Collision by William S. Cohen is a thriller featuring a National Security Advisor caught up in a crime that could very well end humankind (available June 2, 2015).
Sean Falcone, former National Security Adviser to the president of the United States, attacks a gunman during a mass killing at an elite Washington law firm. A second shooter flees with a laptop containing vital information about an asteroid being mined by an American billionaire and his secret Russian partner. The incident plunges Falcone into a Washington mystery involving the White House, NASA, corrupt Senators, an international crime lord . . . and the possible destruction of all humankind.
Cole Perenchio pulled the blue-and-white gym bag from under the seat and stood, tilting his head to avoid the overhead bin. He was six foot seven and as slim at age fifty-six as he had been when, for three years, he was top scorer for the MIT Engineers. He ducked again as he left the Delta aircraft and entered the walkway tube to Reagan National Airport. His only luggage was his gym bag carry-on, so he went directly to the taxi pickup line. When his turn came, he told the driver, “Roaches Run.”
The driver turned and spoke through a thick plastic shield: “You kiddin’ me, bro? You want Roaches Run? You can just damn well walk. And I’ll get me another fare that’s really goin’ somewhere.”
“How much would it cost me to go to Capitol Hill?” Perenchio asked in a weary voice.
“Twelve bucks plus tip,” the driver said.
Perenchio reached into a pocket of his blue windbreaker and took out a piece of paper torn from a small notebook, along with a roll of bills. He peeled off a ten and a five, which he handed to the driver through a compartment in the shield. “Now take me to Roaches Run,” he said.
The taxi pulled out of the airport exit and onto the northbound lane of the George Washington Parkway, went about half a mile, and then turned onto a causeway leading to a slice of land jutting along the shore of the Potomac River. Across the dark strip of water Perenchio could see the Washington Monument rising into the night sky.
“Okay, mister. Here’s Roaches Run,” the driver said. “You just want to get out here?”
“See that Lincoln over there?” Perenchio answered. “Go over there, and please put on the overhead light.” He held the piece of paper up to the light. “Turn there. I want to see the license plate.”
The taxi turned slowly toward the grid of a parking lot in which there were five scattered cars, all of them long, black town cars that shone brightly in the taxi’s lights. The driver stopped behind a Lincoln. Perenchio leaned forward to check the District of Columbia license plate.
“Thanks,” Perenchio said, getting out of the taxi. He leaned his head toward the driver’s half-opened window. “Now go over a couple of rows and wait for me. I’ll be back in, at most, fifteen minutes. Then I want you to take me to my hotel. I’ll give you the name when I come back.”
As he approached the Lincoln, he heard the door locks click. He opened the rear right door and the interior dimly lighted up. A man seated on the left awkwardly held out his right hand as Perenchio folded himself into the rear seat and the light went out. Seated, Perenchio reached across, his hand engulfing the other man’s.
“Sorry the flight was late,” he said.
“No problem. That’s the point of Roaches Run,” the other man said, his face emerging from the shadow. “I give Leo here”—he nodded toward the driver—“the flight number. He keeps track of the flight, and, when he figures that it’s twenty minutes away, he calls me, pulls up in front of my house in Alexandria, picks me up, and drives here. It’s like a holding area for cars on call, town cars, under contract with firms like mine. You said you wanted privacy. So I suggested that we meet here instead of picking you up at the terminal.”
“I remember this place from when I was a kid and my father was stationed at the Pentagon,” Perenchio said, his tense face suddenly breaking into a smile. “He’d take my brother and me here, usually on Sunday, and we’d watch the planes zoom in and out of National—not called Reagan then. They were close! It was like you could stand on a picnic table and touch ’em. But, you know, Hal, I didn’t know the name of this place until I got your message. Roaches Run. Funny name.”
“It’s a fish, the roach. People fish for them here in the little bay,” Harold Davidson said.
“Thanks, Hal,” Perenchio said, smiling. “You’ve always known things like that.”
“Well, here we are,” Davidson said, ignoring the remark. He had a round, smooth face that merged into a bald head. His dark skin was slightly darker than that of Perenchio, who had a Creole father and an African American mother.
“I thought we could drive to my house, have a drink, something to eat—I hope you’re still big on pulled pork. And we—”
“All I want, Hal, is a chance to talk with no one around. Right now,” Perenchio said. “We’re sealed off from the driver, right?”
Davidson pressed a button on the console near his door handle, and the light went on again. He pointed to another button, and a small red light flashed on and off next to the word DRIVER.
“Standard practice. He can’t hear me until I press that button. These cars all have them,” Davidson said in an instructional tone that Perenchio remembered from their college years. “Look, you’re my client. Everything is between you and me. We have a client-lawyer relationship. So, if you don’t want to talk somewhere else, just start talking here. Now, what’s on your mind? All you told me on the phone was that you had something you couldn’t tell me over the phone. Now you can’t tell me face-to-face.” Davidson grinned and leaned toward Perenchio.
Perenchio reached into the gym bag and took out a black carrying case. He opened the case to show Davidson a Dell laptop, then zipped the case closed. “Keep this,” he said. “It’s all in that. You’re in some kind of trouble at the law firm.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s in here.”
Davidson reached down for his suitcase-size briefcase, opened its hinged maw, and tried to slip in the laptop case. But it stuck out, its black shoulder strap hanging down the side of the briefcase. “How come you didn’t use a thumb drive?” Davidson asked. “Lot easier to carry.”
“You always have better ideas, Hal,” Perenchio said, a touch of anger in his voice. “I need to give you the laptop, the whole laptop. That’s it, okay?”
“Okay, okay,” Davidson said, still fussing with the briefcase.
“All I can tell you is that it belongs to SpaceMine and it’s very important. I mean, White House important,” Perenchio said, lowering his voice. “I want a meeting with someone from the White House who can guarantee me immunity and get me into the federal witness program.”
“I need more information than that, Cole. What the hell is this all about?”
“I can’t tell you. All I can say is it’s about something that could kill us all.”
“Look, Cole. I trust you, trust your scientific mind. But tell me something.”
“I’ll call you at your office tomorrow. Have the laptop open in front of you. I’ll tell you how to activate and decrypt the information. Then you’ll see. It’s all there. Set up a meeting between now and Friday. At the White House.”
“Hold it, Cole,” Davidson said, his voice suddenly turning stern. “I won’t be in my office tomorrow. I’ll be in New York all day. A meeting with a client that I cannot break.” He took his cell phone out of his pocket and looked at his calendar. “It’s got to be the next day, Wednesday. Ten thirty a.m.”
“Damn it, Hal. Don’t treat me like one of your clients. There’s no time to lose. And what am I supposed to do all day?”
“Walk around. It’s a great city. Maybe see Ben Taylor,” Davidson said.
“I don’t have time. Now I’ve got another day to kill. Yeah, kill. Funny saying that. I’m afraid to walk around. Really afraid, Hal.”
Davidson reached out to pat Perenchio’s shoulder. “Relax, Cole. Try to relax.”
“Relax?” Perenchio asked with a bitter laugh. “Yeah, maybe I’ll have time to write my will.” As he opened the door he added, “See you Wednesday. And don’t let that laptop out of your sight.”
Perenchio got out of the car, walked to the taxi, and got in. The taxi recrossed the causeway and returned to the parkway, heading toward Washington. Davidson’s black car followed.
So did another black car. Seated behind the driver were two men. One of them opened a cell phone, brought up a number, spoke briefly, and pocketed the phone.
Sean Falcone had finished his sixty-minute morning workout with weights and aerobic exercises. He could still bench-press 250 pounds. That was a lot less than he could a year ago, but he was in better shape than when he was fifteen years younger. And he looked it.
Now, sitting in his apartment and drinking his second cup of coffee, he glanced at the Washington Post front page and saw that Congress and President Blake Oxley were in another budget fight. Today’s Wednesday, he thought. The crisis will ease tomorrow when Congress begins to disappear for the long weekend. Unexpected thoughts like that made him happy to be out of politics for good. And why not? He’d spent six years as a guest in Vietnam’s Hanoi Hilton, a hellhole that made Guantánamo look like the presidential suite at the Ritz. Then he hit a four-year stint as Massachusetts’ attorney general, followed by membership in what used to be the world’s most exclusive club.
Falcone allowed himself a silent “Ha.” The Senate was once a place so honored that members left its rolls defeated or dead. On a shield or in a coffin. No longer.
It had become a place where dreams died, where hope for change and conciliation were ground down into the dust of rancor and bitter recrimination. So after twelve years, Falcone wanted out. He quit the club, thinking that freedom was his at last.
It was a false hope. President Blake Oxley had asked Falcone to serve as his national security advisor. What was he to do? When the President asked an old Army Ranger to serve his country one more time, did he really have a choice?
After plowing through Oxley’s first term and halfway into the second one, Falcone submitted his resignation. In those six years he had handled dozens of crises, the biggest being the most bizarre and the most secret: finding the plot behind the accidental explosion of a nuclear weapon that virtually destroyed Savannah, Georgia.
* * *
It was Falcone’s worst nightmare: a nuclear bomb destroying an American city. Who caused the attack? How could they have done it? And why? And how should America respond? The questions demanded answers and fast. The pressure on President Blake Oxley had been immense. Someone had to pay for the worst human-casualty toll since the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Immediate speculation pointed to Iran. Some leaders in Iran’s military had used extreme rhetoric, but they weren’t insane. If responsible, Iran would be incinerated in a matter of minutes. That didn’t make any sense to Falcone. But very few things did when it came to the kaleidoscopic changes taking place in the world.
Oxley had to act. And if he didn’t, congressional leaders threatened to declare war against Iran and impeach Oxley if he failed to act upon the declaration.
Falcone managed to work with an Israeli assassin and Washington Post bigfoot reporter Philip Dake to discover a plot that had been orchestrated by a fringe group to attack Iran with a nuclear weapon that had dropped from a U.S. Air Force aircraft in 1959 off the coast of Georgia without detonating. The Air Force had declared the bomb lost and unarmed, assuring Congress and the country that the weapon, buried deep in the seafloor, posed no threat. But the bomb accidentally detonated when plotters attempted to extract it and move it onto a ship masquerading as an exploratory vessel.
Americans initially blamed the disaster on Iran and nearly waged war against that nation, which had no responsibility for the nuclear explosion that destroyed Savannah. The accidental denotation was more than enough evidence to cause Falcone to question every temptation to use America’s formidable nuclear arsenal.
The experience had taken its toll on Falcone. He wanted out. Oxley persuaded him to stay on longer. But six years in that job was too much. Falcone, without discussing it further with Oxley, announced his decision to resign as national security advisor and left the White House.
The President held no hard feelings, but Ray Quinlan, his chief of staff, who disliked and frequently feuded with Falcone, considered Falcone’s announcement an act of betrayal.
Falcone had no doubt that he had done his duty and that enough was enough. The President had accepted Falcone’s resignation reluctantly and had told him that he was expected to be on call when needed. Falcone had been eager to get back into the private world. It wasn’t as if he’d have to stand in an unemployment line or go on welfare.
When he retired from the Senate years ago, Falcone had joined DLA Piper, a newly minted mesh of older law firms that had decided to go global in a hurry.
He had been a star performer there and would have been welcomed back. But a number of the former partners with whom he was close had retired or moved on. He decided it was time for him to do the same. He had been approached immediately by Sullivan & Ford, one of the world’s largest law firms.
The firm had nearly one hundred offices scattered across the world, from Uganda to New Zealand, from Silicon Valley to Cairo, and employed more than four thousand lawyers, including three in the London office who had been knighted by the Queen. The average profit per equity partner this year would be $1.9 million. The firm’s senior partners assured Falcone that his compensation would be much higher. They made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
But there were two conditions Falcone said were nonnegotiable.
First, no lobbying. He had just read in the Atlantic that back in 1974 only three percent of retiring senators and House members became lobbyists. Now half the retiring senators stayed in Washington to get rich lobbying, as did forty-two percent of the retiring members of the House. He wasn’t ever going to join the herd that camped outside the doors of the House of Representatives or the Senate, pleading or cajoling members for votes. His door would always be open for those who sought his counsel, but his former colleagues on Capitol Hill and in the Oxley administration knew where to find him.
Second, he would not keep time records for billing the firm’s clients. Whether he devoted days or less than an hour to a case, his value wasn’t going to be weighed by the clock. Sullivan & Ford’s partners had no problem with his not wanting to lobby. They figured he could still make a call or two without breaking any laws. Several partners complained about his refusal to record how he spent his time, but they swallowed hard and folded. His name on the firm’s letterhead would add a mark of distinction. He was seen as a man with worldly gravitas—and that was money in their pockets.
Even though Falcone refused to lobby, he still kept in touch with the makers of laws and shapers of policy and was often seen at events that drew Washington’s elite—State Department receptions for foreign leaders, White House dinners for heads of state, the Kennedy Center Honors, change-of-command ceremonies at the Pentagon. He also served on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. And, with little or no publicity, he went on missions as U.S. special envoy to hot spots where the President wanted an extra set of eyes.
* * *
Now, on this October day of blue sky and Indian summer, Falcone began walking briskly from his penthouse atop the high-rise at 701 Pennsylvania Avenue to Sullivan & Ford’s gleaming steel and glass ten-story building at the foot of Capitol Hill.
He started his workday, sleeves rolled up and sitting behind a large handcrafted mahogany desk, embellished with replicated lions’ heads and insignias from the age of King Arthur. The desk was oddly out of place in a building that screamed of geometric angularity and Spartan efficiency. More than efficiency, Falcone wanted substance, solidity, something that conveyed a respect for the past.
He had spotted the ornate desk while on a trip to London and had it shipped back to Washington. It was expensive, but it was just one additional price that his fellow partners were willing to pay to persuade him to join the firm.
From the window behind him he could see the dome of the Capitol, a quarter mile away. On the wall opposite his desk was a sixty-inch flat-screen television that contained an unusual capability. When it was turned on, ten different news channels appeared in small boxes along the set’s border, with the preferred channel occupying the center of the screen. At the moment, the preferred channel was GNN, Google News Network. GNN had worked out an exclusive agreement with a relatively new enterprise, which called itself SpaceMine. The name had debuted about three years earlier in a great splash of GNN-generated publicity. Ned Winslow, once GNN’s premier news correspondent and reportorial rival to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, had become a huckster. He belonged in the field or behind an anchor’s desk. Maybe it was a matter of ratings, but whatever the reason, Falcone was disappointed with Winslow’s new role. Content used to be king on television. Now, it was just schlock and awe.
Winslow breathlessly hailed SpaceMine for “taking the world into a new realm—the commerce of space.” SpaceMine’s founders, he went on to say, planned to mine asteroids. “These gems of the heavens,” he said, “have higher concentrations of precious metals, such as platinum, than any known ore mine on Earth.”
At no time did Winslow ever describe how SpaceMine would chip away the asteroids’ treasure. Instead, he ran a cartoonish NASA video that showed huge robotic machinery and vehicles gouging ore out of a landscape consisting entirely of rock.
The press conference that had launched SpaceMine had been dominated by the hologram of SpaceMine’s CEO, Robert Wentworth Hamilton, the world’s fifth- or sixth-richest man, depending upon what list of billionaires you accepted. There were also two former astronauts and three investment bankers, who looked particularly uncomfortable being projected as spectral holograms. In the following months, GNN had begun producing SpaceMine Special and sold rights to television networks throughout the world.
SpaceMine seemed to be everywhere—a Facebook site with an ever-growing army of friends; a constantly spouting Twitter with 1,627,435 followers. “SpaceMine” appeared at the top of responses to any Googled query with the word “space” in it. Every special fostered videos and endless comments on blogs, some of them genuinely spontaneous and others written by SpaceMine’s digital hires.
Each special was a kind of reality show devoted to talks by Hamilton or an astronaut and images of SpaceMine workers at scattered, unidentified sites performing vaguely described experiments or building components of what was called the Asteroid Exploitation System. In the latest special, Hamilton compared the enterprise to the Manhattan Project, which took several routes toward development of the atomic bomb “before deciding which one would quickest lead our nation to its goal.”
Millions of viewers got used to GNN’s use of holograms, which carried SpaceMine into the borderland of scientific fact and science fiction. There was an aura of secrecy: no interviews, no identification of SpaceMine sites. Because SpaceMine was so much a product of GNN and cable television, newspapers and network television retaliated by giving the corporation little coverage.
About a year ago, a GNN SpaceMine Special had been devoted to discussing the potential launching of the corporation’s initial public offering. Hamilton, in his usual hologram form, urged viewers to stay tuned for a progress report on the company’s IPO plans, “giving anyone on Earth the opportunity to share in the equivalent of a new ‘gold rush’ in space.”
Some stock analysts, whose judgments were not particularly reliable, speculated that SpaceMine could exceed the phenomenally successful $30 billion IPO achieved that year by the Bradbury451 Group. The hype had given SpaceMine a few days of publicity well beyond GNN. But Wall Street yawned and soon moved on to other news.
Falcone was no fan of television, reality or otherwise. He occasionally watched newscasts by CNN, BBC, CCTV, and Al Jazeera to see how different channels covered essentially the same news. He had not paid much attention to the SpaceMine specials until today, when, for professional reasons, he found himself watching and recording one. Hamilton was now a Sullivan & Ford client. The move of a superclient like Hamilton from one law firm to another was as secretive and complex as a CIA rendition operation. One day the client was at Firm X. The next day the client was at Firm Z, and neither X nor Z had any documents that showed who had engineered the transfer or how it was made. Falcone had learned about the acquisition of Hamilton a few weeks before, when a terse, confidential memo had been sent to Falcone and the other senior partners.
Falcone had no direct connection with the new client. He was watching the SpaceMine special out of curiosity and jotting notes on a yellow pad in the assumption that someday he would be asked to offer some counsel to Hamilton, such as the probable reaction of political and financial decision makers to a corporation operating in space.
If a corporation is a person, what is a corporation that is no longer a fulltime Earthling? Interesting issue, the lawyerly part of his brain mused.
SpaceMine had been late to the game of exploiting space assets in our galaxy. Other firms, such as Gold Spike and Moon Struck, had bolted out of the gate the moment that Congress canceled NASA’s ambitious plans to send men to Mars and beyond in the quest for scientific knowledge that could benefit mankind.
Falcone did not hold Robert Wentworth Hamilton in particularly high regard. It was nothing personal between them. He just resented how our political system had been corrupted by men like Hamilton. Politicians were like crackheads begging for a fix. Not for cocaine, but for money. People like Hamilton were eager to feed their addiction and turn them into grateful lapdogs.
And now Hamilton had hired Sullivan & Ford to handle all of the legal work associated with his latest adventure into space. This time it was millions for advice, not votes. Given my druthers, Falcone thought, I would have told Hamilton to pound sand with his checkbook. But it had not been Falcone’s decision to make. And, besides, he had to remind himself that it wasn’t personal. Just business.
* * *
As Falcone sat there watching SpaceMine’s latest info-commercial on GNN, he remembered his recent lunch with the Post’s Philip Dake at the Metropolitan Club, one of Washington’s premier establishments, where new and old power players could meet to drink, dine, discuss politics, or close business deals. He had spotted Hamilton sitting at a table located at the far end of the main dining room. He was in deep conversation with Senator Kenneth Collinsworth of Texas, the powerful chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
At the end of their lunch, both men rose and shook hands. Falcone suspected that a deal had just been struck. No money had passed hands, of course. The money would come later in the form of a large check from a political action committee masquerading as a nonprofit, tax-free organization dedicated to some innocuous-sounding social welfare cause.
Hamilton didn’t have to wait long to reap the benefit from the time spent dining on a Cobb salad in the company and surroundings of the club’s elite members. A week later, President Oxley’s NASA budget for space exploration was cut by nearly sixty percent. The cut included NASA’s multiyear asteroid plan: the launching of an unmanned spacecraft to capture a small asteroid and tow it closer to Earth. Astronauts would later travel to the asteroid to examine it, providing science with the first on-site assessment of a near-Earth object.
Collinsworth’s budget cut shouldered NASA out of asteroid travel and pretty much handed it over to SpaceMine. It was all done in the name of fiscal austerity. It was all so civilized, so legal, and in Falcone’s mind, so perfectly corrupt.
Dake had worked closely with Falcone during the White House investigation into the Savannah disaster, the subject of a book he had nearly completed. Dake had typically held back details from his Post stories, saving them for the book. Falcone agreed to look over the manuscript before Dake submitted it to his publisher.
“All I want is tributes and praise. No criticisms,” Dake had said, giving Falcone a quick smile.
“You’ll get what you deserve,” Falcone said. “And what will you be up to next?”
“Oddly enough,” Dake said, “it’s that gentleman who just left.”
“Oh, God, no. Not that shyster. He’s bound to be indicted one of these days. Then I might use my talents on him. No. I’m thinking about Hamilton.”
“So, it’s not by chance that you and he were at lunch in the club on the same day. I imagine you have an understanding with the maître d’.”
“My life is adorned with coincidences,” Dake said with another smile. “Seriously, Hamilton is a fascinating subject. Even more fascinating for me because the son of a bitch is so elusive, so totally shielded from the public.”
“Some billionaires have a way of being invisible,” Falcone said. “Comes with the territory.”
“He’s a challenge, all right. So far, all I have is some background on his father. Well, the death of his father.” Dake leaned back, and Falcone knew that Dake was taking the floor.
“When Hamilton was fourteen, his father disappeared. Henry Hamilton was the owner of a small, independent bank in a Boston suburb. He had gone on a whale-watching ship out of Gloucester. A mile or so out, while all the patrons were on one side of the ship watching a whale spout, he was apparently on the other side. No one saw him go over the rail. His body was never found.
“There were rumors that he had staged his apparent death. Hamilton was just old enough to read the Globe’s stories, which cautiously mentioned speculation about the disappearance. But the insurance company finally paid off the fifteen-million-dollar policy. There were also rumors about the health of the bank. But the chairman of the bank board took over and managed to keep it going.
“The life insurance payoff was the beginning of young Hamilton’s fortune. Eventually, he bought the bank. He financed private investigations into his father’s death. Supposedly, he is haunted by the belief that his father is still alive.”
“Interesting,” Falcone said. “But if that’s all you have, you’ve got a long way to go.”
“Well, I have some more. I talked to one of the investigators. He turned up the fact that Hamilton was born illegitimate and was adopted by the childless Hamiltons soon after birth. They took elaborate measures to appear as blood parents. The wife dressed up in maternity clothes. The husband managed to get some clerk to create a birth certificate showing the Hamiltons as his natural parents. The investigator told me that the adoption had come as a shock to Hamilton. Mama had never told him. That, I’m convinced, is the source of stories that he thinks that in a previous life he was the historical Alexander Hamilton, who was also born illegitimate. And, like the historical Alexander Hamilton, he has a deep belief in a personal God.”
“Well, does he expect to be killed in a duel?” Falcone asked.
“In a rare interview—in a little Christian magazine he bankrolled—he was asked how he would describe his faith. He said, ‘I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty.’ The interviewer didn’t realize that those were Alexander Hamilton’s dying words after Aaron Burr shot him.”
Copyright © 2015 William S. Cohen.
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William S. Cohen served as Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton from 1997-2001. A Republican, Cohen spent twenty-four years in office as a Congressperson and a Senator before his noteworthy appointment to the cabinet of a Democratic president.