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The Q Conspiracy

The Q Conspiracy

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The Q Conspiracy

396 pagine
6 ore
Aug 17, 2011


Intrigue . . . . Murder . . . . Betrayal

A Pulitzer Prize is the only major award Jonathon Stone has never won. And now that he’s left investigative journalism to write nice little articles for magazines, it seems he never will. But the embers still smolder, and when Leo Zimmer crashes head on into his life with a ragged tale of blackmail aimed at the highest echelons of government and diplomacy, the seed for the Pulitzer once again germinates and grows, and Stone is drawn deeper and deeper into a conspiracy that could send shock waves throughout the Western world and spread glee throughout Islam.
Zimmer and his mysterious friend Max—-two small-time extortionists—-have discovered correspondence between a revered US senator and a high level Israeli diplomat that conceives a conspiracy so abominable it could forever destroy the bonds between their two countries. Using the threat of exposure, Zimmer and Max blackmail the senator and diplomat, leveraging them against a wealthy Arab tyrant. But when the plan goes awry, and the only lead to the letters is Max whose whereabouts is unknown, the race is on to find him and the damning missives.
The stakes are high for the senator whose stellar reputation and political aspirations will be destroyed; for the tiny country of Israel that could end up a lone sheep amongst a pack of wolves; and for a diminished Arab leader who could regain eminence and drastically alter the balance of power in the Middle East.
But for Jonathon Stone, the exposé of the conspiracy could be his ticket to the coveted Pulitzer Prize—and it could cost him his life.

Aug 17, 2011

Informazioni sull'autore

Alan Payne is a freelance commercial writer and former military journalist. He lives on a private lake in Virginia with his wife, three dogs, and a cat. He is active in animal rescue and fostering.

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Anteprima del libro

The Q Conspiracy - Alan Payne



December 1947

". . . and the general marine forecast for the Chesapeake

Bay and tidal Potomac; unseasonably warm; afternoon

highs in the mid to upper sixties; small craft warning in

effect; northwest winds 15 to 25 knots building to storm

conditions by late afternoon; severe thunder squalls . . .

First mate Jimmy Ball cocked an ear to the radio as his eyes studied the early winter sky. A steady breeze wove wispy images in the fragile clouds as legions of white caps peeled froth across the dark waters of the Chesapeake Bay. It was a sailor's day, challenging and exhilarating, a test of one's skills, but not threatening—not yet anyway. Later, when a black wall soared high above the horizon and the wind swirled and ebbed in a clash of elements, then it would be ominous. But now the swell was steady through the helm, and the salt-tinged air was a refreshing companion to the solitude of the pilot house. Jimmy Ball smiled.

The gift of an Indian summer weekend had prodded Harley Sanford to attract a cruise aboard his beloved motor yacht, the Mona Lisa. The parties were legendary, and it was no secret that the ‘Lisa was the silk glove of the majority leader and senior senator from North Carolina. Her carefully woven web of hospitality had, over two decades, been seductive in forming government policy—or at least Harley Sanford's personal agenda. In other circles—mostly partisan camps—the notorious excursions were dourly dubbed Harley's Trysts: perqs for those in his deep political pockets. The cruise had been to Norfolk, complete with a flag officer tour of the naval station. Now the Mona Lisa was homeward bound for her slip in Washington. She was four hours north of Hampton Roads, her classic straight bow carving a cascade of jade through the ragged rhythm of the Chesapeake Bay.

Ball turned as the companionway door opened and Captain Barney Alton entered. He greeted his first mate flatly. Mr. Ball.


Anything to report?

Yes, sir, a weather update. Thunder squalls from the northwest. Maybe four, five hours out.

Alton grunted and glanced out the port window. What's our position?

Here, sir, replied Ball, twisting to the mahogany chart table behind him, touching a point sixty miles above Norfolk. About an hour and fifteen minutes from Smith Point.

Alton noted the position then moved closer to the window and stood at military ease. He clasped his hands behind his back and stared northwest toward the unseen gathering turmoil. A lazy string of Canada geese honked discordantly across the sky and melted into the skeletal mainland; only the wind lingered on their passing. Alton’s thoughts drifted, sorting the options for the approaching storm; even the smallest detail answered to his acute vigil. While the crew was his eyes and ears—filtering the 'Lisa's pulse and all that threatened her back to him—the decisions were his. The final responsibility lay with him. And when an imminent storm was between home port and the Mona Lisa, he had to weigh the margin that would best appease the safety of the crew and guests against Sanford's compulsive need for punctuality. Tonight the senator was the scheduled speaker at a fund raiser. And Harley Sanford was never late when it came to money.

Alton's faith in the Mona Lisa’s aging fortitude had become suspect. He knew that trying her under storm conditions was not prudent. She had mellowed into a peaceful waters cruiser. And while her eighty-five feet of chrome and polished mahogany still cut a stunning figure, she was a painted, aging starlet—a gay veneer shielding the neglect of many years. Her heart and soul—her wiring and diesels and major components—had long surpassed their useful lives. For three years Alton had urged the senator to lay her up for a complete overhaul. Two days ago he'd finally agreed—right after this last excursion.

Alton turned from the window and back to the chart. A wry smile twisted his lips as he wondered what was balmier, Sanford or the weather. His finger followed a course up the bay and around Smith Point, then northwest up the Potomac River. Mentally he noted the safe harbors and moorings and the approximate distances from their present position. When he'd considered several alternatives, he engaged Ball again. What's our speed?

About fifteen knots, Captain. But if you want me to keep that speed up river, I'll have to increase power into the wind and head seas.

That figures, thought Alton. Sanford had an unbridled penchant for spending the public's money, but when it came to his own sizable fortune, he was cheap. And Alton, as captain, was responsible to hold a tight budget. Increased power meant greater fuel consumption, which meant the senator's critical eye on the bottom-line.

There was also the Mona Lisa’s internal neglect, which had recently spawned an annoying engine knock that vibrated her worn timbers, giving life to dubious creaks and groans when her diesels were pushed to certain rpm's. Twice, Sanford had pointedly reminded Alton that the Mona Lisa was a refined lady and should not treat her important guests as if they were riding in a dump truck. If she proved cantankerous at certain power, then he wasn't to push her beyond that threshold.

The captain picked a pair of dividers from a thin drawer in the chart table and walked them up the bay and along the river. Mentally he added the distance and calculated the maximum safe anchorage within a three hour window of safety. He turned back to Ball. After you pass marker 46B, call me to the bridge, he ordered. We'll change course for the Yeocomico River. There's a sheltered harbor a couple miles upstream near Kinsale. We’ll ride out the storm there. He moved to leave, then, as an after thought, added, If any of our tipsy guests poke their noses in here, don’t concern them with the weather. I'll take Sanford aside and bring him up to speed.

Alton started through the companionway door then stopped to adjust his reflection in the window. Not bad, he thought, for an old salt with twenty years in the Coast Guard and twelve as skipper of the Mona Lisa. He still stood straight and true; and still found enormous pride in his creased whites and gold braided uniform. He could mingle with the senator's guests and feel as important as they—at least in his own right. Inevitably one or more would request a tour of the ship, and it would then be his special time in the limelight. Duty came in all shapes and sizes, and the image he portrayed was not only crucial to the senator's hospitality, it was integral to his own self worth.

His greatest sadness had been his wife's death the year before. She'd been his only outlet from command for more than thirty years; all others he kept at arm's length, with a practiced reticence, an immovable persona that even the most stodgy Englishman would have found enviable. Long ago he’d decided that formality made command and servitude easier. It kept personal entanglements out of the work arena. And most importantly, it kept decisions based to facts. But since his wife's passing—when that devastating juncture of cosmic loneliness had brutally punched him in the gut—his need for an empathetic ear had subtly shifted to Jimmy Ball. Slowly, Alton had regained his lost equilibrium by confiding in his first mate through conversations disguised as daily briefings. Had Alton really wished to confront his lonely void, he would have recognized their substance as nothing more than shipboard gossip—and been shocked by his own complicity.

At first the subtle friendship had made the first mate uncomfortable. But as he came to understand it was the captain's loss that spurred the unorthodox behavior, he let Alton deal with the void in his own way. Besides, the briefings had their benefits. Who better than the captain for the ship's grapevine? He got to rub shoulders with the political elite—the fun part—while Ball spent his waking hours, prisoner to a pilot house, all alone, hour after hour. He wasn't really complaining; he liked his job. But shouldn't the second in command be privy to the ship’s pulse? Who knew what seemingly small tidbit could prove important in an emergency situation? And besides, spicing up the tedious hours with a few juicy stories about the power elite wasn't going to hurt anyone.

Don't mean to pry, sir, Ball said, glancing at the captain's reflection, but how's the party going?

Alton cocked his hat a little more to the right then turned from the window. Boisterous. It's that newspaper man, Winkley and his wife. They have a penchant for the liquor cabinet. And I think it's catching. I haven't seen the senator put so much scotch away since VE day.

Well, I hope they don't all start pukin’, if the chop picks up too much, Ball observed.

Alton grunted. Point well taken. But don’t you worry about that Mr. Ball. That’s Burke’s job. An image of Greta Winkley dribbling vomit down her chin and the front of her gold lamé sheath made the captain chuckle to himself.

Speaking of our guests, sir, Ball slipped in casually, who'd we pick up in Norfolk?

Alton frowned, and stroked his chin. Strange one. Name’s Petrovich. Viktor Petrovich.

What! gasped Ball. A rooskie? The senator hates rooskies, sir. Sanford's hawkish profile was often front page copy. To have a guest from the Soviet Union on board the Mona Lisa was tantamount to treason.

Alton answered cautiously. I don’t know who Petrovich is, Mr. Ball. Sanford told me an hour before departure to ready the single stateroom. That's all I know. I'm sure the senator will fill me in when he's ready.

The first mate was shaking his head. I don't get it, sir. Sanford hates the Soviets. Ain't it kind 'a strange we held departure almost a half hour for this guy? Sanford never did that before.

After a dozen years with the senator, Mr. Ball, I never question what he does. I'm just an employee. He pays the bills. It's not my job; and it’s not yours either.

The rebuke was mild enough for Ball to persist. Aye, Captain, but when Burke brought me a cup of coffee earlier he said he carried Petrovich’s suitcase to the stateroom, but when he tried to take the briefcase the rooskie practically snatched it out of his hand and gave Tony a look that could kill. Hell . . . he was only trying to do his job, sir.

And maybe Petrovich was only doing his, too, Mr. Ball. He's probably responsible for some important documents. Otherwise, I’m sure Sanford wouldn't bother with him, Alton noted, a twinge of sarcasm creeping into his voice. You’re getting paranoid, Mr. Ball.

Ball tried again. No sir. Burke said he's been in his room since we left Hampton Roads. What's he hiding? Or, why? Seems pretty strange since these cruises are usually one big party, and Sanford don't usually invite wall flowers.

The captain was feeling tested. The conversation was over. I don't know, Mr. Ball. And, frankly, I don't care. Maybe he's anti-social, maybe he's asleep, or maybe he's working. In any event, it's really none of our business. We're here to run the boat. Understood?

The first mate's ruddy face flushed darker. Yes sir.

Good. Abruptly the matter was dismissed. Let me know when we're approaching the Yeocomico River. I'll be in the main salon if you need me before then. He turned for the door and once again confronted his image in the window. Almost perfect, he thought, except for . . . Leaning closer to his reflection he tugged the brim of his hat a little lower, smiled, and disappeared down the companionway.

Shortly after the Mona Lisa changed course up the Potomac the wind picked up. Without the landfall to her port side the expanse of the river offered little protection. The once gentle white caps now broiled across the surface and spat angrily against her hull. The 'Lisa's progress fell off by several knots. She was pitching in the rising seas as a light rain began to sting the windshield. Twilight had come early in the guise of a malignant dark mass on the northwest horizon. Ball decided to raise the captain.

He flipped the intercom switch and raised the galley, hoping to find the steward. If Burke wasn't out serving cocktails or hors d'oeuvres, Ball knew he'd be lazed over the back of a chair, picking his teeth with the edge of a match pack, lying about his favor topic—his dubious prowess with women. He and the cook had one-track minds, and were as annoying as two dogs after a bitch in heat.

Sam Barnes, the cook, answered, Yo . . . bridge . . . cup a' coffee?

Despite himself, Ball laughed. Barnes was always trying to second guess him. Maybe later, Sam. I need the boy wonder.

Not here. Out hob nobbin' with the big shots.

Yeah, sure Sam. Slappin' old Sanford on the back and kissin' his political ass, I suppose.

Naw, really Jimmy. Tony said there's some reporter's wife out there puttin' the moves on him. Said she's kind'a old, maybe forty, but with an infuckin'credible body, squeezed into a skinny gold dress that fits like a rubber. I ain't kiddin'. Look, I ain't seen her yet, so next round I'm takin' out the munchies.

Ball shook his head. Don't you two ever think about anything else?

Hey! there ain't nuthin' else. C'mon Jimmy, loosen up. He waited for a retort, but when none came, he asked, Anyhow, what's on yer mind if it ain't coffee or broads.

The captain. Get Burke to find him and have him to come to the bridge.

We got trouble, huh? Barnes asked. I can feel us bouncin’ some.

Weather's kickin' up. Looks like a stiff blow out of the northwest. But I don't see no trouble. We should be anchored safe and snug before it really hits.

Thanks for the warning. I'll get Tony to find the captain for ya. I better batten down my pots and pans. Talk to ya.

Ball's focus returned to the river. It was wide here, almost six or seven miles across, and the shallow depths could turn violent quickly. In the brief time since he'd raised Barnes, it had erupted with a new anger. The 'Lisa was pitching badly, clawing up the head seas, and pounding into the troughs. Spray shot from her bow as the engines dug in for the next assault. Deftly, the first mate's hand danced across the instrument panel flipping switches for wipers and lights as the other held the wheel tightly against the barrage of advancing waves. He leaned forward, squinting through the whirr of wipers, trying to discern the number of a buoy off the port bow. He tried the binoculars, but he couldn't steady them in the jarring seas. He'd try again when they were closer. At least, he thought, there was comfort in the Mona Lisa's eighty ton displacement. She could easily ride out the edge of the storm and be safely moored before the worst of it hit.

A quarter hour passed when Alton entered the pilot house. The radio hissed with static, crackling and spitting with a deluge of lightning strikes. Ball strained to catch the weather broadcast:

"...storm warnings...peake Bay and...tomac Riv...orthwest

win. . .forty to..ifty knots per. .gusting...sixty-five. .


Jagged fingers splattered the turbulent river, electrifying a ghostly shape against the black sky. The first mate squinted through the window, unsure of the image that swirled away in the sheeting rain. The freighter vanished almost instantly, dissolving into an ethereal apparition. Ball yelled above the storm. It's comin' in a helluva lot faster than they said, sir. Getting’ pretty damned rough up here. The storm had turned ferocious. Wind and water pounded the aging yacht, invading the bridge with a soulful moan. The Lisa was losing ground; her fore deck was awash in a maelstrom of foam.

Alton shouted back. At least our guests are half drunk. They think it’s a great adventure.

Petrovich, too? Ball slipped in above the noise.

Alton shook his head. You don't give up, Mr. Ball, I'll give you that. Your mystery man— The boat lunged off rhythm. Alton crashed to his knees, grabbing for the chart table to steady himself. Viktor Petrovich was forgotten. What's the last marker?

46B, the first mate called over his shoulder.

The captain's legs caught the rhythm of the bucking yacht. He gripped the table, searching for the marker on the chart. Come around to a 285 degree course, he ordered. Watch for a four second green. Tacking across this sea might soften the ride, but this old lady's got a high profile, Mr. Ball. If she yaws too widely, she could broach. Hold her steady and give her full power. I don't give a damn what the senator thinks. He sneaked a breath to calm himself and continued rattling off orders. Switch on the spotlights in case there're some of those damn fish traps along shore. I sure as hell don't want to get hung up in one of those. Check the time. Give me three minutes to work my way back to the salon. I'll calm the guests and tell them what to expect. Get Burke on the horn, tell him to bring life jackets to the salon for everyone. And tell Barnes to get on deck and ready the lifeboat for launching, if necessary.

Ball's florid face paled. You don't really expect trouble, do you sir?

I expect nothing, Mr. Ball. But I prepare for everything. Alton lurched for the door and steadied himself with the handle. He stumbled through and staggered like a drunk down the companionway, using the bulkheads for support.

Ball marked the time and raised the galley.

With the heading changed, the pitching eased, but the big yacht began rolling dangerously. The quartering seas pounded the Mona Lisa, working violently to bury her in the raging water. Within minutes Ball's arms were weak from wrestling the wheel; it was heavy in his grip and slow to respond. And then the bridge exploded in white with a deafening blast, and Ball went cold. The emblazoned sky lit the freighter again, closing quickly off his starboard quarter. In that instant a monstrous trough spilled from beneath the Mona Lisa, slamming her to its depths. Her timbers groaned as the river smashed broadside to her starboard. Her lights flickered once. The engines stopped. And all went black.

The pilot house of the Golden Dolphin was cloaked in an eerie light; only the glow of the instruments lit the bridge. Yaro Andropoulous squinted through the windshield, frustrated with the wipers to sweep away the torrential onslaught. Only moments before he'd sworn he'd glimpsed the spots and running lights of a large motor yacht, but they’d disappeared like a fleeting image. Quickly, he flicked a switch that shot a hard white beam slicing into the storm. He stared across the surging bow, searching for the mystery ship. But there was only river and rain and total darkness ahead. Surely, he thought, he must be seeing things.

A week before Christmas, the flag above the nation's Capitol drooped at half mast.

The headlines blared the tragedy:


The front page story went on to read:

During a severe storm on the lower Potomac River Saturday, the eight-five foot motor yacht Mona Lisa, owned by Senator Harley Sanford of North Carolina, was rammed by the freighter Golden Dolphin and sank within minutes. Five of the seven passengers, and three of the four crew members drowned or died from exposure to the icy waters.

Accounts from two of the survivors indicated the Mona Lisa had lost power as a result of the storm and was foundering when struck by the freighter. The order to abandon ship had been given moments before by the Mona Lisa's captain, Barney Alton.

(Details on 2A)

Part I


Chapter One

Washington, DC

October 1992

"Come on, Jonas, get your ass in here! You playin poker or watchin’ the goddamn tube?" Maury Pendergast yelled at the living room door, as his sausage fingers raked in the last poker pot. He neatly piled the bills to his right and stacked the quarters, four high, in front of them: perfect little silver towers guarding the king's treasury. He smiled.

Yeah, yeah, I’m comin’, Billy Jonas called back from the living room. Keep you’re friggin’ pants on. Billy had folded after the ante, whining that two feet in Texas with one-eyed Jacks wild was a stupid game, and why the hell did he have to donate his ante to the pot? Wait until it was his deal again, he told them, he'd play night baseball. Let's see how they liked that! He was ignored, as usual, and the hand was dealt anyway. Miffed, he'd grabbed a handful of peanuts and a fresh beer and sat out the long game glued to the TV. Normally apolitical, Jonas was mesmerized by the second of three presidential debates that saw the independent candidate steam rolling over the incumbent president and the opposition party state governor.

Helluva debate, he blurted, sprawling into his chair at the Formica kitchen table and popping the last peanut into his mouth. He picked a pimple on his cheek and paused thoughtfully to study the residue on his finger, then jerked forward and set the beer down. He grabbed a pack of cigarettes next to his dwindling funds, tapped one out, and flicked a stick match with his thumbnail. The flame erupted in a sulphur blast as he sucked in a lung full of cancer. A blue string of smoke snaked upward, captured in sinuous layer under the canopied light.

Do you have to smoke those damn things around me? griped Pete Martin. He fanned the air and scrunched up his face distastefully. His aging, sallow complexion made him look like a prune. Martin, like the other four players, worked at the Greenside Cab Company, and every Thursday night their quarter-half poker game rotated to one of their houses. Tonight's weekly ritual was at Leo Zimmer's.

Hey, man, Jonas said, Zimmer don't mind if I smoke, and it's his house. Ain't that right, Leo?

You got it, boy, agreed Zimmer, as if talking to a dimwit. You go ahead and smoke yer fuckin' brains out for all I care. Don’t matter to me, just as long as you keep donatin' your money to the cause. They all laughed, except Jonas. He was the only one who thought he was a good poker player. He just had lousy luck—ask him.

The deal went to Zimmer. Deftly he shuffled the deck then passed the cut to George Carson; they all knew what was coming next. Carson cocked his head sideways, as if counting the card edges, then slid his thumb and middle finger down either side about ten cards from the top, picked them clean, and set them in front of Zimmer. Cut 'em thin, so I can win, he said, for the tenth time that night. The table groaned, then groaned again when Zimmer called five card stud.

Five or seven card stud was Zimmer's favorite. Those were real poker. He played the odds and knew the transparent playing habits of the others. He was by far the best player at the table. To him, gambling was more than a diversion, it was an avocation, and the Thursday night quarter-half ritual helped sharpen his skills for pot-limit poker. That was his real excitement. That's when the smell of easy money consumed him like a gastronome in a French buffet, and the adrenaline flowed like a protracted orgasm. But when good games were hard to find, he turned to his love of horses—not for their beauty, only for their pari-mutuel excitement. As far as Zimmer was concerned, they were just big dumb animals blessed with competitive speed and a perfectly designed spot for a man to sit on their backs. So when he needed a gambling fix, and no poker game was on tap, he'd drive the hour and a half to Charles Town Race Track in West Virginia and scour the racing form in search of the elusive dark horse jackpot.

But the brightest spot in his otherwise neutered life was Las Vegas. There the lust for quick money swept the city and permeated the sparkling desert outpost. It was infectious. It was contagious. God, how he loved it. He'd become inebriated with gambling fever and practically go sleepless for four days. Once or twice a year he'd fly west to satiate the intense craving; and to assure the much anticipated sprees, he religiously made a deposit each Friday into his Las Vegas junket account—his Christmas club, as he thought of it. Eighty per cent was earmarked for gambling, and the other twenty for a memorable night with Suzie, his regular call girl. She would don a frilly French maid's uniform that popped her cleavage like two loaves of leavened bread, and flash her ample milk-white buttocks like a full moon on a dark horizon. Her tush was the finest Zimmer had ever seen; and he would fantasize he was lord of the manor and she was the upstairs maid as his hand glided lightly up the backs of her legs and softly caressed her abundant cheeks until it was all over for him. The strange interlude was woven with images of turreted country homes, Rolls Royces lined along curved driveways, and multitudes of black tied servants bowing obsequiously at the snap of his fingers.

But unlike most addicted gamblers—especially those who shared such grandiose dreams—Zimmer knew when to quit; he knew where to set prudent limits. His feet were firmly attached to reality enough to appreciate his secure existence. While his home was only a two bedroom cape cod in a working class neighborhood of Arlington, it was paid for. And his retirement check from his thirty year army career covered all the essentials. The hack job was for gambling—the first twenty-five percent going to the junket account, and the rest to poker and horses. Rarely was he extravagant with his betting, and in the seven years since he'd retired at full enlisted rank, he'd salted away over a hundred thousand dollars into various investments. He was content to let them grow with accumulated interest until he reached sixty, only six years away. Then he would consider moving to a modest home in a sunny climate.

Zimmer flipped the last up-card to Pete Martin, to his left. It was the nine of clubs. Four clubs were showing—the nine through the queen. Nine, Zimmer intoned. Four clubs to a possible straight flush. Martin kept lifting the corner of the down-card and peeking at it. Zimmer could tell he was dying to bet the hand.

The last card to Fat Maury was the queen of hearts. Queen, no help. A pair of eights, and a nine were showing.

Jonas's hand was the kind that sucked in bad poker players playing on the come. A three, a six, and a seven of random suits were showing, and maybe if he had a four or a five down he could miraculously pull an inside straight. Zimmer would have folded it after the deal. Two, no help. Thanks again for the donation, Billy.

Shee-it, man, Jonas griped, tossing his hand into the pot. A guy can't catch a break.

Zimmer studied the table, downed a swig from a whiskey neat next to his money pile, then dealt his own last card, the five of spades. My, my gentlemen, could that be another five I see? he taunted. He allowed a slight smile as his hand showed three fives and a king—a tough hand to beat under any circumstances, and he still hadn't looked at his down-card. Normally he wouldn't be so cavalier with his money, but in these peanut stakes games he sometimes needed to nudge the lugubrious flow of excitement with a touch of the unknown.

I'll bet a buck, Martin said impatiently, flipping it like a frisbee into the pot.

Hey, protested Maury, it ain't your bet. Zimmer's high on the table.

Well tough shit, it's already in there. What're you gonna do?

Well, damn, groaned Pendergast, I ain't raisin' into no four flush. I'll call.

Zimmer shook his head. One of these days you assholes are gonna learn some poker rules. Now, let's find out who the real winner is. He started to slide his hole-card off the edge of the table for a peek. The phone rang.

Hey, you ain't gonna answer that now? Martin moaned. He was gripping his hole-card, repeatedly tapping it against the table.

Zimmer kicked back his chair. Might be my bookie. I got a ton a’ bets on Ohio State, Miami, and LSU. I been waitin’ for the spread. Gotta check it out. Your hand ain't goin' nowhere Pete. Just cool it, I'll be back in a minute.

He walked quickly through the living room, past Jonas who was glued to the debate again, and down the hall to his bedroom at the back of the house. The only phone was on the night stand. It was already on the fourth ring before he picked up.

Yeah, he answered, Zimmer here.

A distant voice, through a fuzzy connection, was calling his name. Leo, is that you?

Zimmer frowned before the deep Polish accent came back to him. And then a wide smile split his face as he practically yelled into the mouthpiece. Max? Is that you? Where the hell you been, you dumb, old Pollack? Damned if you ain't alive, after all. Zimmer’s voice held a warmth never shown to anyone else. Max had been his only real friend, though the friendship had been linked to the crossing of Army assignments. But when it had, they'd been inseparable. They’d tied on countless drunks, screwed or been screwed by every hooker from Saigon to Berlin, and had either kicked or had their butts kicked in every GI watering hole in between. But their best times had been the scams they'd pulled off. They'd been a clique of two, with a closed membership, and it was almost ten years since Zimmer had last heard from him. Several years earlier an old sergeant acquaintance had told Zimmer that Max had been busted a month before retirement for punching out an officer. But other than that, as far as he knew his old friend had fallen off the planet.

Damn, it's good to hear your voice again Leo. It's been too long. Too damn long.

It sure has, Max. I swear to God I thought you were dead. Where the hell are you? When're we gonna get together?

Soon, old buddy. I promise. But I don't travel so good any more, not since I busted up my leg a couple a' years ago. He was silent a moment. When he spoke again his words were measured. "Look, Leo, the reason I'm callin' is I need you. I'm onto somethin' really big. I mean a hundred times…a thousand times better than Farrington ever was. I need a point man in

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