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Published on Nov 06, 2006
Debuted on The New York Times Best Sellers list!
Welcome to the Custer Hill Club—a men’s club set in a luxurious Adirondack hunting lodge whose members include some of America’s most powerful business leaders, military men, and government officials. Ostensibly, the club is a place to relax with old friends. But one fall weekend, the club’s Executive Board gathers to talk about the tragedy of 9/11—and finalize a retaliation plan, known only by its codename: Wild Fire.
That same weekend, a member of the Federal Anti-Terrorist Task Force is found dead. Soon it’s up to Detective John Corey and his wife, FBI Agent Kate Mayfield to unravel a terrifying plot that starts with the Custer Hill Club and ends with American cities locked in the crosshairs of a nuclear device. Corey and Mayfield are the only ones who can stop the button from being pushed, and global chaos from being unleashed...
I'm John Corey, former NYPD homicide detective, wounded in the line of duty, retired on three-quarter disability (which is just a number for pay purposes; about 98 percent of me still functions), and now working as a special contract agent for the Federal Anti-Terrorist Task Force.
The guy in the cubicle facing me, Harry Muller, asked, "You ever hear of the Custer Hill Club?"
"That's where I'm going this weekend."
"Have a good time," I said.
"They're a bunch of rich, right-wing loonies who have this hunting lodge upstate."
"Don't bring me any venison, Harry. No dead birds, either."
I got up from my desk and walked to the coffee bar. On the wall above the coffee urns were Justice Department Wanted Posters, featuring mostly Muslim gentlemen, including the number one scumbag, Osama bin Laden.
Also included in the nearly two dozen posters was a Libyan named Asad Khalil, a.k.a. The Lion. I didn't need to stare at this man's photo; I knew his face as well as my own, though I'd never formally met him.
My brief association with Mr. Khalil occurred about two years ago when I was stalking him, and as it turned out, he was stalking me. He escaped, and I got away with a grazing wound; and, as the Arabs would probably say, "It is destined that we meet again to settle our fates." I look forward to that.
I drained the dregs of the coffee into a Styrofoam cup and scanned at a copy of the New York Times lying on the counter. The headline for today, Friday, October 11, 2002, read: CONGRESS AUTHORIZES BUSH TO USE FORCE AGAINST IRAQ, CREATING A BROAD MANDATE.
A subheading read: U.S. Has a Plan to Occupy Iraq, Officials Report.
It appeared that war was a foregone conclusion, and so was the victory. Therefore, it was a good idea to have an occupation plan. I wondered if anyone in Iraq knew about this.
I took my coffee back to my desk, turned on my computer, and read through some internal memos. We are now a mostly paperless organization, and I actually miss initialing memos. I had an urge to initial my computer screen with a grease pencil, but I settled for the electronic equivalent. If I ran this organization, all memos would be on an Etch A Sketch.
I glanced at my watch. It was 4:30 P.M., and my colleagues on the 26th floor of 26 Federal Plaza were dwindling fast. My colleagues, I should explain, are, like me, members of the Anti-Terrorist Task Force, a four-letter agency (ATTF) in a world of three-letter agencies.
This is the post-9/11 world, so weekends are, in theory, just another two workdays for everyone. In reality, the honored tradition of Federal Friday-meaning cutting out early-has not changed much, so the NYPD, who are part of the Task Force, and who are used to lousy hours anyway, man the fort on weekends and holidays.
Harry Muller asked me, "What are you doing this weekend?"
This was the start of the Columbus Day three-day weekend, but as luck would have it, I was scheduled to work on Monday. I replied, "I was going to march in the Columbus Day Parade, but I'm working Monday."
"Yeah? You were going to march?"
"No, but that's what I told Captain Paresi." I added, "I told him my mother was Italian, and I was going to push her wheelchair in the parade."
Harry laughed and asked, "Did he buy that?"
"No. But he offered to push her wheelchair."
"I thought your parents were in Florida."
"And your mother's Irish."
"She is. Now I have to find an Italian mother for Paresi to push up Columbus Avenue."
Harry laughed again and went back to his computer.
Harry Muller, like most of the NYPD on the Mideast Section of the Task Force, does stakeouts and surveillance of Persons of Interest, which, in politically correct speak, means the Muslim community, but I do mostly interviewing and recruiting of informants.
A large percentage of my informants are total liars and bullshit artists who want either money or citizenship, or who want to screw someone in their close-knit community. Now and then, I get the real deal, but then I have to share the guy with the FBI.
The Task Force is comprised mostly of FBI agents and NYPD detectives, plus retired NYPD, like me. In addition, we have people assigned from other Federal agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), plus state and suburban police, Port Authority Police, and so forth, too numerous to name or for me to remember.
Also included in our collegial group are people who, like ghosts, don't actually exist, but if they did, they'd be called CIA.
I checked my e-mail, and there were three messages. The first was from my boss, Tom Walsh, Special Agent in Charge, who had taken over the ATTF when my old boss, Jack Koenig, died in the World Trade Center. The e-mail read: CONFIDENTIAL-REMINDER-IN THE RUN-UP TO POSSIBLE HOSTILITIES WITH IRAQ, WE NEED TO GIVE SPECIAL ATTENTION TO IRAQI NATIONALS LIVING IN CONUS.
"CONUS" meant "Continental United States." "Hostilities" meant "war." The rest of it meant "find an Iraqi we can link to a terrorist threat against the U.S. so we can make life easier for the folks in Washington before they bomb the shit out of Baghdad."
The message went on: PRIMARY THREAT AND EMPHASIS REMAINS UBL WITH NEW EMPHASIS ON UBL/SH LINK. BRIEFING ON THIS NEXT WEEK-TBA. WALSH, SAC.
For the uninitiated, "UBL" is "Osama bin Laden," which should be "OBL," but long ago somebody transliterated the Arabic script into Latin letters as "Usama," which is also correct. The media mostly uses the "Osama" spelling of the scumbag's name, while intelligence agencies still refer to him as "UBL." Same scumbag.
The next e-mail was from my second boss, the aforementioned Vince Paresi, an NYPD captain assigned to the ATTF to keep an eye on the difficult cops who sometimes don't play well with their FBI friends. That may include me. Captain Paresi replaced Captain David Stein, who, like Jack Koenig, was killed-murdered, actually-one year and one month ago today in the World Trade Center.
David Stein was a great guy, and I miss him every day. Jack Koenig, for all his faults and for all our problems with each other, was a professional, a tough but fair boss, and a patriot. His body was never recovered. Neither was David Stein's.
Another body that was never recovered, along with two thousand others, was that of Ted Nash, CIA officer, monumental prick, and archenemy of yours truly.
I wish I could think of something nice to say about this asshole, but all I can think of is, "Good riddance."
Also, this guy has a bad habit of coming back from the dead-he's done it at least once before-and without a positive body identification, I'm not breaking out the champagne.
Anyway, Captain Paresi's e-mail to all NYPD/ATTF personnel read: YOU ARE TO STEP UP SURVEILLANCE OF IRAQI NATIONALS, REACH OUT TO IRAQIS WHO HAVE BEEN HELPFUL IN THE PAST, AND BRING IN FOR QUESTIONING IRAQIS ON WATCH LISTS. YOU ARE TO PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION TO IRAQIS WHO ASSOCIATE WITH OTHER ISLAMIC NATIONALS, I.E., SAUDIS, AFGHANIS, LIBYANS, ETC. STAKEOUT AND SURVEILLANCE OF MOSQUES WILL BE STEPPED UP. BRIEFING NEXT WEEK, TBA. PARESI, CAPT. NYPD.
I think I see a pattern here.
Hard to believe, but it wasn't so long ago that we were trying to figure out what we were supposed to be doing every day, and memos were more carefully worded so as not to appear that we disapproved of Islamic terrorists or that we were upsetting them in any way. That changed real quick.
The third e-mail was from my wife, Kate Mayfield, whom I could see at her desk across the NYPD/FBI great divide of the 26th floor. My wife is a beautiful woman, but even if she weren't, I'd still love her. Actually, if she weren't beautiful, I wouldn't have even noticed her, so it's a moot point.
The message read: LET'S KNOCK OFF EARLY, GO HOME, HAVE SEX, I'LL COOK YOU CHILI AND HOT DOGS, AND MAKE YOU DRINKS WHILE YOU WATCH TV IN YOUR UNDERWEAR.
Actually, it didn't say that. It said: LET'S GO AWAY FOR A ROMANTIC WEEKEND OF WINE TASTING ON THE NORTH FORK. I'LL BOOK A B&B. LOVE, KATE.
Why the hell do I have to taste wine? It all tastes the same. Also, bed-and-breakfast places suck-cutesy run-down hovels with nineteenth-century bathrooms and creaky beds. And then you have to eat breakfast with the other guests, who are usually yuppie swine from the Upper West Side who want to talk about something they read in the Arts and Leisure section of the Times. Whenever I hear the word "art," I reach for my gun.
I typed my response: SOUNDS GREAT. THANKS FOR THINKING OF IT. LOVE, JOHN.
Like most men, I'd rather face the muzzle of an assault rifle than a pissed-off wife.
Kate Mayfield is an FBI agent, a lawyer, and part of my team, which consists of another NYPD guy and another FBI agent. Plus, now and then, we add a person or two from another agency, as needed, such as ICE or CIA. Our last CIA teammate was the aforementioned Ted Nash, whom I strongly suspect was once romantically involved with my then future wife. This was not why I disliked him-it was why I hated him. I disliked him for professional reasons.
I noticed that Harry Muller was cleaning up his desk, locking away sensitive material so that the cleaning people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, couldn't photocopy or fax it to Sandland. I said to him, "You got twenty-one minutes before the bell."
He looked up at me and replied, "I have to go pick up some Tech stuff."
"I told you. I'm doing a surveillance upstate. The Custer Hill Club."
"I thought you were an invited guest."
"No, I'm trespassing."
"How did you catch this one?"
"I don't know. Do I ask? I own a camper, a pair of boots, and a hat with earmuffs. So, I'm qualified."
"Right." Harry Muller, as I said, is former NYPD, like me, retired with twenty years in, the last ten in the Intelligence Unit, and now hired by the Feds to do stakeouts and surveillance so that the Suits, as we call the FBI, can do the cerebral work.
I asked him, "Hey, what's with this right-wing stuff? I thought you were with us?" "Us" meaning the Mideast Section, which makes up about 90 percent of the ATTF these days.
Harry replied, "I don't know. Do I ask? I just have to take pictures, not go to church with them."
"Did you read the e-mails from Walsh and Paresi?"
"You think we're going to war?"
"Duh . . . let me think."
"Does this right-wing group have any Iraqi or UBL connections?"
"I don't know." Harry glanced at his watch and said, "I need to get to Tech before they lock up."
"You got time." I asked him, "You going alone?"
"Yeah. No problem. It's just a non-evasive surveillance and stakeout." He looked at me and said, "Between us, Walsh says this is just killing trees-file building. You know, like, we're not just up the Arabs' asses. We're on the case of domestic groups, too, like the neo-Nazis, militia, survivalists, and stuff. Looks good for the media and Congress, if it ever comes up. Right? We did this a few times before 9/11. Remember?"
"Gotta go. I guess I'll see you Monday. I need to see Walsh first thing Monday."
"He's working Monday?"
"Well, he didn't invite me to his house for a beer, so I guess he'll be here."
"Right. See you Monday."
What Harry said about file building didn't make too much sense, plus we have a Domestic Terrorist Section for that kind of stuff. Also, snooping on rich right-wingers with a club upstate was a little odd. Also odd was Tom Walsh coming in on a holiday to debrief Harry on a routine assignment.
I'm very nosy, which is why I'm a great detective, so I went over to a separate, stand-alone computer where I could access the Internet, and did a Google search for "Custer Hill Club."
I didn't get any hits, so I tried "Custer Hill." The counter at the top showed more than 400,000 hits, and the mix on the first page-golf courses, restaurants, and several historical references in South Dakota having to do with General George Armstrong Custer's problem at the Little Bighorn-indicated that none of these references would be relevant. Nevertheless, I spent ten minutes scanning the hits, but there were no references to New York State.
I went back to my desk, where I could use my ATTF password to access internal files on the ACS-the Automated Case System, the FBI's version of Google.
The Custer Hill Club came up, but apparently I had no need to know about this file, and below the title was row after row of Xs. Usually you get something, even on restricted files, such as the date the file was opened, or who to see about getting access to the file, or at least the classification level of the file. But this file was completely Xed out.
So all I managed to do was alert the security goons that I'd been inquiring about a restricted file that had nothing to do with what I was working on, which was Iraqis at the moment. But just to mess with their heads, I typed in, "Iraqi Camel Club Weapons of Mass Destruction."
I shut down my computer, secured my desk, grabbed my coat, and walked over to Kate's desk.
Kate Mayfield and I met on the job when we both worked the case of the aforementioned Asad Khalil, a nasty little shit who came to America to kill a lot of people. He did that, then tried to kill me and Kate, then escaped. Not one of my better cases, but it brought Kate and me together, so the next time I see him, I'll thank him for that before I gut-shoot him and watch him die slowly.
I said to Kate, "Can I buy you a drink?"
She looked up at me and smiled-"That would be nice"-then went back to her computer.
Ms. Mayfield is a Midwestern girl, posted to New York from Washington, and originally unhappy about the assignment, but now deliriously happy to live in the greatest city on Earth with the greatest man in the universe. I asked her, "Why are we going away for the weekend?"
"Because this place drives me crazy."
Great cities can do that. I asked her, "What are you working on?"
"I'm trying to find a B and B on the North Fork."
"They're probably all booked up for the holiday weekend, and don't forget I have to work Monday."
"How could I forget? You've been complaining about it all week."
"I never complain."
She thought that was funny for some reason.
I studied Kate's face in the glow of the computer screen. She was as beautiful as the day I met her nearly three years ago. Usually, women I'm with age fast. My first wife, Robin, said our one-year starter marriage seemed like ten years. I said to Kate, "I'll meet you at Ecco's."
"Don't get picked up."
I walked through the cube farm, which was nearly empty now, and entered the elevator lobby, where colleagues were piling up.
I made small talk with a few people, then noticed Harry and went over to him. He was carrying a big metal suitcase, which I assumed contained cameras and lenses. I said to him, "Let me buy you a drink."
"Sorry, I need to get on the road ASAP."
"You driving up tonight?"
"I am. I need to be at this place at first light. Some kind of meeting going down, and I need to photograph car plates and people as they arrive."
"Sounds like the mob surveillance we used to do at weddings and funerals."
"Yeah. Same shit."
We crowded into an elevator and rode down to the lobby.
Harry asked, "Where's Kate?"
"On her way." Harry was divorced, but he was seeing a woman, so I asked, "How's Lori?"
"She looked good in her photo on Match.com."
He laughed. "You're an asshole."
"What's your point? Hey, where is this place?"
"What place? Oh . . . it's up near Saranac Lake."
We walked out onto Broadway. It was a cool autumn day, and the streets and sidewalks had that Thank-God-It's-Friday feeling.
Harry and I bid each other farewell, and I walked south on Broadway.
Lower Manhattan is a tight cluster of skyscrapers and narrow streets, which insures minimum sunlight and maximum stress.
The area includes the Lower East Side, where I was born and raised, plus Chinatown, Little Italy, Tribeca, and Soho. The major industries down here are diametrically opposed: business and finance, represented by Wall Street, and government, represented by Federal, state, and municipal courthouses; City Hall; prisons; Federal Plaza; Police Plaza; and so forth. A necessary adjunct to all of the above are law firms, one of which employs my ex-wife, a defense attorney who represents only the best class of criminal scum. This was one of the reasons we got divorced. The other was that she thought cooking and fucking were two cities in China.
Up ahead was a big patch of empty sky where the Twin Towers once stood. To most Americans, and even to most New Yorkers, the absence of the towers is noted only as a gap in the distant skyline. But if you live or work downtown, and were used to seeing those behemoths every day, then their absence still comes as a surprise when you walk down the street and they're not there.
As I walked, I thought about my conversation with Harry Muller.
On the one hand, there was absolutely nothing unusual or remarkable about his weekend assignment. On the other hand, it didn't compute. I mean, here we are on the brink of war with Iraq, waging war in Afghanistan, paranoid about another Islamic terrorist attack, and Harry gets sent upstate to snoop on some gathering of rich right-wingers whose threat level to national security is probably somewhere between low and non-existent at the moment.
And then there was Tom Walsh's nonsense to Harry about file building in case anyone in Congress or the media wanted to know if the ATTF was on top of the homegrown terrorists. This may have made sense a few years ago, but since 9/11, the neo-Nazis, militias, and that bunch have been quiet and actually thrilled that we got attacked and that the country was shaping up pretty good, killing bad guys and arresting people and so forth. Then there was the holiday Monday debriefing.
Anyway, I shouldn't make too much of this, though it is a little odd. Basically, it is none of my business, and every time I ask too many questions about things that seem odd at 26 Federal Plaza, I get into trouble. Or, as my mother used to say, "John, Trouble is your middle name." And I believed her until I saw my birth certificate, which said Aloysius. I'll take Trouble over Aloysius any day.
I turned onto Chambers Street and entered Ecco's, an Italian restaurant with a saloon atmosphere-the best of both worlds.
The bar was crowded with suited gentlemen and ladies in business attire. I recognized a lot of faces and said a few hellos.
Even if I didn't know anybody there, being a good detective and an observer of New York life, I could pick out the high-paid attorneys, the civil servants, the law enforcement people, and the financial guys. I bump into my ex here sometimes, so one of us has to stop coming here.
I ordered a Dewar's and soda and made small talk with a few people around me.
Kate arrived, and I ordered her a white wine, which reminded me of my weekend problem. I asked, "Did you hear about the grape blight?"
"What grape blight?"
"The one on the North Fork. All the grapes are infected with this weird fungus that can be transmitted to human beings."
She apparently didn't hear me and said, "I found us a nice B and B in Mattituck." She described the place based on some tourist website and informed me, "It sounds really charming."
So does Dracula's Castle on the Transylvanian website. "Did you ever hear of the Custer Hill Club?"
"No . . . I didn't see it on the North Fork website. What town is it in?"
"It's actually upstate New York."
"Oh . . . is it nice?"
"I don't know."
"Do you want to go there next weekend?"
"I'll check it out first."
Apparently, this name didn't ring any bells with Ms. Mayfield, who sometimes knows things she doesn't share with me. I mean, we're married, but she's FBI, and I have a limited need-to-know, lower security clearance than she does. On that note, I wondered why Ms. Mayfield thought that the words "Custer Hill Club" referred to a place to stay, and not, for instance, a historical society, or a country club, or whatever. Maybe it was the context. Or maybe she knew exactly what I was talking about.
I changed the subject to the memos about Iraq, and we discussed the geopolitical situation for a while. It was Special Agent Mayfield's opinion that war with Iraq was not only inevitable, but also necessary.
Twenty-six Federal Plaza is an Orwellian Ministry, and the government workers there are very attuned to any slight change in the party line. When political correctness was the order of the day, you would have thought the Anti-Terrorist Task Force was a social service agency for psychopaths with low self-esteem. Now, everyone talks about killing Islamic fundamentalists and winning the war on terror-grammatical correctness would be "the war on terrorism," but this is a newspeak word. Ms. Mayfield, a good government employee, has few politics of her own, so she has no problem hating the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and UBL one day, then hating Saddam Hussein even more when a directive comes out telling her who to hate that day.
But perhaps I'm not being fair. And I'm not totally rational on the subject of bin Laden and Al Qaeda. I lost a lot of friends on 9/11, and but for the grace of God and heavy traffic, Kate and I would have been in the North Tower when it went down.
I had been on my way to a breakfast meeting there in Windows on the World on the 107th floor. I was late, and Kate waited in the lobby for me. David Stein, Jack Koenig, and my former partner and maybe best friend in the world, Dom Fanelli, were on time, as were a lot of other good people and some bad people, like Ted Nash. No one in that restaurant survived.
I don't get shaken up very easily-even getting shot three times and nearly bleeding to death on a city street didn't have any lasting effect on my mental health, such as it is-but that day shook me up more than I realized at the time. I mean, I was standing right under the plane when it hit, and now, when I see a low-flying plane overhead-
I turned to Kate. "What . . . ?"
"I asked you if you wanted another drink."
I looked down into my empty glass.
She ordered me another.
I was vaguely aware that the news was on the TV at the end of the bar, and the reporter was covering the congressional vote on Iraq.
Back in my head, it was 9/11 again. I had tried to make myself useful by helping the firemen and cops evacuate people from the lobby, and at the same time, I was searching for Kate.
Then, I was outside the building carrying a stretcher, and I happened to look up and see these people jumping from the windows and I thought Kate was up there and I thought I saw her falling. . . . I glanced at her standing beside me, and she looked at me and asked, "What are you thinking about?"
And then the second plane hit, and later I could hear this odd rumbling sound of collapsing concrete and steel, unlike anything I'd ever heard before, and I can still feel the ground shaking under my feet as the building fell and shards of glass rained down from the sky. And like everyone else, I ran like hell. I still can't remember if I dropped the stretcher, or if the other guy dropped it first, or if I was actually carrying a stretcher at all.
I don't think I'll ever remember.
In the weeks following 9/11, Kate became withdrawn, couldn't sleep, cried a lot, and rarely smiled. I was reminded of rape victims I'd dealt with who lost not only their innocence but part of their soul.
The sensitive bureaucrats in Washington urged anyone who'd been involved with this tragedy to seek counseling. I'm not the type to talk about my problems to strangers, professional or otherwise, but at Kate's insistence, I did go see one of the shrinks hired by the Feds to handle the large demand. The guy was a little nuts himself, so we didn't make much progress in the first session.
For my next session and subsequent sessions, I went to my neighborhood bar, Dresner's, where Aidan the bartender gave me sage counsel. "Life's a bitch," said Aidan. "Have another drink."
Kate, on the other hand, stuck to her counseling for about six months, and she's much better now.
But something had happened to her that was not going to completely heal. And whatever it was, it might have been for the better.
Since I've known her, she has always been a good company girl, following the rules and rarely criticizing the Bureau or its methods. In fact, she used to criticize me for criticizing the Bureau.
Outwardly, she's still a loyal soldier, as I said, and she goes along with the party line, but inwardly, she realizes that the party line has done a 180-degree turn, and this realization has made her a little more cynical, critical, and questioning. To me, this is a good thing, and we now have something in common.
Sometimes I miss the starry-eyed team cheerleader I fell in love with. But I also like this tougher and more experienced woman, who, like me, has seen the face of evil, and is ready to meet it again.
And now, a year and a month later, we are living in a state of perpetual color-coded anxiety. Today is Alert Level Orange. Tomorrow, who knows? For damn sure, it's not going to be green again in my lifetime.
In development with SONY-TV