Changing of the guard, p.27
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       Changing of the Guard, p.27

           Tom Clancy
 
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  Quantico, Virginia

  Howard was cleaning out his temporary desk. The situation with Cox was effectively over, as far as Net Force was concerned. Jay was still doggedly trying to decode the file, and searching high and low for anything else that might swing the decision to back off in the other direction, but Howard knew a done deal when he heard one.

  Sometimes you won, sometimes you lost. That was how it went. Losing this one, however—not only his last one with Net Force, but one with such a personal element, too—was going to be hard.

  He looked up and saw Abe standing in the doorway.

  “They are covering their tracks,” Abe said.

  Howard said, “Yeah?”

  “Natadze’s house just blew up. Pretty much leveled the sucker.”

  “Really?”

  “Our surveillance people have been long gone, but the local police are investigating it. First reports say it was probably natural gas, but I wouldn’t bet on it being an accident. Soon as the arson boys check it, I’m betting they find evidence of a trigger, even if it was a gas leak.”

  Howard shook his head. “I don’t suppose Natadze was in the place when it went up?”

  “No signs of a body. I’ll keep you posted, if you want.”

  “I’d appreciate it, Abe.”

  “You looking forward to the new job?”

  “Yes and no. It’ll pay better. My wife will sleep easier. But it probably won’t be as much fun.”

  “Anytime you want to come back and do a ride-along, let me know. You’ll always be welcome”

  “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

  Abe left, and Howard finished his packing. He was going to miss this, no question. But better-paid and safer had their appeal.

  37

  Washington, D.C.

  It had been dark for hours, and the neighborhood was quiet. Natadze’s stomach churned and sent bile into his throat as he approached what was left of his house, slipping from shadow to shadow in the night, moving with great caution.

  He had driven past once earlier in the rental car, and what he had seen had twisted his bowels and thrust a shard of icy fear into his soul. His house was gone.

  He had one hope. The safe.

  The gun safe—a Liberty Presidential model with Quad-fire protection—had been in the basement. If it had just been a fire, he wouldn’t have worried as much. The salesman had shown him pictures of a safe like his that had been in a building that burned to the ground, and the contents, which included valuable documents, had not even been singed.

  He’d had to hire a crew to take out part of the house’s wall in order to install the safe, a massive, hollowed-out chunk of insulated steel that weighed fifteen hundred pounds. Natadze had the interior of the box redesigned so that he could squeeze five standard-size guitars into it, with room left over for his Korth revolvers. He always kept the Friedrich locked away when he was gone, as well as his Hauser; others, he rotated in and out. Currently, there was an Oribe, a Ruck, and a Byers in it. Less than a third of his collection.

  The room in the basement in which the safe had stood was insulated and humidity controlled, with an automatic fire-retardant system that used carbon dioxide. The other guitars had been in their cases in that locked room, and, under normal circumstances, relatively protected. But when he finally arrived, having walked there from three streets over where he had parked his car, he knew there was no hope for anything outside the safe. The entire house was gone, save for part of the chimney, and the basement was hollowed-out and black. Even in the dark, he could see that.

  Most of his collection of fine instruments—among them, an Elliott, a White, a Schramm, a Spross, and the new Bogdanovich, were gone. Blasted to splinters, burned to ashes.

  It was like a hammer blow to his heart.

  It was not the money. He could buy new ones, maybe even better than the ones he’d had, but there would never be others exactly like them. Those instruments had been unique, each with its own special voice, and those voices were now stilled forever. Murdered—because it had not been an accident. Somebody had blown up his house and the precious instruments in it. Somebody. And who knew it was his house? Who stood to profit if he were to be killed in an explosion?

  This was not how the authorities did things in the United States. They would confiscate the house and what was in it, sell it all, make a profit. Not blow it up.

  It made him want to cry.

  Natadze stood in the shadows for half an hour, watching. It was late, there was yellow police tape strung, but no sign that anybody was there waiting for him. What would be the point in watching a burned-out house?

  After he was sure he was alone, he moved stealthily, and climbed down into the rubble that had been his home.

  The natural gas main had been in the basement. The force of the initial explosion had knocked the safe onto its side, hinge down. The paint had been burned off, but there was enough left of the steel dial to work. He used his tiny flashlight to look at the numbers as he input them.

  The safe was designed to protect the contents against temperatures over fifteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit, according to the tests he had been shown, keeping the condition inside well below the flash point of paper for more than half an hour at extreme external temperatures. A normal house fire would never reach that. While it might get hot enough inside to damage the finishes, which was bad, there were partitions between each instrument so that falling over shouldn’t bang them together. Only the Byers, which was up top and angled, was likely to move about much.

  But—how much concussive force might have been transmitted into the safe? An explosion powerful enough to blow away most of a house and to knock a fifteen-hundred-pound safe onto its side was not a small matter.

  His mouth dry with fear, he finished the combination and retracted the bolts. He nearly wrenched his shoulder lowering the door to the floor. He found he was holding his breath as he shined the light into the box. . . .

  The Friedrich was in the middle, next to the Hauser. He took the Friedrich out first, and a great sense of relief washed over him. It was okay! The finish was smooth, unblemished. He carefully replaced it, removed the Hauser, and it, too, was undamaged!

  The Ruck was whole! The Torres!

  The Byers, topmost, had some damage. The side of the guitar nearest the safe’s wall had been partially cooked. The finish had bubbled up, and there were small cracks in it. They didn’t seem to go into the wood of the bout itself, which meant that it could be repaired.

  Thank you, God. And thank you, Liberty Safe and Security.

  He put the Byers back into the safe, shut the door with some effort, and spun the dial. He would go and get his car, return, and collect his precious instruments. His condo in New York did not have a sufficient floor-strength rating to install a safe this large, but there were places where he could store the guitars until he could find a new house that could. A fireproof vault in a high-class storage company that specialized in rare valuables, antiques, furs, like that, would serve.

  As he hurried to collect his automobile and return, the sense of fear and worry he’d had was replaced by one of rage.

  Why had he done it? What had been the point? He would have known Natadze wasn’t there. Why destroy the house?

  And the only thing that came to mind was something Cox had said after his meeting with the head of Net Force at that party:

  Clean up everything, neat and tidy, and don’t leave any trash lying about. Nothing.

  Trash? A man who would destroy a room full of fine guitars for no other reason than to be certain there was nothing incriminating in that room? Such a man deserved punishment beyond measure.

  38

  New York City

  Cox, on his stair-stepper, with a few minutes left to go on the timer, smiled at the memory of the phone call he’d gotten an hour earlier.

  He hadn’t laughed when his lawyers told him about the government’s tentative and careful approach, though he had felt like laug
hing. The government wanted to make him an offer, to spare the country the trauma of a trial. . . .

  Cox had played high-stakes poker with some of the best. It had taken him all of two seconds to realize that they didn’t have squat and were trying to bluff him. He hadn’t thought they’d try this, frankly, and it was maybe not so surprising—if you couldn’t get the whole loaf, or even half of it, you might settle for a few crumbs.

  Not that he was going to give them even that much.

  He had already put his spin docs into play, to scotch the rumors that would certainly show their faces eventually. The war on terrorism wasn’t going as well as it should, the Middle East was still an unhealed wound, the country was on the edge of a recession, and in its desperation, the current administration was looking for high-profile targets it could attack. They needed a victory, anything they could flack into looking impressive, and the little people did love to see a rich and powerful man brought low. The spin docs would lay this out, and it would be the government who came off looking bad—not a man who had just given ten million dollars to various charities, and who employed so many people in so many good jobs.

  The fed didn’t have the weight, and Samuel Walker Cox was not a man to flinch if somebody yelled “Boo!”

  “Tell them we are not the least bit interested,” he’d told his lawyers. “Make it very clear to them that this is not a negotiating ploy, not an opening gambit. This is the end-game. Make sure that they know they have already lost.”

  That would piss them off, but—so what? They didn’t have the cards, and if somebody called your bluff, you lost the pot.

  The private scrambled line lit, and Cox picked it up. “Hello?”

  “My house has been blown up,” Eduard said.

  “That’s terrible.” A beat: “We shouldn’t speak of such things, even on a secure line.”

  “Who would do such a thing?”

  “Why ask me? I don’t know. An old enemy?”

  “My old enemies are no longer among the living.”

  “It is just a house, my friend. We’ll get you a new one.”

  There was silence. Then, “Yes, you are right. Forgive me for bothering you with this.”

  Somebody had destroyed Eduard’s house? Who? Why? Perhaps it had been an accident?

  He looked at the timer. Only a minute left. A house was nothing. He could buy Eduard fifty houses, he could sleep in a different one each week for a year, if he wanted.

  Cox hit the stop button on the timer, letting his feet slow to a stop. Someone had blown up Eduard’s house? Who? Why? And more importantly, how?

  Cox hadn’t done it himself. He knew that. And he knew that Net Force would never be able to do such a thing. Which meant someone else knew about Eduard, and that just shouldn’t be possible.

  “This is serious,” he said. “Go to ground. Give me time to look into this. Then we’ll talk.”

  “Yes,” Eduard said, and disconnected.

  Cox resumed his exercise. There was only a minute left on the timer, but his thoughts were no longer on the stair-stepper, nor his total victory over Net Force. This was unexpected, and unexpected was always bad.

  Natadze sat in the clean car, staring though the windshield at a bus that had stopped to disgorge passengers. Cox had reacted as though he knew nothing about the explosion, but Natadze was no longer fooled. There had been nothing in Natadze’s house to link him to Cox, nothing. But a man that rich had different ideas about property, about the value of things. His only passion was in playing his business games. It was all about the deal for him. Money, possessions, they were just ways to keep score, to show that he was winning. Had Natadze mentioned his destroyed instrument collection, Cox would undoubtedly have offered to buy him news ones. A man like Cox would never understand that there were some things money couldn’t buy. Perhaps it was time for him to learn that.

  Natadze felt a great sadness underlying his anger. He remembered a fortune cookie he’d gotten at a Chinese restaurant, in England, of all places, years before. The fortune had said, “Minimize expectations to avoid being disappointed.” That had been in line with his beliefs, and he had kept the slip of paper as a reminder. It was even now in his wallet. But he had come to trust Cox, to expect certain things from him. That had been his mistake. You could depend on no one in the world except for yourself. Sad, but true.

  The bus pulled away from the curb, and Natadze followed it. There were things he had to do. Best he get to them.

  39

  Net Force HQ

  Quantico, Virginia

  Thorn sat at his desk, wondering if his decision to leave business and get into government service had been wise. His first major case had turned into a convoluted knot that Alexander the Great couldn’t cut. Things were easier in the corporate world. Yes, there were political problems, but the bottom line was more important, and when you were the boss, you could solve a lot of situations by simply willing it so.

  He sighed. He had known it would be a challenge, but not that it would be so frustrating.

  His phone chirped. He picked it up. He would have to watch himself, he might take somebody’s head off, the way he felt.

  “Thorn,” he said.

  “Commander? This is Watkins, Main Gate Security.”

  Thorn looked at the guard’s image on the intercom screen. “Yes?”

  “We have a man out here asking for you, says it’s a personal matter. His name is, ah, Dennis McManus.”

  It took a second for the name to register. McManus? Here?

  “The thing is, sir, he’s carrying a big case full of weird stuff, and part of it is—”

  “—a sword,” Thorn finished.

  “Yes, sir. Are you expecting him? He’s not on the call list.”

  How silly was this? The guy just shows up at the gate? Carrying his fencing gear? Expecting Thorn to let him in and square off in some sort of duel of honor?

  Thorn thought about it for a moment. Another day, a different time, he would have had the guard shoo the guy away. But the man had picked the wrong time to call. “Yes, I forgot to add him. Give him a visitor’s tag, have somebody escort him to the waiting room outside my office.”

  After he shut the com off, Thorn realized that his heart was beating pretty fast. He knew why McManus was here: More than two decades, and he had come for a rematch! The guy must be missing a couple of screws.

  Or maybe not. This business with the Russians and the rich man and even Marissa had shown Thorn he wasn’t nearly as in control as he liked to be. That there were all kinds of things beyond his ability to make dance as he wanted them to dance. But, by God, he still knew how to wield a sword.

  Maybe it wasn’t crazy. Maybe this was exactly what he needed, too.

  Thorn stood, and rolled his shoulders, loosening them. His own practice gear was in the gym down the hall. This guy wanted to play? Fine. Win, lose, or draw, this was something Thorn felt comfortable doing, and it would be one-on-one, nobody else to blame if he couldn’t deal with it. And that was exactly how he liked it.

  “Bring it on, buddy,” he said softly, as he headed for the office door.

  Thorn didn’t smile as he met McManus. He dismissed the escort.

  “Gym is this way,” he said.

  McManus didn’t smile, either. Then again, he didn’t seem surprised that Thorn would have his own gear here at work. A man might stop practicing, but once you were a serious fencer, you never completely put it away. On some level, it colored your thoughts forever. All the fencing buddies Thorn had kept in touch with who had competed in college still kept their blades, and while most of them didn’t fence in tournaments anymore, all of them still trained. That Thorn still checked into the newsgroups on-line would be enough to tell McManus that he had kept up at least that much interest.

  Once a swordsman, always a swordsman.

  McManus followed him down the hall to the gym, and neither of them spoke. This time of the afternoon, the place was empty, which was fine by Thorn.
Without a word, he went to get his gear, as McManus began unpacking his own.

  When Thorn returned, he found McManus whipping his épée back and forth to loosen his arm and wrist. He had laid out his mask, plastron, and jacket, but had not put any of them on.

  The button on the blade’s tip was in place. At least the guy hadn’t filed it sharp or anything, so he wasn’t planning on it being a death match.

  McManus caught the look. He extended the blade at chest-level toward Thorn. “You can check it, if you want. I don’t want to hurt you, Thorn, just beat you. That director gave you the match I should have won. I could have been champion except for that.”

  Thorn shook his head. A true champion would have eaten the loss and worked harder to maintain his composure. A champion would have attacked his weakness and made them strengths. A champion would have kept training and practicing until he won. McManus wasn’t in that class.

  “You’ll see,” McManus said. He reached for his mask.

  But that wasn’t what Thorn wanted. More importantly, right at this moment, that wasn’t what Thorn needed.

  “Here’s an idea,” Thorn said. “Leave the jacket and mask on the bench. We fence as though this were a real duel—not to first blood, but to the death. The first real touch, one that would have been a serious or fatal injury if the swords were sharp, wins. No flicks, no whip-overs, no gamesmanship taps on the arm. We use the blades as if they were real.”

  McManus hesitated. He frowned.

  “What’s the matter, Rapier? Leave your guts at home?”

  McManus gritted his teeth. His jaw muscles flexed and bulged.

  “You challenged me, pal,” Thorn said. “Would you rather just pack it up and leave?”

  “No!”

  Thorn offered the tip of his épée, to show the button was firmly affixed. McManus touched it, tested the tightness.

  “You could cheat,” the man said. “Pretend that a touch wasn’t valid.”

 
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