World Without End
NIGHT FALLS FAST
Stephen Conway sits alone in the cold, semidark office that is full of the sound of heavy rain drilling into the window so hard he wonders if the glass will shatter. He has no idea why he has been summoned here.
He worked late into the night installing the audio bugs inside a working laser-rifle prototype, the only one in existence, and then went to bed, thinking his work was done. The phone call came a few hours later, at the ungodly hour of 4:00 A.M." the caller on the other end giving him the address and telling him to hook it over here quick, no explanation, and hung up. As Conway waits, he guzzles coffee from a large paper cup. Sweat rolls down his back, gathering under the arms of his dark-blue shirt, his head pounding, his eyes puffy and bloodshot from being torn from sleep. He needs to stay awake and alert.
Something is going down.
The door to the office bursts open and in walks the imposing figure of Raymond Bouchard, Section Chief, CIA Special Operations. He is widely known for being the type of guy you call when you need to get a job done quick and clean, no fingerprints, no mess. The man is a legend in CIA operations circles. He inspires loyalty, is fiercely protective of his people, and is extremely picky in his selection of Gold Team members, those operatives who are on the outside, working in the line of fire. Conway's time in special operations has been spent on the technical side. This is Conway's first one-on-one meeting with the man.
Despite the early hour, the man's eyes are bright and free of fatigue; his gray hair is perfectly combed, his black suit and modern monochrome tie and-shirt combination give him a stylish, contemporary edge not usually seen within the Agency.
Bouchard is not here on CIA business at least, not in the official sense of the word. This meeting, this operation and its players do not exist.
Unofficially, their group is called the Information Warfare Analysis Center, or IWAC. Raymond Bouchard is Team Leader for this top-secret unit of select people that deals strictly with technology proliferation and, when needed, steals technology from other countries that could pose a threat to the national security of the United States. The IWAC group works on the fringes of the law, using whatever means necessary to combat potential terrorists. Its members cannot be traced back to the CIA and cannot depend on the Agency to bail them out if caught or captured.
Raymond Bouchard sits down at the head of the table, crosses his legs as he opens up a folder on his lap, and then looks up at Conway over his bifocals. As always, Bouchard's face is still, his eyes expressionless, the way a bear studies you to determine not only who and what you are, but if you pose a threat. The effect is unsettling, as if he is staring through you and finding nothing of merit.
"Chris Haug had a heart attack three hours ago," Bouchard says.
An IWAC operative, the forty-six-year-old Chris Haug is the man responsible for establishing a relationship with Armand. Armand and his group all of whom are known to the IWAC team after months of surveillance have been trying to purchase a blinding laser rifle that is being developed by a New York company. For the past eight months, Haug has been posing as Mr. Paul Elliot, a vice president of the company who is looking to sell the only working prototype of the rifle to Armand. Haug was to bring the case containing the weapon to Armand this morning. In less than two hours.
"Haug's listed in critical condition. Needless to say, he won't be there to make the exchange," Bouchard says.
"You worked as Hang's assistant. Armand has met you."
"Twice, only in passing."
"I want you to be the one to give Armand the weapon and close the deal."
The words hang in the cold air, the void filled with the pounding rain.
Cars and taxis race up New York's Madison Avenue, the world outside dark and wet.
"All I need you to do is carry the case into the house, give it to Armand, let him inspect the weapon and answer any questions he may have," Bouchard says.
"Take the money and leave. The other team members will take it from there. Can you do that?"
"Yes." Steve Comvay is twenty-nine, ambitious, and hungry for recognition.
"Now listen to me: Armand is itching to test this weapon out. Don't let him test it on you. The battery pack remains in the car. If he doesn't want to deal, then walk out of there. Don't try to be clever and don't lie. You know what happened to the last guy who tried to lie his way out of a situation."
Conway is all too familiar with the story about the man from Armand's inner circle, the man named Mitchell, who tried to line up a side deal with another buyer for the laser rifle. Armand found out about it and personally performed and videotaped the torture session that lasted over a twenty-four-hour period. Conway recalls the autopsy pictures of the guy forced to put his hand inside a garbage disposal unit.
"You don't think Haug's absence is going to make Armand suspicious?"
"Armand's suspicious of everything. If Armand wants to know why Haug Elliot isn't there, tell him the truth. If he doubts you, have him call the hospital and ask for Room 226. You've got nothing to hide.
"Pasha will be listening to you through your watch." Bouchard points with two fingers to Conway's diver's watch. The watch's depth sensor is actually a sophisticated microphone that allows the IWAC team to overhear conversations.
"If the deal goes sour if Pasha even thinks you're in danger, she'll move her Hazard Team in. The car's waiting for you downstairs. The driver will fill you in on the rest. Any questions?"
"Good. Get going."
Inside the back of the limo is a dark navy-blue Armani suit, white shirt, a tie, and black shoes. While Conway changes, the driver, an IWAC member who has been working closely with Chris Haug, gives Conway the script: Be confident; act as if you belong there; don't let Armand or his asshole assistants try to intimidate you; if he does, give it back to him, show him you're equals, that with one phone call you can fuck up his world.
Conway asks a few questions, then the talking stops and they are driving across the rain-whipped highway, Conway alone with his thoughts in the back seat, listening to the windshield-wiper blades working overtime. An hour later, when the limo pulls up to a sad white ranch house with chipped paint in White Plains, New York, Conway has immersed himself in his character.
The driver, holding an umbrella, opens the back door. The lawn is covered with colorful leaves; it is early fall and the days are still warm. A black, beat-up Honda Accord sits in the driveway. Conway grabs the bulky black case that holds the laser rifle, steps out of the limo, and, grabbing the umbrella from the driver, walks up the cracked concrete -walkway, steps onto the porch, and rings the doorbell.
The man who opens the door is Blake Mattenson, Armand's computer expert. Blake, wearing a gray muscle shirt under a black suit jacket, is a pretty boy with pouty lips and the soft, feminine eyes of a doe.
His thick, shoulder-length brown hair is pushed back over his scalp and falls over to one side like a girl's. On the surveillance tapes Conway has watched him inject steroids into his ass and then work out in his home gym wearing nothing but his Calvin Klein knit boxers, surrounded by mirrors, admiring himself as he works his muscles. If the guy put the same effort into his computer work, he might have found the sniffer program that monitored and tracked Armand's every e-mail.
"Mr. Mattenson, my name is " "David Klein, Elliot's assistant, yeah, I know who you are." Blake, annoyed, looks out at the limo and says,
"Mr. Elliot suffered a heart attack early this morning." Conway's voice is strong and firm.
"He's in critical condition, but stable."
Pretty Boy Blake tilts his head to the side and eyes the case, his lips at full pout, and Conway gets a glimpse of the shoulder holster with the nine millimeter under the suit jacket. Blake is mulling over the situation. Con-way thinks the meeting is about to get canceled when Blake jerks his head toward the inside of the house. Conway enters.
The ceilings are low, the rooms small and packed with old furniture and a worn, tan carpet that smells of mildew and wet dog. Blake opens a door and Conway follows him down the stairs and walks into a basement littered with stacked boxes, Christmas decorations, and the kind of discarded junk that belongs in a dump.
A table with a banker's lamp has been set up near the hot-water heater and furnace. Sitting in a chair in the drowsy yellow light is Armand, late fifties, balding, with a dark-brown mustache and beard that matches his dingy brown suit. His brown eyes stalk Conway.
Conway puts the case on the table. Blake pats Conway down for a weapon, Armand sitting there, his gaze still, unblinking. The man is small but compact and wears High Karate cologne the only guy left in the world who owns the stuff which only intensifies his body odor. His comical appearance is disarming, but Armand's people are too familiar with his violent, unpredictable mood swings that can, like a tornado, wreak havoc at a moment's notice.
Blake explains the situation to Armand. Conway doesn't wait for an invitation; he reaches over the table, unlocks the case, and flips the top open.
Lying inside the case's sculpted foam is a bulky weapon that looks like a movie prop from one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator movies. The laser rifle can cause a brief period of blindness or, at it's highest setting, can burst the capillaries in the eyes and cause permanent and irreversible blindness.
"Where's the battery pack?" Armand asks in broken English.
"You hand me the money, I transfer it into the case, and then I give you the battery pack and schematics so you can start production,"
"That's how it works."
"How do I know this works? It could be a toy."
"You've seen the test results."
"On video. But I haven't seen it used on a real person. This could be a fake."
"Are you suggesting that my boss is trying to cheat you?"
"Go outside and bring me back the battery pack. I want to test it now."
"What did you say?"
"Mr. Elliot's instructions were very specific. You know how the deal is supposed to go down, so stop trying to jerk me around."
"You stupid " "If you don't like it, I walk out of here with the weapon. Now, do you want to complete the deal or not?"
Armand's face is red. The air feels warm, too close with Armand's body odor and cheap cologne and the smell of the rain on his clothes. Behind the man is a door leading out into the backyard. Through the panes of glass inside the door Conway can see mud puddles dancing with raindrops.
Armand places the rifle back inside the foam, shuts the box, locks it.
Then he reaches down for something on the floor. Blake moves a step closer to the table. Pretty Boy is grinning, acting tough and cocky the way all juice heads do, thinking that muscles and size win the fight. Conway is glad for the close proximity; it will make his job easier if he has to take the guy down or, better yet, use him as a shield.
Conway, his face neutral, watches as Armand's hand comes up. Con-way's body is tense, ready to react.
Armand is holding a green L.L. Bean duffel bag. He places it on the table, unzips it. The bag is full of one hundred dollar bills.
"It's all there," Armand says.
"I trust you."
Armand reaches inside the bag and comes back with a nine-millimeter Clock, raises the weapon to Conivay and pulls the trigger.
The round slams into Conway's left shoulder, right above his heart, the intended target, and Conway is hurled back against the concrete wall, knocking over boxes and falling backward until the floor breaks his fall.
Blake grabs the case and runs up the stairs. Armand should have left with him. He should have taken the money and bolted out the back door.
Instead he walks over to Conway. Armand's deeply tanned face glows in the pale light, his face a blank stare, his eyes so far, far away.
Conway writhes on the floor, his right hand grabbing the wound, his shoulder a throbbing mess of pain and blood; he can feel it pouring through his fingers and spurting on his chin and dropping on his face like red rain. He's losing blood fast.
Armand gets down on one knee and places the gun in the center of Con-way's head and clicks back the hammer. This close Conway knows how to disarm Armand an easy kenpo maneuver. But he can't move. He feels weak and light-headed and it triggers a memory from his childhood: himself at age ten, lying in a fetal position on the freshly mowed grass in the backyard of his foster parents' house with two broken ribs, every breath being drawn into the lungs like air laced with acid.