To celebrate the paperback publication of Jack Higgins’ The Midnight Bell, we’re giving you all a sneak peek of this explosive new thriller of murder, terrorism and revenge from the Sunday Times bestselling author.
An east wind with driving rain and sleet pushed across the airport as the Gulfstream landed. It was immediately approached by a security limousine from the White House, which Blake Johnson, alighting from the plane, was surprised to see was being driven by his longtime secretary, Alice Quarmby. He opened the passenger door, tossed his valise inside, and joined her.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Protecting your back, you idiot,’ she told him, as she drove away. ‘You were supposed to bring Jake Cazalet back with you from London, and here you are, alone. I’m a nervous old broad when it comes to my boss, so I’d like to know why.’
‘Sorry, Alice, it’s for the ears of the President only.’
‘Well, it better be good. With his second term coming up, he needs to show who’s in charge, and here’s former President Jake Cazalet – a fine president in his day, mind you – dining with the Prime Minister and giving interviews to the media as if he’s the official mouthpiece for American foreign policy. You know the White House isn’t pleased about that.’
‘I know – but enough about that. Anything else come up?’
‘Apparently, the President has made a new friend.’
‘A Colonel Samuel Hunter. I did some research – don’t ask me where. He has a decent black-ops record in the army, nothing spectacular, and since then, he’s spent five years with the CIA, where he runs a Special Projects Department. He gets around a lot.’
‘So what’s the “special project” he’s come up with that appeals to the Oval Office?’
‘The President has become interested in the private-army business since you were last here.’
‘Mercenaries?’ Blake was amazed. ‘What on earth for?’
‘The new name for them is private military companies, so you might as well get used to it. It seems they’ve been having some success in Mali, and South African companies have been busy recruiting.’
‘With plenty of casualties, no doubt?’
‘No doubt. And some units have apparently done very well supporting the Nigerian Army in its struggle with Al Qaeda.’
‘Aided by the military supplies we pump in there?’
‘Not in Nigeria, I think. My research suggests the CIA wouldn’t touch this one with a barge pole if left to their own devices.’
‘Like that, is it?’ Blake said.
‘That’s what they say, but who knows?’
‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘You’re an old cynic, Alice, but somehow you always get it right.’
‘Blame it on the White House, Blake. I’ve been there longer than anyone else. It breeds cynicism.’
They were moving along Constitution Avenue toward the White House, where they found demonstrators in spite of the hour and the heavy rain.
‘Try the East Entrance,’ Blake suggested. Alice did, and a Secret Service man on duty saw to the Mercedes, then escorted them to the President’s secretary, who delivered them to the Oval Office and withdrew.
The inclement weather outside had darkened the room, and yet the President kept it in shadow, glancing up from papers now and smiling hugely.
‘There you are at last. And you, Alice, it was way beyond the call of duty for you to pick this rascal up at such an hour.’
‘I guess it’s gotten to be a habit, Mr President, after all these years.’
‘You’re the wonder of the world. Now, if you would, go and get yourself a coffee while Blake and I talk.’
Alice withdrew, and the President called, ‘Join us, Colonel Hunter. I’d like you to meet Blake Johnson.’
Hunter emerged from the chief of staff’s office, a man much as Blake had expected, around sixty, with a moustache, tanned face, and an expensive suit of blue flannel.
He held out his hand briefly. ‘Your fame precedes you, Mr Johnson.’
‘Colonel,’ Blake said formally.
Hunter’s smile was false and dismissive as he turned to a more important quarry. ‘As I was saying earlier, Mr President, we must present our opponents with the unexpected and seize the day. It’s been one of the greatest precepts of warfare since Roman times.’
The President turned to Blake. ‘Would you agree?’
‘My experience of warfare was being up to my armpits in some swamp in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, so I guess I never had time to find out,’ Blake said.
Hunter was annoyed and let it show. ‘We all have to move with the times,’ he said to Blake. ‘Modern thinking, that’s what we need. For instance, I’m surprised that a man in your position has an elderly woman as his secretary. How computer savvy can she be?’
‘She could write the book on the White House,’ Blake said. ‘She’s better than any computer.’
‘And apparently has been poking her nose into Langley’s business illegally for her department’s purposes,’ Hunter said.
‘That would be my personal security department,’ the President said. ‘It’s called the Basement. Blake Johnson runs it, and Alice Quarmby has served every president in office since the Basement was first conceived.’
Hunter apologized hurriedly. ‘Of course you are right, Mr President. Still, this unauthorized accessing of CIA files – it’s disturbing.’
‘You may be right, Colonel, but as I am the president, I’m the one who’ll make the decision about it. If you’d show the colonel out, Blake.’
Blake was at the door in a moment. Hunter followed, hesitated, and turned. ‘And what we discussed, Mr President – about Havoc and the support system?’
‘We’ll see, Colonel,’ the President said, and as Blake closed the door, he added, ‘Come and sit down and bring me up-to-date. Did you bring President Cazalet back?’
‘Unfortunately, no, Mr President. He said he’s agreed to deliver a lecture at the London School of Economics about terrorism and ISIS, and he can’t leave just yet.’
The President frowned. ‘You did give him the envelope that contained the presidential warrant ordering him home again?’
‘Of course. He said he was going to leave, but then Downing Street informed him that they’d all be attending the lecture – so he felt he had to stay. The profits, by the way, are going to charity – the Children of Syria.’
‘So how can I possibly complain about that?’ the President said, then laughed reluctantly. ‘Damn you, Jake Cazalet, you’ve left me wrong-footed on this one.’
Actually, Mr President, if I could make a suggestion?’
‘By all means.’
‘Why don’t you send a message to the Cabinet Office congratulating the Prime Minister and President Cazalet on their joint efforts – and announcing that the US will match the money raised for the Children of Syria. That way, it’s as if you’d been a part of it the whole time.’
The President was smiling now. ‘What a great idea. I’ll see to it at once. With one stipulation.’
‘What would that be, Mr President?’
‘You climb in that Gulfstream, return to London tonight, and don’t show your face back here without him. When he’s finished his gig, I want him back, and no arguments, even if he is a billionaire. Let’s have a drink on it.’ The President was smiling as he rose, went to a cupboard, and produced a bottle of scotch and two glasses, one of which he handed to Blake. ‘Sit down for a moment.’
The President settled onto a couch. ‘I imagine you think I’m crazy, being so concerned about Cazalet, but I can’t help thinking about what happened last year.’ The President had sent General Charles Ferguson, the head of the Prime Minister’s ‘private army,’ and his people to Cazalet’s house on Nantucket, so that Cazalet could thank them on the President’s behalf for the success of a recent operation. But Al Qaeda assassins had been waiting for them. ‘Charles Ferguson, Sean Dillon, Captain Sara Gideon, and Cazalet himself, they could all have died.’
‘Well, they didn’t,’ Blake said. ‘None of it’s your fault.
Besides, Sean Dillon is the most dangerous man I’ve ever met. They picked the wrong target.’
‘But they’ll try again. Especially after Dillon and company shot the Al Qaeda Master behind the attack.’
‘I agree with you there. I’ve a feeling in my gut that Al Qaeda won’t let us forget that,’ Blake said. ‘Which is why we’ve spent so much time keeping in touch across the Atlantic.’
‘My Basement,’ the President said. ‘And the Prime Minister’s private army.’ He shook his head. ‘United by a common purpose and yet so far away from each other.’
Blake finished his drink and stood up. ‘Not in the world we live in, not these days. I’d better get going.’
‘Of course. Take care.’
Blake turned. ‘Always do, Mr President,’ he said, and left. The President sat there, thinking of what Blake had said. Not in the world we live in, not these days. For a moment, he was touched by despair, but that would never do. There was work to be done, and he sat at the desk and started to go through his papers.
Frank Dolan, once a master sergeant in the Rangers, now Hunter’s personal assistant and chauffeur, was waiting for the colonel as he left the White House, an umbrella high against the pouring rain.
‘Everything go according to plan, sir?’
‘Sergeant, some truly crazy people work in there, and that this president, his security guy, and the old bag working for them.’
‘That must be her dozing in the Mercedes over there,’ Dolan said, as he started to drive away. ‘I looked him up. Blake Johnson, right? Decorated three times in Vietnam.’
‘Hell, they gave medals away like candy in those days,’ Hunter said.
‘He was FBI for a while, too. Took a bullet meant for Cazalet when Cazalet was a senator.’
‘Well, bully for him,’ Hunter said, staring out. ‘Washington in the rain. I loathe it.’
‘Have we anything special planned this trip, sir?’
‘London. I want to have another look at Hans Weber’s Havoc operation, the one working out of that old RAF base at Charnley. Maybe he’s found more planes from the Second World War.’
‘More ghosts on the runways like those Dakotas of his. Piston engines, not even jets,’ Dolan said.
‘But just the thing for African rough spots. If they break down, they can be repaired just like you’d repair an old car, whereas a jet plane in the middle of Gambia would stand there and decay.’
‘So there really could be money in these old planes?’
‘More than you could imagine. It would depend on how they were handled, of course.’
‘Some of the country the private military companies operate in is pretty rough. I imagine that’s why you’re interested in Havoc.’
‘Why, Sergeant Dolan, you know my involvement in the company would preclude that,’ Hunter said. ‘Not to mention my connection with the CIA. But if national security is at stake, well, we must be prepared, don’t you think?’ and he laughed harshly.
At the airport, the Gulfstream waited in the rain as Alice and Blake parted. He’d told her of the President’s worries, and she nodded.
‘I think there’s something else, too,’ she said. ‘Even at sixty-five, Jake Cazalet is still full of incredible energy and, more than that, a touch of wildness. You never know what he’s going to do next. Presidents aren’t supposed to behave like that, even former ones.’
‘I think I could mention a few who did, Alice, but you’re right – he’s unpredictable, likely to charge right at danger.’
‘So bring him home safe,’ she said.
He kissed her on the cheek, nodded to the flight attendant, and then ran to the Gulfstream. A few moments later, he was settled in his seat and peering out of the window, but Alice was no longer there.
The Gulfstream climbed very fast toward the Atlantic, leveling at forty thousand feet, and the second pilot visited the kitchen area, emerged with three coffees on a tray, and passed one to Blake.
‘Six hours to arrival if we’re lucky. Storms threatening in the mid-Atlantic, so belt up if you want to sleep.’
Blake, however, didn’t feel like sleeping. His quick return to London might cause some surprise, so he realized he should give them a heads-up. There was one person available day or night at the Holland Park safe house, so he produced his Codex and called Roper. In spite of the hour, he knew that Major Giles Roper would be seated in his wheelchair in the computer room checking his screens, searching for intelligence. And Tony Doyle, the military police sergeant on night duty, would be near. A Jamaican Cockney born in London, Doyle had joined the army to see the world but had got no farther than Belfast and the IRA. Now his mission was to take care of Roper – and supply him with endless tea, whiskey, and bacon sandwiches.
Roper had his phone on speaker so Tony could hear.
‘What’s going on, Blake? I’ve heard of quick returns, but this is ridiculous.’
‘The President wants Cazalet back the moment he’s avail-able, so he’s sent me to make sure. He worries about the free spirit gathering too much publicity.’
‘He’s worrying too much,’ Doyle called. ‘Jake’s doing just fine.’
‘For a man who was once leader of the free world, Tony,’ Blake called back, ‘he might just consider stepping away for a while and making himself less of a target.’
‘Maybe you’re right,’ Roper said. ‘But it will be great to see you back here. I’ll let you get a little shut-eye and check in later to see how you’re getting on.’
* * *
It was quiet except for the drone of the engines, and Blake lay back and dozed, thinking how first Al Qaeda and then ISIS had altered the world. International terrorism of the most murderous kind was the name of the game now, Al Qaeda disrupting the lives of millions, each of its branches controlled by an anonymous leader known as the Master. Ferguson and his people had been responsible for the death of two Masters, so Al Qaeda would want their revenge.
He got up and went to the kitchen area for the bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey he knew was kept there. As he opened it, rain hammered on the fuselage of the Gulfstream and there was the roll of distant thunder. He tossed his drink down and his Codex sounded.
‘Who is this?’
The voice on the other end of the line was not one he knew. It was cultured and mature, an older man, the English perfect with only the slightest of French accents. ‘Ah, there you are, Mr Johnson. A dirty night to be crossing the Atlantic. I trust the President was in the best of health when you left Washington?’
‘Who the hell are you?’ Blake demanded, coldly aware that he probably knew the answer to that one already.
‘Ah, don’t tell me you didn’t know I’d be calling sooner or later. There are debts to be paid. I intend to see they are.’
‘So you’re the new Master?’ Blake said. ‘I was wondering when another one would turn up. A voice on the phone trying to justify Al Qaeda and international terrorism. You guys never stop trying, do you?’
‘And never will. I’m certainly not the easy marks my predecessors were. Technology changes by the week these days, and even the great Major Giles Roper will find me hard to handle. As for Ferguson – tell him it’s a different world. His time is done. Come to think of it, never mind. I’ll tell him myself.’
‘I’m sure he’ll look forward to that.’
‘And Jake Cazalet? Get him home while you can. His time is running out, too. Oh, and say hello for me to the lovely Captain Sara Gideon. I understand she has a birthday coming up soon. Give the captain my sincere good wishes and tell her I’ll see her soon.’
Blake called Roper and told him what had happened. ‘God knows what Ferguson is going to think.’
‘Easy to ask him,’ Roper said. ‘He’s staying in the guest wing. Were you surprised by the call?’
‘No, I’ve always thought Al Qaeda would seek revenge. We’ve cost them two Masters already, so what would you expect?’
‘Is the conversation recorded on your Codex?’
‘That should have Ferguson awake faster than a cold shower. We can all listen.’
Ferguson answered five minutes later. ‘Morning, Blake, are you linked in?’
‘Ready and waiting, General.’
‘So let me listen to what he’s got to say.’
When it was finished, Ferguson smiled. ‘Cheeky sod. Run it through again.’
Roper complied, and this time Ferguson didn’t smile. ‘He’s going to give us trouble, this one. The smooth approach, the familiarity, all designed to mask his true self.’
‘I agree,’ Roper said. ‘But he can’t believe his charming approach is going to fool anyone, so what’s his game?’
‘Maybe it’s just meant to confuse,’ Blake suggested.
Ferguson said, ‘He’s a clever bastard, I’ll give you that. And well informed. Sara’s birthday, for example. Use the secure link to let all our people know a new Master is back to plague us and alert the Cabinet Office, Security Services, and MI5. I think that’s it.’
‘What about President Cazalet, General?’
‘Oh, certainly, him, too. Call him at the Dorchester. Ask him to join us for breakfast. But not a word on the matter to the White House. It’s exactly the kind of thing they want to avoid.’
‘Leave it to me, General.’
‘I fully intend to, because I’m going back to bed for a couple of hours.’ He turned to Tony Doyle. ‘As for you, Sergeant, when it’s time, drive up to Farley Field and pick up Blake Johnson.’
‘My pleasure, General,’ Doyle told him.
‘Drive carefully, you rogue. The hint of a scrape and I’ll have your stripes.’
Ferguson went out, and Doyle turned to Roper. ‘So we’re going to war again, Major?’
‘So it would appear; I can smell the powder,’ Roper said.
Doyle left, and Roper poured a large scotch, tossed it back, and lit a cigarette. The he pressed the master switch by his right hand, turning on everything in the computer room, and he sat there, brooding over dozens of screens.
‘Don’t worry, Master,’ he murmured softly. ‘I’ll find you in the end. I always do.’
The Midnight Bell is out in paperback on Thursday 5th October.