Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! Piper Foxtrot X-ray. Nassau, Nassau. Sixty miles northwest of George Town, altitude 7,500 feet and falling, heading 270. Tail exploded, ditching aircraft, six souls on board. Piper Foxtrot X-ray. Nassau, Nassau!
As the aircraft burst into flames a few hundred feet over the Atlantic, Ryan Matthews bolted upright. His heart pounded and a cold, clammy sheen of perspiration covered his trembling body.
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Ryan glanced at the clock and dropped his sweaty face into his hands.
Hell, you didn’t even make it to 6 p.m. this time.
He was drenched as he sat in the dim room, head spinning, while his heart returned from the racing panic of his nightmare. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his T-shirt. My god! Has it been five years? Time hadn’t eased his longing for Cindy and the kids. Even the most fleeting thoughts of them caused a searing pain that gripped him in his waking hours of sobriety almost as often as in his repeated nightmares. He switched on his bedside radio to one of the island’s few stations, his sole company most days, and picked up the half-empty bottle of Jameson. He poured a glass, took a swig, and lit up a cigarette from a pack of Marlboros on the nightstand.
Well, I guess you’re starting this evening earlier than usual, Matthews.
Alcohol was the best jump-start he knew and the thing he did these days when he was not busy attempting to escape reality fifty feet below the sea or training for the marathon that he would never run. It was in pushing his limits that he felt he might escape the stranglehold of grief.
As he sat on the edge of his bed, his bleary eyes panned the room, from the tropical bamboo furniture to the kitschy flamingo photo on the far wall and finally to the deep-sea fishing calendar. He stood up and ripped off the sheet that read January, crumpled it up, and flung it toward an overflowing trash can in the corner. Lying back down, his eyes hypnotically followed the rotating ceiling fan, and he could feel himself cool down.
His usual drinking post was Rosey’s, a place run by his friend Roosevelt Aranha. Rosey’s was one of those quaint drinking places in George Town right on Exuma’s Elizabeth Harbor that the tourists sought out for the breathtaking views. The joint had the unique ability to capture all the flavor of the island in a single setting. In some ways, it was the epitome of the Bahamas, catering to both tourists and locals alike—unpretentious, welcoming, and friendly to all.
The fronds of a coconut palm outside his window were beginning to whisper in the tropical evening breeze. The reddish-purple leaves of a nearby bougainvillea added a papery rustle to the air. The sun had ceased shimmering on the vast ocean and was starting its descent to the other side of the world, leaving the sky a brilliant orange-pink.
By the time he had taken a quick shower, run a razor over his face, and left for Rosey’s, darkness had fallen. Ryan turned the key and the jeep lurched to life. It was time to hit his stride.
One hundred and twenty-five nautical miles northwest of George Town, William Craven stepped outside into the muggy Nassau air, leaving behind the air-conditioned comfort of his hotel lobby.
No sweat, he thought. He was cool, meticulously cool, from the top of his balding head to the soles of his black leather oxfords. He wore a black Armani blazer over a white dress shirt, sans tie, and had artfully slung a small carry-on bag over his right shoulder. The sleek black bag housed his golfing apparel, but he had a different game to play this morning.
He pointed at a lime green cab as it approached, and jumped in before it had come to a full stop. “Take me here,” he said as he handed the driver a matchbook with an address scrawled on the back.
The driver, sporting dreadlocks and chewing on an unlit, hand-rolled cigarette, lowered his shades as he studied the address. “You sure you wanna go here, mistah?” he asked.
“Go,” Craven said, and he settled back into his seat.
“Yes, sir, mistah, sir.” The cabbie jumped on the gas.
Nassau, the capital city of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, was home to nearly a quarter million people, roughly 70 percent of the island chain’s inhabitants. Despite the languid heat and the tropical vibe, it bustled with a dirty, frenetic energy, the kind of manic, fast-paced oomph that Craven craved. The overflowing sidewalks bulged with tourists, hawkers, and businessmen and women, the professionals in suits chewing up the pavement as they hurried off to their next important place.
Craven, for his part, never hurried. He moved quickly when needed, but hurrying meant losing control, and Craven, whatever he did, never lost control. He planned methodically and executed ruthlessly. His trigger finger never paused long enough for him to ask what if, because he had already studied all of the options, mapped out an entrance and exit strategy, and walked himself through every contingency a dozen times. He was a professional, in every sense of the word.
As the cab left the hotel district behind, the palms lining the streets grew sparser and the road rougher. The cabbie, no doubt an experienced hand who knew every corner of the city, looked uneasy. Given his profession, he probably lived out here, on the outskirts of Nassau’s disintegrating concrete jungle, but how many times had he taken a Westerner into this urban inferno?
Craven lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.
The cabbie glanced into his rearview mirror. “You like me to turn on the air-conditioning, mistah?”
Craven spotted a bead of sweat forming on one of the cabbie’s sideburns. “No need.”
The streets narrowed to mere alleys and the street-side buildings towered menacingly close when they finally arrived at a nondescript bar. The place could have been one of many anonymous flats in the shabby neighborhood, save for the neon beer signs hanging in the two front windows, each of which sat securely behind bars.
“Wait for me,” Craven said as he got out. He eyed his bag in the backseat. “And lock your doors.”
He approached the front door, which was propped open with a garbage can and camouflaged in a cloud of hazy smoke, and paused just long enough for his eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room. In the back of the mostly empty bar, seated at a table beneath a yellowing map of the islands, was his contact, a Haitian man with short cropped hair and a gap-toothed grin. The man stood up to greet him, but Craven’s frown put him back in his seat.
Craven raised his hand to cut the man off. “Don’t talk,” he said. “Just listen.” He pulled out a chair, turned it around, and sat with his arms resting on the back, ready to interrogate the man before him. The Haitian averted his narrow eyes, still smiling, as he waited for Craven to begin. As the clock ticked on without a word being spoken, the Haitian began to fidget in his chair. When he opened his mouth, Craven once again cut him off before the man could complete an audible word.
“I don’t need an update, Junior.” The man’s name wasn’t actually Junior, but it was a favorite pet name Craven reserved for his underlings. “I know all about your punk’s fuck-up.”
Again, Craven cut him off. “I arranged for this meeting simply to watch you squirm and to give you one more chance to get it right. You’ve got forty-eight hours to tie up the loose ends.” He let the sentence end abruptly.
“No loose ends,” the man said, nodding, his eyes now widened with a grimace replacing the smile. “We’ll fix everything. You’ll see.”
“Yes, I will see. And if the mission is not accomplished by then, you will become the loose end, and I will handle it personally.”
Sweat began to drip down the Haitian’s forehead and his right hand started tapping on his leg, but Craven was not ready to release the man from his attention yet.
“And no more explosions. Christ, the whole commonwealth is ready to come undone, which doesn’t make your job any easier. How are you planning on communicating with your men, now that security has tightened on Exuma?”
The Haitian scratched his clean-shaven face. “I will travel to George Town tomorrow morning and speak with them personally.”
“How will you travel?”
“There is a passenger service. . . .”
Craven shook his head.
“I suppose I could charter a fishing boat.”
Craven nodded in the affirmative, though still unimpressed. He stood up, reached into his blazer, and tossed a hotel business card onto the table. “Call me when you have the charter arranged and I will meet you at the docks. I’m coming with you.”
The Haitian squirmed in his chair before reaching for a paper napkin sitting on the table next to him and wiping his sweating forehead. He composed himself to a degree before responding. “I understand your concern, but that is not necessary. I already assured you that I will make sure all loose ends are tied up in short order.”
Craven lifted his eyebrows and offered a snarl of a grin. “You assured me the last time and that did not work out so well, now did it?” Craven did not wait for a response before continuing. “I think you need supervision, Junior. And lucky for you, I just happen to be here. Call me with our travel details tonight.”
Back outside, he dialed his secretary on his cell phone as he ducked into the cab.
“Fisher Singer Worldwide, this is Angela Marks,” a woman answered. “May I help you?”
“Hey, Angie,” Craven said.
“Oh, hello, Mr. Craven,” she said cheerfully. “How’s everything going at the convention?”
“Swimmingly so far,” Craven said. “Listen, I need you to postpone my flight to Puerto Vallarta.”
“But aren’t you scheduled to meet with the clinic director tomorrow?”
“Yes, but things have changed. And the director can wait.”
“They’re ready for you, Senator.”
Senator Edward McNally acknowledged his aide with a tip of his head and brushed the dust off his suit jacket. It was showtime. Even here, in some godforsaken village in the middle of Nigeria, a hundred miles from the nearest city and a world away from the game back in D.C., he could still feel a little extra jolt of adrenaline course through his veins as he assumed the role he’d been born to play. At forty-four, and midway through his third term, he wasn’t the youngest member of the U.S. Senate anymore. But he was still the superstar of that legislative body, one of only a select few with legitimate presidential aspirations. Since joining the Senate at age thirty, the minimum age required for office, he had been riding a wave of popularity as media darling, brilliant young statesman, and budding political rock star all wrapped up in one. And in the last decade his reputation had only grown: he easily won reelection twice, authored a handful of important bills, cultivated crucial relationships with influential members of Congress and Washington power brokers alike, and nailed down an important leadership post as chairman of the FDA’s oversight committee.
How else to explain why a gaggle of journalists, whether belonging to the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News, NPR, or some fledgling blog on the Internet, followed him wherever he went, even to Africa? Slipping away anonymously from his hotel back in Abuja had been no easy task, but the subterfuge had thrilled him to the core. Now here he was in some dusty village, nicknamed “Dung Hill” by his security detail due to the locals’ habit of burning cow shit for fuel, to witness in private what one of his most influential contributors had been doing beyond the scrutiny of the nosy regulatory agencies back home.
The senator squinted into the midday sun as he emerged from the climate-controlled, window-tinted comfort of a stylish but conservative navy-blue Hummer. Trim, just over six feet tall, and boasting a full head of sandy blond hair, he had more than charisma going for him. He still sparkled with youth, the promise of better days ahead. So what if he had already peaked? If he was already bought and paid for? Politics was the art of illusion, and Senator McNally’s true talent lay in his ability to wield the disparate elements—sunny optimism, cool-headed realism, magnanimous bipartisanship, unflinching ruthlessness—and turn them into political gold like some medieval alchemist.
Before him sat a prefab building, not much more than a trailer and as dingy as its earthen surroundings, serving as a medical clinic for local villagers as well as farmers from the surrounding countryside. Lean men, worn down by years of manual labor and a life of scarcity, stood alongside children and peasant women, some of them pregnant, all of them weighed down with newborns or toddlers barely old enough to walk, in a long line that snaked through the dust from the building’s entrance to a sprawling acacia tree several hundred feet away. The children had distended bellies and saucer-like eyes, the hallmarks of malnourishment. No one was starving, but no one was living, either, at least not by Western standards. These people, ghosts hollowed out by the ravages of poverty, disease, and local violence, couldn’t have formed a starker contrast to the soft, fleshy pharmaceutical workers who had come to “help” them.
An American man, balding and ample around the middle, emerged from the building just in time to greet the senator near the entrance. “Good to see you, Senator,” he said, offering a firm handshake. “We’re pleased you were able to make the trip out—without the usual entourage.”
Senator McNally shook his head grimly. “It wasn’t easy. My friends in the press take a keen interest in whatever I do.” Friends, in this case, meant bloodsuckers. Keen interest? Unrelenting obsession.
“Yeah, well, I suppose it comes with the territory.”
“It sure does. So what have you got to show me, Gus?”
Gus Witherspoon, an expert in his field, was part scientist, part public relations manager, a knowledgeable salesman who dealt discretely but forthrightly with a select clientele made up of industry bigwigs, politicians, and other well-connected insiders. He served on the front lines of a secret war, paving the way for research and experimental drug trials on foreign soil while keeping his company out of the spotlight and beyond the prying eyes of regulatory agencies, journalists, and would-be do-gooders.
“Just this,” Gus said, handing the senator a crumpled spreadsheet.
Senator McNally stared at the figures, some of them stained by coffee. “What’s this? I don’t speak microbiology.”
Gus, placing a hand on the senator’s shoulder, ushered him away from the crowd at the front door, and back along the caked-mud drive to the Hummer, where no prying eyes or ears lurked. “That, dear Senator, is a one hundred percent success rate. As of this morning, we’ve given the full treatment to one hundred and thirty-six patients. And we’re batting a thousand.”
“Impressive.” The senator glanced back and surveyed the long line, which was growing steadily. “Are all these people sick?”
“No. Shoot, half of them don’t even know what we’re doing here. But they know we’re making people better, so they’re coming by the droves. We had one old man walk fifty miles to get here.”
“Barefoot, I suppose.”
“Who needs shoes when the floors are made of dirt?”
Senator McNally gave a polite chuckle. “But aren’t you worried about how fast the word is spreading?”
“Nope,” Gus said nonchalantly. “Most of the people in line will receive a few free vaccines and a vitamin B shot—good PR for the company and a perfect cover for the program. Only a select few have been screened and given full treatment.”
The senator nodded his approval and then spotted an angry villager trying to work his way past the minders at the entrance, shouting something to the people in line behind him. “What about him? Another happy FSW customer?”
Gus smiled wryly. “Oh, there’s always some conspiracy nut out there who’s certain we’ve come to castrate their men, impregnate their women, and poison their crops.”
The senator gazed past Gus, toward the lonely hills that lay beyond the village. It was a move he had practiced countless times over the years, one meant to display seriousness, deep thought, gravitas. In this case, it wasn’t a show. “If he only knew.”