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The Whole Truth, Page 2

David Baldacci

  Shaw had seen that lustful look before. “Well, the streets aren’t really paved with gold and the women aren’t all movie stars, but there’s a lot to do and lots of room to do it in.”

  “Maybe one day,” the passport man said wistfully before reassuming his duties. “Are you here on business or pleasure?”

  “Both. Why come all this way and have to choose?”

  The man chuckled. “Anything to declare?”

  “Ik heb niets aan te geven.”

  “You speak Dutch?” he said in a surprised tone.

  “Doesn’t everyone?”

  The man laughed and smacked Shaw’s passport with an old-fashioned ink stamp instead of the high-tech devices some countries were using. These, Shaw had heard, implanted a digital tracking device on the paper. He’d always preferred ink to tracking devices.

  “Enjoy your visit,” said Shaw’s new Dutch friend as he handed back the passport.

  “I intend to,” Shaw replied as he walked toward the exit and the train that would carry him to Centraal Station in Amsterdam in about twenty minutes.

  From there it would only get more exciting. But first he had a role to play.

  Because he had an audience.

  In fact, they were watching him right now.


  THE CAB SHAW TOOK from the train station dropped him off at the grand Amstel Intercontinental Hotel. It housed seventy-nine rooms of great beauty, many with enviable views of the river Amstel, although Shaw was not here for the views.

  Adhering to his role-playing over the next three days, Shaw was a tourist in town. There were few places more suited to that enterprise than Amsterdam, a city of 750,000 people, only half of them Dutch-born. He took a boat ride, enthusiastically snapping pictures of a city with more canals than Venice and nearly thirteen thousand bridges in a space of barely two hundred square kilometers, of which one-fourth was water.

  Shaw was especially drawn to the houseboats, nearly three thousand of them, docked along the canals. They appealed to him because they represented roots. Even though they were floating on water, these boats never moved. They were handed down from one generation to the next or sold outright. What might that feel like, he wondered, to have such ties to one place?

  He later donned shorts and running shoes and jogged across the wide-open spaces of Oosterpark near his hotel. In a very real sense Shaw had been running his whole life. Well, if things went according to plan that was going to end. Either that or he’d end up dead. He would gladly take the risk. In a way, he was dead already.

  Sipping a coffee at the Bulldog, Amsterdam’s most famous café chain, Shaw watched people go about their business. And he also eyed the men who were so very clearly watching him. It was pathetic, really, observing folks undertaking surveillance who didn’t have the least clue as to how to do it properly.

  The next day he lunched at one of his favorite restaurants in the city, run by an elderly Italian. The man’s wife sat at one table reading the newspaper all day while her husband acted as maître d’, waiter, chef, busboy, dishwasher, and cashier. The place only had four barstools and five tables, not counting the wife’s domain, and prospective customers had to stand in the doorway and be scrutinized by the husband. If he nodded, you were allowed to eat. If he turned away, you found another place to dine.

  Shaw had never been turned away. Perhaps it was his imposing physical stature, or his magnetic blue eyes that seemed to snatch one up in their powerful embrace. But most likely it was because the owner and he had once worked together, and it wasn’t in the field of food and beverage.

  That night Shaw put on a suit and attended the opera at the Muziektheater. After the performance was over he could’ve walked back to his hotel, but he chose instead to head in the opposite direction. Tonight was why he’d really come to Holland. He was a tourist no longer.

  As he approached the red-light district he observed some activity down a dark and particularly narrow alleyway. A little boy stood there in the shadows. Next to him was a rough-looking man with his zipper down and one large hand stuffed in the boy’s pants.

  In an instant Shaw had changed direction. He slipped into the alley and placed a blow to the back of the man’s head. It was a measured strike, designed to stun, not kill, though Shaw was sorely tempted to finish off the predator. As the man fell unconscious to the pavement Shaw crammed a hundred euros in the boy’s hand and sent him off with a hard push and a dire warning in Dutch. As the child’s frantic footfalls echoed away, Shaw knew the boy would at least not starve or die tonight.

  As he resumed his original route he noted for the first time that the old stock exchange was directly across from the hookers in the red-light. This struck him as odd until he thought about it. Cash and prostitution had always been bedfellows. He wondered if some of the ladies accepted company shares in lieu of euros as payment.

  Even more ironic than the exchange’s close proximity to the whores was that the red-light district completely surrounded Oude Kerk, or Old Church, the city’s most ancient and largest house of worship. Built in 1306 as a simple wooden chapel, it had been constantly tinkered with and enlarged for the next two centuries. One jokester had even inlaid a brass pair of breasts into the pavement by the front entrance. Shaw had been inside a few times. What had struck him was the series of carvings on the choir benches depicting men having massive bowel movements. He could only assume that masses must have been really long in those days.

  Saints and sinners, God and hookers, mused Shaw as he reached the middle of this strip of iniquity. The Dutch called the area the Walletjes, or “Little Walls.” Presumably what happened behind the Walletjes stayed there. Tonight he was counting on that.

  The red-light district was not that large, perhaps two canals long, but there was a lot packed into that pair of blocks. At night the prostitutes on duty here were the most beautiful. Many were stunning eastern Europeans who’d been brought to the country under false pretenses and then become “trapped in the trade,” as it was delicately termed. Ironically, the night hookers were mostly for show. After all, who wanted to step through the libidinous portals with thousands watching? In the mornings and afternoons the district was quieter and that’s when the serious customers paid their visits to the far less comely but efficient ladies of the second and third eight-hour shifts.

  The whores’ rooms were difficult to miss, as they were all outlined in red neon tubing that was nearly blinding. The rooms also had fluorescent lighting such that the skimpy clothing the girls wore blazed like a summer sun. Shaw passed window after window where women stood, sometimes dancing, sometimes posing erotically. In truth most people who came here came to gawk, not fornicate, although the beds still racked up roughly half a billion euros in sales yearly.

  Shaw kept his head down, his feet carrying him to one particular destination. He was almost there.


  THE LADY IN THE WINDOW was young and beautiful with raven hair that swirled around her bare shoulders. She was wearing only a white thong, spiked heels, and a cheap necklace wedged between her large breasts, the nipples of which were covered with sunflower pasties. An interesting choice, Shaw thought.

  He kept eye contact with her as he threaded through the masses. The woman met him at the door, where he confirmed his interest. Even in her heels she was a foot shorter than him. In the window she’d looked bigger. Things on display often did look bigger. And better. When you got your purchase home, it didn’t seem nearly as special.

  She shut the door and then closed the red curtains, the only sign one would get that the room and the lady were occupied now.

  The space was small, with a sink, toilet, and, of course, a bed. Set next to the sink was a button. It was the one the hookers pushed in an emergency. Then the police would suddenly appear and drag away the customer who’d gone too far to satisfy himself. This was one of the best-patrolled areas in the city – anything to keep the tax revenue coming. Shaw saw a second door in the bac
k wall and then glanced away. In the next room the sounds of another happy customer were coming through loud and clear. Hooker digs were set side by side with cheap drywall or sometimes only a curtain in between. The business clearly did not require much space or frills in which to operate.

  “You’re very good-looking,” she said in Dutch. “And large,” she added, gazing up at him. “Are you as big all over? Because I am not so big down there,” she added, now staring pointedly at his crotch.

  “Spreekt u Engels?” Shaw said.

  She nodded. “I speak English. It’s thirty euros for twenty minutes. But I’ll do an hour for seventy-five. It’s a special, just for you,” she added matter-of-factly. She handed him a list in Dutch but that was also repeated at the bottom of the page in ten different languages including English, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic. It was entitled, “Things I Will and Won’t Do.”

  Shaw passed her back the paper. “Is your friend here?” he asked. “I’ve been waiting a long time to meet him.” He glanced toward the second door.

  She appraised him in a different way now. “Yes, he is here.”

  She turned and led him to the door set in the back wall. Her exposed butt cheeks, though firm, still quivered slightly as she performed an exaggerated model’s sashay in front of him. He didn’t know if she did that out of habit or because the stilettos were too unstable.

  The woman opened the door and motioned Shaw in. She left him there facing the old man seated at a small table where a plain meal had been laid: a wedge of cheese, a piece of cod, a fist of bread, and a bottle of wine.

  The man’s face was a cache of wrinkles, the white beard scraggly and the small belly soft and round. The eyes peered out from under tufts of ramshackle snowy hair badly in need of pruning. The eyes caught on Shaw’s and held.

  The man motioned to the table. “Hungry? Thirsty?”

  There was a second chair but Shaw chose not to use it. Indeed, if he had attempted to sit down, the man might have shot him, for there was a gun grasped in his left hand pointed right at Shaw and the prearranged instructions had been explicit. One did not sit. One did not eat or drink if one wanted to live.

  Shaw’s gaze had already swept the tiny room. The only entry was the doorway he’d come through. He’d positioned himself so that he could keep one eye on this portal and one eye on the man. And his gun.

  He shook his head and said, “Thank you, but I already ate at the De Groene Lanteerne.” It was a cheap place with traditional Dutch food served in a room that was three hundred years old and looked it.

  The dopey code words out of the way, the man rose, slid a piece of paper from his pocket, and handed it to Shaw.

  Shaw glanced at the address and other information on the paper, ripped it up, and tossed the pieces into the toilet set against one wall and flushed it. Seemingly on cue the old man put on a beaten-up hat and patched coat and left.

  Shaw could not leave yet. Sexual encounters typically lasted a bit longer than two minutes even for the teenage first-timers. And you never knew who was watching. Well, actually, he did. There were several of them.

  He stepped back into the main room where the lady was stretched out, catlike, on her cot. The curtain was still drawn; her meter was still running.

  “Do you want to screw me now?” the woman asked in a slightly bored tone as she started to slide the thong down her legs. “It’s been paid for,” she added if he needed any inducement. “A full hour. And I will go off the list for another thirty euros.”

  “Nee, dank u,” he replied, smiling politely. If you were going to turn a lady down in the matter of sex, better you say it in her own language.

  “Why not? Is there a problem?” she said, obviously offended.

  “I’m married,” he said simply.

  “So are most of the men who see me.”

  “I’m sure.”

  “Where is your wedding ring?” she asked suspiciously.

  “Never wear it at work.”

  “You’re sure you don’t want me?” Her tone of disbelief was as clearly etched as the look of incredulity on her face.

  He hid his bemusement. She must be really new because her vanity was largely intact. The older whores would surely jump at the chance for full pay that included no humping.

  “Absolutely sure.”

  She slid her thong back up. “Pity.”

  “Yes, pity,” he said. Actually, if things went according to plan, in two days hence he’d be in Dublin with the only woman he’d ever really loved. And also the reason why he had to get out. Now.

  Still, even Shaw had to acknowledge, it was a big if. In his line of work, tomorrow was just another day to die.


  THERE IS ALWAYS A DAMN Tunisian, Moroccan, or Egyptian involved. Always. Shaw said this to himself. One slip with these gents and they’d rip your gonads off and force-feed them to you and say that Allah had told them to do it if they bothered to give you a reason at all. See you in paradise, infidel. Serve me well for eternity, filthy pig. He knew the speeches by heart.

  He clenched the heavy suitcase in his right hand and held the left out from his side as the wiry Tunisian, eyes red, features grim, and teeth bared, patted him down.

  Six men other than Shaw stood in the small upstairs room. It was a typical flat situated on a minor canal. High up, it was narrow as a snake hole, with knotted rope pulls in lieu of stair rails to enable the climber to make the near-vertical assault. One could easily become winded merely going from the first to the second floor of an Amsterdam canal residence.

  The reason was historical, Shaw had learned. Centuries ago all these homes had been merchants’ places of business. And back when they’d been constructed the only carpenters available were ship’s carpenters. These men, logically, had decided that what was good for a boat was good for a house and had built the stairs nearly straight up as was the practice on space-challenged ships. That’s also why most such homes had a steel beam like a ship’s prow jutting out from the top floor. They once had been used to haul up goods for sale and now were employed to hoist in furniture because there was no way in hell you’d get even a modest-sized couch up the stairs.

  The night before, Shaw had left the red-light district, returned to his hotel, and informed the front desk that he was checking out. The clerk on duty there was undoubtedly in the pay of people who wanted to keep tabs on his movements and would relay this intelligence to them. Men would be dispatched to follow him as soon as he left the Intercontinental.

  Since Shaw didn’t particularly want the extra company he left his bag and clothes behind and exited the hotel via the basement. That was why he’d stayed at the large Intercontinental, with its numerous exits; he needed to get away without being seen. Using the memorized information he’d gotten from the old man in the hooker’s digs, he rode in the back of an old farm truck to a destination outside the city where the land was broad and green and there was no water for at least a good ten feet. He made a few phone calls and the next evening took possession of the suitcase that the Tunisian was now attempting feverishly to wrest from his grip.

  The far bigger Shaw suddenly wrenched the satchel free, sending the smaller man tumbling headfirst to the floor. The Tunisian rose, blood dripping down his nose, a knife clasped in his muscular hand.

  Shaw turned to the leader of the pack, an Iranian who sat in a chair – his miniature throne, Shaw could see – and was eyeing him steadily.

  “Want me to show you the merchandise?” Shaw asked. “Then call off the hyena.”

  The slender Persian, clad in crisply pressed knit slacks and a loose-fitting white long-sleeved shirt, waved his hand and the Tunisian’s knife disappeared, but the snarl remained.

  “You managed to lose my men last night,” he said to Shaw in a British accent.

  “I don’t like company.”

  He set the suitcase on the table, input two separate digital codes, slid his thumb through a scanner, and the titanium locks sprang free. Shaw
closely observed the man from Tehran’s reaction to the little present lurking inside. The Iranian’s expression was clear: Christmas, ironically, had come early to Holland for the Allah worshiper from the Middle East.

  Shaw announced, “Officially, this is an RDD, radiological dispersal device, otherwise known as a suitcase nuke or dirty bomb.” He said all this in Farsi, which got an eyebrow hike from the Iranian.

  The men gathered around. The Iranian gingerly touched the device with its wires, metal carcass, stainless steel tubes, and multiple LED readout screens.

  “How dirty?” the Iranian asked.

  “Gamma radiation core with a nice dynamite kicker.”

  “Enough to kill how many? An entire city?”

  Shaw shook his head. “This isn’t a weapon of mass destruction. It’s what we call in the trade a weapon of mass disruption. It’ll kill some folks near the detonation site. And the radiation will nail some people too. The farther away from ground zero, the less damage.”

  The Iranian looked displeased. “I was under the impression this device would kill thousands, knock down buildings.”

  “This is not a mushroom cloud boom-maker. If you want that you can go get plans off the Internet. But you’ll find yourself stuck for necessary ingredients like highly enriched uranium. But what this baby will do is scare the shit out of an entire country, shut down the economy, and make people afraid to leave their homes. In a way, just as effective as the mushroom cloud, without all the mess. And a helluva lot cheaper to you.”

  This seemed to appease the Iranian. He turned to Shaw after giving the bomb one last affectionate pat. “The price?”

  Shaw stood straighter towering over all of them. “The same as the one on the term sheet we sent.”