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Trust Me

Jeff Abbott

1

The old man had spent his entire life surrounded by unimaginable power and wealth – except for today. He was dressed as if for regional theater, playing the part of a retiree who’d failed to save for the long stretch of old age, wearing decrepit khakis and a threadbare jacket, mud sliming the heels of his boots, sitting on a park bench in the gray London afternoon, tossing crumbs to the pigeons. The crumbs were tiny, the size of diamonds.

The man in the gray suit, standing near him, pretending to talk on a cell phone, didn’t look at the old man; instead he watched the people strolling in the park, his eye keen for an enemy. A young couple walking hand-in- hand; two teenage boys ambling, trying to look cool and tough and failing; a well-dressed mother pushing a stroller, laughing on a cell phone, tucking a blanket around a baby; a pair of old ladies, clutching purses close to their coats, one talking in monologue, the other listening and nodding. No danger here.

The man in the gray suit fought the urge to smile at the disguise the old man had chosen but to laugh would be fatal. One had to indulge people with money. And one did not laugh at a billionaire, no matter how eccentric.

‘I hardly recognized you, Your Majesty,’ the man in the gray suit said. He cast his gaze around the park again, the silent phone close to his ear.

‘Look at them go to war,’ the old man said in soft Arabic as the pigeons battled over the bread, pecking at each other and the bare ground. ‘They dance for me. As if I have strings on their wings.’ He threw another scattering of food to the flock’s left, laughed as they scurried for the crumbs.

The birds aren’t the only ones, the man in the gray suit thought. But he waited for the old man to speak again. The old man loved the sound of his own words, like most bullies.

‘All is prepared?’ the old man asked.

‘Yes,’ he said. Nearly so would have been a more exact answer but the old man had never cared for details. Everything would be ready soon enough. Then he could start to change the world.

‘Your people are ready for the money?’

‘Yes. Your banker has been a great help. He’s set up accounts, he’s covered our trails so as to not raise suspicion.’ It was an effort to control his temper, to not say, yes you old fool now just give me what I want and get out of the way. The man in the gray suit asked the question he’d come there to ask. ‘I need only to know the amount you’re willing to invest.’

‘Fifty million dollars now.’ The prince dressed as a pauper tossed his last handful of stale bread to the ground, watched the pigeons dart and peck for the leftovers. A smile played across his face as the birds battled. ‘If your proposed attacks succeed over the next five years, then another fifty million for further work.’

The man in the gray suit felt a heaviness seize his chest, felt the thud of blood in his ears. A hundred million dollars, to flow through his hands. But he showed no emotion. He kept the cell phone up to his ear. ‘9/11 didn’t even cost a million dollars to carry out.’

‘Yes, but it was not a long-term investment. I offer you much more. I give you many times the resources of 9/11.’ The old man glanced up at the man in the suit and for a moment he smiled, an awful flexing of skin and teeth. ‘Give me many times the results, for years to come. Make them bleed for a lifetime.’

‘I will.’

The old man paused, and for a moment there was only the whisper of the nearby traffic, of the wind creaking through the branches of the trees. ‘It is an investment. In the future of a better world.’ The pigeons pooled around the man’s feet, hungry for more. He kicked them away from his foot with a disgusted snarl.

‘You are generous.’

The old man looked up. ‘If you fail me, you and anyone you care about will die.’

The man in the gray suit said, ‘Threats and kicks work on a dog, sir. Not on me. You needn’t worry.’ He didn’t like being threatened. But he didn’t let his feelings show.

‘You have selected the right… people? I don’t wish to trust fools or amateurs.’

‘Yes. We have a willing cadre and we are recruiting more. There will be a first wave of attacks. To distract, to confuse, to panic. Then those fighters who successfully carry out those initial operations will get the honor to participate in the second phase, which is actually a massive attack. We call it Hellfire. Heavy loss of life, devastating economic damage. I promise you will get your money’s worth, sir.’

The old man smiled again at the man in the gray suit. ‘Spend my money well.’ He rose from the bench, dusted the bread from his lap, and walked away through the rising cloud of the birds.

Fifty million, the man in the gray suit thought. It was everything he had hoped for. Enough to make the world pay. Enough to make him respected. He turned and left the park, folding the unused cell phone, dropping it into his pocket.

Fifty feet behind him, the mother with the stroller giggled into her phone. She leaned down and eased the blanket around the sleeping infant she pushed in the baby carriage. She’d offered to take her friend’s baby for a stroll – give the friend a much-needed break. The young mother had barely slept in the past few days and the offer nearly made her cry with gratitude. ‘I know you’re not in town long, Jane. Don’t you have things to do?’

‘Nothing important. Darling, please, take a break from nappies and crying. I’ll take her for a long walk.’ And Jane had, giving the baby a dropper of allergy medication as soon as they were out of sight of the house so the darling would sleep the whole time.

The baby, nestled in its stroller, made for perfect camouflage for Jane’s afternoon.

Jane checked the settings on the parabolic microphone and digital recorder that lay next to the dozing baby. Holding a modified cell phone, she heard the old billionaire’s and the man in the gray suit’s words with a clarity as if they stood a foot in front of her. They both spoke Arabic, but that was not a concern to her. She understood every word.

The money would be on the move. It was time for her to put her plan into action. A tingle of anticipation and fear tickled her spine.

She turned on her real cell phone and dialed. She steered the stroller away at an angle from two approaching older women, walking arm in arm. Old ladies liked to look at babies. She didn’t want them to notice her eavesdropping gear.

‘Yes?’

‘It’s Jane,’ the woman said in English.

‘And?’

‘The money is headed to America. Fifty million. We start tonight. Rock and roll.’

‘Rock and roll.’

Jane hung up. There was nothing more to be said.

Jane pushed the stroller out of the park, humming a jaunty tune to the sleeping baby. The sky was going gray but Jane thought it the loveliest day she’d ever seen.

Fifty million dollars, for years of 9/11s to come. Her throat went dry behind her smile.

She dropped off the microphone and its gear at her hotel room. She had a flight to catch tonight, a report to write for her bosses. It would not mention the fifty million, or the impending attacks, and she would have to edit the recording she’d made. The baby began to wake and cried. Jane sang to her softly, all the way home.

2

Luke Dantry was now the most dangerous man in the world. He had no idea of his status, of course; right now he wanted only a mind-clearing jog.

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