New York’s Financial District
Time clamped his jaw shut.
“You can be angry later,” said Treeves. “Anger has no place here.”
Of course, Treeves was right. However, his admonishment only served to make Time angrier. He hated it when Treeves “read his mind.”
Time said, “You didn’t think it was worth mentioning during our pre-mission briefings that we’d be in close contact with a compound resembling VX? What about dirty bombs? Are any of them lying around posing as paperweights?”
Although it was next to impossible to determine with any degree of certainty what Treeves enjoyed, Time believed that his genius partner took no small satisfaction in always being one step ahead of everyone around him. Treeves knew precisely how to regularly remind Time that he was nothing more than his Weapon.
“The RVX was not originally an element in your part of this operation,” Treeves said patiently, as if he were explaining a plot twist in an overly complicated storybook to a child. “These operations often take turns off their predetermined paths. Unexpected complications are an inherent part of our work.”
Time knew a way to calm himself. He used his only advantage. He was one of the select few people on earth who knew Edgar Treeves well enough to rattle his extremely well constructed cage.
“Well, if, as you say, our target is suicidal, why don’t we just wait here in Lang’s office?” he said. “Perhaps the annoying little son of a bitch will decide to kill himself without inconveniencing us any further.”
Of course, Treeves recognized the tactic. Yet he was forced to suppress a reaction. He was playing out scenarios in his mind, much the way a chess grandmaster imagines pieces advancing on the board, studying positions that don’t yet exist. Treeves had told Time in the past that he could be thrown off his game by distractions in the same way that Bobby Fischer claimed that noise and lights affected his game during the world championship match he won against Boris Spassky.
Treeves said, “I would appreciate it if you would curb your desire to bait me by wandering off topic with your attempts at infantile humor. Instead, please provide me with a brief summary of what you know about VX. I wish to be reassured that you have a realistic appreciation of the threat level we currently face.”
“If you insist,” said Time. “Let me begin by making it clear that VX is such horrible stuff I should have be told if we were going to be anywhere within a mile of it. It was developed in England in the early nineteen-fifties and is one of the most potent nerve agents. It’s an odorless tasteless oily amber liquid with a consistency similar to motor oil. Due to its slow evaporation rate, it continues to poison the atmosphere around it for extended periods.
“VX prevents the proper operation of chemicals in the body that act as the off switch for glands and muscles. It’s not wise to have its vapors anywhere near your skin, eyes, or lungs. Within seconds of exposure, a victim experiences symptoms such as painful watery eyes, blurred vision, runny nose, drooling, excessive sweating, chest tightness, drowsiness, headache, rapid breathing, confusion, weakness, and that’s not all. The unfortunate subject who gets a more concentrated dose experiences convulsions, paralysis, and respiratory failure. Any direct exposure to VX without immediate and comprehensive counter measures is invariably fatal.
“Officially, civilized nations have banned it. Only the United States and Russia still maintain stockpiles and only the Russians seem inclined to sell it. Fortunately, targets dislike the stuff as much as we do. Not only is VX too volatile for contained warfare, it has the atomic bomb factor. MAD. Mutually Assured Destruction. Targets don’t use it for fear that we’d turn around and let it loose on them.”
“An adequate summary,” said Treeves. “You’re correct about their reluctance to employ VX. However, what if an ambitious and egomaniacal prince agreed to participate in a complex plot that concluded with him appearing to save lower Manhattan from a dose of deadly nerve agent, thereby giving him a halo of heroism bright enough to gain absolute control of his country?
“However, as you stated, there remains the issue of volatility. Keep in mind, that in this instance, the aim isn’t to kill or die. Unfortunately, science, especially the field of more effective ways to exterminate humans, always moves forward. Fourteen months ago, a Texas defense contractor, funded by our government, developed RVX, or Reagent-VX. Until a short time ago, that firm was represented by the late Charles Lang.
“RVX evaporates at a much slower rate and is almost seven times more potent than VX. It comes in two parts. One part is a liquid that’s completely harmless until a reagent is added, converting that substance into active RVX. You could carry the liquid in one hand and the reagent in the other and drop both of them on the floor. As long as they don’t mix, they’re harmless. However, if they come in contact with each other and, for example, you allowed them to flow down the side of a building such as this, well…”
That was too much.
“Dammit, why wasn’t I briefed about this?” Time said. “I’m not some infallible machine. What if Elio had just enough time to retrieve that pistol and shoot you? Then what? I’d be stumbling around in the dark.”
“Has it escaped your notice that I am briefing you?” said Treeves. “And why do you insist on harping on the possibility of my death? I don’t expect to be killed. Even without you, I’m confident I can extract myself gracefully from any reasonable situation. With you, getting killed would be a very bad stroke of fortune indeed. I need your complete concentration on your mission priorities. I’ll transmit additional information to you if and when you need it. You’re intelligent enough, but thinking your way out of the situation we’re facing at the moment is not in your purview. As for briefing you regarding the RVX, the general and I decided against it unless it became unavoidable. Your concealment quota is adequate, but we both know you don’t perform at my level. You can slip. I will not.”
“I can’t read you,” said Time. “We both know that. But I know how the general thinks. How you help him think. Elio’s plan was to buy the RVX from Lang, smuggle it out, and somehow have the prince save the day. They were never planning to pour it down the side of this building. We came for the prince. Probably for Lang as well. The general wanted to be absolutely sure they were on the wrong side. If so, he wanted them dead. Those people outside were the audience for our staging of their deaths.”
“Yes, that’s correct,” said Treeves.
He was becoming impatient with the discussion. His thoughts had already moved on. Treeves had worked with Time long enough to know he would continue to perform as ordered regardless of how he felt about it. Time had been trained to be more than a highly effective killing apparatus. He was totally controlled by Treeves’ intellect. They were not friends. However, Time could have never developed into what he was without his respect for the general and without a connection to Treeves that went beyond trust.
Treeves said, “We don’t provoke our opponents until and unless it’s necessary. We react. My responsibility is to make sure you have a chance to act before our targets do. This could have gone well. Elio would have killed Lang. The prince would have appeared to expire in Lang’s office due to stress. Elio should have ordered the hidden target to exit the building as they had planned. Lang had secret exits installed and he was happy to share that information with his buyers. By seducing a high-level member of this firm, we were able to discover and secure the hidden escape routes from this floor.”
“Precisely, she wanted complete control of this firm. Have you ever met anyone with money who felt they were rich enough? The general and I attempted to locate the missing RVX, but Lang was clever. He used a layer through a layer. Even Lang himself didn’t know where the RVX was stored. He only knew how he could get to it when it was needed. Despite what you’ve imagined in the past, I can’t read minds. The general had a high-level threat team ready to pick off the target with the RVX as soon as he appeared. However, minutes before you came into Lang’s office, I was convinced that Elio had changed his mind. If you like, I’ll explain the details later, but I saw the profile change. He had decided to make history. So, while Lang was still alive, he spoke to the target holding the RVX and told him to stay where he was. It was then that I decided the most prudent reaction was to eliminate all the targets in the office.”
“Question my decisions if you like,” Treeves continued. “However, remember that, not ten minutes ago, you would have chosen a different killing sequence. I think you would have begun with the woman and the seated man would have put a bullet in the center of your chest. His overall reaction quotas and his peripheral vision was vastly superior to hers and, judging by the way he held his weapon, I can say with over a ninety-five percent certainty he was an excellent shot.”
Time let it go. There was no point in arguing with Treeves, especially because he’d never known his analyses to be wrong.
“Well, there’s no chance I’ll give anything away now,” Time said.
He glanced at Lang’s broken corpse.
He said, “He was something of a genius too, wasn’t he? I guess sometimes even geniuses are fools.”
Treeves made a small noise in the back of this throat.
“In any case,” he said, “it’s a moot point. From the beginning, they planned to kill him. At the proper time, the prince would have been released after convincing Elio and the targets to surrender peacefully on the guaranteed condition they’d be remanded to the prince’s country. After a year or two in a comfortable prison, they’d enjoy a lifetime of privilege on the public dime. The prince would also have Lang’s RVX to use or sell as a nice little bonus.”
“Not a bad plan,” said Time. “I suppose I don’t need to ask how you know so much about it.”
“I can be very persuasive,” Treeves said, without a hint of modesty. “Plus the title of Diplomatic Corporate Liaison carries with it an unbreakable aura of confidentiality. I’ve spent the past ten days convincing the prince that his interests were much closer to mine than he might have suspected. Naturally, I couldn’t push, so I wasn’t privy to the persons, time, and place, but he was very proud of this venture. It wasn’t all that difficult to allow him to convince me how clever he was and how powerful he would shortly become. Imagine how credible his story would have been if he’d left the building with a Diplomatic Corporate Liaison supporting the tale of his heroic stance in the face of mad terrorists?”
“What about the sleeper outside? And this woman here?”
“For that matter, what about me?”
“I would imagine this is how the story would unfold,” Treeves said. “You managed to grab a pistol. Then you shot the guard, the woman shot you, and, just before you expired, you managed to get off a final shot to finish her off. You were quite foolish to attempt such heroics.”
“Naturally. Bad judgment on my part. May I ask why you’ve finally decided to tell me all of this now?”
“Obviously, you had to know some of it. Telling you the rest helped to focus my thoughts. It was a good use of my time as I reviewed the situation and decided our next move.”
Treeves looked at the door. He was ready. He reverted to signals.
“The younger target. Restraint only.”
Time walked across the room. He stood, his back against the wall, the door to his left. Treeves moved to the other side. He signaled and Time opened the door about five inches.
Treeves, perfectly mimicking Elio’s voice and using his native language called out, “I have orders for Freddie. Send him in.”
The target guarding the hostages assumed that it was time for Freddie to make his final exit and motioned for him to go into Lang’s office. The young target entered as if he were strolling into a dorm room. He seemed pleased he’d been upgraded from hostage control to the center of the action.
Treeves quickly closed the door. The target’s Glock was held loosely in his hand, his finger not even close to the trigger. Time formed a flat plane with his right hand. With his index finger pressed against his thumb, he smashed the side of his hand into the bridge of the target’s nose, breaking it. The kid’s eyes watered and pain rendered him mute. Time took away the Glock and used it to hit the target almost gently behind his right ear. He placed his right hand over the kid’s mouth and used his left foot to help the target to the ground by bending his knee from the back. Then Time moved behind him, put down the gun, and placed his left forearm against the target’s throat.
With his lips close to the guard’s right ear, Time whispered, “I can break your neck faster than you can fill your lungs with enough air to make a sound. Grunt very softly if you understand.”
The kid grunted.
“Put your hands in front of you,” said Time.
Treeves secured them with a piece of electrical cord.
“Where is the other man?” Treeves said.
In a panicky whisper, the kid said, “Who are you?”
His eyes widened as he took in the carnage in the room.
“Don’t hurt him,” said Treeves.
Time understood and did the opposite. The kid grunted and began to sweat.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he said, pain straining his voice.
Time gave him a limited amount of air.
“Are you talking about the guy outside?” the kid said. “He’s the only one I know about.”
Treeves signaled, “Lying.”
Time used two fingers of his right hand to apply pressure to a nerve bundle underneath the target’s left ear. A lightening bolt of pain shot from his toes to jaw. Time held him tighter. The kid began to tremble. Time tightened his grip to deal with the sweat.
“Listen, I’m just a bodyguard,” said the target. “I do what I’m told. When I got this job, they said there might be exercises like this.”
Treeves whispered, “Look around you. Do they look as if they’re part of an exercise?”
Treeves knelt in front of the target and considered him for a moment.
He whispered, “Listen, I believe you. We’re Americans and we don’t want to harm you, but you must tell us what you know. I’ll tell my superiors you cooperated and we’ll all get out of here alive. Where is the other man?”
Treeves knew every trick. No one could project sincerity like he could. But Time had been with him too long and clearly saw through the smoke and mirrors. Long ago, he discovered that, more than the violence inherent in his work, he disliked the dishonesty Treeves employed so skillfully.
“He’s in the last office to the left, it’s 2001,” the kid said. “I don’t know what he’s doing there, but if anything unplanned happens, I’m supposed to go and knock four times.”
“Show me how. Knock on the floor,” said Treeves.
The target knocked on the floor with the knuckles of this right hand. Twice quickly, a pause, and then twice quickly again.
“Is that all you know?” said Treeves, tilting his head slightly.
“Yeah, that’s all I know. Please, you gotta believe me.”
The kid looked at the prince.
“He’s with us,” he said, desperately. “Jesus, he talks to the president. Just ask. I’m one of the good guys, like you.”
“Eliminate,” Treeves signaled.
Time snapped the target’s neck. He did his best to make sure there was no awareness or pain.
Treeves said something in the voice of the leader. He answered himself in the voice of the kid who had just died. He saw the expression on Time’s face.
“It had to be done,” Treeves said, switching back to Dutch.
“Was he telling the truth about thinking that he worked for our side because he worked for the prince?” Time said.
“Not entirely. He was using that as a rationale. However, it’s irrelevant.”
He gestured at the bodies in the room.
“He saw our faces and what we’d done,” Treeves said. “He’d been bought. There was no other option.”
“We have a very limited window,” Treeves continued. “The target holding the RVX must be a serious man, not easily rattled, but by now, he’ll be agitated. There’s probably no code or set check-in times that could be accidentally missed. The prince was more valuable to them than the dispersal of the RVX.”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t have been so quick to neutralize everyone,” Time said.
“This is a complex scenario,” said Treeves. “One can’t take back moves. It’s pointless to think like that.”
Time had no inclination to argue philosophy during combat, but it crossed his mind that he’d just killed a defenseless young man. Someone, somewhere, might miss him in the days ahead. He wasn’t inclined to think of it as a game.
“Focus,” Treeves said. “Give yourself five seconds to think of those people in the reception area and everyone within twenty blocks of this building, then clear your mind.”
Treeves nodded at the guard’s body.
“That was a target,” he said. “A clear and present threat to what we’re here to do.”
Time’s lips tightened. No matter what his partner said, it always seemed as if Treeves could read minds. Whenever it was done to him, he felt exposed.
Treeves retrieved the site-to-site communicator. He weighed his options and then turned up the volume. As Elio, he spoke into the microphone.
“Where have you been? What are you doing?” the target holding the RVX responded.
Treeves responded using Elio’s voice.
“Lang was stronger than I anticipated,” he said. “I wanted more information about his source. I was wise to keep him alive. His treachery was limitless. You don’t have the true reagent. If you mix and release the liquids now, they’ll flow harmlessly down this building and we’ll appear to be incompetent fools. Fortunately, Mr. Lang was wise enough to have the true reagent hidden here in his office.”
Treeves stopped speaking. Asking questions at such a moment would raise the target’s suspicion level. Treeves knew that most people wanted to talk, to convey information, especially in high stress situations. He waited.
“Don’t worry,” he heard the target say. “After you told me the plan had changed, I armed the dead man switch. I have a strong right hand and I can hold it until you bring me the true reagent.”
“You’re a good man. I won’t be long and I’ll bring Lang with me. The prince will be released. After that, I’ll begin killing hostages. When the FBI hears the shots, they’ll have to come after us. They’ll be responsible for what comes next. We’ll release the true death on them and you and I shall die a glorious death together.”
Treeves closed the connection. He repeated the conversation word for word to Time.
“So it’s simple,” said Time. “We have a man determined to die with his thumb on a dead man’s switch. If he releases it, the real reagent and the RVX will cover the side of this building.”
“We can’t be sure about his thumb. He said he armed the switch and it was in his right hand. He didn’t say his thumb was holding the trigger.”
“I think what’s more important is what happens after his thumb or finger comes off the trigger.”
“No, what’s important is how can we keep his thumb or finger or whatever appendage he’s using remaining on the trigger after he’s dead. We’ll both go in.”
“Of course. You told him you were bringing Lang. What do we go in as? Door-to-door weapons salesmen?”
“You could say that,” said Treeves.
He glanced at the body of Lang.
“You must be joking. That won’t work.”
Treeves eyebrows came together slightly.
“Have you ever known me to joke during an operation? This man is no fool, but he’ll hang on to his belief that he’s in control as long as we give him the opportunity. It’s a reasonable risk.”
“I’ll have to be Lang,” Time said. “You’ll need to interact with the target.”
He nodded at Elio.
“You’re inches taller than him,” Time said.
“I can keep up the illusion for a short time. We’ll use the fast drill, my right to your left. Complete focus on the target. I’m counting on the fact that he hasn’t spent time in close proximity to Lang. In fact, most likely, they’ve kept him out of sight. Your hair color is similar and we’ll make adjustments to your clothing.”
Once Treeves decided on a course of action, he displayed no hesitation. They changed clothes as quickly as possible.
Even though he’d watched similar transformations in the past, Time still marveled at Treeves’ ability to arrange his body so that he almost fit into Elio’s clothes. He made a few expert cuts in the less visible areas of the garment. Treeves adjusted his height by bending his knees and dropping his shoulders. He practiced striding across the room and slipped into Elio’s manner of walking, calling upon a photographic memory of his gait.
Treeves broke open a black pen and distributed the ink through his hair. Then he slicked it back to resemble Elio’s style. He rubbed cologne off the dead man’s throat and onto himself.
Although he was approximately Lang’s height, it was more difficult for Time to transform himself. Perhaps the target had seen a picture of Lang. There was also the fact that the target believed that Lang had recently undergone severe physical punishment.
Treeves studied Time’s face.
He said, “You understand what’s needed?”
He lifted a heavy paperweight from Lang’s desk.
Treeves said, “Ready?”
Treeves hit him on his right cheek, aiming for a spot between Time’s eye socket and jaw. It was a solid blow, enough to cause immediate swelling and bruising, but not enough to cause confusion or permanent damage.
“Once more,” he said.
He struck Time with a glancing blow on the other cheek, using a rougher edge. A gash opened and blood streamed out.
“Good,” said Treeves. “That should do. How do you feel?”
“Like perhaps you enjoyed that too much.”
“Are you clear headed?”
“Enough to know I don’t want another.”
Treeves studied him closely. “Fortunately, you don’t need another. You’re swelling nicely. Remember to keep your head low. Be defeated, frightened.”
“As opposed to my confident this-is-definitely-going-to-work self?” Time said, lowering his head.
He went to his medical bag. Inside, his fingers found a combination of pressure points on the cloth. A compartment snapped open and two objects fell into his hand. One was slim, about six inches long. The other was similar, but shorter. He also removed a bag of plasma.
“How close do you have to get to be sure we can make the switch in time?” said Treeves.
“There’s no sure in a business like this,” Time said. “It would be help if I had some physical characteristics. Could you tell anything from his voice? Will his reaction quota allow him to put up a defense?”
Treeves shook his head. “Too little time. We don’t have anything. This man was always apart from us. We’ll have to go in fast and take a chance.”
Time thought it was a weak plan, begging a catastrophic result. But he knew that if they did nothing, disaster was certain.
“Go in before me,” Treeves said. “Let him have a quick look at the damage on your face, then lower your head. I’ll follow you. Don’t move close to him right away. Go to the window. I imagine there’s some kind of explosive charge on it. If this goes badly, at least we won’t know about it. Pretend to change the reagent.”
“Why don’t I swap out the real reagent and then take him?”
“You’ll never have that much time. This illusion will only last for seconds.”
Treeves whispered something in the language of the targets.
“That means, ‘Hold on tightly to the trigger.’ We’ll be on a two-count after that.”
“Repeat the phrase,” Treeves said.
Time repeated it until Treeves was satisfied.
“Let’s go,” said Treeves.
Treeves opened the door and, with Elio’s voice, ordered the hostages to turn their eyes to the floor. He growled that anyone who looked anywhere else would be immediately executed.
“Come here,” Treeves said to the last visible target, standing on the far side of the room. “I have new instructions.”
When the target was a few feet from Treeves, his eyes widened. Time rushed out and shoved the six-inch blade under his chin. He didn’t allow him to fall to the floor. Wrapping one arm under his shoulder, Time dragged him out of view of the hostages.
Treeves reminded them that the floor had been wired with explosives and any attempt by them to move would mean certain death for all of them. However, if they cooperated, they would soon be free to go.
Treeves knocked the code on the door of the office numbered 2001. He cracked open the door and said he was coming in with Lang. The target responded.
Time opened the door and walked into the room. The target was in a standard office chair on wheels between the door and the window. He was sitting straight up with both his forearms on the arms of the chair. His right thumb was gripping the trigger of a device that he held in his palm.
When Time entered the room, he partially obscured Treeves, who spoke to the target and then casually stepped behind him, a natural move to keep an eye on Time, who was posing as Lang. He told the target holding the switch that Lang had the real reagent and it was fitting that the traitor should be the one to add it to the RVX. His final betrayal would be that he would destroy his own city. It was one thing to sell something so deadly. It was entirely different to be the one who actually deployed it.
Time moved to the window. He feigned pain in his body, as if he had been beaten in his torso as well as his face. He kept his distance as he passed by the target. Time had outstanding visual memory and he took a snapshot of how the man sat and held the device.
When he reached the window, he stopped and turned to face the target. Treeves and Time had him between them. There was no point in waiting any longer. Treeves said the phrase, jumped forward, clamped his right hand over the target’s thumb and made his entire world the pressure he exerted to keep the keep the target’s thumb on the trigger.
They were lucky. Treeves forward motion had pushed the chair closer to Time. It gave Time a split second extra to reach the target, place his left hand on his wrist, and slide down towards where Treeves was preventing him from releasing the trigger. The moment Time’s fingers touched the top of Treeves’ hand, they slid them apart, maintaining pressure while exchanging positions. Time now controlled of the dead man’s switch. They had practiced this type of exchange countless times.
Time placed his right hand on the target’s right forearm, pinning him. Once he had control, he twisted the target’s arm counter clockwise, exposing the wrist. He counted on his speed to protect him from a defensive maneuver. Time brought his head down and used the small blade that he had placed in his mouth to slice deeply into the precise nerves that controlled the motion of the target’s hand.
He bent the wrist backwards. The target screamed as blood gushed from his artery and splattered Time’s face and neck. To be certain he had control, Time released his right hand from his opponent’s forearm, grabbed the target’s hair, and pulled him face down onto his rising right knee. He connected well and knew the target would not be conscious as he bled out.
He said to Treeves, “Get them in here now. This is slippery as hell.”
Treeves returned to where the hostages waited and, still in the guise of the leader, chose one of the more powerful cell phones from their possessions. He dialed a number that would automatically lock in a secure line.
He said, “We’re ready, general. We need Mr. Reilly in 2001, stat.”
Within minutes, the air filled with tear gas. A team of commandos rushed in, killing the dead targets, and rescuing the hostages. As they did that, a secondary team lead by Explosives Specialist Reilly went to disarm the RVX.
Two bodies were brought in. They were anonymous corpses that had been collected precisely for this purpose. The United States would announce that four hostages, including the well-known attorney Charles Lang and a Diplomatic Corporate Liaison, were victims of a senseless terrorist act. Tragically, a heroic young Navy doctor, James Warren, had been killed attempting to protect the prince. However, the greatest loss was the prince, who had worked so tirelessly for peace. He suffered a fatal heart attack during the crisis.
Treeves and Time were brought out long after the hostages. By that time, the news stations had left. There was no mention of them in any reports of the incident because no one recalled anything particularly interesting about them.