Stone Barrington is settling in for some downtime in New York City when an anonymous enemy makes himself known. This nameless foe's threats hit close to home, and before Stone can retaliate, the fearsome messages turn into very real consequences.
With the help of old friends--and a lovely new tech-savvy acquaintance--Stone sets out to unravel the fatal agenda. But as the web of adversaries expands, Stone realizes that no place is safe, and he'll have to flush out the mastermind before he and those closest to him are silenced for good....
About the Author
Hometown:Key West, Florida; Mt. Desert, Maine; New York, New York
Date of Birth:January 9, 1938
Place of Birth:Manchester, Georgia
Education:B.A., University of Georgia, 1959
Read an Excerpt
Stone Barrington awoke slowly on a Sunday morning. The evening before had been spent with his good friend Dino Bacchetti, and had involved good beef, good wine, and various spirits before and after dinner. Stone was alone in his bed, which was not his preference.
He was alone in his house, too, he recalled, since he had given his cook and housekeeper, Helene, and her husband, Fred Flicker, the weekend off. There was, he remembered, a housemaid stationed in the kitchen to meet his culinary needs. He picked up the phone and dialed an extension.
"Yes, sir?" an accented voice responded. "This is Gilia."
Gilia was Greek, being one of a number of Helene's nieces who occasionally landed in his employ.
"Breakfast," he said huskily.
"Your usual, sir?" she asked.
"Yes, thank you."
"Only a little minutes," she replied.
"Good." He hung up.
Gilia had been taught well. The eggs were soft and creamy and properly salted, the sausages were tender and juicy, and his WolfermanÕs English muffin was perfectly toasted and buttered. By the time he had wolfed it all down, he felt restored. He was searching for an old movie to watch on TV and had just selected a John Wayne western, John FordÕs Rio Grande, when his cell phone rang-the secure one. He picked it up. ÒSpeak,Ó he said. It was likely to be one of two people on the line; he hoped it was the tender gender one.
"What kind of greeting is that?" she asked.
"A cautious one," Stone replied. "I was hoping it was you and not Lance." Lance Cabot was the director of Central Intelligence, for whom Stone served as a special adviser. The woman on the line was the President of the United States, Holly Barker, with whom Stone had had an affectionate relationship for many years, off and on.
"I was thinking of coming to New York," she said. "When would be convenient for you?"
"How about right this minute?"
"You understand there are arrangements to be made."
"I thought we had that all ironed out and given a code name, 'Turtle Bay.'" That was the name of the neighborhood surrounding a private garden on which his house was located. "All you have to do is dial a number, speak those words, and you'll be here in time for lunch."
"I know that's supposed to be how it works," she said, "but I've never actually used it. And things have a way of going awry when their operation depends on the workings of the federal government."
"Oh, ye of little faith," Stone said, reprovingly.
"My faith in my government, or lack of same, is based on long experience."
"But your experience at the top of it is brief," he replied. "Try it and see."
"Hang," she said, picking up another phone and dialing an extension. She held the other phone so he could hear the conversation.
"Yes, Madam President," a male voice said after a single ring.
"Execute Turtle Bay," she said.
"Your helicopter will arrive in thirty minutes," he replied. "ETA, East Side Heliport in one hour and forty-two minutes. Weather is favorable all the way. A three-car SUV group will greet and transport you to your destination."
"Excellent," she said, and hung up. "You get that?"
"I did. Sounds as if it should work as planned," he said. "Do you want to go out for dinner?"
"You know we can't appear in a New York restaurant without causing a press riot."
"Then I'll have you all to myself."
"You could invite the Bacchettis," she replied.
"I'll look forward to that. Tell Viv I'm dressing to kill. See you soon."
Stone looked forward to it as well. He called another number.
"Bacchetti," a gruff voice replied.
"The one who didn't have to go through menopause."
"Holly's on her way. Dinner here this evening?"
"Viv will want to know what we're wearing."
"You and I are wearing tuxedos. Tell Viv to let her imagination run wild."
"I can't do that. It would mean an all-afternoon shopping trip and a big dent in her credit card."
"C'est la guerre, pal. Six-thirty for drinks." He hung up. Then, as he did, he remembered that Helene was away for the weekend, and he was not cooking in a tuxedo, or out of one, for that matter. He called Fred's cell phone.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Fred," Stone said, "but our friend Holly is coming to dinner, as well as the Bacchettis, and I don't know if Gilia can handle that."
"One moment, sir." He came back a moment later. "Helene says Gilia can manage with what's in the fridge and the pantry. She'll call her with instructions. Not to worry."
"Thank you, Fred," Stone said and hung up, feeling relieved.
Holly arrived with four pieces of luggage and one Secret Service agent, a woman named Midge. The other agents had to loiter in the garage or around the neighborhood.
She flung herself into his arms. "I want you," she said, "but I need a nap."
"You know where the bed is," he said, leaving Midge to get Holly's luggage aboard the elevator. Stone looked in his study for a book he had been reading but didn't find it; so he went downstairs to his law office and did. He was about to leave the room when there was a trumpet fanfare, and a message appeared on his desktop computer screen. Stone walked over, sat down, and read it.
Your computer, its hard disk, and all your programs and files are now frozen. Please understand that I have been reading them for weeks and, as a result, I know everything there is to know about you-your address and phone numbers, your social security number, your tax returns, and all your financial information are at my fingertips. I can dump your stock portfolio and deposit the funds in any bank account, anywhere. I can publish your tax returns in your local newspaper. I can print and distribute all the deeply personal e-mails you have sent to women over the years, some of them well-known to the public. In short, I can make your life a permanent hell.
But I am a reasonable person, and I will provide you with a means of avoiding these disclosures. All you have to do is to purchase one million dollars' worth of Bitcoin on the Internet and transfer them to an account that I will provide details for later. Upon receipt, your files will be restored, your computer unlocked, and it will be as if you never had the pleasure of meeting me. You have until noon Friday next to accomplish this: if you should fail to meet that deadline, your life will lie in ruins.
There is a window at the bottom of your screen where you may send me an e-mail, should you wish.
Stone read it again, then pressed the Print Screen button and waited for the printer to spit out the copy. When it had done so, he typed GO FUCK YOURSELF into the e-mail window. Then he took his book upstairs and settled in to read.
It was the best kind of dinner: old friends, a comfortable atmosphere with a cheerful fire burning in the grate, and a dinner that was nearly as good as Helene's would have been. Afterward, the ladies excused themselves for a trip to the powder room. They might as well have been in London, Stone thought.
"What's new?" Dino asked.
Stone took a folded sheet of paper from an inside pocket and handed it to him. "This is new," he said.
Dino read it, twice. "Are your computers blocked?"
"Mine is. I didn't try Joan's."
"Are you going to pay the million bucks?"
"Of course not!" Stone said, with as much restraint as he could muster.
"You're pretty hot about this, then," Dino said, leaning back in his chair and sipping his cognac.
"Wouldn't you be?"
"Me? I would have already turned this over to our tech guys and forgotten about it."
"I don't have a tech staff on call," Stone said.
"Don't you? There's Bob Cantor; there's that kid, Huey, that you worked with on the New York Times thing. And of course, there's Lance Cabot, who has the tech world at his fingertips."
"Oh, them. Well, I guess I could call one of them."
"Call all of them," Dino advised. "Otherwise, you're going to find yourself with thousands of dollars' worth of useless computers. Oh, and then there's the scandal, if your attacker stumbles into your e-mails from Lance."
Stone took a big gulp of his cognac and swirled it around in his mouth before swallowing. "It's embarrassing," he said.
"I think Lance is going to find it more than embarrassing," Dino said. "He's been sending us all those reports from the field, along with the analyses."
Stone winced. "You're right. I'm going to have to call
"And then . . ." Dino said slowly, "there's Holly. I expect you have quite a few e-mails from her in an encrypted file."
Stone sucked his teeth and bathed them in brandy. "Thank God they're encrypted," he said.
"Your computer was encrypted, too," Dino pointed out. "And yet . . ."
The women returned in time to keep Stone from exploding.
"What's wrong?" Holly asked Stone.
"Wrong? Not a thing."
"I'm not buying that."
"And look at Dino," Viv said. "He's just scored some big point. So Stone's ox has probably been gored."
"We're not talking," Dino said smugly.
"Stone?" Holly said.
"Dino's not talking."
"Dino," Viv said, "you're going to tell me."
"If I feel like it," Dino replied airily.
"You may want to reconsider your position."
"It's Stone's problem. He can tell you, if he wants."
"It's something I'd rather keep to myself," Stone said firmly. "For the moment."
Later, Holly crawled into bed with Stone and slung a leg over his. ÒAre you sure you donÕt want to tell me?Ó
"I'll handle it myself," Stone replied, giving her a long kiss.
"You're trying to distract me from the subject?" she said.
Stone kissed her again and threw in a caress to a place she loved. "Is it working?"
It was working.
Stone arrived at his desk the following morning, approximately on time, and his secretary, Joan, knocked and came in. ÒWe donÕt have any computers,Ó she said. ÒJust black screens. Nothing works. Shall I call somebody?Ó
Stone thought about that: if he said no, he'd never hear the end of it. He handed her the sheet of paper.
She read it carefully. "There's nothing pertaining to you, explicitly. He doesn't use your name, address, or phone number. It's a scam. He sent out a zillion of these, and it's just a phishing expedition. Don't bite."
Stone said nothing.
"You bit," she said firmly.
"I only told him to go fuck himself."
"Hook, line, and sinker," she said.
"Now he knows you exist. Before, you were just a file name among millions he stole from some mailing list. And it never hurts not to be disrespectful. What's in it for you to piss him off?"
"You're exaggerating the problem," Stone said. "From now on, I'll just ignore him."
His computer made a rude buzzing noise, and he and Joan both looked at the screen.
Now, it's a million and a half.
Stone swung around and aimed for the keyboard. Joan took hold of his chair and held him back. "Don't, you'll just make it worse!"
"How could it be worse?" Stone asked.
"Well, he could be listening to our conversation."
Stone opened his mouth to speak, and he clapped a hand over it.
"Shush," she whispered into his ear.
Stone nodded and removed his hand.
Joan whispered in his ear, "Call Lance."
Stone did not want to make this call. Every time he asked Lance Cabot for something, there were repercussions. Lance always wanted something in return, and it was usually more than he had given Stone, or more than Stone wanted to give him. He dialed the number.
"Good morning, Stone," Lance said in his silken baritone and New England accent.
"Good morning, Lance," Stone replied.
"What may the Central Intelligence Agency do for you this fine day?"
"I have a problem, one that involves the Agency, you specifically."
"I don't much like the sound of that," Lance said.
"Neither do I, but there it is."
"There what is?"
"There is an attempt at extortion, concerning the computer systems in my home and office."
"Let me guess. Someone claims to have made a movie of you masturbating to a porno movie."
"Not that one. No grounds."
"If you say so."
"I do say so."
"Someone has frozen my computers and threatens to destroy and expose their contents unless I pay him one and a half million dollars in Bitcoin."
"I don't see the problem," Lance said. "You surely have that many dollars to spare. Our investigation of your background shows that you do. Pay the extra two cents."
This was from an old Yiddish joke dating to the days of vaudeville, but Stone didn't bite. "If it were only two cents, I still wouldn't pay it."
"Oh, Stone, you choose the oddest times to become a man of principle. Why do I care what happens to your computers?"
"Because there are many communications and documents from you lodged on their hard drives," Stone said. "The man purports to have read all my important information, and one assumes this would include all those little love letters of yours and the details of a number of Agency operations, some of which may still be running."
Lance took a moment of silence for that to soak in. "We are not going to give your extortionist one and a half million dollars in Bitcoin," he said.
"As I've said, neither am I. So where does that leave us?"
"Where do you think it leaves us?" Lance snapped.
"It leaves you worse off than me."
This stopped Lance for a full ten seconds. "Are you threatening me, Stone?"
"No, an extortionist is threatening you-and, of course, me, as well."
"What do you propose I should do about this situation?"
"Well," Stone said. "Best case: you have your people track down the extortionist, destroy all his equipment, put his name on every conceivable watch list, which would keep him from finding this sort of work again. And, come to think of it, maybe slap him around a bit, just enough to give him a glimpse of his own blood."
"You've been watching too many Bruce Willis films," Lance said.
"No, I've been reading your ops reports. Now, have you a counterproposal for action?"
"'Action this day,'" Lance muttered.
"Fine with me. I've got until noon Friday."
"I was quoting Winston Churchill," Lance said, "not making a suggestion. Churchill used to attach notes with those words to his orders. For a while everybody jumped, but after a little longer, people got used to them and ignored them."