by W.E.B. Griffin


[ ONE ]
Danubius Hotel Gellért
Szent Gellért tér 1
Budapest, Hungary
0035 1 August 2005

When he heard the ping of the bell announcing the arrival of an elevator to the lobby of the Gellért, Sándor Tor, who was the director of security for the Budapester Neue Tages Zeitung, raised his eyes from a copy of that newspaper—which was so fresh from the presses that his fingers were stained with ink—to see who would be getting off.

He was not at all surprised to see that it was Eric Kocian, managing director and editor-in-chief of the newspaper. The first stop of the first Tages Zeitung delivery truck to leave the plant was the Gellért.

The old man must have been looking out his window again, Tor thought, waiting to see the truck arrive.

Tor was a burly fifty-two-year-old with a full head of curly black hair and a full mustache. He wore a dark blue single breasted suit carefully tailored to conceal the Swiss SIGARMS P228 9mm semiautomatic pistol he carried in a high ride hip holster.

He looked like a successful businessman with a very good tailor, but he paled beside Eric Kocian, who stepped off the elevator into the Gellért lobby wearing an off-white linen suit, with a white shirt, a white tie held to the collar with a discreet gold pin, soft white leather slip-on shoes, a white Panama hat—the wide brim rakishly up to the right, and down on the left—and carrying a sturdy knurled cane with a brass handle in the shape of a well-bosomed female.

Kocian was accompanied by a large dog. The dog was shaped like a Boxer, but he was at least time and a half—perhaps twice—as large as a big Boxer, and his coat was grayish black and tightly curled.

Kocian walked to a table in the center of the lobby, where a stack of the Tages Zeitung had been placed, carefully picked up a copy so as not to soil his well manicured fingers, and examined the front page.

Then he folded the newspaper and extended it to the dog.

“You hold it a while, Max,” he said. “Your tongue is already black.”

Then he turned and, resting both hands on the cane, carefully surveyed the lobby.

He found what he was looking for—Sándor Tor—sitting in an armchair in a dark corner of the lobby. He pointed the cane at arm’s length at him, not unlike a cavalry officer leading a charge, and walked quickly toward him. The dog, newspaper in his mouth, never left his side.

Six feet from Tor, Kocian stopped, and—without lowering the cane—said, “Sándor, I distinctly remember telling you that I would not require your services any more today, and to go home.”

A lesser man would have been cowed. Sándor Tor was not; as a young man he had done a hitch in the French Foreign Legion and subsequently had never been cowed by anything or anyone.

He pushed himself far enough out of the armchair to reach the dog’s head, scratched his ears, and said, “How goes it, Max?” Then he looked up at Kocian, and said, “You have been known to change your mind, Úr Kocian.”

“This is not one of those rare occasions,” Kocian said. He let that sink in, then added: “But since you are already here, you might as well take us—on your way home—to the Franz Joséf bridge.”

With that, Kocian turned on his heel and walked quickly to the entrance. Max trotted to keep up with him.

Tor got out of his chair as quickly as he could and started after him.

My God, he’s eighty-two!

As he walked, Tor took a cellular telephone from his shirt pocket, pushed an autodial button, and held the telephone to his ear.

“He’s on the way to the car,” he said, without preliminary greeting. “He wants me to drop him at the Szabadság híd. Pick him up on the other side.”

The Szabadság híd across the Danube River was a re-creation of the original 1899 bridge that had been destroyed—as all the other bridges over the Danube—in the bitter fighting of World War II. It had been named after Franz Joséf, then King and Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was the first to be rebuilt, as close to the original as possible, and when completed in 1946 had been renamed to Liberty Bridge.

Eric Kocian simply refused to accept the name change.

“If the communists were happy with that Liberty name, there’s obviously something wrong with it,” he had said more than once. “Franz Joséf may have been a sonofabitch, but compared to the communists he was a saint.”

There was a silver Mercedes-Benz S500 sitting just outside the door of the Gellért.

For a moment, Sándor Tor was afraid that the old man had grown impatient and decided to walk. Then there came a long blast on the horn.

Tor quickly trotted around the front of the car and got in behind the wheel. Kocian was in the front passenger seat. Max, still with the newspaper in his mouth, was sitting up in the back seat.

“Where the hell have you been?” Kocian demanded.

“I had to take a leak.”

“You should have taken care of that earlier,” Kocian said.

It wasn’t far at all from the door of the Gellért to the bridge, but if Kocian had elected to walk he would have had to cross the road paralleling the Danube, down which traffic often flew.

The old man wasn’t concerned for himself, Tor knew, but for the dog. One of Max’s predecessors—there had been several; all of the same breed, Bouvier des Flandres; all named Max—had been run over and killed on that highway.

It was a standard joke around the Gellért and the Budapester Tages Zeitung that the only thing the old man loved was his goddamned dog, and that the only living thing that could possibly love the old man was the goddamned dog.

Sándor Tor knew better. Once, Tor had heard a pressman parrot the joke, and he had grabbed him by the neck, forced his head close to the gears of the running press, and promised the next time he heard him running his mouth, he’d feed him to the press.

“Turn on the flashers when you stop,” Kocian ordered as the Mercedes approached the bridge, “and I’ll open the doors for Max and myself, thank you very much.”

“Yes, Úr Kocian.”

“And don’t hang around to see if Max and I can make it across the bridge without your assistance. Go home.”

“Yes, Úr Kocian.”

“And in the morning be on time for once.”

“I will try, Úr Kocian.”

“Good night, Sándor. Sleep well.”

“Thank you, Úr Kocian.”

Tor watched in the right side rearview mirror as Kocian and the dog started across the bridge. Tor already had his cellular in his hand; now he pressed the autodial button again.

Across the river, Ervin Rákosi’s cellular vibrated in his pocket, causing the wireless speaker bud in his ear to ring. He pushed one of the phone’s buttons—it did not matter which, as he had programmed the device to answer calls when any part of the keypad was depressed—and heard Tor’s voice come through the earbud:

“They’re on the bridge.”

“Got him, Sándor.”

“He’ll be watching me, so I’ll have to go up the Vámház körút as far as Pipa before I can turn.”

“I told you I have him, Sándor.”

“Just do what I tell you to do. I’ll pick him up when he passes Sóház.”

“Any idea where he’s going?”

“Absolutely none.”

It was Eric Kocian’s custom to take Max for a walk before retiring, which usually meant they left the Gellért around half past eleven. Almost always they walked across the bridge, and almost always they stopped in a café, bar, or restaurant for a little sustenance. Lately, they’d been going to the Képíró, a narrow restaurant bar which offered good jazz, Jack Daniel’s Black Label whiskey, and a menu pleasing to Max, who was fond of hard sausage.

But that was no guarantee they’d be going there tonight, and if Sándor Tor had asked the old man where he was going, the old man would either have told him it was none of his goddamn business, or lied.

In fact it was Sándor Tor’s business to know where the old man was, and where he was going, and to keep him from harm. His orders to protect Eric Kocian—“Cost be damned, and for God’s sake, don’t let the old man know he’s being protected”—had come from Generaldirektor Otto Göerner of Gossinger Beteiligungsgesellschaft, the German holding company which owned, among a good deal else, half a dozen newspapers, including the Budapester Tages Zeitung.

When he came off the bridge, Tor saw Ervin Rákosi’s dark green Chrysler Grand Caravan at the first intersection in a position from which Rákosi could see just about all of the bridge. He continued up the Vámház körút for two blocks and then made a right turn onto Pipa. He circled the block, onto Sóház U, pulled to the curb behind a panel truck half a block from Vámház körút, and turned off the headlights.

Tor’s cellular buzzed.

“He’s almost at Sóház U,” Rákosi reported.

“I’m fifty meters from the intersection,” Tor’s voice said in Rákosi’s earbud.

Thirty seconds later, Eric Kocian and Max appeared, walking briskly up the steep incline.

One of these days, Tor thought, he’s going to do that and have a heart attack.

Tor reported: “He just went past. Follow him and see where he goes.”

Thirty seconds after that, the Chrysler came slowly up Vámház körút.

Sixty seconds after that, Rákosi reported, “He’s turned onto Királyi Pál. It looks as if he is going to the Képíró.”

“Don’t follow him. Drive around the block and then down Képíró U.”

Tor backed away from the panel truck and then drove onto Vámház körút and turned right. When he drove past Királyi Pál he saw Eric Kocian turning onto Képíró.

A moment later, Rákosi reported, “He went in.”

“Okay,” Tor ordered. “You find someplace to park where you can catch him when he comes out. I’ll park, and see if I can look into the restaurant.”

“Got it,” Rákosi said.

Tor found the darkened doorway—he had used it before—from which he could see into the Restaurant Képíró.

Kocian was sitting at a small table between the bar and the door. A jazz quartet was set up between his table and the bar. There was a bottle of whiskey on the table, and a bottle of soda water, and as Tor watched, a waiter delivered a plate of food.

Sausage for the both of them, Tor knew. Kielbasa for the old man and some kind of hard sausage for Max. Kocian cut a slice of the kielbasa for himself and put it in his mouth. Max laid a paw on the old man’s leg. Kocian sawed at the hard sausage until there was a thumb-sized piece on his fork. He extended the fork to Max, who delicately pulled off the treat. Kocian patted the dog’s head.

A procession of people entering and leaving the restaurant—including three hookers, one at a time—paused by Kocian’s chair and shook his hand or allowed him to kiss theirs. The more courageous of them patted Max’s head. Kocian always rose to his feet to accept the greetings of the hookers, but as long as Tor had been guarding him, Kocian had never taken one back to the Gellért with him.

In Vienna, he had an “old friend” who was sometimes in his apartment—most often coming out of it—when Tor went to get him in the mornings. She was a buxom redhead in her late fifties. Kocian never talked about her, and Tor never asked.

The band took a break, and the bandleader went to Kocian’s table, patted Max, and had a drink of Kocian’s Jack Daniels. When the break was over, the bandleader returned to his piano, and Kocian resumed cutting the sausages—a piece for him and a piece for Max—as he listened to the music, often tapping his fingers on the table.

Tor knew that the old man usually stayed just over an hour, and he had gone into the restaurant a few minutes before one o’clock. So, glancing at his watch and seeing that it was ten minutes to two, he had just decided it was about time for the old man to leave when he saw him gesturing for the check.

Tor took out his cellular, pressed the autodial key, and said, “He’s just called for the check.”

“Let’s hope he goes home,” Rákosi replied.

“Amen,” Tor said. “You get in a position to watch him on the bridge. I’ll stay here and let you know which way he’s headed.”

“Done,” Rákosi said.

Eric Kocian and Max came out of the Restaurant Képíró five minutes later, and headed down Képíró toward Királyi Pál, strongly suggesting he was headed for home.

Tor watched him until he turned onto Királyi Pál, called Rákosi to report Kocian’s location, and then trotted to where he had parked the silver Mercedes.

He had just gotten into the car when Rákosi reported that the old man was about to get on the bridge.

He had driven no more than four minutes toward Vámház körút when his phone vibrated.

“Trouble,” Rákosi reported.

“On the way.”

Tor accelerated rapidly down the Vámház körút, and was almost at the bridge when he saw that something was going on just about in the center of the bridge.

Max and the old man had a man down on the sidewalk, and the man was beating at the animal’s head with a pistol.

Rákosi’s Chrysler Grand Caravan was almost on them.

And then a car—a black or dark blue Mercedes that had been coming toward Sándor Tor—stopped, and a man jumped out and, holding a pistol with two hands, fired at the old man and the dog.

Rákosi made a screaming U-turn, jumped out, and started firing at the dark Mercedes as it began to speed away.

“I’ll get the old man,” Sándor Tor said into his cellular. “You get the bastards in the Mercedes. Ram them if you have to.”

Rákosi didn’t reply, but Tor saw him jump back into the Chrysler.

Tor pulled his Mercedes to the curb.

The old man was sitting down as if he had been knocked backwards. Tor saw blood staining the shoulder of his white suit.

The man on the ground was still fighting Max, whose massive jaws were locked on his arm.

Tor jumped out of the Mercedes, taking his pistol from its holster as he moved.

He took aim at the man Max had down, then changed his mind. He went to him and swung the pistol hard against the back of his head.

The man went limp.

Tor looked down the bridge and saw that both the attackers’ Mercedes and Rákosi’s Chrysler had disappeared.

He punched another autodial button on his cellular, a number he wasn’t supposed to have.

“Inspector Lázár,” he announced. “Supervisor needs assistance. Shots fired on the Szabadság híd. One citizen down. Require ambulance.”

So far as Tor knew, there was no Inspector Lázár on the Budapest police force. But that would get an immediate response, he knew. Before he had gone to work for the Tages Zeitung, he had been Inspector Sándor Tor.

He went to the old man. The dog was whimpering. There was a bloody wound on his skull.

Christ, I only hit that bastard once, and he was out. I saw him beating on Max’s head, and Max never let loose.

That dog’s not whimpering because he’s in pain. He’s whimpering because he knows something is wrong with the old man.

“An ambulance is on the way, Úr Kocian,” Tor said.

“Sándor, I need a great favor.”

“Anything, Úr Kocian. I should not have let this happen.”

“What you should have done is gone home when I told you.”

“Do you want to lie down until the ambulance gets here?”

“Of course not. The first thing I want you to do is call Dr. Kincs, Max’s veterinarian, and tell him you’re bringing Max in for emergency treatment.”

“Of course. Just as soon as I get you to the hospital—”

“The Telki Private Hospital. Don’t let them take me to the goddamn Szent János Kórház. They’d never let Max stay with me there.”

“All gunshot victims are taken to Szent János Kórház,” Tor said.

“And you can’t fix that?”

“No, I can’t.”

“Jesus Christ, what are we paying you for?” the old man demanded, and then ordered: “Help me to my feet.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Úr Kocian.”

“I didn’t ask for an opinion, goddamn you, Sándor! Do what you’re told! Get me the hell out of here before the police show up.”

The old man winced with pain as he tried to get to his feet.

A police car—a Volkswagen Jetta—came onto the bridge. It pulled up beside the silver Mercedes, and a sergeant and the driver got out.

“What’s happened?” the sergeant demanded.

“That man and two others tried to rob Úr Kocian,” Tor said.

“Who are you?”

“Sándor Tor, director of security of the Tages Zeitung,” Sándor said as he reached down and pulled Eric Kocian erect.

“What are you doing?” the sergeant said.

“I’m taking Úr Kocian to the hospital.”

“An ambulance is on the way.”

“I can’t wait. Take that slime to the station, and I’ll come there,” Tor said.

He half-carried the old man to the Mercedes, hoping the sergeant was not going to give him trouble.

“I’ll meet you at the Szent János Kórház,” the sergeant said.

“Fine,” Tor said.

I’ll worry about that later.

The old man crawled into the back seat. Max got in and jumped on the seat and started to lick his face.

Sándor closed the door, and then got behind the wheel.

“Take Max to Dr. Kincs first,” the old man ordered.

“You’re going to the hospital first. I’ll take care of Max.”

“Not one goddamn word of this is to get to Otto Görner, you understand?”

At that moment, Tor had just finished deciding that he would call Görner the moment the doctors started to work on the old man at the Telki Private Hospital.

“I’m not sure I can do that, Úr Kocian. He’ll have to know sometime.”

“I’ll call him as I soon as I can. I’ll tell him I fell down the stairs. Fell over Max and then down the stairs. He’ll believe that.”

“Why can’t I tell him?”

“Because he would immediately get in the way of me getting the bastards who did this to me.”

“You know who they are?”

“I’ve got a pretty good goddamn idea. They know I’ve been nosing around. They want to know how much I know about the oil-for-food outrage. Why do you think they tried to kidnap me?”

“Kidnap you?”

“The sonofabitch who came after me on the bridge had a hypodermic needle.”

“A hypodermic needle?” Tor parroted.

“It’s in my jacket pocket,” the old man said. “When we get to the hospital, take it, and find out what it is.”

“They were going to drug you?”

“They only started shooting after Max and I grabbed the bastard on the bridge. Jesus Christ, Sándor, do you need a map? They were going to take me someplace to see what I know, and where my evidence is. When they had that, then they were going to put me in the Danube.”

“Where is your evidence?”

“In my apartment.”

“Where in your apartment?”

“If I told you, then you’d know,” the old man said. “Some place safe.”

“You don’t want to tell me?”

“No. Can’t you drive any faster? I’m getting a little woozy.”

A moment later, Sándor looked in the back seat.

The old man was unconscious. Max was standing over him, gently licking his face, as if trying to wake him.

Sándor looked forward again, and thought, Please, God, don’t let him die!

He pushed another autodial button on the cellular, praying it was the right one.

“Telki Private Hospital.”

“I’m bringing an injured man to the emergency room. Be waiting for me,” Tor ordered.

Five minutes later, he pulled the Mercedes up at the emergency entrance of the Telki Private Hospital. A gurney, a doctor, and a nurse were outside the door.

Tor helped the doctor get the old man on the gurney.

“He’s been shot,” the doctor announced.

“I know,” Tor said.

The doctor gave him a strange look, then started to push the gurney into the hospital.

Tor put his arm around the dog.

“You can’t go, Max,” he said.

Max strained to follow the gurney but allowed Tor to restrain him.

Tor looked at his watch. It was two twenty-five.




[TWO ]
Estancia Shangri-La
Tacuarembo Province
Republic Orientale de Uruguay
2225 31 July 2005

At almost precisely that moment in real time—by the clock, it is four hours later in Budapest than it is in Uruguay—a U.S. Army Special Forces medic, Sergeant Robert Kensington, who had been kneeling over a stocky blond man in his forties and examining the man’s wound, stood up and announced, “You’re going to be all right, Colonel. There’s some muscle damage that’s going to take some time to heal, and you’re going to hurt like hell for a long time every time you move—for that matter, every time you breathe. I can take the bullet out now, if you’d like.”

“I think I’ll wait until I get to a hospital,” Colonel Alfredo Munz said.

Until very recently, Munz had been the director of SIDE, the Argentine organization which combines the functions of the American FBI and CIA.

There were three other men in the room, the study of the sprawling “big house” of Estancia Shangri-La. One of them—a somewhat squat, completely bald, very black man of forty-six—was lying in a pool of his own blood near Colonel Munz, dead of 9mm bullet wounds to the mouth and forehead. He had been Dr. Jean-Paul Lorimer, an American who had been a United Nations diplomat stationed in Paris, and who had taken some pains to establish a second identity for himself in Uruguay as Jean-Paul Bertrand, a Lebanese national and a dealer in antiquities.

The third man in Jean-Paul Lorimer’s office was dressed—as Sergeant Kensington was—in the black coveralls and other accoutrements worn by Delta Force operators when engaged in clandestine and covert operations. He was cradling in his arms a black bolt-action 7.62x51mm sniper’s rifle, modified from a Remington Model 700. Had he not pushed his balaclava mask off his face, Corporal Lester Bradley, USMC, who was nineteen, would have looked far more like what comes to mind when the phrase Delta Force operator is heard.

With the mask off, it had just occurred to the fourth man in the room, he looks like a kid who has borrowed his big brother’s uniform to wear to the high school Halloween party.

He was immediately sorry for the thought.

The little sonofabitch can really shoot, as he just proved by saving my life.

The fourth man was Major (Promoteable) Carlos G. Castillo, Special Forces, U.S. Army. He was thirty-six, a shade over six feet tall, and weighed one hundred ninety pounds. He had blue eyes and light brown hair. He was in a well-tailored dark blue suit.

He turned to Munz, who was looking a little pale from his wound.

“Your call, Alfredo,” Castillo said. “If Kensington says he can get the bullet out, he can. How are you going to explain the wound?”

“No offense,” Munz replied, “but that looks to me like a job for a surgeon.”

“Kensington has removed more bullets and other projectiles than most surgeons,” Castillo said. “Before he decided he’d rather shoot people than treat them for social disease, he was an A-Team medic. Which meant . . . what’s that line, Kensington?”

“That I was ‘Qualified to perform any medical procedure other than opening the cranial cavity,’ ” Kensington quoted. “I can numb that, give you a happy pill, then clean it up and get the bullet out. It would be better for you than waiting—the sooner you clean up a wound like that, the better—and that’d keep you from answering questions at a hospital. But what are you going to tell your wife?”

“Lie, Alfredo,” Castillo said. “Tell her you were shot by a jealous husband.”

“What she’s going to think is that I was cleaning my pistol and it went off, and I’m embarrassed,” Munz said. “But I’d rather deal with that than answer official questions. How long will I be out?”

“You won’t be out long, but you’ll be in La-La Land for a couple of hours.”

Munz considered that for a moment, then said: “Okay, do it.”

“Well, let’s get you to your feet and onto something flat where there’s some light,” Kensington said. He looked at Castillo, and the two of them got Munz to his feet.

“There’s a big table in the dining room that ought to work,” Kensington said. “It looks like everybody got here just in time for dinner. There’s a plate of good-looking roast beef on it. And a bottle of wine.”

“Okay on the beef,” Castillo said. “Nix on the wine. We have to figure out what to do next and get out of here.”

“Major, who the fuck are these bad guys?” Kensington asked.

“I really don’t know. Yung is searching the bodies to see what he can find out. I don’t even know what happened.”

“Well, they’re pros, whoever they are. Maybe Russians? Kranz was no amateur, and they got him. With a fucking garrote. That means they had to (a) spot him and (b) sneak up on him. A lot of people have tried that on Seymour and never got away with it.”

“Spetsnaz?” Castillo said. “If this was anywhere in Europe, I’d say maybe, even probably. But here? I just don’t know. We’ll take the garrote and whatever else Yung comes up with, and see if we can learn something.”

When they got to the dining room, Kensington held up Munz while Castillo moved to a sideboard the Chateaubriand, a sauce pitcher, a bread tray, and a bottle of Uruguayan Merlot. Then he sat him down on the table.

“You going to need me—or Bradley—here?” Castillo asked.

“No, sir.”

“Come on, Bradley. We’ll find something to wrap Sergeant Kranz in.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sergeant First Class Seymour Kranz, a Delta Force communicator, who at five feet four and one hundred thirty pounds hadn’t been much over the height and weight minimums for the Army, was lying face down where he had died.

A light skinned African-American wearing black Delta Force coveralls sat beside him, holding a Car-4 version of the M-16 rifle between his knees. Despite the uniform, Jack Britton was not a soldier, but a Special Agent of the United States Secret Service.

“Anything, Jack?” Castillo asked.

Britton shook his head.

“It’s like a tomb out there,” he said. And then, “Is that what they call an unfortunate choice of words?”

He scrambled to his feet.

“Let’s get Seymour on the chopper,” Castillo said, as he squatted beside the corpse.

The garrote which had taken Sergeant Kranz’s life was still around his neck. Castillo tried to loosen it. It took some effort, but finally he got it off, and then examined it carefully.

It was very much like the nylon, self-locking wire and cable binding devices enthusiastically adopted by the police as “plastic handcuffs.” But this device was blued stainless steel, and it had handles. Once it was looped over a victim’s head and then tightened around the neck, there was no way the victim could get it off.

Castillo put the garrote in his suit jacket pocket.

“Okay, spread the sheets on the ground,” Castillo ordered. “You have the tape, right?”

“Yes, sir,” Corporal Bradley responded.

He laid the sheets, stripped from Jean-Paul Lorimer’s bed, onto the ground. Castillo and Britton rolled Sergeant Kranz onto them. One of his eyes was open. Castillo gently closed it.

“Sorry, Seymour,” he said.

They rolled Kranz in the sheets and then trussed the package with black duct tape.

Then he squatted beside the body.

“Help me get him on my shoulder,” Castillo ordered.

“I’ll help you carry him,” Britton said.

“You and Bradley get him on my shoulder,” Castillo repeated. “I’ll carry him. He was my friend.”

“Yes, sir.”

Castillo grunted with the exertion of rising to his feet with Kranz on his shoulder, and for a moment he was afraid he was losing his balance, and bitterly said, “Oh, shit!”

Bradley put his hands on Castillo’s hips and steadied him.

Castillo nodded his thanks, then started walking heavily toward where the helicopter was hidden, carrying the body of SFC Seymour Kranz over his shoulder.



From THE HUNTERS — Book III in the best-selling THE PRESIDENTIAL AGENT series.
Published January 2007.