torm warnings were out across the South China Sea. The typhoon sweeping toward the Philippines was a severe one, expected to deliver apocalyptic winds and torrential downpours when it made landfall.
After a peaceful day, the winds in Manila were picking up this evening. The fronds on the palm trees on the hotel grounds whipped back and forth as Ben Gardner stood on the balcony of his room watching them.
He shouldn't be standing out here in the open like this, he told himself. It was too risky. But the lights in the room were off, so he wasn't silhouetted against them, and besides, nobody in Manila wanted to kill him . . . that he knew of.
Gardner was a compactly built man in his thirties with close-cropped dark hair. His passport gave his name as Benjamin Gardner, and that was as good a name as any, even though it was a lie. The documents he carried stated that he worked for a company called Trans-Pacific Shipping, but that was a useful lie as well.
The phone in his shirt pocket buzzed. Gardner frowned. He wasn't expecting a call. This stopover in Manila wasn't exactly a vacation, but he'd thought he was between assignments for a few days.
He took the phone out, opened it, and said, “Hello?”
The voice was smooth, the English unaccented, but the years Gardner had spent in the region allowed him to make an instinctive guess that it was Chinese. He didn't recognize it at all and wasn't going to give away anything until he knew more.
“My name is Pao Ling. Geoffrey Ramsden gave me your number.”
Gardner stiffened. He said, “I hope you're talking on a secure line, friend.”
“I am, as are you. I have reached the correct Benjamin Gardner, have I not? The one who works for Trans-Pacific Shipping?”
In Gardner's line of work, a man often had to make swift decisions in order to survive. In the past, he had trusted Geoff Ramsden with his life on more than one occasion. Now he would do so again.
“That's right. We haven't met, have we, Mr. Pao?”
“No, but our mutual friend speaks highly of you. He suggested that I look you up when I came to Manila the next time, and so I have done so. I am downstairs in the lobby. Shall we meet and have a drink?”
Gardner's brain worked lightning fast. Ramsden wouldn't have known that he was in Manila unless he'd gotten the information from Company headquarters back in Langley, and even though Ramsden was as highly placed in MI6 as Gardner was in the Company, nobody in Virginia would have passed along Gardner's location unless Ramsden had convinced them it was urgent.
Gardner dismissed the idea that somebody was trying to lure him into the open for an assassination attempt. He was confident that none of their common enemies could break Ramsden. The big Englishman was too stubborn for that.
“All right, I'll be down in a few minutes,” Gardner said into the phone. “How will I know you?”
“I'll know you, Mr. Gardner,” Pao said.
Well, that wasn't too reassuring, Gardner thought as he broke the connection. But he was curious, and there was only one way to find out what was going on here.
When he was working, he relied on local contacts for armament, so he didn't have any guns. He carried several extremely sharp knives, though, made out of hardened plastic so they wouldn't set off metal detectors and hidden around his body so they'd be handy.
Those and his own abilities would have to be enough if he was walking into trouble.
He left his room and got onto the elevator. A very attractive Filipino woman was already in the car and gave him a dazzling smile when he entered. Gardner nodded and returned the smile but didn't say anything to her.
He watched her from the corner of his eye as the car descended, though, just in case she wasn't what she appeared to be, which was an expensive prostitute on her way out of the hotel after meeting a client. High-class hotels equaled high-class hookers.
As the car reached the first floor and the door slid open, the woman turned to Gardner and held out a business card in slender fingers with long painted fingernails.
“My website,” she said. “I hope you will visit it and call me if you require companionship.”
“Thanks,” he told her. He slipped the card into his breast pocket and followed her out of the car.
The hotel was one of Manila's best, opulent and quiet. Gardner walked out into the lobby and paused, giving Pao Ling a chance to spot him. A moment later, Gardner saw a Chinese man in his fifties walking toward him.
The man was several inches shorter than Gardner, and his habit of stooping slightly made him appear even shorter. His gray hair was cut in an old-fashioned crew cut. Lines of strain were etched into his face. He looked like a man beset by pain or worriesâor both.
“Mr. Gardner,” he said as he came up to the American. “I am so very happy to make your acquaintance.”
happy, Gardner thought.
“The same as always,” Pao said. “You know how he misses Englandânot, as you Americans would say.”
For a split second, alarm bells had gone off in Gardner's brain. Geoff Ramsden didn't miss England at all. He was too restless by nature, too addicted to danger and excitement to ever go back to a stifling life at home. Adding the qualifier, though, as Pao had, made Gardner think the man really did know Ramsden.
“Shall we have a drink?” Pao said as he inclined his head toward the French doors that led to an outdoor bar.
“Sure, why not,” Gardner said.
As the two men went outside, Gardner heard the buzz of excited conversation from the people crowded around the tables. All the talk was of the typhoon. Soon everyone would have to go back inside as the hotel battened down the hatches, so to speak, and got ready to ride out the storm.
An air of desperation and urgency hung over the outdoor bar. The drinkers wanted to get in as much partying as they could before all hell broke loose.
“Beer?” Gardner asked Pao. The man shrugged, so Gardner said, “Two San Migs,” to the bartender and took the squat, icy bottles from him. Condensation dripped from them.
There were no empty tables, but Gardner spotted a stone bench under one of the palms and nodded toward it.
They sat down, and Gardner handed one of the San Miguels to Pao. He swallowed some of his own beer and said, “We didn't really come out here to drink, did we?”
Pao didn't touch his beer. He shook his head and said, “No. My body will no longer tolerate alcohol. I am ill, Mr. Gardner. Cancer. I have a month, if I am fortunate. And luck has never run in my family.”
“I'm sorry,” Gardner said quietly. “What can I do for you?”
Casually, Pao rested his free hand on the bench between them for a moment, and when he lifted it, a tiny USB drive lay there, a little metal rectangle half an inch wide by three quarters of an inch long, with a thin plastic rim around one end so it could be removed from a computer port.
“There is information on there someone must know,” Pao said, “information vital to your country.” His lined face twisted in a grimace. “Though I betray my own homeland by giving it to you. Some things transcend borders, however. This is a matter of humanity, not nations.”
“Why me?” Gardner asked. He hadn't picked up the drive yet.
“Because I am told you are not a creature of politics.” Pao smiled faintly. “Because Ramsden said you would do what was right, and screw bloody all else.”
That brought a chuckle from Gardner. Pao knew Geoff Ramsden, all right.
“I'll do what I can,” Gardner said. “Iâ”
He stopped short and lifted his head. At first he thought what he heard was the wind picking up even more, but then he recognized the sound. He had heard it before, in other countries.
That was a drone, and it was headed in his direction.
Pao gasped something in Mandarin. Gardner knew enough of the language to understand that Pao had said, “They have found me!”
That couldn't be good.
“Get out of here, now!” Pao said in English.
“Too late! Too late for us all . . .”
Gardner dropped the beer and grabbed the USB drive. He surged to his feet and yelled, “Get out! Everybody move!”
In a world conditioned to a constant low level of fear and preparedness because of terrorist attacks, people reacted quickly. With screams and shouts, the crowd in the outdoor bar began to scatter. Most of them headed for the doors into the hotel, but Gardner went the other way, sprinting toward a low stone wall that enclosed the adjacent garden.
As he ran, from the corner of his eye he picked up a red streak flashing through the air toward the building. He glanced back, saw Pao sitting there on the stone bench in that last instant, the untouched bottle of beer beside him, hands folded in his lap as he waited almost serenely to die.
The missile fired from the drone homed in on him and struck, and man and bench disappeared in a blinding flash as Gardner put his hand on the stone wall and vaulted over it. The blast's concussion wave slapped him to the ground like a giant flyswatter. A ball of flame blossomed from the site of the explosion, swallowing the outdoor bar.
The roar was so loud it was several minutes before people in the area began to be able to hear anything again. When they could, the first things they heard were screams....
One of the Secret Service agents put his finger on the earplug he wore and pushed it a little tighter into his ear to shut out some of the noise from the state dinner going on. As he listened to the voice on the radio, his normally expressionless face took on a slightly grim cast, but that was the only way he betrayed his reaction to the news.
After a moment, the agent moved to the side of the President, who was flanked on one side by a dignitary from a country in the Middle East regarded by the administration as an ally, despite the fact that its ruling family quietly funneled millions of dollars in funding to organizations whose goal was the complete and utter destruction of Western culture and the domination of the world by their religion.
On the President's other side was an Academy Awardâwinning film director whose big-budget movies tended to blame America for everything bad that happened in the world, past, present, and future.
The Secret Service agent leaned down to whisper in the President's ear. The President sat up straighter, murmured, “Is this confirmed?”
“Yes, sir,” the agent said.
“How many casualties?”
“Unknown at this time. A minimum of fifty. And extensive destruction to the hotel and surrounding buildings.”
“Has any group stepped forward to claim credit?”
“Not so far.”
With a frown creasing his forehead, the President considered for a moment and then slowly nodded.
“Well,” he said, “I suppose it could have been worse.”
Secretly, he was pleased. He couldn't allow that to show, of course. As the leader of the free world, he had to maintain an appearance of grave concern and resolve every time there was a terrorist attack.
Things had gone according to plan, though, and now he could stop worrying about this problem, anyway.
“So, tell me,” he said with a smile as he turned to the Hollywood director, “what's your next project going to be about?”
The TV was playing quietly in the living room, but George Washington Brannock wasn't paying much attention to it.
Nothin' on it but bad news anyway, he thought. Some special report about a terrorist attack somewhere on the other side of the world. One of the various bunches of lunatics who seemed to be everywhere these days had fired a missile into a hotel and killed a bunch of folks.
Brannock was sorry for what had happened in the Philippines, but like most people he had gotten a little numb to such things.
Seemed like over the past thirty or forty years, the world had gotten crazier and more dangerous all the time, until it barely resembled the place he had grown up in. That wasn't just being a reactionary curmudgeon, either. It was the truth.
Carrying a longneck, he stepped out onto the ranch house's back porch and gazed toward the mountains in the distance, even though he couldn't see them in the dark.
He stood a couple of inches over six feet, was barrel-chested and a little thicker through the waist than he'd been forty years earlier as a young man, and his eyes were surrounded by the permanent squint lines of a man who spent most of his time outdoors. He was a Texan, born, bred, and forever, and didn't care who knew it.
He lifted the longneck to his mouth and took a long swallow, finishing off the beer that was still in the bottle. He set the empty on the porch rail and then leaned on the railing himself.
Something had drawn him out here tonight, and he didn't know what it was.
Then lightning flickered in the distance, jagged fingers of blue-white brilliance clawing at the sky. The flash revealed the saw-toothed mountain peaks that marked the border of Brannock's sprawling ranch.
That was it, he thought. That was what his instincts had sensed.
There was a storm comin'.