Behind the Book
Years ago, I had a conversation with a former Las Vegas FBI agent that stuck in my mind. He asked me if I knew how the casinos kept all their cash from piling up in the hallways. Like most people, I’d never given any thought to how that money was transported out of town, but once the seed was planted, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I could steal it. Such are the things thriller writers obsess about when they’re mowing the lawn.
In the end, though, I didn’t want to turn this into an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist book. I wanted the theft to be part of something larger. This led me to a question that isn’t often asked in this type of scenario—what did they need the money for?
I was pondering this during the Iraqi WMD debates and that’s what helped me form the idea for a group of former intelligence operatives deciding to cut through the government red tape and take things into their own hands. Those kinds of off-the-books activities are expensive and dire enough to justify stealing and have a looming potential for disaster that makes a good story.
So in the end I was able to work in everything I’d hoped—a character way out of his depth, an elaborate heist, and a few complex relationships—all hung on a framework with global ramifications. Looking back on it, I may have been a little ambitious in trying to combine so many elements, but ignorance is bliss and I think it worked in the end.
“Five-card draw, gentlemen. Now let’s start paying attention, okay?”
Brandon Vale shot the cards out of the deck, skimming them across the table to the five nervous-looking men surrounding it. After a quick glance at his hand, he slapped it down next to his teetering mountain of loot and scanned the faces of his opponents. All were staring at their cards as though they contained the meaning of life and, based on his experience, they would continue to do so for a lot longer than necessary.
The tinny sound of machine gun fire started on the far side of the room and he turned in his chair, squinting at the television bolted to the wall while he waited. The lenses in his glasses were only two weeks old, but had never been quite right. Prisons tended not to attract the top people in their field and the fact that the optometrist who had given him his exam was half blind himself didn’t speak highly of his qualifications.
They were good enough, though, for him to see the unmistakable outlines of tanks and running men accompanied by the increasingly familiar sounds of war. Sudan, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan—one of those sandy countries full of people who liked to fight over crap that happened a thousand years ago or all that “my God’s better than your God” nonsense. He knew the type, of course. You couldn’t swing a dead cat in his chosen profession without smacking the hopelessly self-destructive, truly violent, or utterly sociopathic. If you were really careful and lucky, though, you could avoid them. Not so easy if you lived in Baghdad, he supposed.
The men sitting in the chairs bolted down in front of the TV were separated into knots of similar skin color: black, brown, and a few white guys who were basically sturdier, meaner, more impressively tattooed versions of himself. All perked up a bit at the violence.
The story quickly faded into something about the Federal Reserve, though, and its audience sagged in disappointment. The truth was that they were only there in hopes of catching a glimpse of Ann Coulter or some other talking head hottie.
Brandon Vale squared himself to the table again and examined the man responsible for the prison’s rather somber viewing habits. He probably weighed about the same as an Italian sports car and was roughly as fast and powerful. His skin was preternaturally dark, making the whites of his eyes seem to glow and partially obscuring a tattoo of a hooded KKK guy dangling from a graphically broken neck.
As one of the prison’s many converts to Islam, Kassem was always interested in following “the struggle” while hanging out in the rec room. And after what happened to that neo-Nazi power lifter, there weren’t many people willing to argue.
After a quick round of timid betting, Kassem slid his discards across the table. “Three.”
Brandon had barely dealt the first one when the man suddenly jumped to his feet, causing the floor to shake perceptibly.
“You’re dealing from the fucking bottom of deck, you bitch!”
Brandon shook his head calmly. “I wasn’t, actually.”
“Oh,” Kassem said, obviously disappointed. He sat back down to a cautious round of polite laughter.
Brandon had landed in prison for a fairly sizeable diamond heist in which the jewels had never been recovered. That, in addition to the fact that he’d refused to rat out a single person he’d ever worked with, had given him some basic credibility and maybe even a touch of mystique. The bottom line, though, was that he was still a skinny, thirty-three-year-old guy who hadn’t been in a fight since grade school. And that girl had kicked his ass.
He’d been there only a few days when Kassem had “asked” him to join the informal prison poker club. Being a guy who was always interested in a profitable enterprise, Brandon had been quietly watching the games from a safe distance and had noticed a few unusual complexities. It seemed that the people involved played hard and recklessly until about fifteen minutes before lockdown. At that point, they started tossing away good cards like they were dipped in anthrax and let Kassem win everything on the table—generally cigarettes and IOUs for unknown services to be performed at some future date.
Since Brandon didn’t smoke and wasn’t anxious to perform any mysterious prison services, he’d decided to remain at that safe distance. There was no refusing Kassem’s invitation, though, and he found himself in the awkward position of having to tell the truth: That he was an on-again/off-again professional gambler and brilliant card cheat.
Miraculously, Kassem had been bored with winning—though still completely unwilling to lose—and saw Brandon as just the diversion he needed. In the end, they’d negotiated a deal that worked for everyone. The other players would donate a few “chips” to Brandon at the beginning of the game and he would sit in, helping them with their technique and teaching them to spot cheats. Then, at the end of the game, his winnings would be distributed based on an arcane calculation that had less to do with how people played than it did with who was the most physically dangerous. A good facsimile of life, actually, and one from which he was now happily exempt. His relationship with Kassem had made him instantly untouchable, giving him an opportunity to get to know virtually everyone incarcerated there and become almost universally popular. An achievement previously thought impossible.
“I think this is the last hand,” Brandon said, giving fair warning to everyone that it was time to discard anything promising and lose everything they had. Betting turned from cautious to manic.
“To you, Kassem,” Brandon said.
“Two pair. Deuces and threes.”
Those at the table who hadn’t yet laid down their hands groaned subserviently and dropped their cards. All except Brandon.
“Well?” Kassem said.
“You really want to see what I got?”
“I want to see.”
“Think you can handle my game?”
“Put your fucking cards down before I bust your pencil neck,” Kassem said, laughing.
Brandon slapped his cards down. “Five aces. All spades.”
This time the groans were a little more heartfelt.
“I swear, I don’t know what I’m gonna do with you guys,” Brandon said, as the guard signaled for the room to be cleared. Kassem offered his hand and when Brandon pulled away he had a thick, hand-rolled joint in his palm.
“Get some sleep tonight.”
“Hey, thanks, Kas.”
These generous little gifts went immediately to Brandon’s psychotic cellmate, calming him enough for Brandon to actually relax in his bunk and read. These fatties had been instrumental in his quest to get through the classics, though he had to admit to counting the comic book adaptations of Moby-Dick and Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
He took his place in line and began shuffling silently out the door, squashed uncomfortably between two profusely sweating mountains of murderous flesh. It didn’t matter, though. His mood was currently immune to such minor irritations. In an hour his cellmate would be lying in his cot, stoned out of his mind, while Brandon lost himself in the inner workings of samurai society. It wasn’t most people’s definition of a stellar evening, but it was the best evening allowed by his current situation. And what more could you hope for but the best?
He leaned out, crinkling his nose when it got too close to the armpit behind him, and squinted at the guard pointing to him with a nightstick.
“Front and center!”
Brandon leapt out of line and jogged back the way he’d come, stopping a few feet in front of the man.
“Yes, Sergeant Daly?”
As the guards went, it was generally agreed that Angus Daly was second most sadistic, third most corrupt, and a runaway winner at taking himself the most seriously. His uniform was always starched into something resembling cardboard and his hair was cropped into a flattop that came to an impressively sharp point in the middle of his forehead.
The oddest thing about Daly, though, is that he was one of the few people Brandon had ever met who hated him. He saw Brandon as some kind of int-I-lectual who looked down on working men like himself and who, after serving his time, would collect his hidden diamonds, move to the Costa del Sol, and live out the rest of his life dating supermodels. So Daly had taken it upon himself to make sure Brandon’s time at that particular facility was as unpleasant as was practically possible.
Not that he’d been physically abusive in any significant way. What fun would that be? No, to his credit, Daly was more imaginative than that. Clogged toilet? Brandon was his man. And the tools and gloves necessary always seemed to have been conveniently misplaced. Warden’s car stuck in the mud? Brandon was always the guy on the back bumper…
“Sir? Can I help you?”
Daly continued to stand there silently, waiting for the last of the long line of men to disappear around the corner. Then, simply, “Follow.”
Brandon did as he was told, walking a few respectful paces behind the guard. He shoved his hands in his pockets, suddenly feeling a bit cold, but knowing it was just his imagination. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the fewer people that were around, the less safe he felt. It was something about the gray rock the place was built from. The crumbling mortar. The heavy, artistic archways that evoked craftsmen long dead. He wasn’t generally superstitious, but he was sure the place was full of ghosts. And Daly’s weird 50s persona didn’t help. Sometimes Brandon thought he might be the head ghost. That one day, when they were alone, the old guard would spin around and there would be a rotting skull where his face should be.
Daly finally stopped and unlocked a heavy steel door that Brandon had never seen open. It was painted roughly the same color gray as the walls, as though it had been purposely camouflaged. Probably an effective strategy for most of the inmates, but it had the opposite effect on Brandon. He’d always wanted to know what was on the other side. Until now.
“Mr. Daly?” he said hesitantly. “Where are we going?”
Daly shoved Brandon through the door and followed, locking it behind them.
The corridor they found themselves in was barely lit and ended after only ten feet at a similar door. Something about it felt really wrong. “Excuse me, sir, but—”
“Shut the fuck up!”
Daly pushed a rusty button on the wall and a moment later a loud buzz erupted from the door at the other end of the corridor. He pointed and Brandon started for it, listening to the dull echo of their footsteps swirling around him. He had to use his shoulder to get the door to move, but when it finally did, a wave of cold, wet air gusted in. A quiet, commanding grunt suggested that he should continue.
He’d never seen the tiny courtyard before—it was one of the many sections of the prison that had been cheaper to close off than to renovate. The ground had turned to thick mud beneath the monotonous drizzle that had been hanging over the area for the past few days and Brandon was forced to curl his toes to keep from losing his shoes as he walked.
“This way,” Daly said, starting purposefully across the yard. The lights from the guard towers caused the razor wire atop the stone walls to flash dangerously, but didn’t penetrate to their level. Everything around them was dark, cold, and wet.
Brandon continued to follow along obediently, trying to figure out what it was going to be tonight. Probably a glitch in the septic system needed checking out and Daly’d wanted to wait until there was some good deep mud to make it even more unpleasant.
Of course, Brandon had thought about breaking out. A lot, actually. Particularly the day he’d spent cleaning roach carcasses out of the kitchen after the exterminators had gone. It wouldn’t have been all that tough. The problem was less how to get past the walls, though, than how to negotiate the miles of wilderness and rural countryside that surrounded them. But even that was surmountable. The real issue was that those diamonds everyone thought he had didn’t exist and his sentence wasn’t quite long enough to trade in for a life on the run. The best—only—course that made any sense was to keep out of trouble, talk loudly about Jesus whenever the warden was within earshot, and keep his fingers crossed for early parole.
He shaded his eyes and looked up at the closest guard tower. It was empty. He slowed a bit, searching unsuccessfully for human silhouettes in the other visible tower and then trying to make some sense of their absence. Typical for him, he was concentrating so hard, that he didn’t see Daly’s nightstick until it hit him in the stomach. Not hard enough to drop him to his knees, but easily hard enough to double him over and make him gasp for breath.
“Move!” Daly said in an unusually quiet voice.
When Brandon just stood there bent at the waist and slowly sinking into the mud, the guard moved behind him and used the nightstick on the back of his legs. He felt a flair of pain, but again not enough to send him to the ground. Just enough to prompt him forward.
Brandon allowed himself to be herded toward a narrow metal gate that had, at some time in the distant past, probably been used for deliveries. When they reached it, he turned toward Daly, who was now only an outline, backlit by the glow of the spotlights behind him. The shadow of his arm moved and Brandon flinched, but the guard was just holding something out.
“What…” Brandon gasped, still under the effect of the blow to his stomach. “Is that…”
“Take it,” Daly said, shoving it into Brandon’s hands. It turned out to be an elaborate cell phone. The large screen was dark but when he pushed a button, it came glowing to life. What was going on? Daly had never outright beat him before—no one had. And the phone…
He spun around when he heard the rattle and creak of a key turning in an old lock and watched Daly open the gate and then step aside.
“Sir? What are—”
“Step through the gate, Brandon.”
“I don’t think that’s… Sir, if I’ve done something to—”
“Get the fuck out!” Again, not a shout. More of an enraged hiss. As though he didn’t want to be heard.
Brandon didn’t move. Had Daly gotten bored with his petty humiliations and decided on something a little more drastic? Was he going to force him outside the walls and then sound the alarm?
“Sir, I don’t think—”
Daly’s hand shot out and closed around Brandon’s throat hard enough to cut off the breathing he’d just managed to get back under control.
“What don’t you think, boy?”
Brandon grabbed the man’s wrist, but it just felt like wet stone.
“That’s right! You don’t think. You’re just another piece of shit crook who was too stupid not to get caught.”
Daly moved forward and Brandon found himself being pushed back. He released the man’s wrist and put a hand out, just missing the gate and instead getting a handful of the wet, crumbling wall. A final shove and he fell, landing on his back in the soft mud. He jumped immediately to his feet and lunged toward the gate, only to lose his footing and fall again as Daly slammed it shut. A moment later he was on his knees with his hands wrapped around the bars, watching the guard back away.
“Mr. Daly,” he shouted through the sound of heavy raindrops dropping to earth around him. “Open the gate! Let me back in!”
The guard continued to back away, his teeth flashing when he passed through a narrow beam of light. It was the first time Brandon had ever seen him smile.
Finally he stopped and, still staring directly at Brandon, swung his nightstick right into that well-tended widow’s peak. He staggered to the right, then a bit to the left, and finally crumpled to the ground.
Brandon just knelt there, his wet hands going numb around the cold bars. This wasn’t good. Not good at all. He was soaked through with rain and mud, two feet on the wrong side of a prison gate, with a mind devoid of intelligent thoughts. He craned his neck and looked behind him through the water cascading over his glasses. The dim light bordering the wall quickly faded to black as the prison’s lights got lost in the rain and distance, but he knew that somewhere out there the forest started. How large and how dense it was, he could only guess. He’d never bothered to find out. What would have been the point? He’d made his decision to serve out his term a long time ago.
Finally, he pulled himself to his feet, giving the gate a hard tug to confirm that it was indeed locked and taking one last look at Daly’s motionless body. A few deep, calming breaths did absolutely nothing to help him grasp what had happened. The only thing he knew was that he was cold and scared. And that everyone would think he’d attacked a guard and escaped…
He spun around and dropped to his knees, crawling around until he found it partially submerged but still glowing green. He wiped it off and began scrolling through the menu, trying to find a number. Nothing. Why would Daly give this to him? If he was caught with it, there would be questions. He hit redial. Nothing.
The rain was coming down even harder now and he could hear thunder that with his luck would bring lightning.
The bottom line was that he was screwed. Fully and completely screwed. Making a run for it would end with him being easily caught and then screwed some more. Giving up would start his screwing a few hours sooner. Maybe getting hit by lightning wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!”
His mom had once told him there were always options, it was just a matter of whether or not you were smart enough to figure them out. He’d be willing to bet that piece of philosophy came from having never been on the wrong side of a prison wall in a Noah-and-the-ark level storm.
He struggled to his feet again and began backing slowly away from the gate, watching the towers as they came into view. Somehow he wasn’t surprised to see that they were manned again.
“Hey!” he shouted, holding his hands in the air. Another step back put him into the beam of one of the spotlights and he shielded his eyes with the phone he was still holding. “Hey! I give up! I’m not trying to escape! This is all a mis—”
The crack of a rifle shot and the screech of a round going past his ear made him duck, but he managed to keep his hands up.
“Goddammit!” he shouted, trying to be heard over the rain. “Stop shooting! It’s me! Brandon! I’m—”
The second round went by his other ear and he heard it hit the mud behind him with a sickening, wet splat.
He just turned and ran.
Brandon Vale had never been much of a sleeper.
It wasn’t that he didn’t aspire to descend into dreamless unconsciousness every night, or to wake up in the morning with a cleared mind and rejuvenated body. It was just that there was always so much to think about. His past, how this job or that job could have been done better, what would happen if brain-eating zombies took over the world. And now, two days out from the Vegas heist, his mind was relentlessly turning over every misstep in the sixteen hour training days he and his team had been enduring. Not to mention obsessing about nuclear warheads, Ukrainian psychos, and Catherine Juarez. He reached for his iPod and scrolled through the screens until he found the song he was looking for: It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine.) If you looked hard enough there was a soundtrack for every possible situation.
He kicked the blanket off and settled back into staring up at the dark ceiling. When the song was over, he scrolled through some more, finally finding one that was perhaps even more appropriate. Alone Again Or.
The door to the room opened a few inches and he propped himself up on his elbow, squinting into the sliver of light. “Catherine?”
He didn’t recognize the two men who entered and neither of them said anything. One quietly closed the door and stood in front of it while the other dug clothes from drawers with a precision that suggested he’d been through them before.
Brandon swung his feet to the floor, catching a pair of jeans and a shirt as they were thrown at him. Before he put them on, though, he made a final adjustment to the iPod. The Dead Kennedys seemed to be the band that best captured this particular moment: Forward to Death.
Sadly, it wasn’t the first time Brandon had been shoved in the trunk of a car. Not even the second or third. At least it wasn’t one of those sub-compacts. Or one with the spare tire right in the middle. Those things could put a kink in your back that wouldn’t loosen up for days. Of course, rigor mortis would do the same thing.
He put a hand out and braced himself as the car accelerated around a turn and then closed his eyes in the darkness, wondering what had happened. Had Scanlon decided that he had enough information to pull this thing off on his own? If so he was in for an unpleasant surprise.
Now there was a moral dilemma. Right before they shot him, should he yell “Wait! Before you kill me, let me write down the stuff I didn’t tell you!” After all, a nuclear holocaust wasn’t exactly the legacy he wanted to leave behind.
No, Scanlon was way too smart and not quite arrogant enough to make such an obvious mistake. Besides, if he had been planning this the whole time, what was all that stuff about wanting Brandon to join the team permanently? What possible benefit was there to be gained by making that offer if it wasn’t real?
And what about Catherine? He couldn’t quite read her. What he did know, though, was that she was very interested in protecting her mentor. Did she see Brandon as a threat? If she thought it was in Scanlon’s best interests, would she go behind her mentor’s back? No way.
And so he was left with the only remaining option: That he hadn’t met all the players in this thing. And at this point, he didn’t think he wanted to.
Edwin Hamdi held the single page he had unwisely printed, running slightly shaking fingers over the black letters before sliding it into a shredder. It had been the email he’d been waiting so long for: a properly encrypted and authenticated message saying that the Ukrainian warheads were real, operable, and for sale to the highest bidder.
The sound of an opening door drifted in from the outer office, followed by a quiet knock. The only light in the room was provided by a small desk lamp and Hamdi adjusted it so that it shined directly outward.
The door swung open and Brandon Vale came through, prompted by a shove from one of the men behind him. He was wearing only a pair of jeans and a T-shirt with the slogan Runs with Scissors.
“Have a seat, Brandon.”
He didn’t immediately obey, instead standing there trying to put detail to the figure behind the light. After a few seconds, he gave up and dropped into the chair in front of Hamdi’s desk.
Despite the uncertainty of his situation and the hair still matted from bed, he appeared much more intelligent in person than in his photos. It was hard to quantify exactly—something in the subtle shifting of his features as he took in what was around him. It was enough to make Hamdi himself look around at the dim, empty office, to make sure there was nothing Brandon could use to identify it later. If indeed there was a later for him.
“I take it you wanted to see me?” Brandon said finally. He didn’t sound or look afraid, but the overall effect wasn’t bravado or even genuine courage—more an acceptance of the fact that there were things he could control and others he could not. A very sensible philosophy.
“Richard Scanlon isn’t in charge of this operation. I am.”
“I’ve seen to the closing of all your accounts—I even had that little safe deposit box in Chicago emptied. I assume you’re smart enough to know what you’re dealing with here?”
Brandon crossed his legs, bouncing a bare foot casually in the air as he spoke. “The fact that Scanlon didn’t come up with this all by himself? That someone in the government is backing him? Sure. Why not?”
Hamdi waited to see if he would say more. He didn’t.
“Richard has a great deal of confidence in you. He seems to actually believe you’ll succeed in this theft.”
“And you don’t?”
Hamdi didn’t answer the question, because he honestly wasn’t sure of the answer. “Let’s just say that I’ve been anxious to meet you. A man with so much power—”
For the first time, a hint of doubt crossed Brandon’s face. “Power?”
“Of course. The lives of millions of people are in your hands.”
Doubt turned to irritation. “You guys have really got to quit saying that.”
“My apologies. May I ask you a personal question, Brandon?”
“Seems like you can do anything you want.”
“An astute observation. Tell me, how do you feel about the position you find yourself in? Does a person like you even care?”
“It’s a little late for an interview isn’t it? Seems like I already got the job.”
Hamdi’s smile would have been imperceptible, even if Brandon could see his face through the light. Scanlon was right. In his way, he was an impressive little bastard.
“I swear I don’t know what’s wrong with you people,” Brandon continued. “Of course I care. Notice that no one’s ever been hurt in a job I’ve done? Can you say that? I bet I have more of a respect for life than you.”
Hamdi leaned back and watched the bouncing of Brandon’s foot become manic.
It was hard to believe that the planet’s future—or lack thereof—was going to rest on the narrow shoulders of a thirty-three-year-old thief.