Sat
Jan 7 2017 10:00am

The Midnight Bell: New Excerpt

Jack Higgins

The Midnight Bell by Jack Higgins is the 22nd Sean Dillon novel. 

In Ulster, Northern Ireland, a petty criminal kills a woman in a drunken car crash. Her sons swear revenge.

In London, Sean Dillon and his colleagues in the “Prime Minister’s private army,” fresh from defeating a deadly al-Qaeda operation, receive a warning: You may think you have weakened us, but you have only made us stronger.

In Washington, D.C., a special projects director with the CIA, frustrated at not getting permission from the President for his daring anti-terrorism plan, decides to put it in motion anyway. He knows he’s right – the nation will thank him later.

Soon, the ripples from these events will meet and overlap, creating havoc in their wake. Desperate men will act, secrets will be revealed – and the midnight bell will toll.

ONE

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 long-time 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.”

“Really? Who?”          

“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 them, 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’ she’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 bargepole if left to their own devices.”

“Like that, is it?” he 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 towards 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 heavy rain outside, the inclement weather, 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 withdraw 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, 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 out 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 for it, 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, added, “Come and sit down and bring me up to date.  Did you bring President Cazalet back?”

“Unfortunately, no, Mr. President.  H 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 which 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 U.S. 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 Minster’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 one another.”

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.

***

 

Copyright © 2016 Jack Higgins.

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Jack Higgins lives on Jersey in the Channel Islands. The author of dozens of bestsellers, most famously The Eagle Has Landed, he served three years with the Royal Horse Guards in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and subsequently was a circus roustabout, a factory worker, a truck driver, and a laborer before entering college at age 27. He holds degrees in sociology, social psychology, and economics, and a doctorate in media. A fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he is an expert scuba diver and marksman.

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