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Authors: Robert Baer

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BOOK: Blow the House Down
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CHAPTER 2

“Baton Rouge, this is Selma. Che's on the move. South on Park.”

“Roger that. We'll take it from here. Over.”

A
LWAYS DRESS TO FIT
someone else's story line. If that means a sensible black cocktail dress, suck in your stomach, slip it on, and go shopping for a strand of pearls and size-sixteen pumps. I could no longer remember who told me that—some Old Boy, six gins to the breeze, like they all are these days—but it was another piece of advice I'd never forgotten. To Chris, my worn-at-the-elbows linen jacket, baggy olive chinos, and scuffed maroon loafers said gentleman consultant, a guy who didn't need to drape himself in hand-stitched Hugo Boss to set his table. For my fellow pedestrians waiting to cross Park at Forty-eighth, my clothes and dead-on stare—immune to noise, traffic, skyscrapers, muggers, usurious bankers, fee gougers, and prying eyes—typecast me as someone who had wandered out of the Upper West Side on his day off. Trouble was, I didn't know what script the surveillance team in front of Quick & Reilly was reading from…if it was a tail, if they could read, if I wasn't just listening to the squirrels racing around that cage I call a brain.

I crossed with the light, then headed for the underground passage to Grand Central Station. I wanted to take a quick look up Park in the direction of the Quick & Reilly pair, but flying on instruments was the only way. If I was going to have any eyes in this game, they would belong to my old pal Chris, twelve stories above me. It was up to him to decide whether or not to use them.

I was out the underground ramp and halfway across the Grand Central concourse, flogging myself with the usual self-doubts, when my cell phone chirped cheerfully in my jacket pocket.

“I told you you're nuts. As soon as you crossed Park, they took off. No one's following you, Max. No—”

“What direction?”

“What what?”

“North, south, east, west? Manhattan's laid out on a grid, you know.”

“North. Uptown.”

“When did they move? Be exact, Chris. It's important.”

I had my eyes on a Middle Eastern–looking student carrying a pizza box just right for a ten-pound load of plastique. Maybe a platter charge to levitate the 11:53 to Poughkeepsie.

“The two of them left just as soon as you crossed Park and headed south.”

“They walked north, right? Went on foot?”

“No. Someone picked them up and drove them up Park.”

“Someone?”

“A van.”

“Hotel van? JFK shuttle?”

“How would I know? It didn't have anything written on the—”

“Did it have a sound stick on top?”

“A what?”

“An antenna. Short. Stubby. Maybe—”

“I didn't—”

“Were other people in it?”

“I couldn't tell. There weren't any passenger windows. You couldn't see in. Max, Jesus, I was looking out a twelfth-story window!”

“You dumb guinea peacock. A 747 could land on Park and you wouldn't notice. But tell me, how often do you see someone picked up in front of Deutsche Bank in a windowless van?”

“All the time. Never. It's not something I ever think about.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Uh, Max. It's not me who wants to hear you singing soprano in the choir.”

“Thanks. You're a dear.” I shut off the cell phone before Chris could say anything more.

 

What bothered me about the Quick & Reilly pair wasn't so much their existence as their tradecraft. They should have been doing sentry duty way down Park or watching from inside that unmarked van they were picked up in. Or they could have used some cover, like climbing in and out of a manhole in monkey suits. Even a vendor's cart. New York City is 40 percent foreign born. If you can't disguise yourself in that thicket of humanity, where can you? The van pickup didn't make sense either. Why not just break off on foot?

The easy explanation was ineptitude, but there was another possibility: They'd exposed themselves on purpose. In Moscow we called it “dolphin surveillance”—now you see us, now you don't. The way it worked was the KGB would start off with a sloppy team on you. You'd have to be blind not to pick up on it. Then, maybe an hour or two later, the team would drop off, disappear completely. You couldn't even find their comms on your pocket scanner. It was as if the whole damn service had taken the afternoon off for a company picnic.

The idea was to lure you into a false sense of security, give you the impression you were sparkling clean so you would go ahead and make your meeting, put down a drop, do whatever. But what really was going on was that the KGB had switched out the sloppy team for the pros. And it wasn't just new people and new vehicles. They enlisted fixed militia posts and the police to call in your movements while the real watchers hung back out of sight. They also switched to military frequencies—so much traffic that a scanner was useless.

That was Moscow, though. Who in New York would even know about dolphin surveillance? More to the point, who would use it on me, a taxpaying American on his own hook in the Free World's Capital of Commerce?

 

I'd almost convinced myself that the simplest answers are best when I pushed out the door to Forty-second Street and saw a guy exiting two doors down. Early forties, maybe. An elegant summer-weight cashmere sport coat topped by a screaming orange baseball cap. This time, at least, I hadn't completely lost it. There's nothing wrong with keeping your head covered, but a piece of crap like that in a 250-watt color on top of a pricey cashmere jacket?

Chances are, this guy was the “eye”—the point man for the surveillance team, the sacrificial lamb who sticks to the target so the rest of the team can hang back out of sight. Follow the orange hat, and they're following me. Simple, and way too much work for the little reward I offered. A reasonable person would have simply caught the shuttle to Penn Station, climbed on the next Amtrak back to Washington, and opted out of the game. Chase over. Go home. But for a guy who pretty much lies for a living, I'm perversely attached to the truth. I had to know if I was being followed and, if so, who it was.
Who
would lead me to
why
.

First, though, I had to clean myself up—dump my cell phone, not wash my hands. Cells these days are not a lot different from those electronic bracelets used to monitor prisoners serving home sentences. Like Chris's Breitling, they have built-in beacons that constantly transmit your position, your GPS coordinates. Even when a phone's off, it keeps transmitting. A lot of supposedly street-savvy people think that removing the battery fixes the problem, but the pros aren't that dumb.

A couple weeks before, I'd dozed through an afternoon listening to some genius from the National Security Agency explain how he could conceal a capacitor in a cell phone to power its beacon. You can't find the capacitor unless you take the whole thing apart, he swore—and know
exactly
(his emphasis, not mine) what you are looking for.

Was my phone tricked? Possibly. Did I want to chance it? Definitely not, but I couldn't just toss the phone in the nearest USPS mailbox. For one thing, I'd be seen and lose the element of surprise. Worse, the FBI carries keys to mailboxes. If that's who was on me, they'd be crawling through my SIM card—the unique chip every cell phone operates off—before I got to Sixty-first Street. I had probably a couple hundred contacts stored on it. I wasn't giving those up to anyone without a fight. I needed a real drop, and I knew the perfect place.

I headed up Madison fast enough to string out surveillance behind me, then darted across the street at Fifty-fifth against the light, grazing a cab. The Sikh hacker celebrated my victory over death by rolling down his window and cursing me in Punjabi.
Bhenchot!
But this wasn't the time to stop and tell him I didn't have a sister, that one child was way too much for dear old Mom. Half a block later, I ducked into the showroom of the Sony building, raced through without breaking stride, and headed straight to the trash can in front of the Starbucks coffee bar on the backside. Surveillance would have had to have been inside the can to see my cell phone filtering down through the crushed cups and napkins.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“A grande double latté con brio with hints of the Costa Rican sunset, and hold the mayo.”

“Huh?”

My server, if that's what she was called, had a sterling-silver safety pin stuck through her nose. Other than that, she looked like a Girl Scout from Kansas.

“House brew. Large,” I amended. She almost laughed.

Reinforced paper cup in hand, I found a seat and paged through a well-fingered
New York Post.
The idea was to give surveillance a chance to catch up. When I figured that even an AARP flying squad could have gotten itself in place, I carefully folded the paper, returned it to the counter, and headed for the street. Time to move out and draw fire—Plan B.

CHAPTER 3

“All units, this is Selma. Che holding steady at five-five-oh Madison. Repeat, Che steady at—”

“Selma, Selma, this is Oxford.”

“Five-five-oh Madison, between Fifty-fifth and Fifty-sixth.”

“Selma—”

“Oxford?”

“Che just crossed Sixty-first on foot….”

H
ALF OF EVERYTHING
I
KNOW
about spotting surveillance I owe to Wild Bill Mulligan, my first boss in India, and it took just a single lesson.

“Boy-o,” he said one day as we sat on the veranda at the Bombay Yacht Club, “the trick is to always look at the feet, the shoes. And in a pinch, pants. A good surveillance team carries along reversible jackets, neck braces, red straw hats, a raft of accessories from shopping bags to umbrellas, dogs to a watermelon—anything to distract you. Sleights of hand. But what they almost never do is change shoes. It's awkward. Takes time. Shoes are hard to carry. Always watch the shoes.”

Which is just what I was doing as I made my way up Madison Avenue. Fortunately, now that I had moved out of Midtown, people were fewer and farther between. So light was the sidewalk traffic as I cleared Sixty-second Street that I had time to focus my attention on a pair of extraordinarily fine and extremely unlikely suspects, neither more than a size six. When they turned into the Chanel store at Sixty-fourth, I thought, Why not? Browsing Chanel the way I was dressed was one sure way of drawing fire, on me and on anyone else who might find a couple thousand bucks a little steep for a crepe de chine blouse, even if the silk had been spun by free-range worms.

The door had just closed behind me when it popped back open and in walked a doughy guy in his mid-fifties, brick face, bad comb-over, scarlet Ohio State vinyl jacket, polyester pants, and spotless white sneakers. He looked even more out of place in Chanel than I did, but the point is I was almost certain I'd seen him walking toward me ten blocks earlier. If I was right, I was now being tailed from in front, not behind.

In the business, it's called a “waterfall.” Whoever is in charge of the operation runs a hundred or more people at you in a constant stream. Two or three blocks after they've passed you by, they peel off onto a side street, get picked up by vehicles and ferried on a parallel street up above you, changing appearance every inch of the way, and then the whole process starts over again. I needed more evidence to be certain, but this little game was starting to take on a distinct smell.

The two size-sixes I'd followed inside were already being treated to a private fashion show, complete with midday flutes of champagne. I might have joined them if a manager hadn't floated in front of my face just then and asked if he could help me in a voice that suggested he'd rather walk naked through a landfill. I was turning for the door when he aimed the same question at Ohio State.

“Just browsing,” the man mumbled.

I ducked out in the confusion.

Three blocks later, as I crossed Sixty-seventh Street, I took a peek to my left and sent a silent prayer to Wild Bill. There they were, those Puma arsenic-orange, powder-blue sneakers I'd last seen in front of Quick & Reilly, only now they were attached to the feet of a woman in a long mouse-gray raincoat and a Phrygian knit cap. Apart from being out of season, the cap, I was sure, was hiding lavender highlights, but the sneakers, you could have spotted from a KH-11 satellite, ninety-two miles up.

By now I was crisscrossing Madison, checking out art and antiques stores. Every run needs a logic that the surveillance team can buy into, and the East Sixties and Seventies are peppered with the kind of places I had decided to make today's theme. Better still, since the shops and galleries are so close together, no one had to work very hard. I'd learned long ago that the best way to manage a surveillance team is to lull it into complacency. Make the chase easy on them, let them take in the sights, and never, ever piss them off. If you do, they're sure to download the flak on you.

At Sixty-eighth Street, I made a right, walked down a few doors, rang the bell at #14—a handsome brownstone and home to the world-famous galleries of Theodore Hew-Chatworth—and waited for the buzzer that would admit me to the stairs that would allow me entry to the second-floor showroom. If anyone was going to follow me in, he would either have to fast-rope off the roof or buzz the same buzzer and walk up the same flight of stairs I was climbing. Theodore was waiting for me himself, ever the gentleman.

“Fuck you, flyface,” he said as he opened the door—an improvement, actually, over the last time we met.

We had issues. Teddy was a small-time Texas con man until he copped two-to-five years for accepting tuition payments for a chain of imaginary day-care centers. No fool, he used his cell time to acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of Oriental art and an accent that, except in certain circumstances, would do an Anglican bishop proud. Back on the outside, he headed straight for New York to do his apprenticeship. Today he was one of the nation's foremost dealers in Chinese antiques, but he'd never entirely escaped the con man he used to be.

A decade earlier, a police dog had discovered a handsome cache of heroin, pure China white, packed inside a shipment of vases meant for Teddy's store. The charge didn't stick—Teddy claimed his forwarders in Macau were freelancing—but while they were looking into the case, investigators stumbled upon something that could have put him out of business for good. Antique porcelains are certified by thermoluminescence testing. Don't ask: It's to porcelains what carbon dating is to fossils. What matters is that Teddy and his Beijing partners developed a technique to scam the test so they could sell fake Chinese blue and white as the real thing. It gave me enough leverage to talk Teddy into running ops for us during his frequent trips to China. He never took the assignment gracefully, though.

“Your phone,” I said, nodding at the sleek cordless Siemens on his desk.

Phone in hand, I headed down the long side hallway to a bathroom marked
Employees Only,
locked myself inside, and phoned the Special Agent in charge of the FBI's National Security Division. If the Bureau's gumshoes were on me, John O'Neill would know it.

His secretary answered the phone.

I was two sentences into whatever lie I had concocted when O'Neill himself burst onto the line in all his larger-than-life glory.

“Max, you asshole, what are you doing on my turf? If you're up here operating, I'm gonna make sure you spend a cozy night at Rikers.”

“Me? You're the one running the op.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I got surveillance.”

“Oh, bullshit.”

“They're like flies at a shit roast.”

“Come on.”

“Trust me. You can't miss these guys.”

“All right. I'll play. Hold on.”

He was back in two minutes. “It's not DEA or Customs or One Police Plaza.”

It was my turn. With DEA, Customs, and the locals out of the mix, the list of candidates was becoming disturbingly thin. “Are you sure?”

“Well, I could ask again and say ‘pretty please' this time.”

Point taken.

O'Neill hated silence. “You been drinking?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, how about I send a car up and bring you in?”

“Nope, but I might need you later.”

“What have you got into now?”

Damned if I knew, but I didn't want to disappoint. O'Neill had once noted that I had a habit of burning my bridges before I got to them, and history was on his side.

“Hey, John, remember that Black Panther, the one who became a Muslim?”

“It still hurts where he took a bite out of my ass.”

“I'm going to go see him.”

“The fuck you are. If you so much as—”

I hung up, splashed a little tap water on my face, and ran a quick check on the medicine cabinet. Viagra and crystal meth.

“I was never here, Theodore,” I said, buzzing myself out his door.

“If only. Where's my phone?”

“I left it on the back of the crapper.”

“You fuck.”

“Why don't you run it through the thermoluminescencer. That should take care of the germs.”

BOOK: Blow the House Down
12.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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