Authors: Stuart Woods
Stone called Lance.
“Yeess,” Lance drawled.
“I need a briefing from somebody who knows the sultan well?”
“I understood you were briefed last evening at dinner.”
“Viv is a pessimist. I’d like the advice of someone more, ah, cheerful.”
“What do you want to know?”
“She tells me we should bring along a large sum of cash for bribes, and that we may have to pay as much as a million dollars, in cash, to get our hands on Zanian.”
“Perhaps you should take your checkbook, as well.”
Stone ignored that. “What is your personal advice about dealing with the sultan?”
“Keep your hand on your wallet. And your checkbook. At all times.”
“What do you mean, ‘At all times’?”
“Sleep with those items on your person, and sleep lightly. Beware of any female companionship offered.”
“Should I take a weapon?”
“Only if you wish to donate it to the sultan’s personal collection.”
“What kind of negotiator is the sultan?”
“A demanding one. You must remember, Stone, that the man is an absolute monarch when in his own country. Memorize the cell number of the ambassador”—he recited it for Stone to copy down—“and do not hesitate to use it. He is the only person in the Sultunate who can threaten the sultan with the loss of American largesse.”
“Did I mention, watch your ass?”
“There is a dungeon in the nether regions of the royal palace. You do not wish to visit it, even for a moment.”
“If I get into trouble, Lance, may I rely on you for help?”
“Help? If the sultan should take it into his mind to have you beheaded in his private courtyard, you can die screaming my name, and it will avail you nothing. I must run now. Good luck!” Lance hung up.
Stone hung up, too, thought for a moment, then he dialed a number in the 202 zip code. There was no answer. He dialed another number.
“White House switchboard,” a woman’s voice answered.
“This is Stone Barrington. I would like to speak to the president, if I may.”
“One moment, Mr. Barrington.”
It was a long moment before he heard the voice again. “I’m putting you through,” she said.
“Good morning,” she said.
“I’m sorry about going through the switchboard,” he said. “Your cell didn’t answer, and it’s important.”
“Stand by,” she replied, then hung up.
Stone stood by nervously. Finally, his cell phone rang. The caller ID read,
“I have about six minutes. Is that enough?”
“Thank you, Holly, I hope so. I need your help in order to avoid being beheaded.”
“Ah, you’re visiting my dear friend the sultan, aren’t you? I heard something about that.”
“The rumors are true. The FBI wants me to go over there, arrest Zanian, and bring him back. I’m afraid the sultan may take exception to that.”
“To the extent of having you beheaded? Really?”
“It would be of great help to me in accomplishing this if the sultan could be made to believe that you take a personal interest in my well-being, down to, and including, my fingers, toes, and neck. And genitalia.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want anything to happen to any of those, now would we?”
“Tell me, is there something that you were going to give the
sultan anyway that I could present to him, in your stead? Something like a squadron of jet fighters, perhaps.”
“I think what he really wants is a couple dozen Jeep Grand Cherokees,” she said. “He’s been having trouble with his Land Rovers because he doesn’t take care of them. I believe that there may be no words in his dialect that translate as ‘periodic servicing by a dealer.’ ”
“May I convey this gift on your behalf?”
“Hang on, I’ll ask the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.” She held her hand over the phone, and her words were muffled. Then she came back. “Oh, all right,” she said. “The sultan will want to know when, and if he does, you are to tell him, ‘In due course.’ Nothing more.”
“That’s wonderful, thank you.”
“And Stone, a couple of things to remember. When you are ushered into the presence, give him no salaams. Remember, you are a United States citizen, and we do not bow to royalty. Nothing more than a head nod.”
“Oh, one other thing: it is important, no matter what he says, to show no fear.”
“Even to an absolute monarch who can have me beheaded?”
“Especially to him. Now, I must go and deal with the Pentagon. Good luck to you. I’ll make our ambassador there, Henry Wilcox, aware of your coming presence.”
“Thank you, Holly,” he said, but she had already hung up.
Stone riffled through his memory to gather what tools he had at his disposal. It was precious little.
Stone packed two cases and a small trunk, more than he normally took, but in order to be ready for anything, he had to take along a morning suit, with a collapsible top hat, waistcoat, striped trousers, a wing-collared shirt, and a silk cravat. Also, a chalk-striped dark blue suit, two linen suits, four pairs of shoes, and enough shirts to sweat through three a day, and a dinner jacket and two pleated dress shirts.
He also took along his trench coat, with a buttoned-in cashmere lining, lined gloves, and a long cashmere scarf, and finally, a tweed hat.
He called Brio and briefed her on his conversations and to warn her of the chilly evenings. “You need not worry about overpacking, since we don’t have to check our luggage. Do you have a diplomatic passport?”
“In the works,” she said. “I’m glad you’re taking this seriously, but really, Stone!”
“Your lord and master said something about eighteen FBI agents boarding in Cairo. I hope he wasn’t talking about boarding
“I understand, and I believe they’re using another government aircraft. They’ll join us in the air near Cairo, contact us on the radio and follow us in.”
“Did somebody caution you about not, ah, curtseying?”
“We are American citizens, and we don’t bow to royalty. There’s nothing to stop you from flashing your cleavage at the sultan, though.”
“Oh gee, thanks.”
“Did anybody tell you about the dungeon under the royal palace?”
“Oh, come on.”
“And what’s the line from the movie? Nobody can hear you scream.”
“I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t invited you along.”
“ ‘Invited me’? That was an invitation? I regret accepting, more and more each hour.”
“The million in cash will be in a leather suitcase, and the other three hundred grand in a matching valise, both from the confiscated evidence room in the Hoover building. The property clerk swears it’s Dillinger’s luggage.”
“If we run short of cash, maybe we can auction it off on the Internet.”
“I can’t think of anything else,” she said.
“Me, too. Goodbye.” He hung up and buzzed Joan.
“How much ready cash do we keep in my checking account?” he asked.
“At least a hundred grand.”
“Tomorrow, stoke it with a million on top of that, and give me the wire transfer info.”
“It’s on every check in your checkbook.”
“And warn the bank to pay
sum I write a check for or ask to be wired.”
“What in the world are you going to buy?”
“A fugitive felon, I hope.” He hung up and thought about the dungeon. Maybe I should pack some long underwear, he thought.
Stone was on the airplane on time, and the flight attendant pointed at two old-fashioned pieces of luggage. “Those just arrived,” she said, and held up some keys. “These will open them.”
Stone set the larger case on a seat, unlocked it, and opened it. Hundreds and fifties. There was a pouch inside the case, as well. Stone opened it, stuffed his .380, the silencer, and three magazines inside and rebuttoned it, then locked the case again.
He made the same inspection of the accompanying valise, then relocked it.
What had he forgotten?
“Have you forgotten anything?” Brio asked from behind him.
“I brought everything,” he said.
“Separate transport is confirmed for my agents.”
“You’d better let them know that they’re not going to get into
the palace with weapons. They should leave them on the airplane, but accessible. The agents are going to have to remain in reserve, too. We can’t arrive at the palace with eighteen bulky men. The sultan will suspect something.”
“They’re not going to like that in the least,” she said.
“Nothing I can do about it. Same goes for you, my dear. And strapping it to your inner thigh is just going to invite an invasion of your person.”
Faith walked back to where they were taking their seats, and beckoned Stone to join her.
“What is it?”
“I know this is going to sound strange, but there is no international airport in the Sultanate of Saud.”
“So, where are we going to land? In Riad, then drive eight hundred miles to the palace?”
“I’ve been given coordinates and a radio frequency. I’ll enter the longitude and latitude into the GPS and hope for the best, I suppose.”
“Make sure we have fuel to a reasonable alternate.”
“I have already done so.”
“Oh, as we pass Cairo, we’re going to pick up an escort, or rather, a tail. It’s another airplane with eighteen FBI agents aboard. They’ll contact you, and you can give them the location. I don’t know how I’m going to explain them to the sultan. And by the way, I think that, since we’re uncertain of our accommodations, you and your crew had better bunk aboard. It will be cold at night, but you’ll need the AC in the daytime.”
“I hope there’s hangar space available wherever we’re going,” she said.
“We may just have to make do.”
“I hope we don’t get a sandstorm, then. That would remove your paint job.”
“That’s what insurance is for,” Stone replied.
Or rather, the FBI, he thought.
They took off for Cairo. Faith had chosen that for her fuel stop, so that she could arrive at their destination with plenty of fuel for a long flight out if anything went wrong.
They landed at Cairo and refueled without incident. Faith was approached by three men in airline uniforms, and they pointed out their aircraft, a Dassault French jet with three engines. Its passengers could be seen to be boarding.
Faith returned to the Gulfstream. “One of those in the pilot’s uniforms is our agent in charge of the operation.”
“I thought you were AIC,” Stone said to Brio.
“I am. Think of me as the super AIC.”
Faith said, “I’ve shared the coordinates of our destination with them, and they’ll take off fifteen minutes after we do and maintain that distance. We’ll be in constant radio contact. They understand
that, should they enter the palace, they should go unarmed.” She handed Brio a handheld radio. “This will keep you in touch with them. It has a range of a few miles.”
Brio tucked it into a pocket of the jumpsuit she was wearing.
“I don’t think you should dress that way for entrance into the palace,” Stone said. “The sultan and his people would find it disrespectful.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll change before we land.”
“What’s our flight time?” Stone asked Faith.
“About three hours.” She took out a chart and showed them how their destination had been marked with an
. “Middle of nowhere,” she said, “and it’s a big desert, as you will see. Our route calls for us to take off and fly along the route of the Suez Canal, then turn inland at altitude, which will be FL 280, so you’ll have a view, of sorts.”
“Let’s do it, then,” Stone said, with more enthusiasm than he felt.
They had dinner, then tried to get some sleep. When Stone awoke, the sunrise had turned the sky red, and they were flying lower than he had expected. The air was crystal clear, and there was nothing but the Arabian Desert as far as the eye could see. The terrain and its emptiness inspired awe. The intercom buzzed.
“Good news,” Faith said. “Our destination has an instrument landing system to guide us in. We’re descending now.”
Stone looked outside the window until they touched softly down, but saw only sand and stone. As the airplane slowed to taxi speed and made a turn he saw a large grove of palm trees, with a cluster of spires rising above them. The airplane came to a stop,
and the engines shut down, but the APU continued to supply power and air-conditioning.
Brio, having changed into a modest, dark dress, was looking out windows on the opposite side of the aircraft. “Do you see anyone?”
Stone checked his window again. “There’s a cloud of dust,” he said. “Looks like men on horseback and camels.”
Faith let down the airstairs door, and before anyone could exit a man in an arab headdress and robes over white trousers entered. “Good day! I am Colonel Said of the Royal Mounted Corps. I am to transport you to the royal palace.”
“On camels?” Brio asked.
“No, madam. We have brought Range Rovers for you and your luggage. You are Madam Ness of the FBI, are you not?”
“I am,” she replied. “How do you do?”
“Very well, thank you.” Then he turned toward Stone. “And you are Mr. Stone Barrington, are you not?”
“I am. How do you do?”
“Still very well, thank you.”
Faith had appeared, and he asked her to point out the luggage so his men could take care of it.
Shortly, they were in a slightly worn Range Rover, driving rapidly toward the grove of palm trees. Stone could not see a road, as such, but their way was smooth. Once among the palm trees men, horses, camels, and other vehicles appeared.
“This is the Saud Oasis,” announced Colonel Said. “One of the largest in the whole of the Arabian Desert. You will be at the palace shortly.”
The palace appeared as a dream, a collection of brightly colored
spires floating inside a high wall. “How old is the palace?” Stone asked Colonel Said.
“It dates from the twelfth century but has been rebuilt many times since that day. I am told that another aircraft has landed on our field. Whom does it contain?”
Brio spoke up, “Special agents of the FBI, who will assist us in our work and depart at the same time we do. They will not require food or lodging overnight.”
“I see. Are they armed?”
“Yes, with the standard weapons of our service. They are not hostile. They are merely here to protect us.”
“I will explain this to the sultan in such a way that he will not order them shot and their aircraft burned.”
“Thank you,” Brio said.
He led them into the palace, which was cooler inside than Stone had expected.
“Your quarters are adjacent to each other,” the colonel said softly to Stone. “For your convenience.”
Stone nodded but said nothing in response. “What power source does the palace operate on?” he asked.
“There is an oil field nearby, which meets all our needs, but we are beginning to install solar equipment, as well.”
They came to a large pair of double doors, behind which lay a vestibule, with doors leading off two sides. Said directed Ness to be led to one, while he led Stone to the other.
The room was very large, perhaps forty feet in length, and there was much gilt and red in the décor. The bed was larger than an American king-sized one, and a box of switches rested on a bedside table.
“Here are lights and American satellite TV,” Said said, flipping switches. Flipping one of them caused a very large TV set to rise from the floor at the foot of the bed.
Stone was shown a large, well-stocked bathroom and a seating area in the bedroom with a cluster of sofas and chairs before a large gas fireplace.
“Your clothing will be delivered, pressed, presently, but there are two cases that are locked, one large, one small.”
“Those contain gifts for the sultan, which I will present at a later time,” he said.
“Do they contain any explosives?” Said asked.
“Certainly not,” Stone replied. “Everything inside is for the amusement of the sultan.”
“Very well. Someone will come to escort you to dinner at seven o’clock. The dress will be black tie.” They coordinated their watches. “Your clothes will be here shortly.” He bowed, then left the room.
There was a knock on an interior door, and Brio appeared. She walked toward the bed and beckoned Stone to follow her. “Have you noticed this?” She leaned over the bed and pointed up at the canopy above. Stone followed her finger and saw that a mirror, as large as the bed, hung above.
“It would seem that the sultan has provided for our every entertainment,” Stone said.
“It would not surprise me to learn that the suite is equipped with cameras and microphones,” Brio said.
“Oh, good,” Stone replied. “We can watch ourselves later.”