“Devlin,” the anonymous, alienated agent of the Central Security Service who takes on all America’s enemies, both foreign and domestic, is back in my new thriller, Shock Warning, out this week. (The Kindle edition will be released on Oct. 4)
It’s the third in the series that began with Hostile Intent in 2009 and continued with last year’s Early Warning. This volume concludes what I call the Skorzeny Trilogy, after the chief bad, Emanuel Skorzeny, the shadowy German billionaire who’s waging a private war against both Devlin, the American president, Jeb Tyler, and the West as a presidential election looms.
In this excerpt, the publishing mogul Jake Sinclair, who’s also made it his mission to destroy Tyler, has just learned of a terrible accident in California, and gets his best reporter — the sexy Principessa Stanley (who figured prominently in Early Warning) — on the case:
New York City
The news was breaking as Jake Tyler entered the offices on Sixth Avenue. Normally he didn’t come to New York much, certainly not since they’d moved the corporate base of operations to Los Angeles in some choice Century City property he just happened to own.
He’d flown in on his private jet, and if there was one rule he had on his private jet it was that he was not to be disturbed for any reason whatsoever, short of Selenites landing at Bowling Green or, worse, Carbon Beach. Or Elvis, reappearing in Branson.
“What is it, Benny?” he said to Ben Bernstein as he entered the editor-in-chief’s office. Once the job had been called executive editor, and to be the executive editor of the New York Times had been the pinnacle of American journalism. So of course that had to go – he, Jake Sinclair, was the pinnacle of American journalism, and there would never be another one of him. Editor-in-chief was as far as he would go with people whose salaries he paid.
“Cows, Mr. Sinclair,” came the reply. “Lots and lots of cows.”
“So what? We got cows right here in New York State, somewhere. Cows all over the Midwest. Cows in India, sacred cows I think they call them. So what’s so special about these cows?”
Bernstein kept a poker face. He had no opinion about his new boss and he did his damnedest to make sure his expression reflected that scrupulous neutrality. “These cows are all dead,” he said.
“On that big cattle ranch up near Coalinga.”
Sinclair’s visage expressed his distaste for Twenty Questions. “Where’s that?”
“Central California, sir,” replied Bernstein, backtracking. “I assumed that, since you’re from there, California I mean, that -”
“You think I drive to San Francisco?” Sinclair was rapidly losing interest in the story. “What does it mean?” Is it news I can use?”
In Bernstein’s experience, the only story the chief was interested in was the ongoing political story, so he quickly reframed. “It means Tyler’s got another disaster on his hands, sir. Somebody’s poisoned the California water supply.”
That stopped Sinclair in his tracks. “What?” Then he was moving again, double-time.
Bernstein watched the boss disappear into his private office at the end of the hall. He’d only been inside once or twice, but from what he’d seen it was more like a fortress than an office, completely secure, with dedicated phone lines and all the latest electronic gadgetry. Not that Sinclair probably knew how to use most of it, but to men like Jake Sinclair the display of such equipment was at least as important as its actual use.
Sinclair shut the door behind him and turned to the ranks of TV monitors. The sun may have sent on the British Empire, but it was always coming up somewhere on his. Sure enough, Bernstein was right – dead cows everywhere. People, too. He didn’t much care how the paper played the story the next day – newspapers were so retro they were almost chic – but he very much cared how his news networks were handling it – and so far he was not seeing what he wanted to see.
He reached for one of the secure lines and dialed her secure number. She answered on the second ring. She spoke first.
“Remember what I told you about puzzles? Ciphers? Cryptograms?” He did remember. That was the day they were in the bathroom at his office in Century City, with the shower on, the day she’d pulled him toward her in the steam, kissed him and told him that if he was ever late for another meeting with her she would kill him. “Well, this is the piece of the puzzle we’ve been waiting for. Now use it.”
“I’m not sure I under–”
“How did you ever manage to get anywhere in this life?” came the voice at the other end of the line. He had no idea where she was at this moment, somewhere out on the hustings, as they used to call them, whatever hustings were. Somewhere putting her plan into action. “Honestly, I think you are the stupidest man I have ever met in my life.”
There was nothing to say. His job was to say nothing. So far, so good.
“Have you got the package ready? The October Surprise?”
“That would be the complete dossier on Jeb Tyler – every bit of dirt and mud and slur and slander and innuendo that the combined newsgathering forces of the Sinclair Empire could dig up. And was there ever plenty of it. It was so explosive that it would finish Tyler the month before the voters went to the polls, except that they would not be merciful. The material would not be released all at once. No, it would dribbled out day by day, each story more damaging than the last, some of on TV, some on the radio, some in the papers and magazines.
Beginning the first week of October, every day would be sheer misery for the incumbent president, but there would be nothing he could do about it. He could not withdraw from the campaign, because it would be too late to replace him on the ballot. He couldn’t concede in advance, because the propriety of elections would have to be observed. Day after day he was going to have to sit there in the Oval Office and take his beating like a man. And then be destroyed the first Tuesday in November.
Now that was something Jake Sinclair was really looking forward to. And he knew two other people who would enjoy the spectacle even more than he did. The first was the woman on the other end of the phone, Angela Hassett, the governor of Rhode Island whose meteoric rise to power was about to be crowned with the highest office in the land.
The other was a man he had never met, never seen and never spoken to – communicated with solely by cutouts and go-betweens, each similarly invisible. But a very rich man and the man who had made him, Jake Sinclair, a modestly rich man his lofty standards. This man wanted Jeb Tyler gone and would spend any amount of money to achieve that objective.
Anonymously, of course. Untraceably, of course. Electoral proprieties must be observed.
“Tell me that you have it. Tell me that you have everything,” she commanded. Involuntarily, he glanced over his shoulder. Even here in his inner sanctum, he could feel her presence, and it wouldn’t have surprised him at all to learn that, somehow, she’d had him bugged.
“I’ve got it – well, almost all of it. There’s still a couple of things we’re trying to chase down, but I have top people on it. Top people.”
Was that a chuckle or a chortle coming through the ether. “I’ll bet you do,” said Angela Hassett, “and I’ll bet I know just who she is, too.”
The line went dead. He was alone.
Sinclair sat in his chair, looking out the window overlooking midtown Manhattan. That woman did something to him. He could feel it. There was something deliciously erotic about fantasizing an affair with the next president of the United States. With the first female president of the United States. With her. So what if they were both married. He still hadn’t quite decided Jenny II’s fate yet, and as for Angela’s husband… well, he could be dealt with down the line.
Somewhere, a soft chime sounded, like something you’d hear in a Buddhist rock garden. Jake Sinclair hated buzzers and refused to be interrupted by the ring of a telephone, the dull thunk of an incoming email message or God forbid one of those Twitter things.
“What is it?” The chime automatically activated a microphone that allowed him to communicate with his secretary, whose name he could never quite remember.
“Ms. Stanley, sir.”
Just the girl he wanted to see. “Send her in.”
The lock on the door buzzed and in walked his favorite television correspondent. Her work during the siege of Times Square had been outstanding, and the fact that she’d gotten herself temporarily kidnapped by, well, they never did figure out exactly who, had been a career enhancer.
“Mr. Sinclair?” she said.
She was beautiful, even more beautiful than she was on television, full-figured but wholesome, sexy but innocent – just the way the viewers liked them. About the only thing that had changed was her hair, but it was growing back nicely; on the air, she wore a wig, so nobody ever knew she had been practically scalped.
He didn’t rise. To get up would signal weakness to the help. She didn’t sit down To sit down would signal servility toward the boss.
“Have you been looking into what I asked you, Principessa?” he inquired. He loved that name, and wondered if it was really hers.
“Yes, Mr. Sinclair,” she said. She moved forward to the desk and now was standing just opposite him. “Just a couple more pieces of the puzzle left to gather.”
He smiled. “Very good. How long do I have to wait?”
She smiled back. What a smile she had. “Won’t be long now. In the meantime, there’s this.”
She put an old BlackBerry down on his desk. “What I am supposed to do with this?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just listen.”
Who knew that BlackBerrys doubled as tape recorders? That they had little voice-memo doohickies, what did the kids call them today, applications – yes, “apps” – and that they could record –
The babble coming out the smart phone was like no language he had ever heard before. Arabic or Iranian, rapid-fire, and then, at the end, this:
“Because I am sending you to hell.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, reaching for the phone, but Principessa swept it back up and slipped it into her pocket.
“You wanted a puzzle, I got you a puzzle,” she said. “Now all you have to do is figure it out.”
She was already at the door:
“That’s what I pay you for,” he said.
“Pay me more,” she replied, and then she was gone.
A second excerpt from “Shock Warning” will appear tomorrow.