The whole truth, p.7
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       The Whole Truth, p.7

         Part #1 of A. Shaw series by David Baldacci
 

  He drove a knee right into the boy’s privates, something that had been done to him here, more than once. The older boy whimpered and instantly fell limp under him.

  He found the air to scream, “Mudder… is… not… dead!”

  Then the claws gripped hard and he let go and like a bent, rusty nail in an old fencepost he finally came free and fell to the floor, panting, bleeding. But not crying.

  He had never cried again. Not once.

  CHAPTER 18

  SHAW SAT UP IN BED. He smelled his adult sweat, tasted it too as it trickled into his mouth. He rose, opened the window of his hotel room, and let the cool Edinburgh air sweep away the terror of a six-year-old boy.

  His room at the Balmoral looked out onto Princes Street, a grand thoroughfare of shops, pubs, and restaurants. On a high hill to his right lay the imposing footprint of Edinburgh Castle that would dwarf Malahide if they’d been set side by side. The Palace of Holyroodhouse anchored the other edge of the city and was the official summer residence of the British royal family.

  Must be nice, Shaw thought, to have an official residence.

  “Mudder,” he said in a low voice. He hadn’t experienced the pain of that nightmare in nearly a year. He thought it was gone forever. As with many important things in his life, he’d been wrong.

  He’d been thrown out of the orphanage the next day despite the old nun’s impassioned pleas to allow him to stay. The other boy, a bulky lad of twelve, had been severely injured by the young Shaw. Some had wanted to call in the police. Yet how could one hold a six-year-old criminally liable? Shaw remembered terms like malicious intent, willful assault. He hadn’t known what they meant. But he did know that he wanted to kill the other boy. Kill the other boy so he would hurt as much as Shaw did.

  In the end it was determined that a child who couldn’t even pronounce the word “mother” properly because he’d never really had one could not be charged with a crime.

  Sister Mary Agnes Maria, what a truly beautiful name that had been. They all called her Sister MAM, which Shaw had translated to MOM. She was as close to a mother as he would ever get in life. He’d never had another.

  He hadn’t called himself A Shaw because he was a Shaw. It was because of the orphanage. Painted on the wall over the bed of the boy who slept opposite his was the letter “A.” It was not just randomly there; not the beginnings of an alphabet train. It had once been part of a word, but the “M,” “E,” and “N” had been worn away over time, and poor busy Sister Mary Agnes Maria had never had the time or apparently the paint to put the M-E-N back into AMEN.

  Shaw wasn’t sorry about that. He would look at the letter and imagine the long vertical lines of the “A” softening to form the rounded face of his mother. The horizontal slash connecting the two long lines would curl into a smile on his mother’s face, because she was so happy to see him. She had come back for him. They would leave together. They would leave right now. The “A” was his friend. It held so many good possibilities. And then the sun would rise and vanquish them all. Ever since then Shaw had enjoyed the night far more than the day. He would always be a person of the night now.

  The years had passed swiftly with a quick succession of orphanages, none of them with a Sister Mary Agnes Maria. Then came foster homes, and other facilities for children who, while not technically criminal, were so close to the line that no one wanted the problem. That was every day of his life until Shaw the boy became, at age eighteen, Shaw the man.

  By then he could clearly say “mother” but had not a single reason to do so.

  He shut the window and sat on the bed. The man on the high-speed ferry from Dublin had connected with him. They’d gone to the open boat doors at the stern. With the wind and the engines covering their conversation he’d told Shaw the first phase of what he needed to know. As he was leaving the man had stared back at Shaw, his expression clear. If you survive this, it’ll be a miracle.

  On the express train from Wales to London, Shaw had stared out the window, alternately taking in the sea vistas and the views of the Cambrian Mountains, shutting out the desultory conversations from the passengers around him. There was nothing normal about his world, and he felt it nearly impossible to relate to anything outside his own sphere.

  Except for Anna. She was his first and only connection to the rest of humanity.

  On the overnight train to Scotland he was visited again, in his sleeper compartment, this time by a woman. She was young, but looked old. She was physically attractive but her spirit seemed to be gone. She was a vessel only. People like Frank had torn her soul right out so they could fill it up with what they wanted. In a monotone she told him the second phase of what he needed to know. Nothing was ever written down, so he memorized every detail. If he made one slip he was dead. It was that simple.

  He rose, dressed, and looked once more at the book Anna had inscribed for him.

  Love without trust is nothing.

  She’d be asleep. He called anyway. Surprisingly, she answered on the second ring.

  “I hoped it might be you,” she said, her voice wide awake. “How was the trip?”

  “I read the inscription.”

  She said nothing.

  He swallowed hard. “I want to trust you. I do trust you. I told you what I did. Do you realize how hard that was for me?”

  “Yes, but there are obviously things you can’t tell me.”

  “There are,” he admitted.

  “So after we’re married, you will go away without a word and show up without one either?”

  “I’m retiring. I told you. And I have a desk job.”

  “Don’t insult my intelligence with tales of luggage falling from aircraft bins. And people behind a desk don’t go to castles without bothering to take a tour. Or take the time to travel by ferry from Ireland to Scotland. Was it to meet someone?”

  Her words stung him. “You followed me?”

  “Of course I did. I’m planning on marrying you. And I hate that I have to even think of following you, much less do it.” Her voice shook and he heard a small sob. Shaw wanted to reach across the phone line and hold her, tell her everything would be okay. Yet he had lied to her enough.

  He found his own voice. “There’s still time to back out, Anna. You said yes, you can also say no. I’ll understand.”

  Her tone became harsh. “I don’t like that you would understand. You should not understand. The same for me if you walked away. I would not understand.”

  “I love you. I will make this work. I will.”

  He thought he heard another sob escape her lips and his guilt increased.

  She said, “And how you will make this all work, you can’t tell me?”

  “No,” he admitted. “I can’t.”

  “Where do you go after Scotland?”

  “Heidelberg.”

  “My parents live about an hour from there. In a small village called Wisbach, near the town of Karlsruhe. They run a bookshop, the only one in Wisbach. Go to see them. Their names are Wolfgang and Natascha. They are good people. Kind people. I wanted you to meet them before now, but you were always too busy.”

  He hadn’t always been too busy, Shaw knew. He’d been too afraid.

  “You want me to see them without you?”

  “Yes. Ask my father for my hand in marriage. If he says yes, we will be married. If you still want to.”

  This request stunned him. “Anna, I-”

  She rushed on, “If you think it is worth it, you will go. I will tell them you are coming. If you do not go, then I will have my answer.”

  The line went dead. Shaw slowly put down the phone and looked at the blotting paper on the desk where he had written the name Anna Fischer over and over, driving the letters hard into the thin surface. He tore the paper up, left the Balmoral, and walked down Princes Street, past all the closed shops. Two hours later he was still wandering through the ancient Scottish capital as the sun started to creep up, illuminating the aged stone bridges and cas
ting shadows behind which Shaw could imagine every single one of his nightmares. And he had more than most.

  He would go to see her parents at the bookshop in Wisbach. He would ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage.

  Yes, he would do all that. If he was still alive.

  “Where’s Mudder?” he whispered to the semidarkness as he walked back to the Balmoral to prepare for what might be his last few hours on earth.

  CHAPTER 19

  THE HIGH-RISE ALONG the dulles High-Tech Corridor was mostly dark. One firm, Pender amp; Associates, owned the entire building, having paid eight figures in cash to buy an office tower smack in the middle of some of the priciest dirt in the country. And even though it was called Pender amp; Associates, the firm was run by one man, its founder, Richard “Dick” Pender.

  He possessed a face that was as chiseled, a grin that was as toothy, and hair that was as perfectly primped as any gospel-spouting televangelist. He had the silky smooth delivery of a trial lawyer in his polished prime. And he would continue to smile while the knife he held repeatedly connected with your spine.

  His motto was simple: Why waste time trying to discover the truth, when you can so easily create it?

  Pender’s line of work was called perception management. PM firms, as they are known, were paid to establish what was true or not, all over the globe. Some traditional lobbying firms considered themselves to be PM firms but they really weren’t. There were only a very few pure PM players and Pender amp; Associates was one of the best in the world.

  Dick Pender could bury any secret, despite the attempts of the press to ferret it out. He had also, on occasion, started or enhanced wars based on certain truths. And when people started poking around, he had hidden those reasons under such bewildering layers of facts, figures, and falsehoods that no one could ever reach them. Yet mostly he was retained to create the truth.

  He was paid enormous amounts of money to do this, both from government and private sources all over the world. For his clients, creating the truth was critical because real truth was too unpredictable. Created truth was controllable. And thus the difference between the real and the created was the difference between a bomb and an A-bomb in its effectiveness.

  Pender had a special visitor coming tonight. The private elevator took his guest up to the top floor. A door was opened, and Nicolas Creel, wearing a black-hooded coat, was ushered into a room that was dominated by a large one-way glass window allowing the defense contracting magnate to see into the high-tech, digitized war room of Pender amp; Associates.

  Pender sat down next to him. “I trust the flight was good, Mr. Creel.”

  “I have no idea. I slept the whole way.”

  “Someone mentioned to me that you’d cracked the top fifteen on the Forbes List.”

  “That’s right,” Creel acknowledged in a clearly disinterested tone.

  “Eighteen billion dollars?” Pender estimated.

  “Actually twenty-one.”

  “Congratulations.”

  “For what? When I passed my first billion, what did it really matter? It’s not as though another twenty billion has greatly altered my lifestyle. Let’s hear the report.”

  Pender pointed to the one-way glass where dozens of people were working hard. “We’ve devoted our entire war room to the effort. Thirty people, hundreds of computers, enormous databases, and an Internet pipeline that rivals anything Google has.”

  “And you’re absolutely certain there can be no trace back here?”

  “We took the most extraordinary security measures, including stealing the electronic identity of hundreds of Web sites and Internet portals. So if someone tries to trace it back to its origin the electronic tunnel will lead them directly to, say, the official Vatican Web site, or the Red Cross site. We also included our own site in the mix along with several of our competitors.”

  “So if someone does track it back to you, you can just claim identity theft?”

  “Why try to hide the needle in the haystack, when you can just make lots of needles?” Pender replied smugly.

  “Your people?”

  “Extremely well paid and dedicated to me. They have no idea of your, um, interest in this matter. Not that they would care, actually. We do not employ conscience here. We do not worry about the consequences of our work. That’s for the client to do.”

  “Refreshing attitude. And the initial impact has been all that we hoped it would be.”

  “A bit more sophisticated than stories about brutal foreign invaders tearing desert babies from incubators in order to make certain countries enter a war,” Pender said quietly, but with a superior smile. “But then you picked well, Mr. Creel. All we had to do was get the ball rolling and everyone jumped on.”

  “The Bear is an easy target. Where’d you get the thousands of Russian dead?”

  “Basically Photoshop stuff cranked up several levels. But we worked in some real victims that we got from old KGB files we bought years ago. You have five authentic dead bodies everyone assumes the other thirty-two thousand are legit as well.”

  “Prescient of you.”

  “That’s my business. I can visualize the aneurysm slowly building in President Gorshkov’s brain. Let me see, we’ve had the ‘gripper’ strategy, then the ‘Vesuvius’ tactic.” He gestured at Creel. “You’re arranging for the leak. Correct?”

  “Yes. But forward to me anything that comes across your desk that looks promising. I’ll follow it up from there.”

  “Not that your motivation concerns me in the least, but I did read that Ares has missed its quarterly projections four times in a row now.”

  “Tip of the iceberg. We’re positively hemorrhaging money. I was convinced Iraq was the beginning of Armageddon in the Middle East and we ramped up for it. But a few months of shock and awe was followed by a years-long pissing contest using basically popguns. I didn’t build a $150 billion company to have my people sling potato salad in Anbar for soldier boys. It was a monumental cock-up and the responsibility rests with me. But I’ll get us out of it. That’s why I hired you. I have my people to take care of.”

  “Of course you do,” Pender agreed demurely. “And we have celebrity interest too. They’ll throw on a ‘Remember Konstantin’ T-shirt which we’ll provide, plug their new movie, raise a fist to ‘Free Russia.’ And maybe even go to Washington and get star-screwed by assorted politicians.”

  “Any problem areas?”

  “Three.” Pender checked his computer screen. “There will be 148 feature stories running on the Red Menace across the globe in the next week or so. All but two follow our take to the letter. One in Spain. One in New York. The fellow in Spain is particularly tenacious, but he’s also been working for two years on a scandal involving the royal family. Tomorrow he will receive documents that will rekindle his interest in that story.”

  “And the fellow in New York?”

  “His wife has suspected for some time now that her husband is being unfaithful to her. Tomorrow she will also get a present that will show her instincts were right. That will take her hubby out of the game completely. Divorces can be so messy and time-consuming. I speak from experience, unfortunately.”

  “You just had these things lying around?”

  “I have files on virtually every journalist worth a damn. We collect secrets, craft half-lies, and anonymously release those items when it best serves our clients.”

  “You said there were three problem areas?”

  “Senator here in the States who fancies himself an expert on Russian affairs. Word is he plans to call for hearings on the matter using a very skeptical prism.”

  “What are you going to do about it?”

  “Next time he steps into a public men’s room we’re going to Larry Craig him.”

  “So Senator Craig was set up?”

  “Who knows? Who cares? But it’ll take this senator right off our backs.”

  “And what do you call that tactic?”

  “The ‘I’m
screwed’ maneuver,” Pender said smiling.

  “An apt name.”

  “I actually prefer a more subtle approach where the target doesn’t event realize what’s happened. You recall reporters were embedded with troops in Iraq?”

  “So they could see the war firsthand?”

  “No, so they could be told the story only from the point of view of the Pentagon. That was my idea, and every general and administration official involved has personally come here and kissed my ass for coming up with it.”

  “You know your field well, Dick.”

  “I learned from the best.”

  “Where was that?”

  “I started out in the White House Press Office.”

 
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