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Chapter Nine

Jonathan Steward looked at his watch. His next appointment wasn’t for an hour and a half. That was time enough to hit the private gym located down the hall and invigorate himself in the sauna. He might even top off the whole experience with a massage. This had become his favorite form of relaxation and relief these days since his secretary had found the new beautiful Korean masseuse. She not only gave a superior massage but always concluded it with any of an apparently endless repertoire of very happy endings.

After the third session with her he had secured a substantial raise for both Miss Kim and his secretary. Rank has its privileges. It gave him a warm feeling inside knowing that both women were able to live nice lifestyles due to his power and generosity. Both girls were appropriately appreciative and were at his beck and call for exclusive use twenty-four hours a day. He considered this his due and one of the major perks of his new position near the very top of the CIA hierarchy. That was saying a lot considering the number and nature of the perks that came with his new job.

He sat back in his orthopedic chair, looked around his artistically designed office and sighed with satisfaction. He was surrounded by the trappings of wealth and good taste here and that was exactly how he liked it. He was just beginning to drift into a favorite new recurring fantasy in which Miss Steuben joined he and Miss Kim for an intense session in the massage room, while the politically appointed Director of Central Intelligence waited in frustration for him to return his call.

In some versions of this fantasy Steward never returned the call. Today he fantasized returning it while being blown by Miss Steuben as Miss Kim gently licked his nipples. In this fantasy, he would then instruct Miss Steuben to proceed to the Director’s office and on some flimsy excuse or another manage to plant a kiss on the political hacks mouth. Then she would report back to him in the massage room, where he, her, and of course the very sexy Miss Kim, would have a good laugh at the Director’s expense while proceeding to ever increasing heights of sexual pleasure. The intercom beeped. Shit!

“Yes, Miss Steuben?”

“The President on line one sir.”

“The one in the White House or the important one?”

Miss Steuben laughed. “The important one sir, Mr. Estevez.”

Steward straightened up in his chair and took the call. Juan Emilio Estevez was the richest man in the world and President of the Circle. The Burning Circle was the full name, though the handful of people who knew of its existence simply referred to it as The Circle. It was the most powerful and most secret association in the world. It was The Circle that Jonathan Steward worked for and gave his ultimate allegiance to. They had placed him here in the heart of American intelligence operations to ensure that the bumbling of the CIA never interfered with their plans. It was a tough job but somebody had to do it and The Circle paid well, very well indeed.

“Hello Mr. Estevez. How may I be of service today?” Though not a coward or ingratiating type of individual, Steward’s voice was always properly submissive when he spoke with his leader.

“Hello Jonathan. How are the wife and kids?”

“Fine sir, my eldest started university last semester, Harvard Law. It was a big moment for the family. Thanks for your help in making that happen.”

“Not a problem at all Steward. You are of immense value to us and I hope your son will be too one day. We like to keep it in the family as much as possible.”

Though he knew Mr. Estevez knew exactly what he was doing, Steward was warmed by the words. It was one of his greatest dreams to bring his children into the association thus exposing them to opportunities for unimaginable wealth and power.

“I’m calling to get the latest on that matter with Al-quieda. Our Saudi Arabian board members are quite concerned, as well they should be.”

“It has been taken care of sir. The uncontrollable element has been removed and replaced by one who will follow orders.”

“Excellent. The King and his brother will be pleased to hear that. What about that other matter? This formula the Canadian economist thinks he has discovered.”

As much as possible, the Circle sought control over all major financial matters. Having a rogue with a formula that changed the foreign exchange rules dramatically was unacceptable.

“I’m working on that now sir. In fact, I’ve sent two teams to the site. They are both instructed to secure the professor, get the formula, and then remove him from the board. I sent a CIA team and a terrorist cell. They know nothing of each other and will probably use very different approaches to the problem. I must say I’m a little curious as to who will get the professor first but either way we get the formula…if there even is one.”

“Yes. I’m thinking there’s a fifty- fifty chance that this is a false alarm. I find it impossible to believe that someone has figured out a way to consistently predict exchange rates so fast and so precisely, and I do know a little about money you know.”

Steward laughed on cue.

“Still, we can’t afford to ignore the possibility, and the evidence of those test accounts. The man is a Nobel level economist after all. He just may be a genius.”

“I agree completely sir. That was one reason I sent the team from Al-queda. If this information does prove correct, then they will proceed with a secondary mission that will distract Canada and the world while we consider how best to use this. My thinking is that Canada could use a jolt like the one we gave America on 9/11. There are several board members who would profit handsomely from that.”

When the cultured Europe educated, voice spoke again it had hardened, a subtle but effective warning to the subordinate.

“I appreciate your zeal but let’s not overreach here. Don’t go Bush on me. The first thing is to verify the efficacy of this formula and secure it for our own use. That far outweighs any perceived benefits of a terror strike against Canada. You must keep in mind that the board’s interests are complex and varied. Just as there are board members who would benefit from such a move there are also those who would lose.”

“Yes sir.” The properly chastened underling replied. “I understand completely and of course would never initiate anything of that nature without your explicit approval. I just thought it prudent to have the option available. I personally hope the Arabs get to the professor first. This information might prove…burdensome to the CIA agents in the future.”

“I see your point. I trust your judgment Jonathan.” Estevez said pleasantly before his voice hardened again. “Just be sure to keep me informed…”

“Of course, sir.”

“Good. Then have a pleasant day.”

Steward hung up the phone and sat quietly thinking for a minute. Talking to the President was both exhilarating and exhausting. He had been recruited into the circle while at university. Someone had determined that he had the right attitude along with the required intelligence, drive, and ambition, to be useful to this unique and very powerful group. He had risen swiftly after a series of what he now knew were test of his loyalty, discretion, and willingness to do anything required to advance the agenda of The Circle. He hadn’t had a serious financial worry since his initiation but the pressures to perform with excellence and discretion were enormous.

He stood in a position from which with a little luck and a lot of intelligence he could conceivably maneuver himself into a seat on the board. It would be a junior seat to be sure. He had no illusions about that. He didn’t have the wealth required to become a major player. That was for men with almost unimaginable fortunes. Men like Murdoch, Estevez, and the Saudi royal family. But a junior board member was a trusted tactical and technical adviser to such men and the rewards were great indeed. Just look at the Bush family. The very thought of it was enough to stir and excite him. He pressed the button on his intercom.

“Miss Steuben, could you inform Miss Kim that I’ll be down for a massage?”

It wasn’t a request.

“Yes sir, anything else sir?”

She waited expectantly. He hesitated then swiftly blurted out: “Do you think you could join us?” With no hesitation, she replied.

“Yes sir.” Just give me a few minutes to arrange a suitable replacement from the pool.”

“Thank you, Miss Steuben.”

The five men got into two cabs and headed for their expensive hotel in downtown Toronto. It had been a long tense flight, especially the last leg. They were so obviously Muslim and the Western passengers aboard the flight were so obviously nervous about it.

After touching down in Toronto there had been a polite but very thorough check through customs. Everything was in order. It had been important to use new members for this assignment; no one with any connection to past operations was accepted.

Despite his new position as the number three man in the al-queda chain of command, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s record was as clean as the other four men. He was famous throughout the Muslim world for his fiery rhetoric but his sermons were given under an alias and only a select few knew he was the author. It had its advantages and disadvantages.

Nominally, he was this small cell’s leader and he spoke for them as they explained to the Canadian officials that they were here for a conference promoting peace and understanding between Christians and Muslims everywhere. It was the perfect cover, and created an effective mask for their real mission which was anything but peaceful.

There was no conversation in the cab as they rode to the hotel. The driver was a westerner and probably wouldn’t know an Arab dialect if it jumped up and bit him in the ass but it paid to be cautious these days. Besides, Khalid had too much on his mind to engage in small talk with his comrades anyway.

His thoughts kept returning to the disadvantages of not being able to take credit for and receive respect and recognition for the great speeches and sermons that he created. The men were told he was the leader so they obeyed him. That was all well and good but their obedience was based on respect given to others. He couldn’t help but wonder if they had orders he didn’t know about, orders concerning what to do about him if he decided they disagreed with or seemed to contradict the accomplishment of their mission. The lesson to be learned from the way the previous number three had been summarily demoted and executed was not lost on Khalid.

He was especially worried about Yusuf, a huge, quiet, Saudi who like so many of his brothers in terror was addicted to Western pornography. Yusuf was the tactical leader of the cell and had the training if not the experience to carry out the violent aspects of their mission. He radiated an aura of contained violence and from what Khalid had seen of the porn the man enjoyed he suspected that violence was connected to his sexual appetite.

The other men deferred to Yusuf and unlike in Khalid’s case their respect seemed genuine and based on known accomplishments and abilities. Who would be obeyed if he and the giant gave conflicting orders?

They arrived at the hotel and checked in. Khalid and the giant had their own room while the other three men shared a suite. It was Saturday night Khalid thought it would be a good idea to rest up and locate their target Sunday. The conference would begin Monday morning and they had to spend a lot of time there or risk arousing suspicion.

“Best to start tonight.” The giant insisted and the others assented with nods.

“Per our briefing this infidel professor has information that could prove vital to our cause and others may be after him. One night of waiting could prove to be the difference between success and failure. At the very least, we should locate the house and observe the neighborhood and if possible we should secure the information this very night.”

“Of course, you are right Yusuf. Allah rewards diligence and gives victory to the swift and the bold. I was letting my exhaustion guide my decision. We have the infidel’s address best to find him immediately. But there is the matter of the weapons. Should that not be the first step?”

Yusuf nodded in agreement. “Right, our first move is to go to contact this Canadian Mafioso. We are like wolves without fangs if we don’t have guns. Then we visit this professor and fulfill our first mission. If all goes smoothly no one will connect us to the professor’s disappearance and we can attend the conference as we await instructions as to whether other actions should be taken.”

Well, thought Khalid a few minutes later as they left the hotel, so much as to who is in charge.

At approximately the same time that Khalid, Yusuf, and their three henchmen were leaving their hotel to acquire weapons and find Professor Michael Jiang, Stanley Ladnier and Allen Barbour were racing north into the night along highway 80 towards the border between Canada and Vermont. They were about thirty minutes on the American side of the border, speeding past a little town called Saint Albans.

Stanley was driving but though it was a beautiful night, neither man was in the mood to enjoy it, although for very different reasons. Stanley was pissed at his new boss, Jonathan steward. No matter how smooth an operation went Steward never seemed satisfied and rarely gave thanks or praise. This bothered Stan, who needed the approval of his superiors to feel good about himself and the job that he did. Allen on the other hand couldn’t give a rat’s ass about Steward’s approval but he was concerned as to who exactly Jonathan Steward was and where his loyalties lay.

For his entire career, no matter how unpleasant the assignment Allen had could tell himself that he was working for the interest and the good of the American people. That meant a lot to his sometimes-outraged sense of morality but now he wasn’t sure that it was true. Ever since Steward and his cronies had appeared suddenly and mysteriously at the heart of the CIA with full authority to do as they saw fit, the nature of the Agency itself, as well as the assignments had changed.

From Allen’s point of view, it didn’t help at all that it had been a Republican administration that this major change had occurred in, He blamed Republicans for most of the major mistakes and ill-considered policies that had resulted in a gradual weakening of America and the loss of respect from many of her major allies, and indeed the rest of the world too. Republicans were greedy and short sighted in Allen’s opinion and he only had to look as far as his own agency and the dissemination of crack cocaine into the Black community during the 1980’s to validate his feelings.

“I don’t like the smell of this assignment.” He announced to his partner, putting words to his internal musing.

“Well we certainly get some that stink.” Stanley said, “but this one appears easy if nothing else. What’s bothering you about it?”

“For one thing, it’s in Canada for Christ sake! They are our neighbors and allies. They are just like us. Why do we need to run an operation against a Canadian? The guy is a professor. He has a discovery. He even sent us word of it so apparently, he wants to do the right thing, and this is how we react? We send a team in to get him and/or his discovery, one way or the other?”

Stanley shrugged. “Ours not to reason why…”

“It’s really that simple for you? You just shrug and follow orders?”

Stanley suppressed a burst of rage at his partner and answered calmly.

“Let’s see now, what is it that we can do? Shall we go rogue and run an operation aimed at disclosing whatever it is we think Steward and his cronies are up to? Good luck with that. Maybe we should go to the President or a member of Congress with our misgiving but wait, we aren’t sure what these guys are doing that’s so wrong. Well my friend You will need even better luck with that approach. Guys like Steward and the political appointees’ come and go. Our job is to outlast them. That’s it. You think too much my friend. We get paid to do a job. Let’s just do it.”

Allen conceded the point by remaining silent. Their options were limited in this case. Steward and his crew had to make a mistake and it had to be a big mistake, obviously counter to the interests of the country or directly against the President’s orders, then and only then, could someone like Allen and Stanley take them down.

It was a depressing thought because Steward was no fool and he didn’t get where he was in life by making that kind of mistake. I should be patient. They aren’t perfect. Nobody is.

He changed the subject. “How do you propose we get this formula?”

Stanley laughed. “Well first, we’ll ask the guy real nicely, like you said, he contacted us the poor fool. If he refuses then we’ll be a little more forceful, after all, he’s a chink Canadian professor, how tough can he be?”

Allen ignored the racial slur. He knew his partner’s background and he knew Stanley probably thought of him in less than flattering terms. Growing up in Louisiana he had learned to ignore this kind of thoughtless racism.

“Steward wants him dead. He didn’t come out and say it but all those hints about getting the formula then making sure only we have it, pretty much rules out anything else.”

“Yeah, that was the feeling I got also.”

“I don’t like it.”

“Yeah, you’ve made that abundantly clear. If it makes your liberal heart feel any better, neither do I, but we’re going to do it, just like we’ve done every other mission we’ve gotten. That’s our job.”

“True, but why does it feel so much worse this time? Christ, a Canadian!”

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