Thorns in the Rosebushes
Chapter 21 Shiva’s Messenger
Thorns in the Rosebushes
“I’ve never seen anyone so casual about making an armed assault on a well-guarded president.” As Carl Eckert emerged from his lavatory routines, he found the young assassin had partially rearranged the furniture to facilitate his maximum sloughing comfort in a chair, with his legs on the bed. The Messenger’s one hand held the remote control unit now slightly modified with a spare part from the aircraft model kit: his finger idly spun a propeller set with the antenna as an axle, as he watched the window and the TV.
“How many of us have you observed in action?” The casual boy asked but he expected no reply and continued with that thought. “I read of a guy that applied for a research grant to study why fifty percent of female instructors at a particular campus married students. After the funding was in hand, the one of only two female teachers answered his study question. Because I loved him.”
“Don’t be smart—Alex.” Carl dried his hair and contemplated how in the last 50 hours they had watched as several times the Secret Service personnel had combed the street. Specialists had used explosive and metal sensors to sweep the environs. Welders also came by to tack down the manhole covers. It was almost as watching TV but it was occurring outside the window. The only part where reality had even come close to his fantasies of a dark sinister ploy unfolding happened at 3 AM on the night preceding Larry’s arrival.
“It’s time.” Alex had noted that almost exactly when it was anticipated, the vehicle he was waiting for appeared around the corner. The greenhouse truck that the city contracted to plant and water the floral displays began to make its slow progress up the street. Instead of staying to watch, the two president hunters had hurried out the back hotel entrance and traversed the distance to the dark parking structure. Their stolen truck was swiftly decorated with magnetic logo signs and Eckert had slid into the driver seat.
With Alex in the truck bed seated on a wooden crate, Carl drove the pick-up slowly out onto the dim street. He paused at the entrance of the main road and looked to ensure that the real maintenance crew had finished and moved on. The chassis had groaned, as he urged the wheels up the 4-inch step of concrete. In the back, Alex made a pretense of watering the boxes. He copied the motions of the other unit, while Carl navigated the sidewalk.
“If someone witnesses this minor event happening twice, they may even discount the oddity as their own sense of déjà vu.” Carl had muttered as he stopped briefly beside the chosen lamppost but his internal confidence didn’t match his words. The vibrations he felt were from both the vehicles engine and his nervous twitching.
The rearview mirror showed Alex removing the flowerbox and replacing it with the special one he removed from the crate. The job now done, the driver went on again slowly. The gardeners in green coveralls eased off of the curb and vanished.
“It appears our predictions of his true route were correct.” Carl watched the room’s television as the moderate sized motorcade was seen on a local channel. This presidential visit was big news in the area and stations were providing continuous coverage. “The entourage is not as large as the one that arrived at the hotel.”
“Larry will be slipping out the back to his meeting, while press crews watch the other limo taking a scenic tour of Spokane.” Alex took his feet off the bed and redoubled his focus on the access point from the rear entry route. As predicted, soon a smaller motorcade could be seen. “What happened to James Bond?”
“Let’s not talk about that right now—here they come!” Carl’s hissing whisper showed his extreme nervousness.
“He was your pet. You must have done something about him.” Alex urged, as the stretched black sedan rounded the bend.
“We’re about to fire shots at the POTUS and you’re asking about the fate of a stinking rat?” Actually, expressing it in those terms made it much more fitting. “I’ll tell you later.”
“Tell me now or I won’t push the button.” Alex poised his finger tantalizingly over his RC remote. Larry Weeds, in Limousine One, slowed at the corner. “It’s nearly time, tick, tick, tick.”
“I sneaked back into my apartment after they assumed I was dead.” Carl excitedly spoke as fast as he had in the Oval Office. “I turned him loose in an alley, now hammer down!”
“Alright.” As a sportsman leading the flight of a Canada goose, Alex mentally added travel time to his action and then thumbed the control. A servomotor in the flowerbox spun and cinched a wire around the triggers of the three fully automatic rifles secured inside. The wooden side splintered and blew out as the first 7.62 mm NATO issue rounds fired. “Your pet is probably in a stray cat’s belly. It might’ve been kinder to just hammer down on his skull.”
“I couldn’t do that.” As Carl watched, a hinged bottom dropped out of the flowerbox. A rolled paper banner flapped to the ground, accompanied by a drum roll of the rifles emptying their clips.
“I could.” Alex’s words hung as tangible as two icicles.
President Weeds was relaxing in the limo’s back seat and reading some of his briefing notes when the first shots fired. Two rounds harmlessly passed in front but the driver had no time to react and the car continued into the line of fire. High velocity slugs raked the side of the car as it careened through the hail of copper-jacketed lead. Weeds doubled-up instinctively, but struck his lower lip with his knee and it split open against his teeth.
The trained chauffeur stepped on the accelerator to speed the POTUS swiftly out of danger. The passenger was thrown back by the momentum and cracked his ear solidly on the window frame. The impact was hard enough to draw blood there also. He howled in pain and grabbed at his injured head but also craned his face to the ambush. The unfurled banner hung in full sight.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” President Weeds bellowed with such an expulsion, that blood from his split lip sprayed onto the window.
Only one other person received injury. A motorcycle escort had been riding beside the limo and it took one of the rounds in the gas tank. The bike didn’t instantly explode, as it doubtlessly would have in a Hollywood movie but fuel did spill onto the hot engine where it was ignited by the spark. The rider obtained some minor burns on his leg before he could slow the bike enough to jump clear.
News reports flashed across the nation. Local police cordoned off the entire area and nothing was moved or touched, pending a full investigation by the FBI’s crime scene investigators. That left plenty of time for camera crews of almost every station to converge on the site. Everyone managed to get beautiful footage of the banner fluttering in the breeze.
Shiva’s Messenger says: Stryke Two.
“All you’ve really done is whacked a wasp’s nest with a stick.” Carl had almost expected Alex to pull a surprise like using armor piercing rounds. “Players risk deceptive gambits in chess games but at the end, both shake hands and walk away. Pulling one off in real life against the president’s Secret Service is almost surrealistic”
“When hornets are buzzing mad, you can stand back to watch their defense mechanisms. They also wear themselves out flying around when they find nothing to sting. An insignificant attack in Spokane has given our adversaries a lot more to think about and it’s made the job of protecting the president much more difficult.”
“So why the misspelling?” Though he was open about many other things, Shiva’s whelp was very quiet about his planning. Carl supposed he needed to gain his employer’s full trust over time. Now that the banner was in the public eye, it was a fair game question.
Alex smiled innocently but said nothing while he watched the road and drove away from the now perilous city of Spokane
“I know. If you tell me, then you’ll have to kill me.” Carl’s face scrunched up in mock thought. “I might die from the suspense of not knowing or expire from tedium while listening to newscasters presenting a wide array of ludicrous rationales, so go ahead.”
“I had to use something from your material, so you could qualify for the death penalty along with me.” Alex chuckled. Hamster Man must’ve been too busy playing convoluted mental scenarios of the upcoming mission and missed the obvious.
The file spotlighted a tight connection between the Weeds family and the Stryker Group. The misspelling vaguely alluded to them but that message was for only certain readers. Maybe a news pundit could also equate it to the more commonly known correlation between the current vice-president and the same corporate entity.
“Your generosity is outstripped only by your contemptibility.” Carl doubted that a capitol verdict could apply to an attack as non-lethal as paintballs aimed at a brick wall.
“It appears we’re the first on the scene.” Eldon Browning’s statement contrasted the anthill of law enforcement activity but his eyes were only seeing the absence of Shiva Task Force members. Driving from Creston, he and Beth had responded quicker than the ones flying in from either Washington D.C. or Ohio.
“This suggests,” Beth pointed to one bullet casing nestled amid the scattered, looking like a ‘not like the other ones’ child’s puzzle, “that he’s not quite as dead as rumored reports from the Akron cop’s gun indicated.”
“That won’t be proved until fingerprints are matched,” Browning offered, “but my traces of estrogen intuition tells me that this wasn’t just the work of a copycat.”
“I’ll bet my virtue we’ll know even before then.” Beth giggled at the very masculine looking older man’s unabashed admission of a female quality. “If Shiva’s Messenger did this, then person trails will drop off like an unbudgeted overpass.”
“Pay up girl and fork that cherry over.” Agent Browning held a palm out and wiggled his fingers like a virgin Beth’s chastity could be delivered into an outstretched hand. A paper in his other showed the fingerprint confirmation. They hadn’t found any persons of note to even track to a dead end.
“I don’t happen to have that with me. Will you accept a check?” Beth briefly thought back to how his joke on the words of her wager would’ve seemed deplorable at the journey’s outset, Eldon was just really amusing to be around.
Their investigative legwork hadn’t found a room occupied by an older man and a younger, under a fictional name. That certainly wasn’t an uncommon or noteworthy occurrence. By the time that detail gained attention from the swelling ranks of Task Force troop, any fingerprint evidence would be overwritten. However, the fastidious guests had wiped the touched surfaces even before the future tenants and chambermaids completed the obliteration.
“Do you need me for anything here? Eldon asked. “If not I’ll buzz back to Canada to drop off the rental and pick up our luggage.”
Beth answered by handing over her key card. The more urgent priority had involved heading south to Spokane instead of east from Creston to where they were lodged. Along the drive, Agent Withers had confided that the cleverly dodging young lawyer had stymied her further efforts in the small Canadian town.
“Here the only shots fired could have had no possible effect.” With her partner away, Beth fell back to her old habit of talking to herself. The only shooter was a set of hidden guns triggered remotely from a location, yet unknown. The attack in Akron was a very carefully orchestrated plan complete with a series of grisly murders aimed to draw off resources. This ambush was haphazard by comparison. “Any amateur could’ve pulled this Spokane one off but the proven professional from Akron did it.”
Other more experienced personnel had largely taken over and Beth slipped away to treat herself to an evening meal. She went to a Spokane outlet of the franchise fast food place Allen had taken her to in Akron and ordered the same entrée item. She found a table to munch thoughtfully.
“How do I figure out how to catch the chameleon assassin if he keeps changing his style—in everything?” Her chicken sandwich was delicious, as always. Several seats over, a man complained to his companion about how horrible his burger was. That was also a constant and if she went to any of the myriad of carbon copies of this restaurant across the country, the burger would be just as lousy. The man grumbling about a disgusting meal had probably had eaten many of the same unappealing offering at an identical link of the chain, in another place. He unrealistically expected an improved product only due to a different physical location.
“A chameleon is still a reptile.” At a basic level, the hamburger was still meat, just like a good one was at another restaurant. Bad analogy! This franchise might not actually use meat, but some animal byproduct instead. Even the filler might be ground up cow’s hoofs and horns, so that they could still claim ‘all-beef’. At that nauseating thought, Beth opened up her sandwich just to ensure she was eating actual chicken. It was meat, but was she certain it came from that bird? Even some reptile was purported to taste like chicken. Icky! Why did I just conjure up that mental image?
“Beth, think about something else.”
“Were you speaking to me?” A woman at the next table asked.
“Sorry, I was just talking out loud to myself.”
“Oh gorsh,” the woman brightened excitedly, “you’re that secret agent girl from Ohio. You’re in Warshington for the shooting.”
“My secret was whispered in too many ears so I’m FBI now.” Beth smiled at the colloquial pronunciations that were probably unique to this state. After chatting for a few minutes, the woman left with her brood of youngsters. When I have kids, I’ll feed them at a place where I’m positive of what the food is made out of.
“People like doing things they are comfortable with and have done before.” The woman said gorsh as her preferred statement of surprise and Beth always seemed to use variations of her secret quip. “What did Shiva’s Messenger do here that was the same?”
The banner with his name and cryptic message was similar to Akron. A single mismatched bullet casing deliberately left with a fingerprint was as before. Those were just signatures and they weren’t the key.
“What similarities weren’t left on purpose?” Including features of the Canadian jobs was brain straining, so Beth targeted her search on other correlation to Akron but found none. Everything here was as dissimilar as his killings in the week preceding the roof top assassinations had been.
“The difference was part of a pattern! Spokane wasn’t a hit on its own. This was simply a segment of a larger. It’s the diversion as the wife beaters were, to draw away resources.”
The clandestine meeting with the potential contributor had been cancelled and President Weeds was trundled back to his plane. A flight back to the capitol seemed atop towering thunderheads of the flurry of airwave bustle raging beneath. Air Force One was buffeted by turbulence created by hot air rising from the breath of a nation full of newscasters.
‘Yes, it had been Shiva, but no, they didn’t have him’. As the president sat ashen and silent, he mentally condensed Marty Rodman’s droning presentation down to one sentence.
Nick Taylor sat in on the briefing and as usual he asked the poignant questions. Everyone in Washington knew full well that Weeds was blunt and flew into rages but he had a short memory. The one person you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of was Nick Taylor. He was the steel fist wrapped in a velvet glove behind the presidency. The Chief of Staff might not have the authority to speak on behalf of the president but if Nick Taylor said something then soon Weeds would coincidentally have the idea as his own.
“The president was never in any real danger.” The Secretary of Homeland Security had tried several times to stress this point but Nick had deflected each attempt. “That limo is designed to even protect the occupant from high-explosive land mines and the armor could easily turn aside the small rounds.”
“That might be true but there was room in that concealment point to have a more devastating weapon in place of the three minor ones.” Since Marty hadn’t taken his hints to muzzle this point, Nick had no qualms about shoving the words back down his throat. “If Shiva’s Messenger had wanted to kill in Spokane, then your whitewashing of the real issue would have sounded much different. The plated vehicle would have turned aside small arms ammunition,” Nick mocked, “but unfortunately, the armor piercing high explosive round incinerated everyone inside the vehicle.”
Shaking his head sadly, Nick continued in his own voice. “The president was in grave danger because we let him down.”
“Yes we did.” Stinging from the rebuke, Marty backed down meekly and would answer further questions exactly as Nick wanted.
“After the incidents in Akron and Spokane, the only reason we have a living president is because the assassin hasn’t finished toying with him yet. However, now we have two incidents to study and we should be able to read his methods better. Is that correct?”
“Not really.” The Secretary of Homeland Security didn’t want to answer, but since it was Taylor asking, he felt compelled. Marty suddenly felt he should give his career a peck on the cheek. “Everything about the Spokane incident was different, so it actually widened the range of possible threats.”
Nick glanced over at the president and only he knew just how badly shaken his friend had been by the ordeal. With a hail of lead slugs striking metal right beside you, it’s difficult to remember that the car itself was bulletproof. Larry hadn’t even reconciled the past episode in Akron. Taylor recalled his friend’s recent words. ‘In one moment, I was shaking hands with a political ally and in the briefest of an instant later—there was a sudden lurch. My hand was in death’s grip and I was looking into the eyes of a corpse’.
“Nick,” Weeds looked up from his thoughts and caught the chief of staff on his own reverie. The entourage had filtered away leaving just him and his pal. After a long breath he began to speak slowly, “I’ve been thinking that maybe—”
“Don’t go there, Larry.” Nick very rarely used the president’s familiar name even though he was one of his best friends. He saved it for occasions when he really needed to impress a vital point. “They put you into the Oval Office and if you believe they can’t also take you out of it, then you’re dead wrong.”
“Maybe being wrong is better than being dead.”
“Yes, that’s possible. Still, that road isn’t without dangers also. Let’s consider carefully before deciding on that route.”
“I’ve been thinking about it all the way back.” Spokane had given Weeds second thoughts about drawing Shiva out. “What limited concessions could we make to appease the assassin?”
“I don’t believe someone that determined will be satisfied with a move that’s only a gesture. This guy has burned all his bridges to force you to make a decision in his favor. He has gone ‘all in’ on this hand: you have to either call the pot or fold.”
“It’s easy for you to make that analogy,” Larry had a rare moment of absolute clarity, “but my life is the ante.”
“I know. Just hold off on deciding anything for a few days. Stay at Camp David and relax. This has been harrowing for you.”
“No!” Larry suddenly snapped. “I’m clamped in a vice with no room to breath. Shiva’s Messenger is the jaw closing with each turn of the screw but Stryker is the other and he hasn’t given a fraction. That misspelling wasn’t the product of an under-funded education system. Rescind some appropriations we initiated as a lure and cut back on the ones already emplaced.”
“Bernard isn’t going to like that.” Nick sang the line like it was a nursery rhyme.
“He isn’t the one currently firing lead volleys with a scattergun. Stryker has an investment to protect but he isn’t. He can put some of his money where my skin is.” The tantrum was as short as some of his political stances were. It cooled to a confidence given to his buddy. “It was like I was in a hailstorm with ice the size of baseballs and a clattering tin pot was protecting my head.”
“I’ll get to work on your instructions.” Nick acquiesced but as per usual, with his own finishing touches. The difference between cuts and minor trims was subjective. Some also didn’t mean all.
“Get rid of the Secretary of Homeland Security.” The presidential ability to snip the umbilical cord of a career was seemingly the only untainted power Larry had left.
“If you see Marty again, it’ll be beside your gun cabinet with antlers stuffed into his ears.” Taylor picked up his notes from the conference table. “Get some sleep. I’ll come back out soon.”
Taylor left the office and later, the president caught the sound of him leaving by helicopter. Weeds didn’t take Nick’s advice about sleep. He couldn’t and he knew it. The incident at Spokane had triggered the return of his nightmares from Akron. Now they were worse and appeared to him even in his waking moments. He turned the television up, hoping it would drown out his thoughts.
“Shiva’s Messenger is playing games—first he said ‘Hi’ in Ohio with a game of tag but he didn’t touch the president so he’s still it. The next turn at bat was baseball in the State of Washington. The next could be chess and it will likely be Washington D.C. for the checkmate.” This latest attack didn’t have murder victims to grieve, so some of the coverage’s tone was actually upbeat and tending to almost cheer on the teasing assassin. The president changed the channel but not before the pundit scored a groin hit.
“Some have speculated the president’s false bravado since the shooting in Akron, may have spurred on this attack. Larry should’ve just taken his lumps and moved on to managing the nation.”
“I did ask for it.” Weeds spit at the reporter that couldn’t hear him and felt the urge to throw his glass at the set. “You won’t report what bravery it took to do that. You can only scoff.”
“I don’t want to die.” Larry tuned out the news. It had taken his valor to put on the cocky front, while his mind’s vision kept replaying the light going out of Tom Albertson’s eyes. He had been unable to move or wrench his gaze from his friend’s lifeless orbs, or release the hand locking his grip. Yet that wasn’t even the worst of Akron’s nightmares. Larry Weeds had looked at the girl.
The female agent’s eyes were young and alive. Suddenly, the president had felt Albertson’s dead orbs shift into his sockets. His were the lifeless ones that she was seeing. Larry Weeds had just seen how fragile life was and especially how breakable his was with the realization that he was mortal. His life of ease and privilege delayed that primary comprehension.
“I couldn’t award her medal. My death reflects in her eyes.” Larry hadn’t even regained any composure when another bullet had come so near to him that he could even feel the breath of the female agent’s pained shriek on his neck. In Akron, it had been that close.
“Instead of striking, the cobra reared back, hissed and flared its hood in warning.” The venomous viper spit again in Spokane. All the security that money and power could buy didn’t help against that kind of foe. Marty Rodman all but said they were useless.
Summoning the steward, President Larry Weeds ordered another bourbon. He gulped his drink from a shaking hand and slipped back into his melancholy.
“We’re going to go to Budapest first but even before that I need to smuggle you into Canada.” Alex mused aloud on the logistics. The safest place to get false documents was in Toronto but first they had to get there. Alex thoughtfully held his chin and studied the overweight Hamster Man. “Folding you into the trunk could prove difficult. I may have to sit on the lid to latch it.”
“I already have a passport.” Spy games were fun but Eckert balked at the prospect of an uncomfortable border crossing.
“The president may presume that you’re dead but taking a vacation as Carl Eckert would exhume the coffin.
“It’s sort of an identity theft one.” Carl sheepishly admitted and explained. “Fantasy gamers often buy a real sword or other item that suits the role-playing. It’s not for actual use but just to gain a real feel for the character.” Carl’s imaginative passion was espionage so he had motivation and a method. When the FBI becomes aware of a forger in the nation, they shut down the operation. The CIA just notes the potential resource for future reference and Eckert read the files. “I bought a really good one.”
“Hamster Man, you were really wasted in a cage.” The young assassin’s complement turned the blush to a beam. His plan shifted and his father’s advice fit yet again. ‘One can hide better than two’. “American’s don’t travel to Canada, just to pay more for a ticket.”
“I’ll take a bus to Chicago and fly to Budapest.”
“See you on the Danube.”
Nick Taylor viewed the landscape flowing under his helicopter, but his eyes were unfocused as the magnitude of his appointment precluded all other thoughts. After transferring to his car, he drove to the fashionable Adams Morgan restaurant district. It was early evening and establishments were already doing a brisk business, serving the rising young professionals that the power of the nation’s capitol drew like filings to a magnet. In one very upscale restaurant though, there was only one table occupied and the servers hid in the kitchen unless specifically summoned.
A small man with a fringe of white hair like a laurel wreath made of cotton batten sat on the rectangular table’s one side. Lon Clark was Vice-President of the United States. There were few people that he would demur a table’s head to, but his host for the meal was definitely one of them. In fact, the other guest was another and he was placed at the foot.
Lon was only a board member of the multi-national conglomerate that owned both halves of the presidential ticket, just as fully as they owned this restaurant. Bernard Stryker was the CEO, and on paper, he was the largest single shareholder. The sheik that was also here was the true largest stakeholder in the company. His holdings were scattered through such a morass of sub-entities that it would require the full time services of a Cray mainframe computer to sort it out. At this level of meeting, no one needed to see a sheaf of proxies to accept his authority, as second only to Bernard’s.
The three powerful men engaged in casual conversation while they waited for their final guest. The president’s Chief of Staff, Nick Taylor didn’t keep them waiting very long.
“I’m sure you know the vice-president but have you met Sheik Ghazi bin Omani?” Bernard offered a hand to the place reserved for the Chief of Staff. He didn’t waste any time waiting to hear Nick’s acknowledgment of the introductions but thrust directly to the point of the meeting. “How is the president’s state of mind?”
The sheer authority of Bernard Stryker was awe-inspiring. He could reduce most men to ruins equally with a snap of his fingers or with a withering look. With a full but immaculately trimmed beard, the Stryker CEO looked like King George V or Czar Nicholas II gone distinguished grey. His uncle had built Stryker Oil Services into a world leader and formed the Stryker Group. The nephew’s personal ruthlessness had enabled him to seize control, over his own elder brothers and his uncle’s heirs.
“President Weeds still hasn’t even come to grips with his ordeal in Akron and this latest attack sent him reeling.” Nick had steeled himself for this encounter but it was still unnerving. “He believes that scaling back will net him a reprieve from the assassin.”
“It will only buy him a new one.” Sheik bin Omani spoke slowly. The slight Oxford lilt of his accent didn’t conceal the ferocity that hovered underneath. He was a middle-aged Arab who continued to wear his head cloth and white flowing robe as a badge of authority, even when he was abroad.
“I had your assurance that his dearest friend could prop up his prudent decisions.” Stryker’s words were the power of Wagner’s ride of the Valkyrie set to voice. “Yet you have failed.”
“A second strike while I wasn’t with him was too much.” Weeds walked a balance beam and fell before I was ready to push him. Now Nick Taylor was on a piano wire but he controlled his own steps. “His decision was made before he arrived in Washington and there arrives a point where Larry Weeds is still the President of the United States and Nick Taylor is just his Chief of Staff.”
“I can send much nastier snakes than Shiva can.” Ghazi’s hiss even suggested that he was the serpent for the task.
“I could also have you killed in an excruciating manner,” Bernard Stryker glared across at the Arab, “but why won’t I?”
“My brothers and sons would avenge me.” The sheik’s retort stated defiance but his voice had backed down.
“Precisely.” Stryker’s tone was suddenly tranquil again. “There would be reprisals that would cost me some efforts to evade.”
Given time, I can convince Larry to read from the approved script again. Nick’s mind rehearsed a line but he held it in abeyance.
“Are you afraid of Shiva or his Messenger?” Bernard’s grim countenance landed heavily on the vice president.
“No.” Lon Clark’s response was an expulsion of conviction. Lon was older than President Weeds and his health wasn’t good. His body might not wait for the current president to finish his terms. For the chance to ascend to the highest office, Clark would sell his soul and happily die the day after inauguration. That sale would have to be on a second mortgage though, because his spirit was already an asset on the Stryker Group’s inventory.
“Your answer wouldn’t be so quick after meeting him once.” The CEO’s comment was wry but with a twinge of something else too foreign in him to recognize what it was. Stryker cast his mind back to a day long ago, when he had experienced terror. “You’ve only read Colonel Vassily Orestovich Antenenko’s dossier but I’ve been face to face with him.”
“Then I’d swallow my trepidation and do my duty.” Lon added.
“We should have gone with you as our candidate for president.” Bernard Stryker’s intense blue eyes circled the table as a precision watch with a second hand that moved in increments of a quarter minute. He captured and briefly held each diner’s eyes before moving on: Nick was the final tick. “Larry was younger and we felt he could have appeal. He has a good pedigree but it seems the sins of the father may be beyond the son’s reach.”
“It’s far too late to change our nominee and as you noted, there can be implications.” Ghazi’s voice was caustic as he thought about money spent that was yet to be capitalized on. “Taylor has proved inadequate but I can instruct Weeds in where his loyalties lie.”
“You obviously didn’t comprehend my implication so don’t quote me.” Stryker’s steel-grey eyes drilled into the Arab again.
“I offered to have him killed and you barked at me.” The Sheik was shaken. “Now, I’m in the wrong for suggesting a reeducation.”
“Then perhaps, you should just shut up and listen.” Bernard put his elbows on the table. He laced his fingers together at his chin and his thumbs idly stroked his beard. “Subtlety always earns a far greater reward than blunt actions.”
The Stryker CEO smiled at the three petrified faces and took four long satisfied breaths: it was as if he was inhaling the men’s fear as his favorite nourishment. Bernard already knew what the preferred course of action was but in his subtle way, he was maneuvering to have someone else suggest it.
“Subtlety is cleverly indirect.” Taylor took the high board plunge by quoting a dictionary definition: he hoped there was water in the pool underneath. As in death the life flashes before the eyes, Nick saw his but it was only the portion of it from the day he met young Larry Weeds, because this was the final death of a friendship. “The assassin’s success could be beneficial. Shiva alone would take the heat for it and in the aftermaths, portions of the file could show that Larry’s family was primarily responsible for Dallas too. All hands in the background would seem completely clean.”
“Shiva’s herbicide sprayer would eliminate our Weeds problem.” Bernard Stryker checked around the table looking for a dissenting expression. He noted that Lon Clark was observing the president’s Chief of Staff as if worried that Nick had another dagger for his back. “Shiva or his messenger will doubtlessly be capable of operating inside or outside the U.S. As history tends to repeat itself, I expect that a real assassination attempt will occur in the Ukrainian city of Kiev.” The CEO’s focus centered on Taylor. “Do what you can to make sure it’s allowed to happen but don’t make it obvious.”
“Yes, sir.” Nick’s normally stoic poker face displayed an etching of anticipation as he awaited the offer of the prize.
“If Weeds is killed, you’ll be the vice-president.” Bernard grinned. Soon-to-be-president Clark had just seen the slavering jowls poised ambitiously at his flank—and Stryker held the hyena’s leash.
Nick left the meeting after a meal that he barely tasted: the fresh blood had been served to the jackal before the food. Walking to his car, he drove a safe distance before retrieving the small recorder from his jacket pocket. Covertly taping a meeting at this level was a dangerous game. In this case, the payoff more than made up for the risks. The vice-presidency meant the top job too. Lon Clark’s health wouldn’t take him through a full term in office.
“I have a copy the results of his recent medicals.”
Taylor kissed the audiocassette before tucking it into his pocket. That would go into the ultra secure Chief of Staff’s office safe. H.R. Haldeman should have kept this type of get-out-of-jail-free card in that safe when he was Nixon’s Chief of Staff.