The boardroom of Montpellier Munitions was constructed inside concrete and lead walls sufficiently thick to suffocate a nuclear reactor. Each night it was swept for electronic listening devices, and each day the business of international arms dealing was planned and executed within its confines.
This was the smooth business end of the industry, the trading room occupied by sleek, distant men, way above and beyond the screaming factory floor below, where high-explosive material was moved around on hydraulic loaders, and reinforced metal was cut and molded into the twenty-first century’s most refined state-of-the-art guided missiles.
Montpellier was one of the least-known, most secretive arms manufacturing plants in France, set deep in the 150-square-mile Forest of Orléans on the north bank of the River Loire, east of the city.
Rumors suggested the Montpellier chairman, Henri Foche, had parted with upwards of five million euros, bribing officials to permit the construction of the arms factory in the middle of one of the great protected national forests of France --- a place where herds of deer still roamed, and wild, nesting ospreys were vigilantly guarded.
In the normal way, anyone presenting such an outrageous proposal would have been shown the front door of the Planning Department. But Henri Foche was no ordinary applicant. In fact, it was highly likely that Henri Foche, at forty-eight, would become the next president of France.
This morning, his three principal executives, the men who arranged Montpellier’s enormous sales to the Middle Eastern sheikhs, tyrants, and assorted African despots, were waiting somewhat impatiently for his arrival. There was, in fact, trouble in the air. Very big trouble.
At 10:35, the great man arrived. He was dressed as always in a dark pinstriped suit, white shirt, dark-blue necktie, with a scarlet handkerchief in the breast pocket. He was a man of medium height, heavyset, with jet-black hair combed neatly on either side of a shiny bald dome. His complexion was sallow, and he had a jutting Roman nose, as hooked and predatory as the beaks of the osprey sea eagles that circled the nearby banks of the Loire.
He entered the room accompanied by his two personal bodyguards, Marcel and Raymond, who closed the door behind him and then stood guard on either side. Both men were dressed in faded blue jeans with black T-shirts; Marcel wore a dark-brown suede jacket, Raymond a short, black leather zip-up that plainly shielded a holstered revolver.
Foche entered the room in silence and without a smile. He took his seat at the head of the polished mahogany table, and then greeted each of his three right-hand men in turn... “Yves --- Olivier --- Michel, bonjour.”
Each of them murmured a respectful acknowledgment, and Foche moved directly into the serious business of the day. Speaking in swift French, he ordered, “Okay, let’s see it.”
Michel, sitting to his right, picked up a remote control and activated a big flat-screen television set on the wall, same side as the door, about four feet off the ground. He scrolled back to “Items Recorded” and hit the button to replay the 0800 news bulletin on CII, France’s international CNN-style twenty-four-hour news service, broadcast in French, English, and Arabic.
Monsieur Foche normally had a certain amount of catching up to accomplish, after spending the night with one of several exotic nightclub dancers he patronized in Paris, eighty miles to the north. But not often on a day as critical for Montpellier as this most certainly was.
The broadcaster was quickly into his stride: The United Nations Security Council in New York last night formally outlawed the lethal Frenchbuilt guided missile known as the Diamondhead. The UN banned the “tank buster” in all countries on humanitarian grounds. The Americanbacked edict was supported unanimously by UN delegates from the European Union, India, Russia, and China.
He explained how the searing hot flame from the Diamondhead missile sticks to and then burns its victims alive, much like napalm did in Vietnam. The broadcaster confirmed the view of the UN Security Council that the Diamondhead was unacceptable in the twenty-first century. It was the cruelest weapon of war currently in operation.
He added that the UN had specifically warned the Islamic Republic of Iran that the Diamondhead represented nothing less than an international crime against humanity. The world community would not tolerate its use against any enemy under any circumstances whatsoever.
Henri Foche frowned, a facial expression that came more naturally to him than smiling. It replaced his regular countenance of dark, brooding menace with one of ill-expressed anguish. “Merde!” muttered Foche, but he shook his head and attempted to lighten both the mood and his facial expression with a thin smile, which succeeded only in casting a pale poisonous light on the assembled chiefs of Montpellier Munitions.
No one spoke. No one usually does after a bombshell of the magnitude just unleashed by the CII newscaster. Here, in the heart of the forest, these four executives, sitting on a potential fortune as grandiose as a Loire chateau, were obliged to accept that all was now in ruins.
The Diamondhead missile, with its years of costly research and development, its packed order books and clamorous lines of potential clients, was, apparently, history. The missile, which could rip through the heavily armored hulls of the finest battlefield tanks in the world, must be confined to the garbage bin of military history, destroyed by those who feared it most.
The Americans had already felt its searing sting on the hot, dusty highways around Baghdad and Kabul. And in the UN Security Council they found almost unanimous support for the Diamondhead ban.
The Russians feared the Chechens would lay hands on it, the Chinese were unnerved that Taiwan might order it, and the Europeans, who lived in fear of the next terror attack on their streets, could only imagine the horror of a handheld tank-busting missile in the hands of Islamic extremists. The prospect of the Islamic Republic of Iran distributing the damn thing to every wired-up al-Qaeda cell in the Middle East was too much for every significant UN delegate to contemplate.
Henri Foche’s mind raced. He had not the slightest intention of scrapping the Diamondhead. He might have it moderated, he might change its name, or he might rework the explosive content in its warhead. But scrap it? Never. He’d come too far, worked too hard, risked too much. All he wanted now was unity: unity in this concrete-clad room; unity among his closest and most trusted colleagues.
“Gentlemen,” he said evenly, “we are currently awaiting an order for the Diamondhead from Iran which will represent the most important income from a missile this factory has ever had. And that’s only the beginning. Because the weapon works. We know that in Baghdad it has slashed through the reinforced fuselage of the biggest American tank as if it was made of plywood. “We also know that if we do not manufacture it, and reap the rewards,
someone else will copy it, rename it, and make a fortune from our research. There’s no way we will abandon it, whatever rules those damn lightweights concoct in the UN.”
Olivier Marchant, an older man, midfifties with an enviable background as a sales chief for the French aerospace giant Aerospatiale, looked uneasy. “Making money is one thing, Henri,” he murmured. “Twenty years in a civilian jail is something else.”
“Olivier, my old friend,” replied the chairman, “two months from now, no one will dare to investigate Montpellier Munitions.”
“That may be so, Henri,” he replied. “But the Americans would be absolutely furious if the ban was defied. After all, it’s their troops who end up getting burned alive. And that would reflect very badly on France. No one would care who made the missile, only that it was French, and the wrath of the world would be turned against our own country.”
Foche’s expression changed into one of callow arrogance. “Then it’s time the U.S. military started vacating their bases in the Middle East and stopped pissing everyone off,” he snapped. “It’s taken us three years to perfect the compressed-carbon missile head into a substance which is effectively a black diamond. We’re not giving it up.”
“I understand, of course,” replied Olivier Marchant. “But I cannot condone a flagrant breach of this UN resolution. It’s too dangerous for me... and, in the end, it will prove lethal for you . . . as president, I mean.”
Foche flashed a look at his longtime colleague that suggested he was dealing with a small-time Judas. “Then you may, Olivier, find yourself with no alternative but to resign from my board of directors, which would be a pity.”
And once more Foche’s expression changed. A somewhat sneering cast swept over his face, the whore’s scorn for virtue. “What we are doing,” he said, “is beyond the law, not against it, Olivier. And please remember it would be particularly damaging if you ever decided to go public with your reasons for resignation.”
In that split second, Olivier Marchant realized the danger of his position. Only Foche himself had an equal knowledge of the Diamondhead, its development, its secrets, and the subtleties of its firing and homing mechanisms. Only Foche knew its export routes --- especially the one out of the Forest of Orléans, and onto the jetties of Saint- Nazaire, the ocean voyage to Chah Bahar, the Iranian Navy’s submarine base, way down east on the northern shore of the Gulf of Oman, close to the Pakistani border. This is a top-secret place, four hundred miles short of the Hormuz entrance to the Persian Gulf. Chah Bahar is the port for unloading illicit cargo, for ultimate distribution of hightech weaponry to the outstretched hands of the relentless killers of Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban.
Nonetheless, Olivier Marchant stood up and said quietly, “Henri, I will always have the highest regard for you. But I cannot --- will not --- be associated with flagrant defiance of international law. It cannot be worth it, and my conscience cannot allow it. Good-bye, Henri.”
And with that, he walked resolutely to the doorway, and without a backward look stepped out of the room, right between Marcel and Raymond. But before the door was closed, Henri Foche had the final word: “Good-bye, my old friend. This may be a day you will deeply regret.”
Olivier Marchant knew the stakes were high. And certainly he was aware that Foche’s presidential campaign, conducted from his home region of Brittany, was almost certain to succeed. Foche was correct to state that no one would dare to investigate Montpellier’s missile division, not if Henri himself was president of France.
But Olivier not only had a righteous streak, he also had a timid one, coupled with a highly developed imagination. He suddenly saw himself in an international courtroom, charged with fellow directors of Montpellier with crimes against humanity, in flagrant defiance of a unanimous UN resolution.
He had long recognized Foche as a ruthless chancer, with the morals of an alley cat. But he would not go to the wall for him. Olivier was a wealthy man, with a much younger wife and a nine-year-old daughter. There was no way he was going to jeopardize his way of life, his family and reputation. He would not end up ruined, sharing a cell with a known megalomaniac, as Foche very definitely was.
He walked slowly back to his office, stuffed some personal files into a large briefcase, and called home to his grand residence on the outskirts of the riverside village of Ouzouer. His wife, Janine, was thrilled he would be home for lunch, and even more thrilled to learn he had no plans to return to the rather sinister arms factory in the great Forest of Orléans.
Olivier pulled on his overcoat and vacated his office. He walked along the executive corridor and took the elevator down two floors to the front lobby. Without looking left or right, he stepped out of the building, into bright sunshine, and headed toward the directors’ small parking area.
He had no need to use his remote-control car key because his Mercedes-Benz was never locked. Montpellier was surrounded by a high chain-linked fence, and there was only one entrance, patrolled by two armed guards 24/7. Olivier opened the driver’s door and shoved his briefcase onto the passenger seat. Then he climbed in, started the engine, and clipped on his seat belt.
He scarcely saw the garrote that would throttle the life out of him before the thick, cold plastic line was tightening around his throat. In the rearview mirror he caught a glimpse of the expressionless mask of the face of Marcel, and he struggled to grasp the ever tightening grip of the plastic noose, to try to prize it free from his windpipe.
But Marcel had the jump on him. Olivier tried to scream. And he twisted sideways, lashed out with his foot, and felt his own eyes almost bursting out of their sockets. And now the noose was choking him, and with one final superhuman effort he reared back, and booted out the front windshield, which shattered with just a dull modern popping sound.
It was the last movement Olivier Marchant ever made, before the silent blackness of death was upon him.