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Nicolas Creel is a man on a mission. He heads up the world’s largest defense contractor, The Ares Corporation. Dick Pender is the man Creel retains to “perception manage” his company to even more riches by manipulating international conflicts. But Creel may have an even grander plan in mind.
Shaw, a man with no first name and a truly unique past, has a different agenda. Reluctantly doing the bidding of a secret multi-national intelligence agency, he travels the globe to keep it safe and at peace.
Desperate to get back to the top of her profession, Katie James gets the break of a lifetime: the chance to interview the sole survivor of a massacre that has left every nation stunned.
In David Baldacci’s first international thriller, these characters face a catastrophic threat that could change the world as we know it.
Table of Contents
More David Baldacci
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AT PRECISELY ZERO HOURS UT, or midnight Universal Time, the image of the tortured man erupted onto the world's most popular Web site.
The first six words he spoke would be remembered forever by everyone who heard them.
"I am dead. I was murdered."
He was speaking Russian on the screen but at the bottom his tragic story was retold in virtually any language one desired with the press of a key. Secret Russian Federation police had beaten "confessions" of treason out of him and his family. He'd managed to escape and make this crude video.
Whoever held the camera had either been scared to death, drunk, or both, for the grainy film vibrated and shook every few seconds.
The man said if the video had been released that meant he'd been recaptured by government thugs and was already dead.
His crime? Simply wanting freedom.
"There are tens of thousands just like me," he told the world. "Their bones lie heavy on the frozen tundra of Siberia and in the deep waters of Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan. You will see evidence of this soon. There are others who will take up the fight now that I am gone."
He warned that while the world had focused on the Osama bin Ladens of the world for so long, the old evil, with a destructive force a million times greater than the combined Islamic renegades, was clearly back, and deadlier than ever.
"It is time the world knew the whole truth," he shouted at the camera, then broke down in tears.
"My name is Konstantin. My name was Konstantin," he corrected. "It is too late for me and my family. We are all dead now. My wife, my three children, all gone. Do not forget me, and why I died. Do not let my family perish in vain."
As the man's image and voice faded from view, a mushroom cloud lit up the screen, and superimposed on the bottom of this horrifying visual was the ominous tagline: First the Russian people, then the rest of the world. Can we afford to wait?
The production values were rudimentary, the special effects amateurish, but no one cared about that. Konstantin and his poor family had made the ultimate sacrifice so that the rest of the world would have a chance to live.
The first person to see the video, a computer programmer in Houston, was stunned. He e-mailed the file to a list of twenty friends on his share list. The next person to view it seconds later lived in France and suffered from insomnia. In tears, she sent it to fifty friends. The third viewer was from South Africa and was so incensed at what he'd seen that he phoned the BBC and then did an e-mail blast to eight hundred of his "closest" mates on the Web. A teenage girl in Norway watched the video in horror and then forwarded it to every person she knew. The next thousand people to view it lived in nineteen different countries and shared it with thirty friends each, and they with dozens each. What had started as a digital raindrop in the Internet ocean quickly exploded into a pixel-and-byte tsunami the size of a continent.
Like a spreading pandemic, the video ignited a maelstrom worldwide. From blog to blog, chat room to chat room, e-mail to e-mail, the story passed. With each retelling it grew in proportion until the globe was in apparent jeopardy of being overrun at any moment by crazy, bloodthirsty Russians. Within three days after Konstantin's sad proclamation, the world rang with his name. Soon half the earth's population, including many who had no idea who the U.S. president or the pope was, knew all about the dead Russian.
And from the e-mail, blog, and chat room circuits the story was picked up by newspapers on the outskirts of the mainstream. And then the likes of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and leading dailies around the world were sucked into the frenzy, if for no other reason than it was what everyone was talking about. From there, it hit the global TV circuit, with everyone from Channel One in Germany to the BBC to ABC News and CNN to government-run TV in China heralding a possible new doomsday era. And from there it became firmly planted in the world's collective mind, soul, and conscience, becoming the number one story to such an extent that there were no other stories anyone cared about.
The rallying cry of "Remember Konstantin" was heard on the lips of people on all seven continents.
The Russian government issued emphatic denials to all of it. Russian president Gorshkov even went on international television to denounce it as a complete and total lie and offered up what he called "slam dunk" evidence that no such person as Konstantin had ever even existed. Yet not many people believed him. Gorshkov was ex-KGB. From top to bottom, the Russian government was filled with fascist demons; journalists across the world had been informing people of that for years. It was just that up to this moment no one had really cared, because, well, it hadn't interfered with their lives. Now they had dead Konstantin and a mushroom cloud on the Internet telling them that it suddenly mattered very much.
There were certainly plenty of skeptical people out there who held serious doubts as to who and exactly what Konstantin and his video were actually supposed to represent. These same people would start to investigate the supposedly dead man and his story. Yet for many others they had heard and seen all they needed to unequivocally make up their minds.
But Russia and the rest of the world would never discover that Konstantin was actually a fledgling actor from Latvia, his "wounds," and "emaciation" the result of clever makeup and professional lighting. After shooting his piece he'd washed up, removed all elements of his disguise, and had a nice lunch at, of all places, the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street in New York, spending part of the $50,000 he'd been paid to do the shoot. Since he also spoke Spanish and possessed dark good looks and a chiseled body, his chief ambition now was to win a major role in a Latino soap opera.
Meanwhile, the world would never be the same.
NICOLAS CREEL LEISURELY FINISHED his Bombay Sapphire and tonic and put on his jacket. He was going for a walk. Actually, normal people went for walks. Billionaire corporate chieftains traveled high above the rabble. As he looked out the chopper window on the short ride across the Hudson to Jersey the skyscrapers below reminded him of how far he'd come. Creel had been born in West Texas, an area so big and barren with a seemingly endless flatness that it was said many who called it home were unaware there was any other place to live, or at least any way to get there.
Creel had spent exactly one year of his life in the Lone Star State before moving to the Philippines along with his army sergeant daddy. From there seven other countries had followed bang-bang-bang until Creel's father was deployed to Korea and promptly blown to ash in what the army later described as an unfortunate logistical snafu. His widowed mother had remarried, and, years later, college followed for Creel, where he earned an engineering degree. After that, he cobbled together enough funds for an MBA run, but petered out after six months, choosing instead to learn the ropes in the real world.
The one valuable lesson his soldier daddy had taught him was that the Pentagon purchased more weapons than anyone and overpaid for every single one of them. And even better, when you needed more profit, you just asked for it and they gave it to you. It wasn't their money, after all. And there was nothing easier to give away than someone else's cash, especially since America had the biggest piggy bank in the world. It seemed a damn fine business to be in, because as Creel quickly found out, one really could sell the U.S. military $12,000 toilets and $9,000 hammers and actually get away with it under a mountain of legal trickery and congressional hearing mumbo-jumbo.
Creel had spent the next several decades building what was now the largest defense conglomerate in the world, the Ares Corporation. According to Forbes magazine he was the fourteenth richest person on the planet with over twenty billion dollars to his name.
His late mother had been a native Greek with a fiery temper and fierce ambition he'd inherited along with her dark good looks. After Creel's father had been logistically snafued in Korea, she'd remarried to a man higher up the socioeconomic scale who'd shunted Creel off to boarding schools and not very good ones at that. While the sons of other wealthy men had everything handed to them, the outsider Creel endured their taunts and sweated and scraped for every nickel. Those experiences had given him armor for skin.
Naming his company after the Greek god of war was a tribute to the mother he'd loved above all others. And Creel was proud of what his company produced. The name stenciled on his four-hundred-foot motor yacht was Shiloh, one of the bloodiest battles in the American Civil War.
Though born on U.S. soil, Creel had never considered himself simply an American. Ares Corp. was based in the United States, but Creel was a citizen of the globe, having long ago renounced his U.S. citizenship. That suited his business well, for no country had a monopoly on war. Yet Creel spent as much time as he liked in the States because he had an army of lawyers and accountants who found every loophole in the stuttering linguistic morass called the U.S. tax code.
Creel had learned long ago that to protect his business he had to spread the wealth. Every major Ares weapon system contract was disseminated across all fifty states. His glossy, expensive ad campaigns touted that fact above all others.
"One thousand suppliers spread across America, keeping you safe," the Hollywood voice-over would proclaim in deeply resonant tones that made your skin tingle and your heart pound. It sounded very patriotic. It had actually been done for only one reason. Now if some bureaucrat tried to cut any of the pork, 535 members of Congress would rise up and strike the person dead for having the audacity to try and take jobs from their people. Creel had successfully implemented this same strategy in a dozen other countries as well. Just like war, the Americans did not have a monopoly on self-serving politicians.
Ares-built military jets flew over every major sporting event in the world, including the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the World Cup. How could you not get goose bumps when a tight formation of space age warships costing $150 million a pop came roaring overhead with enough firepower to easily take out every man, woman, and child in the place with a single strike? It was near poetic in its frightful majesty.
Ares's global marketing and lobbying budget was three billion dollars per year. For that mammoth sum there wasn't a major country with defense dollars to spend that didn't hear the message over and over again: We are strong. We stand by you. We keep you safe. We keep you free. We are the only thing standing between you and them. And the pictures were just as compelling: barbecues and parades, flags waving, children saluting as tanks rolled by and planes soared overhead, and grim-faced soldiers with black-smudged faces threading through hostile territory.
There was no country on earth that could withstand that sort of heart-pumping message, Creel had found. Well, perhaps the Germans, but that was about it.
The way the commercials were scripted it was like the mighty Ares Corporation was giving the weapons away out of patriotic fervor instead of eternally being over budget and behind schedule. Or convincing defense departments to buy expensive war toys that were never even used while ignoring the lesser-priced items, like body armor and night-vision goggles, that grunts on the ground actually relied on to survive. It had worked brilliantly for decades.
Yet things were changing. People, it seemed, were growing tired of war. The attendance at the enormous trade conventions Ares put on annually had fallen for five years in a row. Now Ares's marketing budget was bigger than its net income. That revealed only one truth: people weren't buying what Creel was selling.
So he was currently sitting in a nice room in a building owned by his company. The big man sitting opposite him was dressed in jeans and combat boots, looking like a grizzly bear minus the fur. His face was tanned and worn, with what looked like either a bullet crater or the mother of all measles pocks on one cheek. His shoulders were thick and his hands huge and somehow menacing.
Creel didn't shake hands.
"It's started," he said.
"I've seen comrade Konstantin." The man could not resist a smirk when he said this. "They should just award him the Oscar now."
"Sixty Minutes is doing a story on it this weekend. Along with every other newsmagazine. The idiot Gorshkov's making it easy on us."
"What about the incident?"
"You're the incident," Creel pointed out.
"It worked before without boots on the ground."
"I'm not interested in wars that stop at a hundred days or devolve into glorified gangland street fights. That doesn't even pay the light bill, Caesar."
"Give me the plan and I'll execute it, Mr. Creel, like always."
"Just be ready to go."
"It's your dime," said Caesar.
"You bet it is."
On the chopper ride back to the Ares Building, Creel eyed the city's concrete, glass, and steel temples below. You're not in West Texas anymore, Nick.
This, of course, wasn't just about money. Or saving his company. Creel had enough money and regardless of what he did or didn't do, Ares Corp. would survive. No, this was really about putting the world back into its proper structure. Things had been misaligned for long enough. Creel had grown weary of watching the weak and savage dictate to the strong and civilized. He was about to set things right. Some might claim he was playing God. Well, in a way he was. But even a benign god used violence and destruction to make his point. Creel intended to follow that model to the letter.
Initially there would be pain.
There would be loss.
There always was. Indeed, his own father had been a victim of keeping the spectrum of world power on a firm footing, so Creel quite clearly understood the level of sacrifice required. But in the end it would all be worth it.
He settled back in his seat.
The creator of Konstantin knew a little.
Caesar knew a little.
Only Nicolas Creel knew all.
As gods always did.
"WHAT'S THE 'A' STAND FOR?" the man asked in fluent English with a Dutch accent layered over it.
Shaw looked at the gentleman standing opposite him at Passport Control in Schiphol Airport fifteen kilometers southwest of Amsterdam. One of the busiest airports in the world, it rested five meters below sea level with trillions of tons of swirling water nearby. Shaw had always considered this the height of engineering daring. Yet much of the entire country was below sea level, so they didn't really have much of a choice on where to park the planes.
"Excuse me?" Shaw said, though he well knew what the man was referring to.
The fellow stabbed the photo page of Shaw's passport with his finger.
"There. Your given name is just the initial 'A'. What does it stand for?"
Shaw gazed at his passport while the Dutchman looked on.
As befitted the tallest nation on earth, the passport man in his regulation uniform was six foot two, only one inch above a Dutchman's average height, but still coming in three inches under Shaw's imposing stature.
"It doesn't stand for anything," Shaw answered. "My mother never gave me a Christian name, so I named myself for what I am. A Shaw. Because that is my surname, or at least it was my mother's."
"And your father had no objection to his son not taking his name?"
"You don't need a father to deliver a baby, only to make one."
"And the hospital did not name you, then?"
"Are all babies born in hospitals?" Shaw jabbed back with a smile.
The Dutchman stiffened and then his tone became less adversarial.
"So Shaw. Irish, as in George Bernard?"
The Dutch were a wonderfully informed people, Shaw had found. Well educated and curious, loved to debate. He'd never had anyone before ask him about George Bernard Shaw.
"Could be, but I'm Scottish. The Highlands. At least my ancestors came from there," he added quickly, since he was holding an American passport, one of a dozen he actually possessed. "I was born in Connecticut. Perhaps you've been there?"
The man said eagerly, "No. But I would like very much to travel to America."
Shaw had seen that lustful look before. "Well, the streets aren't really paved with gold and the women aren't all movie stars, but there's a lot to do and lots of room to do it in."
"Maybe one day," the passport man said wistfully before reassuming his duties. "Are you here on business or pleasure?"
"Both. Why come all this way and have to choose?"
The man chuckled. "Anything to declare?"
"Ik heb niets aan te geven."
"You speak Dutch?" he said in a surprised tone.
The man laughed and smacked Shaw's passport with an old-fashioned ink stamp instead of the high-tech devices some countries were using. These, Shaw had heard, implanted a digital tracking device on the paper. He'd always preferred ink to tracking devices.
"Enjoy your visit," said Shaw's new Dutch friend as he handed back the passport.
"I intend to," Shaw replied as he walked toward the exit and the train that would carry him to Centraal Station in Amsterdam in about twenty minutes.
From there it would only get more exciting. But first he had a role to play.
Because he had an audience.
In fact, they were watching him right now.
THE CAB SHAW TOOK from the train station dropped him off at the grand Amstel Intercontinental Hotel. It housed seventy-nine rooms of great beauty, many with enviable views of the river Amstel, although Shaw was not here for the views.
Adhering to his role-playing over the next three days, Shaw was a tourist in town. There were few places more suited to that enterprise than Amsterdam, a city of 750,000 people, only half of them Dutch-born. He took a boat ride, enthusiastically snapping pictures of a city with more canals than Venice and nearly thirteen thousand bridges in a space of barely two hundred square kilometers, of which one-fourth was water.
Shaw was especially drawn to the houseboats, nearly three thousand of them, docked along the canals. They appealed to him because they represented roots. Even though they were floating on water, these boats never moved. They were handed down from one generation to the next or sold outright. What might that feel like, he wondered, to have such ties to one place?
He later donned shorts and running shoes and jogged across the wide-open spaces of Oosterpark near his hotel. In a very real sense Shaw had been running his whole life. Well, if things went according to plan that was going to end. Either that or he'd end up dead. He would gladly take the risk. In a way, he was dead already.
Sipping a coffee at the Bulldog, Amsterdam's most famous café chain, Shaw watched people go about their business. And he also eyed the men who were so very clearly watching him. It was pathetic, really, observing folks undertaking surveillance who didn't have the least clue as to how to do it properly.
The next day he lunched at one of his favorite restaurants in the city, run by an elderly Italian. The man's wife sat at one table reading the newspaper all day while her husband acted as maître d', waiter, chef, busboy, dishwasher, and cashier. The place only had four barstools and five tables, not counting the wife's domain, and prospective customers had to stand in the doorway and be scrutinized by the husband. If he nodded, you were allowed to eat. If he turned away, you found another place to dine.
Shaw had never been turned away. Perhaps it was his imposing physical stature, or his magnetic blue eyes that seemed to snatch one up in their powerful embrace. But most likely it was because the owner and he had once worked together, and it wasn't in the field of food and beverage.
That night Shaw put on a suit and attended the opera at the Muziektheater. After the performance was over he could've walked back to his hotel, but he chose instead to head in the opposite direction. Tonight was why he'd really come to Holland. He was a tourist no longer.
As he approached the red-light district he observed some activity down a dark and particularly narrow alleyway. A little boy stood there in the shadows. Next to him was a rough-looking man with his zipper down and one large hand stuffed in the boy's pants.
In an instant Shaw had changed direction. He slipped into the alley and placed a blow to the back of the man's head. It was a measured strike, designed to stun, not kill, though Shaw was sorely tempted to finish off the predator. As the man fell unconscious to the pavement Shaw crammed a hundred euros in the boy's hand and sent him off with a hard push and a dire warning in Dutch. As the child's frantic footfalls echoed away, Shaw knew the boy would at least not starve or die tonight.
As he resumed his original route he noted for the first time that the old stock exchange was directly across from the hookers in the red-light. This struck him as odd until he thought about it. Cash and prostitution had always been bedfellows. He wondered if some of the ladies accepted company shares in lieu of euros as payment.
Even more ironic than the exchange's close proximity to the whores was that the red-light district completely surrounded Oude Kerk, or Old Church, the city's most ancient and largest house of worship. Built in 1306 as a simple wooden chapel, it had been constantly tinkered with and enlarged for the next two centuries. One jokester had even inlaid a brass pair of breasts into the pavement by the front entrance. Shaw had been inside a few times. What had struck him was the series of carvings on the choir benches depicting men having massive bowel movements. He could only assume that masses must have been really long in those days.
Saints and sinners, God and hookers, mused Shaw as he reached the middle of this strip of iniquity. The Dutch called the area the Walletjes, or "Little Walls." Presumably what happened behind the Walletjes stayed there. Tonight he was counting on that.
The red-light district was not that large, perhaps two canals long, but there was a lot packed into that pair of blocks. At night the prostitutes on duty here were the most beautiful. Many were stunning eastern Europeans who'd been brought to the country under false pretenses and then become "trapped in the trade," as it was delicately termed. Ironically, the night hookers were mostly for show. After all, who wanted to step through the libidinous portals with thousands watching? In the mornings and afternoons the district was quieter and that's when the serious customers paid their visits to the far less comely but efficient ladies of the second and third eight-hour shifts.
The whores' rooms were difficult to miss, as they were all outlined in red neon tubing that was nearly blinding. The rooms also had fluorescent lighting such that the skimpy clothing the girls wore blazed like a summer sun. Shaw passed window after window where women stood, sometimes dancing, sometimes posing erotically. In truth most people who came here came to gawk, not fornicate, although the beds still racked up roughly half a billion euros in sales yearly.
Shaw kept his head down, his feet carrying him to one particular destination. He was almost there.
THE LADY IN THE WINDOW was young and beautiful with raven hair that swirled around her bare shoulders. She was wearing only a white thong, spiked heels, and a cheap necklace wedged between her large breasts, the nipples of which were covered with sunflower pasties. An interesting choice, Shaw thought.
He kept eye contact with her as he threaded through the masses. The woman met him at the door, where he confirmed his interest. Even in her heels she was a foot shorter than him. In the window she'd looked bigger. Things on display often did look bigger. And better. When you got your purchase home, it didn't seem nearly as special.
She shut the door and then closed the red curtains, the only sign one would get that the room and the lady were occupied now.
The space was small, with a sink, toilet, and, of course, a bed. Set next to the sink was a button. It was the one the hookers pushed in an emergency. Then the police would suddenly appear and drag away the customer who'd gone too far to satisfy himself. This was one of the best-patrolled areas in the city—anything to keep the tax revenue coming. Shaw saw a second door in the back wall and then glanced away. In the next room the sounds of another happy customer were coming through loud and clear. Hooker digs were set side by side with cheap drywall or sometimes only a curtain in between. The business clearly did not require much space or frills in which to operate.
"You're very good-looking," she said in Dutch. "And large," she added, gazing up at him. "Are you as big all over? Because I am not so big down there," she added, now staring pointedly at his crotch.
"Spreekt u Engels?" Shaw said.
She nodded. "I speak English. It's thirty euros for twenty minutes. But I'll do an hour for seventy-five. It's a special, just for you," she added matter-of-factly. She handed him a list in Dutch but that was also repeated at the bottom of the page in ten different languages including English, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic. It was entitled, "Things I Will and Won't Do."
Shaw passed her back the paper. "Is your friend here?" he asked. "I've been waiting a long time to meet him." He glanced toward the second door.
She appraised him in a different way now. "Yes, he is here."
- "When Baldacci is on fire, nobody can touch him."—Booklist (starred review)
- "High-stakes action, shadowy government agencies, and [a] neo-Cold War backdrop . . . Baldacci pushes his plot ahead at such a blistering pace."—Washington Post
- "Delicious . . . [a] roller-coaster adventure . . . an utterly enjoyable escapist page-turner."—Tampa Tribune
- "Baldacci boldly steps into the arena of international thriller and may have created his most explosive and hard-hitting story to date."—BookReporter.com
- On Sale
- Aug 27, 2019
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Grand Central Publishing