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Strait of Hormuz


Chapter One

Marc Royce had never been to Switzerland before. He was there without backup. He was not prepped. He had come because the one person in the world he could not refuse had asked for his help. Urgently. Marc checked his watch, then pressed his phone’s automatic dial. The ambassador answered instantly. Marc said, “I’m in place.”

“Hold one.” Ambassador Walton did not bother to muffle the phone as he asked an unseen associate for an update. He told Marc, “The target is inbound from his residence in Montreux.”

“You have monitors in place?”

“We are tracking his cellphone. His GPS now belongs to us.”

Which was interesting, given how Walton had refused to involve Swiss intelligence. There was a leak inside U.S. intelligence, of that Walton was absolutely certain. How or where their service had been breached, Walton had no idea. But Marc’s target held such vital national importance that Walton had asked him to go in alone and unaided. He had come to Geneva without even alerting his embassy, which was a serious breach of protocol. But Marc was also no longer officially part of any intelligence agency. He had been fired and dumped on the side of a Washington highway. By the same old man who now coughed into Marc’s ear. Which meant his superiors could not be reprimanded, since he didn’t have any.

Marc heard a new strain to the ambassador’s voice, a hint that age was assaulting even this old warrior. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Focus on staying alive,” Ambassador Walton replied. “You are good to go.”

Marc left a ten-franc note anchored beneath his coffee saucer and headed across the street to the lakeside promenade. He said into his phone, “Don’t you think now is a good time to tell me whose lead I’m following up here?”

Walton suppressed another cough. “An old friend reached out.”

Which was all Marc had gotten the last time he had asked. “Must be a good friend for you to give it this much credence.”

“He was and he is.” The old man hesitated, long enough for Marc to assume he would not get anything more. But Ambassador Walton tended to relax his iron-clad grip on intel when his agents were walking into danger. “He’s a British industrialist. A source I’ve known and trusted for twenty years. We’ve long suspected he also supplies intel to Mossad.”

“Why isn’t Mossad checking this out themselves?”

“A question I’ve been asking ever since he contacted me. Two possibilities come to mind. First, Mossad knows something we don’t and want to rope us in. And second, they don’t trust the source.”

“Meaning he could be the leak?”

“Doubtful. But right now I am not ruling out anyone except us. And I only include you because you don’t know enough to be a threat.”

Marc did not take the bait. There was no need to look further than WikiLeaks to know how dangerous secrets could easily go public. He approached the gallery. “I’m in position.”

“Target is twenty-four minutes out and closing.”

Marc was hardly the only person walking along the lakefront with a phone attached to his ear. He was dressed in standard business garb, a dark gray suit and striped shirt and silk tie. He carried a slim leather briefcase slung over his left shoulder. He wished it contained a gun, but Swiss security made that impossible. The city served as a conduit for business from all over the globe. No one gave him a second glance as he walked along the line of tall, bulletproof windows. The interior looked dark, silent. “I see no guard.”

“We’ve been over that. He relies on an electronic alarm system.”

“I’m circling the perimeter.”

“Roger that.”

The side windows overlooked one of Geneva’s many piazzas. Marc turned another corner and entered a rear alley. The tight lane was shadowed from the morning sun. A restaurant’s trio of rubbish bins smelled of old food and disinfectant. Traffic echoed softly into his enclave.

Then he saw it. “We have trouble.”

“What is it?”

“The perimeter has been breached.”

“Show me.”

Marc tabbed the app that turned his phone into a video camera with a live feed. He slowly panned the camera lens across the rear loading platform and the gallery’s rear doors. The steel portals were no longer sealed. He stepped closer and listened carefully.

Marc said into the phone, “There is no alarm.”

“Maybe it’s a simple fault.”

“Negative. This place is otherwise as tight as a vault. And it’s wired. There are cameras in both corners.”

“So security will have a record of your presence.”

“The cameras have been on me since I crossed the street. That isn’t the point. You send me over, and the morning I arrive there is a break-in. They knew I was coming. Your own intel is breached.”


“No. I’m here, I’m seen. I’m going in.”

“Marc, wait—”

He cut the connection, turned off his phone, and slipped it into his pocket. Any experienced operative knew the brass in their safe little bunkers responded to uncertainty by applying the brakes. Sometimes the guy in the field had to go with his gut. A successful operative was one whose hunches proved correct. They were the ones who made it home.

Kitra Korban had never felt so totally uncertain or out of place. Not even when she had been kidnapped and held in the poisoned plains of western Kenya while just up the road a volcano cleared its throat. She had secretly yearned for the chance, just once, to walk along a pristine lane in a beautiful European city, elegantly dressed and drawing stares from people who did not carry the weight of a thousand lives on their hearts and shoulders.

The air of Geneva was so different from the plains of Galilee. May was the first full month of the Israeli dry season. This year the rains had ended early. There was talk of a severe drought. Two of the kibbutz’s wells had already gone dry. Kitra’s kibbutz was an island of green in a hot and dusty land. There were problems with the new factory’s refining process. The shipments of rare earth arrived from Kenya faster than they could process them. Their potential customers were upset, the factory managers defensive and edgy. Everyone was exhausted, Kitra included. Other than the Sabbaths, she had not had a day off in seven months. They were working around the clock.

Adding further to the uncertainty and turmoil, Marc had broken off their long-distance relationship. She had sensed this was coming for months. Marc was a member of the American intelligence community. He was a patriot. He was, in fact, a hero. For most of the past year, Kitra had hoped he would become her hero. But his decision was hardly a surprise.

If only it did not hurt so much. Especially now.

Recently she had pinned a postcard from her parents to her office wall. After a mild heart attack, her father had decided to take his first holiday in nine years. Her brother was gradually becoming accustomed to his new position as acting head of the kibbutz. Kitra had always assumed she would run their community, and someday that might still happen. But just then, her days and nights were taken with bringing the factory up to speed. The postcard had been of a Paris café. Kitra often stared at it, yearning for the freedom to enjoy an idle hour. Europe might as well have been on the other side of the moon. Until, that is, she had been asked to make this trip.

The waters of Lake Leman sparkled across the way, blue as sapphires. In the far distance, the Alps gathered a morning crop of clouds. She passed a pair of lovers seated at a café. Being here in Geneva only amplified her longing for Marc.

The precise clocks of this pristine city chose that moment to chime the hour. Kitra increased her pace, excited over seeing Marc again and dreading the encounter in equal measure.

Marc tensed as the city’s clocks began their hourly clamor. The Swiss attention to detail could be infuriating. Then he returned to his inspection of the gallery’s rear doors. The steel had been punched by two blasts, probably from a shotgun holding solid rounds. Despite weighing over half a ton, the doors swung in with fluid ease. He stepped inside.

The gallery’s chamber was a concrete cube, windowless and neat and precisely lit. Shelves held a wide variety of treasure and art. In the stockroom’s center, three easels supported a massive canvas. Lights on tripods were positioned like a Hollywood film set readying for a close-up. An artist’s table contained a variety of brushes and bottles. A magnifying glass was positioned above the center of the painting. The chamber smelled of cleaning fluid.

Marc clicked on his phone and hit the speed dial. When the ambassador answered, he asked quietly, “Where’s the target?”

Walton’s anger lowered his voice an octave. But the man was a pro. He had sent an operative into Indian country. Now was not the time for futile arguments. “Nine minutes out, maybe ten.”

“Rate of speed?”

“Hold one.” Walton returned swiftly with, “Holding steady at one-ten klicks.”

A hundred and ten kilometers per hour was about seventy mph and ten klicks under the limit. “If the gallery’s alarm had gone off, the company’s owner would be pushing harder to arrive.”

Walton hesitated, then said, “You have six minutes to complete your mission.”

Kitra stood across the street from the gallery and searched the area for Marc. The morning rush-hour traffic competed with the continued ringing of all the city’s clock towers. She felt both exposed and confused. Even so, she remained where she was. A man’s life hung in the balance.

It had started with a phone call from her father thirty-one hours earlier. He had used the same voice as when he took on the Israeli government, keeping his community intact and alive. He had told his only daughter, a man is coming to see you. Do whatever he says.

Before Kitra could recover enough to ask what her father was talking about, he had hung up.

A few moments later, the man had knocked on her open office door. He had refused to give his name. Instead he simply told her that the next morning, at precisely three minutes past the hour, Marc Royce would enter Geneva’s most exclusive art gallery, and die.

Just like that, her life had flown into an entirely different orbit. Bringing her to this point. Standing on Geneva’s fashionable shopping street, desperate to save Marc Royce. The very same man she had recently told she never wanted to speak with again.

Marc slowly pushed through the leather swinging doors and entered the gallery.

The rooms were high-ceilinged and impossibly elegant. The art on the walls was powerful and distinctive and expensive. Three chambers opened into one another, each framed by a mock passage and a single stair of polished granite. The middle room was dominated by a crystal dais, upon which was poised a bronze Rodin ballerina.

Marc gave the dancer a single glance before his attention was caught by the corpse.

The desk was positioned in the central room, so that the gallery owner could watch the doors and survey all three chambers. In the tight space between the filigreed legs and the window lay the body.

The man wore a pinstriped suit and highly polished shoes. His impeccable shirt and tie were stained by the blood that spilled from the wound to his chest.

Marc lifted his phone. “The target is not in the car.”


“Sylvan Gollet is here. And he’s dead.”

“Show me.”

Marc hit the camera app and started around the desk. Then the light flashed, and he knew he was a breath away from a death all his own.

The light was a laser trigger, mounted to a compact charge. The package was fitted into the corner of the room and pointed straight down. Aimed precisely at where he now stood.

When the city’s clocks finally went silent and Marc had not appeared, Kitra decided she had no choice. She crossed the street and pushed on the gallery door. To her astonishment, it was unlocked. She was surprised because the man who had come for her had described the situation in precise detail. The gallery would not open for another hour. Marc intended to break in and retrieve data from the gallery’s computer. He was in Switzerland on false papers. He would not answer his phone or check his regular email account. He was operating outside normal intelligence channels. He would view anyone who approached him as an adversary. But the man asked her to travel so as to warn Marc that his enemies knew all this and were waiting for him. If Kitra did not reach him in person and in time, he would die.

Only there was no Marc. And the door opened easily.

Kitra remained where she was, halfway through the entrance, and called out, “Marc?”

He saw the front door swing open, and he heard the most beautiful voice in the world call, “Marc?”

He had already taken two steps before the trigger clicked. He then heard a further two clicks, meaning three charges were now primed.

He saw Kitra’s lovely features grow tight with shock. It was impossible that Kitra was here, yet he knew also that he had no time for thought. Not if they had any chance of survival.

He gripped her by the waist and hefted her just as the first bomb blew. The compressed air hammered them through the front door. Marc allowed the second blast to shove them across the street, weaving through traffic that might as well have been frozen in space and time.

He then did the only thing that guaranteed Kitra’s safety.

He dropped her into the lake.

And then he turned to face the danger he was certain lurked out there.

If only he had a gun.


Chapter Two 

Rhana Mandana pulled up in front of her Lugano business and waited. The Bentley’s clock showed precisely a quarter to ten. The city’s central shopping street remained relatively quiet. The second hand clicked through twenty-nine seconds, then the night guard stepped out. Rhana rose from the car and said in Swiss German, “Good morning, Arnold.”

“Madame Mandana.”

“Everything satisfactory?”

“Perfectly, ma’am.”

“You may go.”

“Thank you.” He waited as she passed through the bullet­proof doors. Then the guard locked the gallery’s outer doors, slipped behind the Bentley’s wheel, and drove her car to the underground parking garage.

Rhana let the gallery’s inner doors click shut and surveyed her domain. Her establishment was one of the finest art galleries in the entire world. The item on the front room’s central display stand was promised to the Getty Museum. Another had been reserved by husband-and-wife collectors who had a room named in their honor at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

She was halfway across the room when the phone on the rosewood desk rang. Her assistant was not due in for another fifteen minutes. Rhana Mandana specifically ordered her staff not to arrive before ten. No doubt they were gathered in their customary café half a block up the Via Castiglione. She normally did not answer the phone. But she also knew one client who hated having the answering machine pick up. And this client never called once the shop had opened. She walked over and checked the readout. The caller ID had been blocked. Never a good sign.

She lifted the receiver and said, “Mandana.”

“My people are out back.”

“You are not expected until next . . .” But the client had already hung up.

Her shop was laid out like the formal rooms of a grand home. The front doors opened into a long gallery. The walls were pale teak, the floors granite and marble, the chandeliers Bohemian crystal. A room fashioned as a formal parlor opened to her left, and to her right was a mock study. Her assistant’s desk was positioned just inside the parlor door so she could survey the chamber, the hall, and the entryway. Her own desk was located at the back of the study. The position meant that her aide could lead a recalcitrant buyer along walls holding almost a hundred million dollars’ worth of art before finally arriving at Rhana’s throne.

She coded in the security number that only she and her aide and the night guard knew, and entered the massive rear warehouse. The concrete and steel chamber covered almost a third of the shop’s total floor space. Few people were aware that over a quarter of her treasures never saw the light of day. One of the few who shared this secret waited for her now.

Rhana waited for the gallery doors to click shut. She stood just to the left of the doors, the one spot in the entire shop that was not swept by any camera. She had specifically designed the cameras to miss this point. On the wall beside her head was a fake light switch. Rhana placed her thumb on the fingerprint reader hidden behind the switch plate. There was a soft click, and all the security cameras shifted to a computerized loop, showing an empty chamber.

Rhana crossed the warehouse, punched in the security code, and the rear door drew up. Outside, a refrigerator truck rumbled softly. A swarthy man in blue coveralls jumped down from the truck’s passenger door. The truck began reversing as the worker signaled, maneuvering the truck around until it was inches from the door.

Rhana complained, “I had nothing down for delivery today.”

“We knew nothing until four hours ago.” He handed her a clipboard bearing the correct code. When Rhana motioned him to continue, he opened the truck and flipped back the first set of covers. It was always this way. Same truck, same two men. “Thirty-seven items.”

Normally this particular client brought her one or two items, three at the most. She resisted the desire to ask what was going on. If this man knew, he would not say. “Put them in the cage.”

Rhana walked to a security box beside a door painted the same color as the concrete walls. The door cranked back on a pneumatic lift. Only when it was open could one see that the door’s thickness was six inches of solid steel. She stood watching as the men carted one item after another into her treasure room.

As always, the driver handed Rhana his cellphone. She turned from the two men and demanded softly, “Why a delivery today, and why so much?”

“Emergency,” the man replied.

“I dislike being involved in—”

“I must receive one hundred million dollars.”

She swallowed her protest. This client was not interested in histrionics. “Say again.”

“One hundred million. Cash.”


“I will let you know. Two days.”


“Necessary. Have the money ready when I call.”

“Even if I could get my hands on that much, you know perfectly well that large a sum would alert Interpol.”

“You are buying an item. You know the drill.”

“But a hundred million. I will need to notify the authorities—”

“That is out of the question. Do what is required. Be ready.”

She expected him to hang up. He never spoke for very long. Rhana started to ask him what more he could require of her, what other impossible demands did he intend to foist upon her, when she saw the final item the workers carried inside. “I know that piece. Sylvan Gollet displayed it in his Geneva gallery.”

“Officially, he still does. Parts of it, anyway.”

“You are giving me a fake?”

“No. This item is the original.”

Rhana raised a hand. The workers obligingly set down the sculpture. Rhana inspected it carefully. She had traveled to Geneva the day before Sylvan put it on display, to spend a few moments alone with this treasure. She knew it intimately. She did not have her loupe. She did not need it. She knew she was inspecting Rodin’s ballet dancer.

Rhana waved the men on, turned her back to them, and hissed, “It has been rumored that Sylvan started dealing in counterfeit items that he produced.”

“The rumors were correct. The matter has been resolved. Permanently.”

“What have you done?”

“Sylvan’s gallery was destroyed this morning.”

The only sound she could manage was a gasp.

The man went on, “His shop was demolished by a bomb.”

Rhana understood then why the man had remained on the phone. His message was not how close she herself was to such destruction. She had known that since the first day the man had entered her world. No. The message for her was, the man took pleasure in such acts of annihilation. She forced herself to say, “I understand.”

“I must have one hundred million in cash. You have forty-eight hours. Be ready for my call.”


Chapter Three

Geneva’s central police station stood near the industrial zone beyond the train station. The monolithic structure was functional, imposing, and stank of disinfectant. They escorted Marc through the central bullpen, down a narrow hallway, and locked him in an interview chamber. Kitra was nowhere to be seen.

The interview room had bland walls and plastic chairs and a battered central table. A narrow slit was set at eye level into the door. A side wall held a larger window of one-way glass. Marc grew very tired of seeing his reflection. He repeatedly asked for someone to call Ambassador Walton. He had alternated between giving them Walton’s direct line and reading out the central system that plugged straight into the White House operators.

Two hours after his arrival, they brought him out into the bullpen proper and handcuffed him to a wooden bench. Marc assumed Walton had gotten hold of the embassy duty officer, strings had been pulled, and he was soon going to be released. But he sat there and watched the hands on the clock crawl. When Marc asked one passing officer what was happening, the woman offered to return Marc to the holding cell, otherwise he was to keep his mouth zipped shut. Her command of English surprised him.

The police inspector in charge of the bombing case returned to the bullpen. He looked like a middle-aged, midlevel bureaucrat. A green police jacket hung on his narrow frame like a cheerless costume. He was accompanied by a man in his late forties or early fifties, wearing a charcoal jacket and gray gabardine slacks. This second man might have been dressed as a civilian, and he might have been as sleek as a silver fox. But Marc knew a professional when he saw one.

The inspector looked immensely sour as he walked over. “You will please come with me now.”

The entire bullpen watched as Marc’s cuffs were unlocked from the bench and the two men walked back toward the holding cells. But as they arrived at the rear hall, Kitra appeared, led by the female officer who had ordered Marc to zip it. Kitra wore a set of gray police sweats. The sweatshirt was one size too large, the sleeves falling over her hands. Her makeup was gone, and her feet slapped the floor in cloth sandals. Her dark hair was uncombed and stuck out in a soft fluff. Marc thought she had never been more beautiful.

She was also very angry. “You ruined my suit!”

The outburst caught everyone by surprise, especially Marc. “I wanted to protect you from the blast.”

“Oh, and the blast wasn’t going to harm you? What are you, bulletproof?”

“Kitra, I just saved your life.” Marc knew her anger was not over the suit. Or the lake. But she couldn’t yell at him in public over the real source of her fury. “The police are waiting—”

“Let them wait. We’re not talking about what I want to talk about.”

“You’re not talking, you’re yelling.” Mark knew she was really raging because he had refused to join her on the kibbutz and make a life together. The loss still hurt them both. Being right did not make it go away. It only made the pain easier to bear. For him. Kitra had no such consolation. And she did not beg. “I’m so sorry.”

“You’re sorry. Oh, and that’s supposed to—”

“Enough.” The inspector had a cop’s ability to command softly. “Take her to room two. Mr. Royce, in here.”

"Kitra, tell them the truth.”

She struggled futilely against the female officer’s grip on her arm. “I most certainly do not lie.”

The police inspector tugged on his arm. “Now, Mr. Royce.”

“Your passport states your full name as Kitra Korban.”


The police inspector who had led Marc away was now seated across the interview table from her. The elegantly dressed gentleman was seated beside him. The policewoman who had remained her constant shadow stood in the corner, observing everything. The police inspector demanded, “How do you come to be in Geneva, Ms. Korban?”

“I was asked to come.”

“By whom?”

“I don’t know his name.”

The two men who faced her across the interview table did not appear the least bit surprised by her answers. “And yet you came. Why is that?”

“My father told me I should trust this man.”

“Your father, his name is . . .”

“Dr. Levi Korban.”

“He is a medical doctor?”

“Engineering. Electrical.”

“Dr. Korban accompanied you on this visit?”

“No. He is in France. Narbonne. With my mother.” Saying those words should not have caused her to leak tears. “They are on vacation. Their first in years. My mother is French.”

“Do you have a phone number where they can be contacted?”

“On my cellphone. Wait. It doesn’t work anymore. Call my brother. Serge Korban.” She gave the kibbutz’s central line. “He will know how to reach them.”

The policewoman, who had checked on her all day and brought her a sandwich and coffee, shifted off her position by the door and handed Kitra a tissue. The inspector was seated directly in front of her. The other man was dressed in a charcoal-gray jacket and chalk-blue shirt and striped tie. His hair was perfectly cut. His gray eyes were intelligent and featureless.

Kitra looked directly at him. “May I ask who you are?”

“No, Ms. Korban, you may not. I am asking the questions here.” The policeman waited until she returned her gaze to him. “So a man who your father introduced, and whose name you do not recall, told you—”

“That is not what I said. My father called and said I would receive a visitor. He told me to trust this man. And do whatever he asked.”

“Is this normal? Does your father often make such requests?”

“Never. This was the first time.”

“Describe the man who asked you to come here.”

“He was Israeli. Late sixties, perhaps older. But still very strong. He carried a cane. I think . . .”


“I think he was Mossad. But he didn’t say.” Perhaps it was her banked-up fatigue, and the stress, and the impact of the explosion she still felt, but suddenly she was back there in the desert. “He looked like a bull. Muscular with huge hands. His hair was thinning but still dark. I don’t think it was dyed, but I can’t be certain.”

The elegantly dressed older man spoke for the first time. “You recall him quite clearly.”

“I’ve been working to complete a new factory our kibbutz is building. We are months behind schedule. There are problems everywhere. I didn’t want to meet with him.”

“You are saying that this gentleman impressed you.”

“Very much. He was also a little frightening.”

The elegant man sat in the plastic chair with the ease of someone who had spent years growing comfortable with himself and in whatever surroundings he found himself. “Please go on.”

“He told me that Marc was coming to Geneva and was about to walk into a trap. They wanted me to go and warn him.”

“You did not find this strange?”

“Of course I did. I refused. I told them to contact Marc’s embassy. He replied that he couldn’t because there was a mole.”

The elegant man leaned forward. “Did the man tell you where the mole was based?”

“He didn’t say anything more. He stayed ten minutes. Less.”

“Then why did you agree—?”

“Because the last thing the man said was, then don’t go, and see what it feels like to live with the stain of a lost life on your soul. I . . .”

“Yes, Ms. Korban, you were going to say what?”

But there was no way she would tell them that she had already lost Marc once, and the pain was still almost unbearable. And, of course, there was the other secret, the one she did not even like to confess to herself. That despite every reason to the contrary, she had hungered for one more glimpse of him. Perhaps for the last time. Kitra dabbed her eyes with the tissue. “There’s nothing else to tell you.”

“How did you and Ms. Korban meet?” The police inspector sat across from Marc while the man in civilian clothes observed from the corner.

“We were in Africa,” Marc answered. “Kenya.”

“Where precisely?”

“A refugee camp west of the Rift Valley. Right after the volcano erupted. Maybe you heard about it.”

The police inspector nodded, but whether because he had read about the eruption or because Marc confirmed what Kitra had already told them, Marc had no idea. Nor did he care. He had been left waiting in the holding cell for another hour. His left shoulder and ribs throbbed from the blast. “May I have something to eat?”

“Perhaps later, Mr. Royce. I want to know—”

“How about now. I have been here all day. No food, no water, no charges. Has my associate been treated in this manner? Is that standard Swiss protocol?”

The elegant man rose, knocked on the door, and spoke to someone in the hallway. The police inspector watched him with a sour expression, but did not protest. The police inspector did not speak again until the other gentleman had resumed his seat. “Tell us how you met Ms. Korban.”

“I was sent by U.S. intelligence to infiltrate a security firm suspected of illegal activities in Kenya.”

“All agents of foreign intelligence services are required by Swiss law to announce themselves to local authorities.”

Marc knew this to be the most ignored law on the books of every developed nation. “I was previously a member of State Department Intelligence. But not now.”

“You left?”

“I was fired.”

“And yet they rehired you?”

“I freelance. I met Kitra because her brother was suspected of being kidnapped by the group I was investigating. She had gone to Kenya to find him.”

“How does that connect you two here in Geneva?”

“I have no idea. I never expected to see her again.”

“That makes no sense whatsoever, Mr. Royce. I must assume you are lying. Your attempts to cover up—”

“Two days ago my government asked me to come to Geneva. My objective was to copy files from the gallery’s computer. My cover was the acquisition of a painting. They had been exchanging emails with Mr. Gollet in my name.”

“Breaking into a Swiss firm to steal data from a Swiss computer.” The policeman shook his head in practiced dismay. “Your crimes grow worse by the minute.”

Marc took heart from how the gentleman to his left smiled at that. Marc pressed on. “They suspected Gollet of being a conduit for funds used to finance terrorism. They wanted to follow the trail of my cash and see where it led.” Marc described his arrival at the gallery, finding the rear door open, seeing the bloodstained body, and hearing Kitra call his name.

“You did not expect her to come warn you, then.”

“Not at all.”

“And yet there she was. Right in the nick of time.”

Marc described the explosive charges and the laser triggers. “They knew I was coming. They obviously planned for me to get blown up, make it look like I had come there to murder him and got caught in my own blast.”

The man in the charcoal jacket asked, “Your associates in Washington were tracking the gallery owner’s car?”

“Tracking his cellphone. The killer or one of his accomplices drove it to Geneva from Gollet’s home as a decoy. Did you find the car?”

“Abandoned at the train station. Wiped clean. No prints.”

The police inspector bitterly disliked this exchange. He reinserted himself with, “Here is what I think happened, Mr. Royce. You were sent by outside forces not to buy anything at all. You came to murder a Swiss citizen. Which you did. And Ms. Korban was sent to stop you. Why? Who knows. Perhaps the deceased was an ally of her own country’s security. Perhaps something else entirely. But her arrival interrupted your destruction of the gallery, which meant you could not get away, not without killing the woman who came to warn you.”

Marc was fairly certain the officer did not actually believe what he had suggested. But he was a cop, and he was a professional at placing blame. Marc replied, “Sorry, you got every bit of that wrong.”

Marc assumed the well-dressed man was an agent with the Swiss FIS, the country’s lone intelligence agency. Swiss intel was generally a closed door, as in nothing came in or out. Because of Switzerland’s willingness to help tax dodgers and criminals hide away their money, and because they refused to accept court documents from other nations as legal requests, most nations refused to share any intelligence, under any circumstances, at any time.

Which made the elegant man’s next move very interesting indeed.

He led Marc into the police inspector’s office. A brass plaque on the door informed Marc that the chief inspector was named Remy Reynard. The elegant man did not introduce himself. He unlocked Marc’s handcuffs, slipped them into his pocket, and pointed at a steaming plastic cup and wrapped sandwich on the edge of the desk. “These are for you.”

“Thanks. Could you please make sure Kitra has been given something?”

“Already taken care of.” The man picked up the phone on the desk and said, “He’s here.” He listened a moment, then handed the receiver to Marc, walked out and shut the door behind him.

Marc inspected the sandwich. It looked like it had spent so long in the wrapper the lettuce had molded to the plastic. He said into the phone, “This is Royce.”

“Hold please for Ambassador Walton.”

He took a sip from the plastic cup and grimaced. The coffee was vile. He dumped it and the limp-looking sandwich into the inspector’s trash can.


“Here, sir.”

“Are you alone?”

“Roger that. But I can’t say who might be listening in. I’m still inside—”

“I know where you are. I’ve been assured this call is confidential.” Walton’s voice had turned reedy, and his breath came in tight little puffs, like he had to battle for air. “On this side we are joined by an assistant director of Homeland Security and a rear admiral who heads a section of DOD intel. Everyone hear me?”

A man and a woman both responded with affirmatives. Walton said, “Tell us what happened.”

Marc hesitated.

“We’re waiting, Marc.”

“Sir, permission to ask a question.”

“Fire away.”

“Do you intend for me to remain in-country?”

Walton hesitated, as though giving his associates a chance to reply. “Affirmative.”

“Then I think we should have their intel operative join us for the discussion. Otherwise we run the risk of my being driven to the border and getting kicked out.”

Walton gave that ten seconds. “I agree. Comments, anyone?”

The man’s voice said, “It’s a risk.”

“It’s trumped by what we currently face,” replied the woman. “Invite him in.”

Marc walked over and opened the door. The agent stood across the bullpen, arms crossed, listening to the inspector. The policeman looked irate, probably because Marc had been released from the cuffs and granted use of the inspector’s office. Kitra sat on the hard wooden bench by the side wall. She looked tired and worried and very small. All three faces turned his direction when Marc stepped out.

Marc signaled to the agent. “Can you join me for a moment?”

“What is this, a private gathering in my office?” The inspector’s voice rose to where the entire bullpen observed the exchange. “You want me to cater in something, perhaps? A nice fois gras, a carafe of wine?”

The agent shut the door behind them, and Marc hit the speaker button. “We’ve been joined by—sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Bernard Behlet.”

Walton demanded, “You’re Swiss intel?”

“FIS. That is correct.”

“My name is Walton. I am special adviser to the White House on matters pertaining to international—”

“I know who you are, Mr. Ambassador.”

The phone went silent, then Walton said, “Explain.”

“You were formerly director of State Department Intelligence, the smallest of the American agencies. We met once, actually.”

“Sorry, your name doesn’t ring a bell.”

“There is no reason it should, sir.” The man’s voice held the calm strength of someone long used to dealing with power and egos. “I was on temporary duty at our Washington embassy and accompanied our ambassador to a reception in the State Department’s formal chambers.”

“Right. Very well. Let us proceed. With me are two senior directors involved in the current situation. We want to begin by asking Marc to tell us—”

“If you will excuse me, sir, I think we should invite the police inspector to sit in as well.”

The DOD officer growled, “Oh, good grief.”

“Chief Inspector Reynard has a murder on his hands,” Behlet went on. “One of the country’s premier art galleries has been blown up. The main avenues fronting the lake were closed for six hours. The blast zone covered almost a square kilometer and included Geneva’s most exclusive shopping street. The city is in chaos. Reynard is already being pressured by the city council for answers. He has every reason to be your man’s enemy. If the problem you face is more than simply the theft of art and treasures—”

“It is,” the woman said. “Much more.”

“Oh, come on, Sarah. Do we even know who this man is?”

“What I know is the clock is ticking, and we are desperate. Agent Behlet, bring in the inspector.”

When the policeman was brought in and introductions made, Reynard barked at the Swiss agent in French. Behlet replied in English, “I know this is true because I have met Ambassador Walton and I recognize his voice. I also know because the number I was told to dial is the central line for the White House.” He handed over a slip of paper. “You can check online to confirm.”

The inspector had the ability to frown from his receding hairline to his shirt collar. He did not like it, but he stifled further objections. Behlet said, “You may proceed, Mr. Ambassador.”

“Marc, brief us on what happened.”

He laid out the events in the clipped manner Walton preferred. Starting with his arrival at the airport, the taxi ride, circling the gallery, seeing the rear door was ajar, entering, spotting the body, noticing the infrared trigger, seeing Kitra. The race for the door, the blast, and here.

Walton said, “Kitra Korban, the nurse you worked with in Kenya?”

“Roger that, sir.”

The woman said, “Who?”

“Royce’s last assignment was in Kenya,” Walton explained. “He investigated a security corporation by the name of Lodestone.”

“I remember this,” the woman replied. “The attempted theft of rare earth. That was Royce?”

“It was. Marc, what’s your assessment?”

“I was set up.” He fought fatigue, hunger, a pounding head, and aching ribs as he said, “Even though we circumvented all regular channels, there was still a leak.”

The admiral demanded, “How did this Korban woman find you?”

Agent Behlet replied, “Ms. Korban states she was visited by a man her father said she must trust. He did not identify himself, but we must assume it was Mossad.”

Marc said, “Mossad must also know about the leak, so they refused to send their warning through the same channels you distrust. Maybe they have some idea of who our target is.”

There was a moment’s silence, then Walton said, “Which means Mossad knows what we face.”

“Of course they know,” the woman responded. “The threat originates in Israel’s backyard. They have to know, and they are obviously as concerned as we are, both about the leaks and the threat.”

Bernard Behlet cleared his throat. “Might I inquire what it is that has you so alarmed?”

“I for one would like to know the very same thing,” the police inspector agreed.

“Tell them,” Walton said.

“Are you both out of your minds?” The admiral’s voice carried the strength of pounded steel. “We already have a serious leak, we have a ticking clock, and you want to share this intel with strangers?”

The woman’s voice was softer, but equally firm. “We face serious time constraints. And you heard our agent—”

“Correction. Royce is no longer a member of the service. He was canned.”

Walton corrected, “I dismissed him because I had no choice. He was facing a personal crisis—”

“This is nuts.”

“Correction. This is crucial,” the woman snapped back.

“I do not concur. There is no hard evidence to connect any of this to Switzerland. Your ex-agent is operating in the wrong country.”

Chief Inspector Reynard leaned forward and opened his mouth. But before he could speak, Bernard lifted one hand. Wait. Marc liked the man for his smooth control.

Walton replied, “Marc Royce is trying to follow the money trail. The destruction of this gallery—”

“Means nothing.”

“With respect, I disagree,” Walton replied. “Regardless, we are proceeding.”

“I object in the strongest possible terms.”

“Duly noted.” Walton rarely barked, but he did so now.


The woman said, “Eleven days ago, nine containers left a missile factory in North Korea. The containers traveled by rail to Pyong Yang, where they were placed on a Liberian freighter. The manifest claimed it was bound for Karachi, Pakistan. Five days later, the ship radioed that it was experiencing engine troubles and put in at Singapore. Satellite photos indicate that all nine containers are now missing. We have not been able to locate them.”

Walton added, “The factory makes motors and guidance systems for long-range missiles. Iran wouldn’t dare try and transship the whole rocket. It would be like painting a giant bull’s-eye on the side of the vessel. These motors are two generations further along than anything the Iranians have built. An Iranian missile equipped with this propulsion system has the capability of striking American soil.”

The woman continued, “Just prior to this event, we received credible reports of a pending attack on a U.S. port. Atlantic seaboard. All indications point toward this incident being large enough to take out the entire city. We are talking about an unprecedented loss of American lives.”

Behlet asked, “Where does the Geneva connection fit into this?”

The admiral snarled, “It doesn’t. At all.”

Walton replied, “There was fragmentary evidence of the gallery being a conduit for illicit funds used to circumvent the Iranian sanctions.”

The admiral snapped, “I’ve seen your so-called evidence. There is nothing that makes a direct link between the gallery bombing and the missing shipment.”

Marc countered, “But it does make for a perfect motive. They must be planning a major incident to set me up and blow up this gallery.”

“The timing,” Behlet quietly agreed, “could be significant.”

“We have three options that are now on the president’s table,” Walton said. “The Israelis have warned us that if we do not stop this shipment, they will bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities. All of them. Do I need to tell you what that means?”

Behlet glanced at his associate, who had gone very still, and replied, “No, Mr. Ambassador. You do not.”

“Option two. We stop every ship coming through the Strait of Hormuz, including those bearing the Iranian flag. Do you understand what that means?”

“It is an act of war,” Behlet said, his eyes still on the inspector.

The Strait of Hormuz formed the only sea passage between the Persian Gulf and the open ocean. Almost a quarter of the entire world’s oil was shipped through those narrow waters, making it the most strategically vital passage on earth. At its narrowest, the Strait was less than twenty miles wide. To the south, it was bordered by the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and islands belonging to Saudi Arabia. To its north ran the shoreline of Iran.

Ambassador Walton confirmed, “The instant we board that first vessel, we will be officially at war with Iran.”

“And option three?”

“We determine where those containers are. We stop them.”

“Walton, you’re wasting my time,” the admiral snapped. “I am out of here.”

When the admiral clicked off, Walton sighed. “As you have probably detected, the military feels we should support an attack by Israel, and back them with a blockade of the Strait.”

The woman from Homeland said, “Our last best hope of an alternative to all-out war is to track the money.”

Walton said, “As of this morning we have put through official requests to the Swiss government for their assistance. We need the gallery’s funds and accounts to be frozen, and all recent transactions traced.”

“I will see what I can do to speed things along,” Bernard said. “I will inform you through Agent Royce if anything turns up.”

“That would be much appreciated,” Walton said.

Marc asked, “How much time do we have?”

The woman replied, “Tracking out the shipping time from Singapore, the earliest the vessel could possibly arrive at the Strait is seven days.”

“One week, gentleman,” Walton rasped. “You heard the admiral. After that, the gloves come off.”

Strait of Hormuz
by by Davis Bunn