Backman drained the bottle of water and asked for another. He wiped his mouth with a sleeve, then said, "Is it like a witness protection program, something like that?"
"It's not an official program, Mr. Backman. But, from time to time, we find it necessary to hide people."
"How often do you lose one?'
"Not too often."
"Not too often? So there's no guarantee I'll be safe."
"Nothing is guaranteed. But your odds are good."
Backman looked at the warden and said, "How many years do I have left here, Lester?"
Lester was jolted back into the conversation. No one called him Lester, a name he hated and avoided. The nameplate on his desk declared him to be L. Howard Cass. "Fourteen years, and you can address me as Warden Cass.' "Cass my ass. Odds are I'll be dead in three. A combination of malnutrition, hypothermia, and negligent health care should do it. Lester here runs a really tight ship, boys."
"Can we move along?" Mr. Sizemore said.
"Of course I'll take the deal," Backman said. "What fool wouldn't?"
Mr. Knabe from Justice finally moved. He opened a briefcase and said, "Here's the paperwork."
"Who do you work for?" Backman asked Mr. Sizemore.
"The President of the United States."
"Well, tell him I didn't vote for him because I was locked away. But I certainly would have, if given the chance. And tell him I said thanks, okay?"
Hoby poured another cup of green tea, decaffeinated now because it was almost midnight, and handed it to Teddy, who was wrapped in a blanket and staring at the traffic behind them. They were on Constitution Avenue, leaving downtown, almost to the Roosevelt Bridge. The old man took a sip and said, "Morgan is too stupid to be selling pardons. Critz, however, worries me."
"There's a new account on the island of Nevis," Hoby said. "It popped up two weeks ago, opened by an obscure company owned by Floyd Dunlap."
"And who's he?"
"One of Morgan's fundraisers."
"It's the current hot spot for offshore activity."
"And we're covering it?"
"We're all over it. Any transfers should take place in the next forty-eight hours."
Teddy nodded slightly and glanced to his left for a partial look at the Kennedy Center. "Where's Backman?"
"He's leaving prison."
Teddy smiled and sipped his tea. They crossed the bridge in silence, and when the Potomac was behind them, he finally said, "Who'll get him?"
"Does it really matter?"
"No, it doesn't. But it will be quite enjoyable watching the contest."
Wearing a well-worn but starched and pressed khaki military uniform, with all the patches and badges removed, and shiny black combat boots and a heavy navy parka with a hood that he pulled snugly around his head, Joel Backman strutted out of the Rudley Federal Correctional Facility at five minutes after midnight, fourteen years ahead of schedule. He had been there, in solitary confinement, for six years, and upon leaving he carried with him a small canvas bag with a few books and some photos. He did not look back.
He was fifty-two years old, divorced, broke, thoroughly estranged from two of his three children and thoroughly forgotten by every friend he'd ever made. Not a single one had bothered to maintain a correspondence beyond the first year of his confinement. An old girlfriend, one of the countless secretaries he'd chased around his plush offices, had written for ten months, until it was reported in The Washington Post that the FBI had decided it was unlikely that Joel Backman had looted his firm and his clients of the millions that had first been rumored. Who wants to be pen pals with a broke lawyer in prison? A wealthy one, maybe.
His mother wrote him occasionally, but she was ninety-one years old and living in a low-rent nursing home near Oakland, and with each letter he got the impression it would be her last. He wrote her once a week, but doubted if she was able to read anything, and he was almost certain that no one on staff had the time or interest to read to her. She always said, "Thanks for the letter," but never mentioned anything he'd said. He sent her cards on special occasions. In one of her letters she had confessed that no one else remembered her birthday.
The boots were very heavy. As he plodded along the sidewalk he realized that he'd spent most of the past six years in his socks, no shoes. Funny the things you think about when you get sprung with no warning. When was the last time he'd worn boots? And how soon could he shuck the damn things?
He stopped for a second and looked toward the sky. For one hour each day, he'd been allowed to roam a small patch of grass outside his prison wing. Always alone, always watched by a guard, as if he, Joel Backman, a former lawyer who'd never fired a gun in anger, might suddenly become dangerous and maim someone. The "garden" was lined with ten feet of chain-link topped with razor wire. Beyond it was an empty drainage canal, and beyond that was an endless, treeless prairie that stretched to Texas, he presumed.
Mr. Sizemore and Agent Adair were his escorts. They led him to a dark green sport-utility vehicle that, though unmarked, practically screamed "government issue" to anyone looking. Joel crawled into the backseat, alone, and began praying. He closed his eyes tightly, gritted his teeth, and asked God to please allow the engine to start, the wheels to move, the gates to open, the paperwork to be sufficient; please, God, no cruel jokes. This is not a dream, God, please!
Twenty minutes later, Sizemore spoke first. "Say, Mr. Backman, are you hungry?"
Mr. Backman had ceased praying and had begun crying. The vehicle had been moving steadily, though he had not opened his eyes. He was lying on the rear seat, fighting his emotions and losing badly.
"Sure," he managed to say. He sat up and looked outside. They were on an interstate highway, a green sign flew by-Perry Exit. They stopped in the parking lot of a pancake house, less than a quarter of a mile from the interstate. Big trucks were in the distance, their diesel engines grinding along. Joel watched them for a second, and listened. He glanced upward again and saw a half-moon.
"Are we in a hurry?" he asked Sizemore as they entered the restaurant.
"We're on schedule," came the reply.
They sat at a table near the front window, with Joel looking out. He ordered french toast and fruit, nothing heavy because he was afraid his system was too accustomed to the gruel he'd been living on. Conversation was stiff; the two government boys were programmed to say little and were thoroughly incapable of small talk. Not that Joel wanted to hear anything they had to say.
He tried not to smile. Sizemore would report later that Backman glanced occasionally at the door and seemed to keep a close eye on the other customers. He did not appear to be frightened; quite the contrary. As the minutes dragged on and the shock wore off, he seemed to adjust quickly and became somewhat animated. He devoured two orders of french toast and had four cups of black coffee.
A few minutes after 4:00 a.m. they entered the gates of Fort Summit, near Brinkley, Texas. Backman was taken to the base hospital and examined by two physicians. Except for a head cold and the cough, and general gauntness, he wasnt in bad shape. He was then taken to a hangar where he met a Colonel Gantner, who instantly became his best friend. At Gantner's instructions, and under his close supervision, Joel changed into a green army jumpsuit with the name herzog stenciled above the right pocket. "Is that me?" Joel asked, looking at the name.
"It is for the next forty-eight hours," Gantner said.
"And my rank?'
At some point during this quick briefing, Mr. Sizemore from Washington and Agent Adair slipped away, never to be seen again by Joel Backman. With the first hint of sunlight, Joel stepped through the rear hatch of a C-130 cargo plane and followed Gantner to the upper level, to a small bunk room where six other soldiers were preparing for a long flight.
"Take that bunk," Gantner said, pointing to one close to the floor.
"Can I ask where we're going?" Joel whispered.
"You can ask, but I can't answer."
"I'll brief you before we land."
"And when might that be?"
"In about fourteen hours."
With no windows to distract him, Joel situated himself on his bunk, pulled a blanket over his head, and was snoring by takeoff.
Critz slept a few hours, then left home long before the inauguration mess began. Just after dawn, he and his wife were whisked off to London on one of his new employer's many private jets. He was to spend two weeks there, then return to the grind of the Beltway as a new lobbyist playing a very old game. He hated the idea. For years he'd watched the losers cross the street and start new careers twisting the arms of their former colleagues, selling their souls to anyone with enough money to buy whatever influence they advertised. It was such a rotten business. He was sick of the political life, but, sadly, he knew nothing else.
He'd make some speeches, maybe write a book, hang on for a few years hoping someone remembered him. But Critz knew how quickly the once powerful are forgotten in Washington.
President Morgan and Director Maynard had agreed to sit on the Backman story for twenty-four hours, until well after the inauguration. Morgan didn't care; he'd be in Barbados. Critz, however, did not feel bound by any agreement, especially one made with the likes of Teddy Maynard. After a long dinner with lots of wine, sometime around 2:00 a.m. in London, he called a White House correspondent for CBS and whispered the basics of the Backman pardon. As he pre dieted, CBS broke the story during its early-morning gossip hour, and before 8:00 a.m. the news was roaring around D.C.
Joel Backman had been given a full and unconditional pardon at the eleventh hour!
There were no details of his release. When last heard from, he'd been tucked away in a maximum-security facility in Oklahoma.
In a very nervous city, the day began with the pardon storming onto center stage and competing with a new President and his first full day in office.
The bankrupt law firm of Pratt amp; Boiling now found itself on Massachusetts Avenue, four blocks north of Dupont Circle; not a bad location, but not nearly as classy as the old place on New York Avenue. A few years earlier, when Joel Backman was in charge-it was Backman, Pratt amp;. Boiling then-he had insisted on paying the highest rent in town so he could stand at the vast windows of his vast office on the eighth floor and look down at the White House.
Now the White House was nowhere in sight; there were no power offices with grand vistas; the building had three floors, not eight. And the firm had shrunk from two hundred highly paid lawyers to about thirty struggling ones. The first bankruptcy-commonly referred to within the offices as Backman I-had decimated the firm, but it had also miraculously kept its partners out of prison. Backman II had been caused by three years of vicious infighting and suing among the survivors. The firm's competitors were fond of saying that Pratt amp;. Boiling spent more time suing itself than those it was hired to sue.
Early that morning, though, the competitors were quiet. Joel Backman was a free man. The broker was loose. Would he make a comeback? Was he returning to Washington? Was it all true? Surely not.
Kim Boiling was currently locked away in alcohol rehab, and from there he would be sent straight to a private mental facility for many years. The unbearable strain of the last six years had driven him over the edge, to a point of no return. The task of dealing with the latest nightmare from Joel Backman fell into the rather large lap of Carl Pratt.
It had been Pratt who had uttered the fateful "I do" twenty-two years earlier when Backman had proposed a marriage of their two small firms. It had been Pratt who had labored strenuously for sixteen years to clean up behind Backman as the firm expanded and the fees poured in and all ethical boundaries were blurred beyond recognition. It had been Pratt who'd fought weekly with his partner, but who, over time, had come to enjoy the fruits of their enormous success.
And it had been Carl Pratt who'd come so close to a federal prosecution himself, just before Joel Backman heroically took the fall for everyone. Backman's plea agreement, and the agreement that exculpated the firms other partners, required a fine of $10 million, thus leading directly to the first bankruptcy-Backman I.
But bankruptcy was better than jail, Pratt reminded himself almost daily. He lumbered around his sparse office early that morning, mumbling to himself and trying desperately to believe that the news was simply not true. He stood at his small window and gazed at the gray brick building next door, and asked himself how it could happen. How could a broke, disbarred, disgraced former lawyer/lobbyist convince a lame-duck president to grant a last-minute pardon?
By the time Joel Backman went to prison, he was probably the most famous white-collar criminal in America. Everybody wanted to see him hang from the gallows.
But, Pratt conceded to himself, if anyone in the world could pull off such a miracle, it was Joel Backman.
Pratt worked the phones for a few minutes, tapping into his extensive network of Washington gossipmongers and know-it-alls. An old friend who'd somehow managed to survive in the Executive Department under four presidents-two from each party-finally confirmed the truth.
"Where is he?" Pratt asked urgently, as if Backman might resurrect himself in D.C. at any moment.
"No one knows," came the reply.
Pratt locked his door and fought the urge to open the office bottle of vodka. He had been forty-nine years old when his partner was sent to prison for twenty years with no parole, and he often wondered what he would do when he was sixty-nine and Backman got out.
At that moment, Pratt felt as though he'd been cheated out of fourteen years.
The courtroom had been so crowded that the judge postponed the hearing for two hours until the demand for seating could be organized and somewhat prioritized. Every prominent news organization in the country was screaming for a place to sit or stand. Big shots from Justice, the FBI, the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the White House, and Capitol Hill were pressing for seats, all claiming that their best interests would be served if they could be present to watch the lynching of Joel Backman. When the defendant finally appeared in the tense courtroom, the crowd suddenly froze and the only sound was that of the court reporter prepping his steno machine.
Backman was led to the defense table, where his small army of lawyers packed tightly around him as if bullets were expected from the mob in the gallery. Gunfire would not have been a surprise, though the security rivaled that of a presidential visit. In the first row directly behind the defense table sat Carl Pratt and a dozen or so other partners, or soon-to-be-former partners, of Mr. Backman. They had been searched most aggressively, and for good reason. Though they seethed with hatred for the man, they were also pulling for him. If his plea agreement fell through because of a last-second hitch or disagreement, then they would be fair game again, with nasty trials just around the corner.
At least they were sitting on the front row, out with the spectators, and not at the defense table where the crooks were kept. At least they were alive. Eight days earlier, Jacy Hubbard, one of their trophy partners, had been found dead in Arlington National Cemetery, in a contrived suicide that few people believed. Hubbard had been a former senator from Texas who had given up his seat after twenty-four years for the sole, though unannounced, purpose of offering his significant influence to the highest bidder. Of course Joel Backman would never allow such a big fish to escape his net, so he and the rest of Backman, Pratt 8c Boiling had hired Hubbard for a million bucks a year because good ol' Jacy could get himself into the Oval Office anytime he wanted.
Hubbard his death had worked wonders in helping Joel Backman to see the government's point of view. The logjam that had delayed the plea negotiations was suddenly broken. Not only would Backman accept twenty years, he wanted to do it quickly. He was anxious for protective custody!
The government his lawyer that day was a high-ranking career prosecutor from Justice, and with such a big and prestigious crowd he could not help but grandstand. He simply couldn't use one word when three would suffice; there were too many people out there. He was onstage, a rare moment in a long dull career, when the nation happened to be watching. With a savage blandness he launched into a reading of the indictment, and it was quickly apparent that he possessed almost no talent at theatrics, virtually no flair for drama, though he tried mightily. After eight minutes of stultifying monologue, the judge, peering sleepily over reading glasses, said, "Would you speed it up, sir, and lower your voice at the same time."
There were eighteen counts, alleging crimes ranging from espionage to treason. When they were all read, Joel Backman was so thoroughly vilified that he belonged in the same league with Hitler. His lawyer immediately reminded the court, and everyone else present, that nothing in the indictment had been proven, that it was in fact just a recitation of one side of the case, the government's heavily slanted view of things. He explained that his client would be pleading guilty to only four of the eighteen counts-unauthorized possession of military documents. The judge then read the lengthy plea agreement, and for twenty minutes nothing was said. The artists on the front row sketched the scene with a fury, their images bearing almost no likeness to reality.
Hiding on the back row, seated with strangers, was Neal Backman, Joel's oldest son. He was, at that moment, still an associate with Backman, Pratt 8c Boiling, but that was about to change. He watched the proceedings in a state of shock, unable to believe that his once powerful father was pleading guilty and about to be buried in the federal penal system.
The defendant was eventually herded to the bench, where he looked up as proudly as possible and faced the judge. With lawyers whispering in both ears, he pled guilty to his four counts, then was led back to his seat. He managed to avoid eye contact with everyone.
A sentencing date was set for the following month. As Backman was handcuffed and taken away, it became obvious to those present that he would not be forced to divulge his secrets, that he would indeed be incarcerated for a very long time while his conspiracies faded away. The crowd slowly broke up. The reporters got half the story they wanted. The big men from the agencies left without speaking-some were pleased that secrets had been protected, others were furious that crimes were being hidden. Carl Pratt and the other beleaguered partners headed for the nearest bar.
The first reporter called the office just before 9:00 a.m. Pratt had already alerted his secretary that such calls were expected. She was to tell everyone that he was to be busy in court on some lengthy matter and might not be back in the office for months. Soon the phone lines were gridlocked and a seemingly productive day was shot to hell. Every lawyer and other employee dropped everything and whispered of nothing but the Backman news. Several watched the front door, half expecting the ghost to come looking for them.
Behind a locked door and alone, Pratt sipped a Bloody Mary and watched the nonstop news on cable. Thankfully, a busload of Danish tourists had been kidnapped in the Philippines, otherwise Joel Backman would have been the top story. But he was running a close second, as all kinds of experts were brought in, powdered up, and placed in the studio under the lights where they prattled on about the man's legendary sins.
A former Pentagon chief called the pardon "a potential blow to our national security." A retired federal judge, looking every day of his ninety-plus years, called it, predictably, "a miscarriage of justice." A rookie senator from Vermont admitted he knew little about the Backman scandal but he was nonetheless enthusiastic about being on live cable and said he planned to call for all sorts of investigations. An unnamed White House official said the new President was "quite disturbed" by the pardon and planned to review it, whatever that meant.
And on and on. Pratt mixed a second Bloody Mary.
Going for the gore, a "correspondent"-not simply a "reporter" - dug up a piece on Senator Jacy Hubbard, and Pratt reached for the remote. He turned up the volume when a large photo of Hubbard his face was flashed on the screen. The former senator had been found dead with a bullet in the head the week before Backman pled guilty. What appeared at first to be a suicide was later called suspicious, though no suspect had ever been identified. The pistol was unmarked and probably stolen. Hubbard had been an active hunter but had never used handguns. The powder residue on his right hand was suspicious. An autopsy revealed a stout concentration of alcohol and barbiturates in his system. The alcohol could certainly be predicted but Hubbard had never been known to use drugs. He'd been seen a few hours earlier with an attractive young lady at a Georgetown bar, which was fairly typical.
The prevailing theory was that the lady slipped him enough drugs to knock him out, then handed him over to the professional killers. He was hauled to a remote section of the Arlington National Cemetery and shot once in the head. His body came to rest on the grave of his brother, a decorated Vietnam hero. A nice touch, but those who knew him well claimed he seldom talked about his family and many knew nothing of the dead brother.
The unspoken theory was that Hubbard was killed by the same people who wanted a shot at Joel Backman. And for years afterward Carl Pratt and Kim Boiling paid serious money for professional bodyguards just in case their names were on the same list. Evidently, they were not. The details of the fateful deal that nailed Backman and killed Hubbard had been handled by those two, and with time Pratt had loosened the security around himself, though he still carried a Ruger with him everywhere.
But Backman was far away, with the distance growing every minute. Oddly enough, he, too, was thinking of Jacy Hubbard and the people who might have killed him. He had plenty of time to think - fourteen hours in a fold-down bunk on a rattling cargo plane did much to deaden the senses, for a normal person anyway. But for a freshly released former convict who'd just walked out of six years in solitary lockdown, the flight was quite stimulating.
Whoever killed Jacy Hubbard would want very much to kill Joel Backman, and as he bumped along at 24,000 feet he pondered some serious questions. Who had lobbied for his pardon? Where did they plan to hide him? Who, exactly, were "they"?
Pleasant questions, really. Less than twenty-four hours earlier his questions had been: Are they trying to starve me to death? Freeze me?
Am I slowly losing my mind in this twelve-by-twelve cell? Or losing it rapidly? Will I ever see my grandchildren? Do I want to?
He liked the new questions better, troubling as they were. At least he would be able to walk down a street somewhere and breathe the air and feel the sun and perhaps stop at a cafe and sip a strong coffee.
He'd had a client once, a wealthy cocaine importer who'd been snared in a DEA sting. The client had been such a valuable catch that the feds offered him a new life with a new name and a new face if he would squeal on the Colombians. Squeal he did, and after surgery he was reborn on the north side of Chicago, where he ran a small bookshop. Joel had dropped in one day years later and found the client sporting a goatee, smoking a pipe, looking rather cerebral and earthy. He had a new wife and three stepchildren, and the Colombians never had a clue.
It's a big world out there. Hiding is not that difficult.
Joel closed his eyes, grew still, listened to the steady hum of the four engines, and tried to tell himself that wherever he was headed he would not live like a man on the run. He would adapt, he would survive, he would not live in fear.
There was a muted conversation under way two bunks down, two soldiers swapping stories about all the girls they'd had. He thought of Mo the mob snitch who, for the last four years, had occupied the cell next to Joel's, and who, for about twenty-two hours a day, was the only human he could chat with. He couldn't see him, but they could hear each other through a vent. Mo didn't miss his family, his friends, his neighborhood, or food or drink or sunshine. All Mo talked about was sex. He told long, elaborate stories about his escapades. He told jokes, some of the dirtiest Joel had ever heard. He even wrote poems about old lovers and orgies and fantasies.
He wouldn't miss Mo and his imagination.
Unwillingly, he dozed off again.
Colonel Gantner was shaking him, whispering loudly, "Major Herzog, Major Herzog. We need to talk." Backman squeezed out of his bunk, and followed the colonel along the dark cramped aisle between the bunks and into a small room, somewhere closer to the cockpit. "Take a seat," Gantner said. They huddled over a small metal table.
Gantner was holding a file. "Here's the deal," he began. "We land in about an hour. The plan is for you to be sick, so sick that an ambulance from the base hospital will meet the plane at the landing field. The Italian authorities will do their usual quick inspection of the paperwork, and they might actually take a look at you. Probably not. We'll be at a US. military base, and soldiers come and go all the time. I have a passport for you. I'll do the talking with the Italians, then you'll be taken by ambulance to the hospital."
"Yes. Ever hear of the Aviano Air Base?"
"Didn't think so. It's been around in US. hands since we ran the Germans off in 1945. It's in the northeast part of Italy, near the Alps."
"It's okay, but it's a base."
"How long will I be there?"
"That's not my decision. My job is to get you from this airplane to the base hospital. There, someone else takes over. Take a look at this bio for Major Herzog, just in case."
Joel spent a few minutes reading the fictional history of Major Herzog and memorizing the details on the fake passport.
"Remember, you're very ill and sedated," Gantner said. "Just pretend you're in a coma."
"I've been in one for six years."
"Would you like some coffee?"
"What time is it where we're going?"
Gantner looked at his watch and did a quick calculation. "We should land around one a.m."
"I'd love some coffee."
Gantner gave him a paper cup and a thermos, and disappeared.
After two cups, Joel felt the engines reduce power. He returned to his bunk and tried to close his eyes.
As the C-130 rolled to a stop, an air force ambulance backed itself close to the rear hatch. The troops ambled off, most still half asleep. A stretcher carrying Major Herzog rolled down the gateway and was carefully lifted into the ambulance. The nearest Italian official was sitting inside a US. military jeep, watching things halfheartedly and trying to stay warm. The ambulance pulled away, in no particular hurry, and five minutes later Major Herzog was rolled into the small base hospital and tucked away in a tiny room on the second floor where two military policemen guarded his door. Fortunately for Backman, though he had no way of knowing and no reason to care, at the eleventh hour President Morgan also pardoned an aging billionaire who'd escaped prison by fleeing the country. The billionaire, an immigrant from some Slavic state who'd had the option of redoing his name upon his arrival decades earlier, had chosen in his youth the title of Duke Mongo. The Duke had given trainloads of money to Morgan's presidential campaign. When it was revealed that he'd spent his career evading taxes it was also revealed he'd spent several nights in the Lincoln Bedroom, where, over a friendly nightcap, he and the President discussed pending indictments. According to the third person present for the nightcap, a young tart who was currently serving as the Duke's fifth wife, the President promised to throw his weight around over at the IRS and call off the dogs. Didn't happen. The indictment was thirty-eight pages long, and before it rolled off the printer the billionaire, minus wife number five, took up residence in Uruguay where he thumbed his nose north while living in a palace with soon-to-be wife number six.
Now he wanted to come home so he could die with dignity, die as a real patriot, and be buried on his Thoroughbred farm just outside Lexington, Kentucky. Critz cut the deal, and minutes after signing the pardon for Joel Backman, President Morgan granted complete clemency to Duke Mongo.
It took a day for the news to leak-the pardons, for good reason, were not publicized by the White House-and the press went insane. Here was a man who cheated the federal government out of $600 million over a twenty-year period, a crook who deserved to be locked away forever, and he was about to fly home in his mammoth jet and spend his final days in obscene luxury. The Backman story, sensational as it was, now had serious competition from not only the kidnapped Danish tourists but also the country's largest tax cheater.
But it was still a hot item. Most of the major morning papers along the East Coast ran a picture of "The Broker" somewhere on the front page. Most ran long stories about his scandal, his guilty plea, and now his pardon.
Carl Pratt read them all online, in a huge messy office he kept above his garage in northwest Washington. He used the place to hide, to stay away from the wars that raged within his firm, to avoid the partners he couldn't stand. He could drink there and no one would care. He could throw things, and curse at the walls, and do whatever he damn well pleased because it was his sanctuary.
The Backman file was in a large cardboard storage box, one he kept hidden in a closet. Now it was on a worktable, and Pratt was going through it for the first time in many years. He'd saved everything - news articles, photos, interoffice memos, sensitive notes he'd taken, copies of the indictments, Jacy Hubbard's autopsy report.
What a miserable history.
In January of 1996, three young Pakistani computer scientists made an astounding discovery. Working in a hot, cramped flat on the top floor of an apartment building on the outskirts of Karachi, the three linked together a series of Hewlett-Packard computers they'd purchased online with a government grant. Their new "supercomputer" was then wired to a sophisticated military satellite telephone, one also provided by the government. The entire operation was secret and funded off the books by the military. Their objective was simple: to locate, and then try to access, a new Indian spy satellite hovering three hundred miles above Pakistan. If they successfully tapped into the satellite, then they hoped to monitor its surveillance. A secondary dream was to try to manipulate it.
The stolen intelligence was at first exciting, then proved to be virtually useless. The new Indian "eyes" were doing much the same thing the old ones had been doing for ten years-taking thousands of photographs of the same military installations. Pakistani satellites had been sending back photos of Indian army bases and troop movements for the same ten years. The two countries could swap pictures and learn nothing.
But another satellite was accidentally discovered, then another and another. They were neither Pakistani nor Indian, and they were not supposed to be where they were found-each about three hundred miles above the earth, moving north-northeast at a constant speed of 120 miles per hour, and each maintaining a distance of four hundred miles from the other. Over ten days, the terribly excited hackers monitored the movements of at least six different satellites, all apparently part of the same system, as they slowly approached from the Arabian Peninsula, swept through the skies over Afghanistan and Pakistan, then headed off for western China.
They told no one, but instead managed to procure a more powerful satellite telephone from the military, claiming it was needed to follow up some unfinished work with the Indian surveillance. After a month of methodical, twenty-four-hour monitoring, they had pieced together a global web of nine identical satellites, all linked to each other, and all carefully designed to be invisible to everyone except the men who launched them.
They code-named their discovery Neptune.
The three young wizards had been educated in the United States. The leader was Safi Mirza, a former Stanford graduate assistant who'd worked briefly at Breedin Corp, a renegade US. defense contractor that specialized in satellite systems. Fazal Sharif had an advanced degree in computer science from Georgia Tech.
The third and youngest member of the Neptune gang was Farooq Khan, and it was Farooq who finally wrote the software that penetrated the first Neptune satellite. Once inside its computer system, Farooq began downloading intelligence so sensitive that he and Fazal and Safi knew they were entering no-man's-land. There were clear color pictures of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, and government limousines in Beijing. Neptune could listen as Chinese pilots bantered back and forth at twenty thousand feet, and it could watch a suspicious fishing boat as it docked in Yemen. Neptune followed an armored truck, presumably Castro's, through the streets of Havana. And in a live video feed that shocked the three, Arafat himself was clearly seen stepping into an alley in his compound in Gaza, lighting a cigarette, then urinating.
For two sleepless days, the three peeked inside the satellites as they crossed Pakistan. The software was in English, and with Neptune's preoccupation with the Middle East, Asia, and China, it was easy to assume Neptune belonged to the United States, with Britain and Israel a distant second and third. Perhaps it was a joint U.S.-Israeli secret.
After two days of eavesdropping, they fled the apartment and reorganized their little cell in a friend's farmhouse ten miles outside of Karachi. The discovery was exciting enough, but they, and Safi in particular, wanted to go one step further. He was quite confident he could manipulate the system.
His first success was watching Fazal Sharif read a newspaper. To protect the identity of their location, Fazal took a bus into downtown Karachi, and wearing a green cap and sunglasses, he bought a newspaper and sat on a park bench near a certain intersection. With Farooq feeding commands through a ramped-up sat-phone, a Neptune satellite found Fazal, zoomed down close enough to pick off the headlines of his newspaper, and relayed it all back to the farmhouse where it was watched in muted disbelief.
The electro-optical imaging relays to Earth were of the highest resolution known to technology at that time, down to about four feet-equal to the sharpest images produced by US. military reconnaissance satellites and about twice as sharp as the best European and American commercial satellites.
For weeks and months, the three worked nonstop writing homebrewed software for their discovery. They discarded much of what they wrote, but as they fine-tuned the successful programs they became even more amazed at Neptune's possibilities.
Eighteen months after they first discovered Neptune, the three had, on four Jaz 2-gigabyte disks, a software program that not only increased the speed at which Neptune communicated with its numerous contacts on Earth but also allowed Neptune to jam many of the navigation, communications, and reconnaissance satellites already in orbit. For lack of a better code name, they called their program JAM.
Though the system they called Neptune belonged to someone else, the three conspirators were able to control it, to thoroughly manipulate it, and even to render it useless. A bitter fight erupted. Safi and Fazal got greedy and wanted to sell JAM to the highest bidder. Farooq saw nothing but trouble with their creation. He wanted to give it to the Pakistani military and wash his hands of the entire matter.
In September of 1998, Safi and Fazal traveled to Washington and spent a frustrating month trying to penetrate military intelligence through Pakistani contacts. Then a friend told them about Joel Back - man, the man who could open any door in Washington.
But getting in his door was a challenge. The broker was a very important man with important clients and lots of significant people demanding small segments of his time. His flat fee for a one-hour consultation with a new client was $5,000 and that was for those lucky enough to be looked upon with favor by the great man. Safi borrowed $2,000 from an uncle in Chicago and promised to pay Mr. Backman the rest in ninety days. Documents in court later revealed that their first meeting took place on October 24, 1998, in the offices of Backman, Pratt amp; Boiling. The meeting would eventually destroy the lives of everyone present.
Backman at first had seemed skeptical of JAM and its incredible capabilities. Or perhaps he'd grasped its potential immediately and chosen to play it sly with his new clients. Safi and Fazal dreamed of selling JAM to the Pentagon for a fortune, whatever Mr. Backman thought their product might fetch. And if anyone in Washington could get a fortune for JAM, it was Joel Backman.
Early on, he had called in Jacy Hubbard, his million-dollar mouthpiece who still played golf once a week with the President and went barhopping with big shots on Capitol Hill. He was colorful, flamboyant, combative, thrice-divorced, and quite fond of expensive whiskeys-especially when purchased by lobbyists. He had survived politically only because he was known as the dirtiest campaigner in the history of the US. Senate, no small feat. He was known to be anti - Semitic, and during the course of his career he developed close ties with the Saudis. Very close. One of many ethics investigations revealed a $1 million campaign contribution from a prince, the same one Hubbard went skiing with in Austria.
Initially, Hubbard and Backman argued over the best way to market JAM. Hubbard wanted to peddle it to the Saudis, who, he was convinced, would pay $1 billion for it. Backman had taken the rather provincial view that such a dangerous product should be kept at home. Hubbard was convinced he could cut a deal with the Saudis in which they would promise that JAM would never be used against the United States, their ostensible ally. Backman was afraid of the Israelis-their powerful friends in the United States, their military, and, most important, their secret spy services.
At that time Backman, Pratt amp; Boiling represented many foreign companies and governments. In fact, the firm was "the" address for anyone looking for instant clout in Washington. Pay their frightening fees, and you had yourself access. Its endless list of clients included the Japanese steel industry, the South Korean government, the Saudis, most of the Caribbean banking conspiracy, the current regime in Panama, a Bolivian farming cooperative that grew nothing but cocaine, and on and on. There were many legitimate clients, and many that were not so clean.
The rumor about JAM slowly leaked around their offices. It could potentially be the largest fee the firm had yet seen, and there had been some startling ones. As weeks passed, other partners in the firm presented varying scenarios for the marketing of JAM. The notion of patriotism was slowly forgotten-there was simply too much money out there! The firm represented a Dutch company that built avionics for the Chinese air force, and with that entree a lucrative deal could be struck with the Beijing government. The South Koreans would rest easier if they knew exactly what was happening to the north. The Syrians would hand over their national treasury for the ability to neutralize Israeli military communications. A certain drug cartel would pay billions for the ability to track DEA interdiction efforts.
Each day Joel Backman and his band of greedy lawyers grew richer. In the firm's largest offices, they talked of little else.
The doctor was rather brusque and appeared to have little time for his new patient. It was, after all, a military hospital. With scarcely a word he checked the pulse, heart, lungs, blood pressure, reflexes, and so on, then from out of the blue announced, "I think you're dehydrated."
"How's that?" Backman asked.
"Happens a lot with long nights. We'll start a drip. You'll be okay in twenty-four hours."
"You mean, like an IV?"
"I don't do IVs."
"Beg your pardon."
"I didn't stutter. I don't do needles."
"We took a sample of your blood."
"Yeah, that was blood going out, not something coming in. Forget it, Doc, I'm not doing an IV."
"But you're dehydrated."
"I don't feel dehydrated."
"I'm the doctor, and I say you're dehydrated."
"Then give me a glass of water."
Half an hour later, a nurse entered with a big smile and a handful of medications. Joel said no to the sleeping pills, and when she sort of waved a hypodermic he said, "What's that?"
"What the hell is Ryax?"
"It's a muscle relaxer."
"Well, it just so happens that my muscles are very relaxed right now. I haven't complained of unrelaxed muscles. I haven't been diagnosed with unrelaxed muscles. No one has asked me if my muscles are relaxed. So you can take that Ryax and stick it up your own ass and we'll both be relaxed and happier."
She almost dropped the needle. After a long painful pause in which she was completely speechless, she managed to utter, "I'll check with the doctor."
"You do that. On second thought, why don't you poke him in his rather fat ass. He's the one who needs to relax." But she was already out of the room.
On the other side of the base, a Sergeant McAuliffe pecked on his keyboard and sent a message to the Pentagon. From there it was sent almost immediately to Langley where it was read by Julia Javier, a veteran who'd been selected by Director Maynard himself to handle the Backman matter. Less than ten minutes after the Ryax incident, Ms. Javier stared at her monitor, mumbled the word "Dammit," then walked upstairs.
As usual, Teddy Maynard was sitting at the end of a long table, wrapped in a quilt, reading one of the countless summaries that got piled on his desk every hour.
Ms. Javier said, "Just heard from Aviano. Our boy is refusing all medications. Won't take an IV. Wont take a pill."
"Can't they put something in his food?" Teddy said at low volume.