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The Collectors

David Baldacci

  To Art and Lynette,

  with much love and respect.

  And to the memory of

  Jewell English.


  ROGER SEAGRAVES WALKED OUT of the U.S. Capitol after an interesting meeting that, surprisingly, had had little to do with politics. That evening he sat alone in the living room of his modest suburban home after arriving at an important decision. He had to kill someone, and that someone was a very significant target. Instead of a daunting proposition, Seagraves saw it as a worthy challenge.

  The next morning Seagraves drove to his office in northern Virginia. Sitting at his desk in a space that was small and cluttered, and looked exactly the same as other work spaces up and down the corridor, he mentally assembled the critical pieces of his task. Seagraves finally concluded that he would do the deed himself, unwilling to trust it to a third party. He’d killed before, many times in fact; the only difference now was he wouldn’t be doing it for his government. This one was all for him.

  He spent the next two days in careful, decisive preparation efficiently conducted around his day job. The three imperatives of his mission were embedded in every action he performed: (1) keep it simple; (2) provide for every contingency; and (3) never panic no matter how much your plan goes awry, which it occasionally did. However, if there were a fourth rule, it would have to be: exploit the fact that most people are fools when it comes to things that actually matter, like their own survival. He had never suffered from that shortcoming.

  Roger Seagraves was forty-two, single and childless. A wife and brats would certainly have complicated his unorthodox lifestyle. In his previous career with the federal government he’d adopted false identities and traveled across the world. Fortunately, changing identities was stunningly easy to do in the computer age. A few clicks of the Dell, a server somewhere in India hummed, and from one’s fancy laser printer out popped a new you with all the official bells, whistles and available credit.

  Seagraves could actually buy all that he needed on an Internet site that required a carefully guarded password. It was akin to a Macy’s department store for criminals, sometimes dubbed by its felonious clientele as “EvilBay.” There one could purchase everything from first-rate ID packs and stolen credit card numbers to the services of professional hit men, or sterilized weapons if you were inclined to commit the murder yourself. He usually obtained the necessary materials from a dealer who had a 99 percent approval rating from his customers and a money-back guarantee. Even killers liked to go with quality.

  Roger Seagraves was tall, well built and handsome with thick blond wavy hair; on the surface he seemed carefree in his ways and possessed an infectious grin. Virtually every woman in his vicinity copped a second look, as did some envious men. He often used this to his advantage. When you had to kill or deceive, you used whatever tools you had as effectively as possible. His government had taught him that too. Though he still technically labored for the United States, he also worked for himself. His “official” pension plan fell far short of giving him the quality retirement he felt he deserved after so many years of risking his life for the red, white and blue. For him, though, it had been mostly red.

  On the third afternoon after his enlightening visit to the Capitol Seagraves subtly modified his features and put on several layers of clothing. When it grew dark, he drove a van up into the expensive fringes of northwest D.C. where the embassies and private mansions all had paranoid guards patrolling their compounds.

  He parked in a small courtyard behind a building across the street from a very exclusive club housed in an imposing brick Georgian that catered to wealthy and politically obsessed persons, of whom Washington had more than any city on earth. These folks loved to gather over passable food and average wine and talk polls, policies and patronage to their hearts’ content.

  Seagraves wore a blue jumper suit with “Service” stenciled on the back. The key he’d made earlier fit the simple lock of the vacant building that was awaiting extensive renovation. His toolbox in hand, he took the steps two at a time until he reached the top floor and entered a room facing the street. He flashed a penlight around the empty space, noting the single window. He’d left it unlocked and well oiled on an earlier visit.

  He opened his toolbox and quickly assembled his sniper rifle. Next he attached the suppressor can to the muzzle, chambered a single round—he was nothing if not confident—crept forward and drew up the window a bare two inches, just enough to allow the can to fit in the opening. He checked his watch and looked up and down the street from his lofty perch without much worry of being spotted, since the building he was in was completely dark. In addition, his rifle had no optics signature and sported Camoflex technology, meaning it changed color to match its background.

  Oh, what the human race had learned from the humble moth.

  When the limo and lead security car pulled up to the club, he drew his bead on the head of one of the men who got out of the stretch, but he didn’t fire. It wasn’t time yet. The club member walked inside followed by his security men sporting ear fobs and thick necks sticking out of starched collars. He watched the stretch and the security car pull off.

  Seagraves checked his watch again: two hours to go. He continued to scan the street below as town cars and cabs dropped off serious-faced women outfitted not in carats of De Beers and yards of Versace, but in smart off-the-rack business suits and tasteful costume jewelry, with their social and political antennae set on high. The serious-faced men accompanying them were hunkered down in pinstripes, bland ties and what seemed to be bad attitudes.

  It won’t get any better, gents, trust me.

  One hundred and twenty minutes dragged by, and his gaze had never once left the club’s brick façade. Through the large front windows he could see the efficient swirl of folks who cradled their drinks and murmured in low, conspiratorial tones.

  Okay, it was time for business.

  He gave the street another quick scan. Not a soul was looking his way. Over his career he’d found they never were. Seagraves waited patiently until the target walked through his crosshairs for the last time, then his gloved finger edged to the trigger. He didn’t particularly like firing through a windowpane, though it wouldn’t interfere with the flight of the ordnance he was using.

  Thwap! This was followed instantly by a tinkle of glass and the heavy thud of a pudgy dead man hitting a highly polished oak floor. The Honorable Robert Bradley had felt no pain at all with the impact. The bullet had killed his brain before it could tell his mouth to start screaming. Not a bad way to go, actually.

  Seagraves calmly laid down the rifle and peeled off his jumpsuit, exposing the D.C. police uniform underneath. He put on a matching hat he’d brought with him and marched down the stairs to the rear door. When he exited the building, he could hear the screams from across the street. Only nineteen seconds had passed since the shot; he knew because he’d counted the ticks off in his head. He now moved rapidly down the street as he continued to time the action in his head. The next moment he heard the powerful whine of the car engine as the carefully choreographed scene was played out. Now he began to run all out, pulling his pistol as he did so. He had five seconds to get there. He turned the corner in time to almost be hit by the sedan as it raced by him. At the last instant he leaped to the side, rolled and came up in the middle of the road.

  People across the street shouted at him, pointing at the car. He turned, gripped his gun with both hands and fired at the sedan. The blanks in his gun sounded sweet, just like the real thing. He placed five shots and then sprinted hard down the asphalt for half a block and slid into what appeared to be an unmarked police cruiser parked there; it raced after the fast-disappearing sedan, its siren blaring and grille lights flashing.

  The car it was “chasing” turned left at the next intersection, then right, and headed down an alley, stopping in the middle. The driver in the car jumped out, ran to the lime-green VW Beetle parked in front of his in the alley and drove off.

  Once out of sight of the club, the other car’s grille lights and siren stopped as it peeled away from the hunt and headed in the opposite direction. The man next to Seagraves never once looked at him as he climbed into the backseat and stripped off the police uniform. Underneath the cop clothes he wore a tight-fitting one-piece jogging outfit; black sneakers were already on his feet. In the floorboard of the car was a muzzled six-month-old black Lab. The car whipped down a side street and turned left at the next corner, stopping beside a park deserted at this late hour. The back door opened, Seagraves climbed out and the car sped off.

  Seagraves held the leash tightly as he and his “pet” commenced their “nightly” jog. When they turned right at the next corner, four police cruisers flew past the pair. Not one face in the cop convoy even glanced at him.

  A minute later, in another part of the city, a fireball raced into the sky. It was the rented and fortunately empty town house of the dead man. Initially, it would be blamed on a gas leak that had ignited. Yet combined with the murder of Bob Bradley, the federal authorities would seek out other explanations, though they wouldn’t come easily.

  After running for three blocks Seagraves abandoned his pet, a waiting car was climbed into and he was back at his home less than an hour later. Meanwhile, the United States government would have to find another Speaker of the House to replace the recently deceased Robert “Bob” Bradley. That shouldn’t be too hard, Seagraves mused as he drove to work the next day after reading of Bradley’s murder in the morning newspaper. After all, the damn town is full of bloody politicians. Bloody politicians? That’s an apt description. He pulled his car to the security gate, displayed his ID badge and was waved through by the armed guard there who knew him well.

  He strode through the front door of the sprawling building in Langley, Virginia, passed through additional security gauntlets and then headed to his eight-by-ten-foot cluttered cookie-cutter office. He was currently a midlevel bureaucrat whose main work consisted of being a liaison between his agency and the incompetent and brainless on Capitol Hill who’d somehow been voted into office. It was not nearly as taxing as his old job here, and represented a bone thrown his way for meritorious service. Now, unlike decades ago, the CIA let its “special” employees come in from the cold once they’d reached the age where reflexes slowed a bit and enthusiasm for the work diminished.

  As Seagraves looked over some tedious paperwork, he realized how much he’d missed the killing. He supposed people who had once murdered for a living never really got over that bloodlust. At least last night had given him a bit of the old glory back.

  That was one problem out of the way, but another one would probably soon take its place. Yet Roger Seagraves was a creative troubleshooter. It was just his nature.


  GREAT BELCHES OF BLACK smoke—probably packed with enough carcinogens to vanquish an unsuspecting generation or two—were propelled from ancient brick factory stacks into a sky already dark with rain clouds. In an alleyway of this industrial town that was dying an irreversible death due to penny wages paid in far more polluted cities in China, a small crowd had gathered around one man. This was not a crime scene with a dead body, or a street Shakespeare honing his acting chops, or even a big-lunged preacher hawking Jesus and redemption for a modest contribution to the cause. This man was known in the trade as a “broad tosser,” and he was doing his best to relieve the crowd of its money in a game of chance called three-card monte.

  The “shills” supporting the tosser were adequate as they won staged betting rounds at timed intervals to keep the marks hopeful for their own streak of luck. The “wall man,” or lookout, was a bit lethargic. At least the woman watching them from across the street deduced this from his body language and listless eyes. She didn’t know the “muscle” that was also part of this con team, yet he didn’t look overly tough, just doughy and slow. The two “ropers” were young and energetic and, as their title implied, it was their job to keep a steady supply of innocents coming to play a card game they would never win.

  She moved closer, watching as the enthusiastic crowd alternately clapped and groaned as bets were won and lost. She’d started her career as a shill for one of the country’s best tossers. That particular con could run a table in virtually any city and walk away an hour later with at least two grand in his pocket, the marks having no idea they’d been the victim of anything more than poor luck. This tosser was excellent and for good reason: He’d been trained by the same man as she. To her informed eye he was using the double-card queen-up-front technique that would substitute the back card for the queen at the critical moment of delivery, for this was the entire key to the game.

  The simple object of three-card monte, like the shell game it was based on, was to pick the queen from the trio on the table after the tosser had mixed them around with blurring speed. That was impossible to do if the lady wasn’t even on the table at the time the guess was made. Then a second before the queen’s “correct” position was revealed, the tosser would smoothly replace one of the cards with the queen and show the group where it had supposedly been all the time. This simple “short con” had lifted money from marquises and marines and everything in between for as long as playing cards had been around.

  The woman slipped behind a Dumpster, made eye contact with someone in the crowd and put on a pair of large tinted sunglasses. A moment later the wall man’s attention was completely distracted by a cute miniskirted bettor. She’d bent straight over in front of him to pick up some dropped cash and gave the lookout a nice view of her firm butt and the red thong that made little attempt to cover it. The wall man no doubt thought he’d gotten incredibly lucky. However, just as with three-card monte, there was no luck involved. The woman had earlier paid the miniskirt to perform the “drop and bend” when she signaled her by putting on the shades. This simple distraction technique had worked on men ever since women had started wearing clothes.

  Four quick strides and the lady was right in their midst, moving with a swagger and energy that parted the crowd immediately as the stunned lookout watched helplessly.

  “Okay,” she barked, holding up her creds. “I want to see some ID from you,” she snapped, pointing a long finger at the tosser, a short, pudgy middle-aged man with a small black beard, bright green eyes and a pair of the nimblest hands in the country. He studied her from under his ball cap, even as he slowly reached in his coat and pulled out his wallet.

  “All right, folks, party’s over,” she said, opening her jacket so they could see the silver badge attached to her belt. Many of the people gathered there began to back away. The intruder was in her mid-thirties, tall and broad-shouldered with a sleek pair of hips and long red hair, and dressed in black jeans, green turtleneck and a short leather jacket. A long muscle in her neck flexed when she spoke. A small, dull red scar the shape of a fishhook was perched under her right eye but remained hidden by the sunglasses. “I said party’s over. Pick up your cash and disappear,” she said in a voice notched an octave lower.

  She’d already noted that the bets left on the table had vanished the moment she started speaking. And she knew exactly where they’d gone. The tosser was good, reacting to the situation instantly and taking control of the only thing that mattered: the money. The crowd fled without bothering to argue about their missing cash.

  The muscle took a hesitant step toward the intruder but then froze as her gaze cut into him.

  “Don’t even think about it, because they just love fat boys like you in the federal swamp.” She looked him up and down lasciviously. “They get a lot more meat for their dime.” The muscle’s lip began to tremble even as he fell back and tried to fade into the wall.

  She marched up to him. “Uh-uh, big boy.
When I said clear out, I meant you too.”

  The muscle nervously glanced at the other man, who said, “Get out of it. I’ll look you up later.”

  After the man had fled, she checked the tosser’s ID, smirking as she handed it back to him and then made him stand against the wall for a pat-down. She picked up a card from the table and turned it around so he could see the black queen. “Looks like I win.”

  The tosser stared unfazed at the card. “Since when do the feds care about a harmless game of chance?”

  She put the card back on the table. “Good thing your marks didn’t know how ‘chancy’ this game of chance really was. Maybe I should go and enlighten some of the bigger guys who might like to come back and beat the crap out of you.”

  He looked down at the black queen. “Like you said, you won. Why don’t you name your payoff?” He took a roll of cash from his fanny pack.

  In response she took out her creds, slipped the badge off her belt and dropped both on the table. He glanced down at them.

  “Go ahead,” she said casually. “I have no secrets.”

  He picked them up. The “creds” didn’t authenticate her as a law enforcement officer. Behind the plastic shield was a membership card for the Costco Warehouse Club. The badge was tin and engraved with a brand of German beer.

  His eyes widened as she slipped off her sunglasses and recognition instantly came. “Annabelle?”

  Annabelle Conroy said, “Leo, what the hell are you doing cooking monte with a bunch of losers in this crappy excuse for a town?”

  Leo Richter shrugged but his grin was wide. “Times are tough. And the guys are okay, a little green, but learning. And monte’s never let any of us down, has it?” He waved the wad of bills before stuffing them back in his fanny pack. “Little dicey pretending to be a cop,” he scolded mildly.

  “I never said I was a cop, people just assumed. That’s why we have a career, Leo, because, if you have enough balls, people assume. But while we’re talking about it, trying to bribe a cop?”

  “In my humble experience it works more often than not,” Leo said, fishing a cigarette out of a pack in his shirt pocket and offering her one. She declined.

  “How much you making on this gig?” she asked matter-of-factly.

  Leo glanced at her suspiciously as he lit his Winston, took a drag and blew smoke out his nostrils, neatly matching at least in miniature the fetid clouds coming out of the smokestacks overhead. “The pie’s split up enough as it is. I’ve got employees to take care of.”

  “Employees! Don’t tell me you’re issuing W-2s now?” Before he could answer, she added, “Monte’s not on my radar, Leo. So how much? I’m asking for a reason, a good one.” She folded her arms across her chest and leaned back against the wall waiting.

  He shrugged. “We usually work five locations on a rotation, about six hours a day. Clear three or four thou on a good one. Lotta union boys ’round here. Those guys are always itching to lose their cash. But we’ll be moving on soon. Another round of factory layoffs coming, and we don’t want people remembering our faces too well. It’s not like I have to tell you the drill. I get the sixty split of the net, but expenses are high these days. Saved up about thirty Gs. I’m looking to double that before winter. It’ll hold me for a while.”

  “But just a while, knowing you.” Annabelle Conroy picked up her beer badge and Costco card. “Interested in some real money?”

  “The last time you asked me that I got shot at.”

  “We got shot at because you got greedy.”

  Neither one was smiling now.

  “What’s the deal?” Leo asked.

  “I’ll tell you after we run a couple shorts. I need some seed for the long.”

  “A long con! Who does that anymore?”