popped, even to those at the back of the room. A low din of conversation permeated the room, along with occasional laughter.

The speaker everyone was waiting on was Governor Nick Blake of Florida. Blake was supposed to start speaking at 6 P.M., just in time to hit the evening news cycle back on the East Coast. But a large round clock above the entrance to the ballroom now showed 8:28 P.M.

The people in the room who were not journalists or political operatives were Iowans. Like the citizens of New Hampshire, they were spoiled when it came to presidential politics. In order to run for president, a candidate not only had to come to Iowa, he or she had to practically move into the state. The path to the Oval Office ran right through the dust-covered country roads, the simple kitchens, the hay-filled red clapboard barns, the motels, hotels, diners, and town halls of the small, flat, land-bound state. The Iowa Caucuses were the first real contest in the race for the presidency. It was a cliché to say it, but it was true: every vote in Iowa counted, and if you wanted to be president, you had to earn every vote.

What happened in Iowa would reverberate across the country. Like a thunderclap, the winners of the Iowa Caucuses on both sides of the political aisle would be shot out of Iowa like cannonballs. And while people in other places might respond irrationally to this disproportionate influence and power over the election, Iowans didn’t. They listened and debated. They took their responsibility seriously.

That being said, two and a half hours was a long time for anyone to stand around in a windowless ballroom. Des Moines sweltered in a rare Iowa summer heat wave, and it was above eighty even in the air-conditioned ballroom. The hotel manager had cranked up the air-conditioning, but the room remained hot and unpleasant.

At the back of the room, a cordoned-off area held a raised rectangular wooden platform, twelve feet long, six feet wide, elevated on steel supports three feet up, on top of which crowded a half dozen cameramen and on-air reporters. The reporters milled about, speaking mostly into cell phones, the disdain of having to be there in the first place now topped with an incremental sheen of annoyance at the fact that, in addition to having to be in Iowa, they had to wait for a candidate who was nearly two and a half hours late.

A pretty blond-haired woman on the left side of the platform sat nonchalantly in a hotel chair. Her name was Bianca de la Garza. She wore a navy-blue blouse with short sleeves, a red skirt, and high heels. A silver pin with the letters CBS was attached to her blouse above her heart. Her hair was parted in the middle, combed back down to her shoulders. She was pretty, and did not wear much makeup. She didn’t have to, which was rare for an on-air reporter. She sat back in the chair, slouched, her legs crossed in front of her. A cell phone was pressed to her ear.

“They’re not saying,” she said lazily into the phone as she scanned the room warily.

“I want you to stay,” said the voice on the other end of the phone, her producer back in New York City, Vance Aloupis.

“The last flight to New York leaves in an hour,” she said, not pushing too hard. “We can rip some footage from the pool. Besides, it’s one fucking event, Vance. It’s nine thirty East Coast time. Who’s going to be watching? He might not get on until ten. If I miss the flight, I miss my daughter’s recital tomorrow morning.”

“I want you there,” said Aloupis. “You can catch the first flight in the morning.”

“No one is going to beat J. P. Dellenbaugh,” she said, her hand in her hair, twisting a clutch of strands.

“You haven’t seen this guy live, Bianca,” said Aloupis. “I have. It’s two and a half hours after he was supposed to take the stage. How many people have left?”

She scanned the packed room with her eyes, barely moving.

“Almost everyone.”

“Yeah, my ass. I’m in the control room. I’m looking at a packed ballroom. By the way, that large black thing to your right? It’s called a camera.”

“Oh, you’re so fucking smart, Vance,” she whispered, hanging up.

Behind the news platform, across a packed crowd of people, to the side of the door, a small coterie of men stood, calmly surveying the scene. There were four of them. They leaned against the wall. They didn’t look like they belonged, not at this event, not in Des Moines, not even in Iowa.

One of the men wore a dark suit and tie. He was clean cut, with neatly combed brown hair and glasses. This was Dean Dakolias, director of communications for the Blake campaign. A second man was short and bald, with thick glasses. This was Justin O’Grady, the campaign pollster. He was poring through a sheaf of papers in his hands, trying to read numbers, cross-tabs on a poll. A third man was tall, with longish black hair, which was slicked back. He had a mustache and a tan face. This was Edward Stackler, Governor Blake’s campaign manager. He looked down at his BlackBerry, reading emails. A fourth man had a shaggy aspect to him, his hair long and tousled, an overgrown beard. He was overweight by at least a hundred pounds. This was Brad Williams. He was the one in charge.

“I’m getting too old for this,” said Williams.

Williams was the chief strategist and ad maker for the yet-to-be-announced presidential campaign of Governor Nick Blake, Democrat of Florida, a forty-four-year old populist with a fiery, charismatic speaking style whose tough-on-crime policies had made him a hero in Florida and across the country. He was positioned as the savior of the Democratic Party, a party that hadn’t won the White House in more than a decade. There were already seven announced candidates for the Democratic nomination, but it was Nick Blake who the White House feared, and who—despite not having formally announced his candidacy yet—was destroying the field in every poll.

“You’re getting too old for this?” responded Stackler. “I’m the one who just turned fifty, Brad. You’re forty.”

“I’m actually thirty-seven,” said Williams, laughing.

“Going on sixty,” said O’Grady, without looking up from the cross-tabs.

“That’s what two divorces will do to you,” said Stackler.

“Three,” said Williams. “Shelby wants a divorce.”

O’Grady looked up from his papers.

“Sorry to hear that…”

Just behind the four Blake campaign officials stood another man who was also from Washington, D.C. The four Blake operatives knew full well who he was, though he pretended he didn’t know who the Blake people were. This man’s presence was indeed significant. It was the first prima facie evidence of how seriously the White House was taking Nick Blake’s candidacy for president.

His name was Mike Murphy, and he looked like he’d been up all night. He had hair down to his shoulders and several days’ worth of stubble. He wore a wrinkled blue button-down, sleeves rolled up, and jeans. He had on a pair of beat-up cowboy boots. He was a disheveled mess. He stared out from behind round, gold-rimmed glasses, a blank look on his face. He’d been in this situation before, far too many times in far too many ballrooms. In fact, he’d waited precisely like this in precisely this very same ballroom too many times to count, though this was the first time he could recall nobody leaving.

Mike Murphy was the top political adviser to the president of the United States.

Murphy took a few steps toward the Blake officials.

“Evening, gentlemen,” said Murphy. “When’s your guy getting here? I need to get my beauty sleep.”

Williams laughed as Murphy introduced himself to him, Stackler, Dakolias, and O’Grady.

“Should be soon,” said Dakolias. “They had to run around some storms on the flight in.”

“Ah, Iowa,” said Murphy, shaking his head. “It’s not enough that it’s in the middle of nowhere. God also thought it’d be fun to have a tornado send a cow flying through the air every few days. I’ve been lobbying the president to move the Iowa Caucuses to Hawaii.”

All four of the Blake men were laughing.

“I must say, your guy looks good,” said Murphy sincerely. “I just read a poll from California. Surprisingly strong there despite the fact that the governor of California is also running. Not to mention, look around here. People don’t usually stick around like this.”

“Thanks,” said Williams. “But it’s a long campaign, you know that. Anyone could emerge.”

“Yeah, but if they’re going to, it’s gotta happen in Iowa,” said Murphy, “and judging from the crowd, your guy’s the one emerging.”

“Well, thanks again.”

“Don’t thank me,” said Murphy. “This time next year you’re going to hate my guts.”

“I doubt that,” said Williams, laughing.

Just then, Dakolias’s phone beeped. He looked down at the screen.

“The governor’s plane just landed,” said Dakolias. “ETA ten minutes. He wants to go right on.”

“Give the pool a warning,” said Williams to Dakolias. “Actually, don’t. We might get some good footage. When he walks through the door, people are going to go fucking crazy. No warning.”

Murphy grinned.

“I like it,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone I said that.”

Dakolias smiled.

“Got it.”

Fifteen minutes later, the doors at the back of the ballroom suddenly opened. A swarm of uniformed police officers entered the ballroom. They scanned the room briefly as the crowd became louder and a sense of excitement took over.

Bright halogen lights suddenly burst on atop the elevated TV platform. All news cameras swiveled toward the back of the room, aiming their cameras at Blake. The on-air reporters jolted to life. Bianca de la Garza, like the other half dozen, quickly stood up, popped a communications bud in her ear, then waited for her cameraman to move away from the crowd to her. The press platform became abruptly frenetic, as reporters stood before cameras that started rolling, each reporter speaking directly to the camera, telling viewers that it looked like Nick Blake had finally arrived.

A moment later, behind the swarm of policemen, a tall, brown-haired man stepped into the ballroom. He looked over at Williams, Stackler, O’Grady, and Dakolias, barely nodding. The crowd at the back of the room seemed to all move their heads at approximately the same moment, as if on cue. It was a ripple effect as the first few people saw the governor, then those beside them felt it, then the reaction to Blake arriving seemed to catch wind and move across the crowd. Someone in the crowd began to clap and soon the room responded. Flashbulbs popped as people snapped photographs of Blake—and then the big ballroom erupted in wild cheers, clapping, and shouts.

Nick Blake’s black hair was slightly long and parted in the middle. A smile crossed his face. He was handsome, boyish-looking at forty-four. He wore dark pants and a blue button-down shirt, the sleeves of which were rolled up to his elbows. His tie was gone. Blake was a big man. He towered within the backlit frame of the door as he looked calmly around the room. He stepped forward into the crowd, hands out, and began shaking hands as he made his way toward the front of the ballroom. Blake moved slowly through the crowd, which was now pushing toward him, seeking to touch him, get a closer view of him, meet the man every political pundit in America was talking about.

The reaction to Governor Nick Blake’s entrance was astounding. It didn’t seem to matter that he hadn’t thrown his hat in the ring. He was rapidly becoming the Democrats’ great hope for taking back 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His policies as governor of Florida showed an independent streak and willingness to break party orthodoxy in order to accomplish his goals. For the Republican White House, Blake was scary because he was outflanking the president on issues usually considered weaknesses for Democrats. He was tough on immigration, a military and foreign policy hawk, and a fierce believer in less government and fewer taxes. What he was most known for, however, was what he’d done in Florida about crime in the state’s cities. Blake was at the forefront of the battle against organized crime, which, as a former prosecutor, he knew was the gasoline behind the engine of urban decay, violence, drugs, and poverty. In Miami, Tallahassee, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Daytona, Tampa, and every other major Florida city, Blake had pushed state and local law enforcement to go hard against the organizations responsible for most of the violence, drugs, and other illicit activities in the cities. Blake had taken on the Russian mob in the streets and alleys that were the group’s home base.

The result was a candidate who could not only hold the Democratic base, but who could outflank President Dellenbaugh on the sort of red-meat domestic security issues that Republicans traditionally owned. He was, at least according to some, tougher on crime than the president. In a general election, it meant Blake would strip Dellenbaugh of millions of votes from blue-collar Republicans and conservative independents.

Even more dangerous for the White House, Blake was young and charismatic. And while no one could ever rival J. P. Dellenbaugh’s populist political skills, Blake was a blazing character who was setting the political world on fire.

The din in the ballroom was at a crescendo as the clapping and cheers continued.

“On in three, two, one,” said the voice in her ear from a studio back in New York City. “You’re live.”

“This is Bianca de la Garza with CBS Evening News. We are live in Des Moines, Iowa, where in just five short months the people of this state will hold the first-in-the-nation caucuses that will play a big part in determining who the Democratic Party will nominate to face a very popular J. P. Dellenbaugh. What you’re watching is the arrival of Florida governor Nick Blake, a forty-four-year-old graduate of Ohio State, University of Chicago Law School, a former U.S. Army Ranger, and federal prosecutor. You are watching the arrival live, in Iowa tonight, of the man who some say could be the dark horse candidate to beat President Dellenbaugh. This standing-room-only crowd of Iowans has been waiting nearly three hours to get a glimpse of a man credited with decimating the Russian mafia in Florida, a tough-on-crime chief executive with a fiery speaking style.”

Away from the TV riser, across the now excited crowd, bright spotlights suddenly lit up the stage. A short, roundish man in an ill-fitting brown suit moved behind the dais and took the microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Mark Helmke and I’m the Polk County chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. Thank you all for being so gosh darn patient tonight. I know you all have jobs to get up for in the morning, so let me get tonight’s main event up here, how’s that? Without further ado, it is my pleasure to introduce tonight’s guest speaker.”

Helmke, short, bald, glistening in sweat, looked up at the crowd, trying to pinpoint his guest, who was still pushing his way through the crowd toward the stage.

“Our guest tonight is a graduate of Ohio State University, where he was a wide receiver for the Buckeyes. After graduation, he joined the army and served as a U.S. Ranger. He did four tours of duty in Afghanistan and earned a Purple Heart when an IED blew up next to the vehicle he was traveling in. He nearly lost his life. After his recovery, he went to law school at the University of Chicago, then went to work as a federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Florida, becoming U.S. attorney when he was thirty-six.”

Blake made his way to the front of the crowd, then ascended the stairs to the stage, waving to the crowd. A huge roar came from the crowd as he walked across the stage to the dais, where Bolduc continued to speak.

“Three years ago, our guest was elected governor of the state of Florida, where he’s built a reputation as a problem solver, an independent thinker, but mostly, as a tough son of a bitch on crime.”

The crowd let out another crescendo of cheers.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming an American patriot, a good Democrat, a friend of Iowa, Governor Nick Blake!”

Blake shook Helmke’s hand as cheering and clapping continued to drown out everything else. He stood behind the dais, smiling and waving to the crowd. He didn’t wait for the crowd to stop.

“Thank you, Mark,” said Blake, his voice gravelly and confident. “And thank you, Iowa.”

At the word Iowa, the cheering started again.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming out tonight. I know you all waited almost three hours. I’m not sure I would’ve.”

Laughter burst from the crowd.

Blake paused. He lifted the microphone and moved out from behind the dais.

“I’m going to tell you something you should probably know about me,” said Blake, combing his free hand back through his thick brown hair. “I voted for J. P. Dellenbaugh.”

The crowd grew silent. There were even a few low groans of disapproval.

“I’m not a politician,” said Blake. “I’m a leader, and if I agree with you, if I think you’re doing a good job, I’ll praise you, vote for you, ask you for advice. Leaders don’t find solutions based on which political party came up with the idea. Yeah, I voted for J. P. Dellenbaugh because I thought he was doing a good job, plain and simple. But somewhere along the line, J. P. Dellenbaugh went soft on crime, soft on urban violence, soft on organized crime!”

Wild cheers and applause spontaneously erupted. It exploded across the room and lasted for more than half a minute.

“Drugs. Murder. Violence. Brought to you by the Russian mafia. I’ve seen it firsthand and I fight it every day. Russian organized crime is the plague of our American cities. You know why I worry less about the Mexican cartels and the Italian mafia? Because the Russians are taking care of them for us. Heroin, fentanyl, human trafficking, murder, and mayhem. It’s the greatest threat America faces, because it’s here. It’s right down the street, in Miami, in Des Moines, or it’s coming. Without peace in our cities, there can never be opportunity for our children, for our future, for the pursuit of happiness that is the birthright of every American!”

From the front of the room, a pair of high schoolers suddenly began a low, steady chant.

“Nick Blake! Nick Blake! Nick Blake!”

Cheering grew louder, the chant reached a rowdy crescendo, and Blake acknowledged it by pausing and moving across the stage, waving to each part of the room.

Near the back of the ballroom, a man with short gray hair turned and pushed his way slowly and politely through the crowd. No one noticed him. When he reached the back of the ballroom, he went to one of the large double doors that were now closed. He pushed the door slowly and quietly until it was open, then, with his foot, put the doorstop down so that it would remain open. He looked through the lobby of the hotel and out one of the large windows near the entrance. A white Chevy Suburban was parked across the street, its windows tinted black.


Copyright © 2019 by Ben Coes