The Doomsday Conspiracy

Chapter Five


Dustin (Dusty) Thornton, Acting Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, had won his fame as one of the greatest athletes ever to come out of Annapolis. Thornton owed his present exalted position to a football game. An Army-Navy game, to be precise. Thornton, a towering monolith of a man, had played fullback as a senior at Annapolis, in the Navy's most important game of the year. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, with Army leading 13-0, two touchdowns and a conversion ahead, destiny stepped in and changed Dustin Thornton's life. Thornton intercepted an Army pass, pivoted around and charged through the Army phalanx for a touchdown. Navy missed on the extra point but soon scored a field goal. After the ensuing kick-off Army failed to make a first down and punted into Navy territory. The score stood at Army 13, Navy 9, and the clock was running.
When play resumed, the ball was passed to Thornton, and he went down under a heap of Army uniforms. It took him a long time to get to his feet. A doctor came running out onto the field. Thornton angrily waved him away.
With seconds left to play, signals were called for a lateral pass. Thornton caught it on his own ten-yard line, and took off. He was unstoppable. He charged through the opposition like a tank, knocking down everyone unlucky enough to get in his way. With two seconds to go, Thornton crossed the goal line for the winning touchdown and Navy scored its first victory against Army in four years. That, in itself, would have had little effect on Thornton's life. What made the event significant was that seated in a box reserved for VIPs were Willard Stone and his daughter, Eleanor. As the crowd rose to their feet, wildly cheering the Navy hero, Eleanor turned to her father and said quietly, "I want to meet him."
Eleanor Stone was a woman of large appetites. Plain-faced, she had a voluptuous body and an insatiable libido. Watching Dustin Thornton savagely plough his way down the football field, she fantasized what he would be like in bed. If his manhood was as big as the rest of his body ... She was not disappointed.
Six months later, Eleanor and Dustin Thornton were married. That was the beginning. Dustin Thornton went to work for his father-in-law and was inducted into an arcane world he had not dreamed existed.
Willard Stone, Thornton's new father-in-law, was a man of mystery. A billionaire with powerful political connections, and a past shrouded in secrecy, he was a shadowy figure who pulled strings in a dozen capitals of the world. He was in his late sixties, a meticulous man whose every movement was precise and methodical. He had razor-sharp features, with hooded eyes that revealed nothing. Willard Stone believed in wasting neither words nor emotions, and he was ruthless in obtaining what he wanted.
The rumours about him were fascinating. He was reported to have murdered a competitor in Malaysia, and to have had a torrid affair with the favourite wife of an emir. He was said to have backed a successful revolution in Nigeria. The government had brought half a dozen indictments against him, but they were always mysteriously dropped. There were tales of bribes, and senators suborned, business secrets stolen, and witnesses who disappeared. Stone was an advisor to presidents and kings. He was raw, naked power. Among Stone's many properties was a large, isolated estate in the Colorado mountains, where every year scientists, captains of industry and world leaders gathered for seminars. Armed guards kept out unwanted visitors.
Willard Stone had not only approved his daughter's marriage, he had encouraged it. His new son-in-law was brilliant, ambitious, and most important, malleable.
Twelve years after the marriage, Stone arranged for Dustin to be appointed Ambassador to South Korea. Several years later, the President appointed him Ambassador to the United Nations. When Admiral Ralph Whittaker was suddenly ousted as Acting Director of ONI, Thornton took his place.
That day, Willard Stone sent for his son-in-law.
"This is merely the beginning," Stone promised. "I have bigger plans for you, Dustin. Great plans." And he had proceeded to outline them.
Two years earlier, Robert had had his first meeting with the new Acting Director of ONI.
"Sit down, Commander." There was no cordiality in Dustin Thornton's voice. "I see by your record that you're something of a maverick."
What the hell does he mean? Robert wondered. He decided to keep his mouth shut.
Thornton looked up. "I don't know how Admiral Whittaker ran this office when he was in charge, but from now on we're doing everything by the book. I expect my orders to be carried out to the letter. Do I make myself clear?"
Jesus, Robert thought, what the hell are we in for here?
"Do I make myself clear, Commander?"
"Yes. You expect your orders to be carried out to the letter." He wondered whether he was expected to salute.
"That's all."
But it was not all.
A month later, Robert was sent to East Germany to bring in a scientist who wanted to defect. It was a dangerous assignment because the Stasi, East Germany's Central Security Secret Police, had learned about the proposed defection and was watching the scientist closely. In spite of that, Robert had managed to smuggle the man across the border, to a safe house. He was making arrangements to bring him to Washington, when he received a call from Dustin Thornton, telling him that the situation had changed, and that he was to drop the assignment.
"We can't just dump him here," Robert had protested. "They'll kill him."
"That's his problem," Thornton had replied. "Your orders are to come back home."
Screw you, Robert thought. I'm not going to abandon him. He had called a friend of his in MI6, British Intelligence, and explained the situation.
"If he goes back to East Germany," Robert said, "they'll chop him. Will you take him?"
"I'll see what can be done, old chap. Bring him along."
And the scientist had been given haven in England.
Dustin Thornton never forgave Robert for disobeying his instructions. From that point on, there was open animosity between the two men. Thornton had discussed the incident with his father-in-law.
"Loose cannons like Bellamy are dangerous," Willard Stone warned. "They're a security hazard. Men like that are expendable. Remember that."
And Thornton had remembered.
Now, walking down the corridor toward Dustin Thornton's office, Robert could not help thinking about the difference between Thornton and Whittaker. In a job like this, trust was the sine qua non. He did not trust Dustin Thornton.
Thornton was seated behind his desk when Robert walked into his office.
"You wanted to see me?"
"Yes. Sit down, Commander." Their relationship had never reached the "Robert" phase.
"I've been told you've been temporarily transferred to the National Security Agency. When you come back, I have a ..."
"I'm not coming back. This is my last assignment."
"I'm quitting."
Thinking about it later, Robert was not sure exactly what reaction he had expected. Some kind of scene. Dustin Thornton could have shown surprise, or he could have argued, or been angry, or relieved. Instead, he had merely looked at Robert and nodded. "That's it then, isn't it?"
When Robert returned to his own office, he said to his secretary, "Barbara, I'm going to be away for a while. I'll be leaving in about an hour."
"Is there some place where you can be reached?"
Robert remembered General Milliard's orders. "No."
"There are some meetings you ..."
"Cancel them." He looked at his watch. It was time to meet Admiral Whittaker.
They had breakfast in the centre yard of the Pentagon at the Ground Zero Cafe, so named because it was once thought that the Pentagon was where the first nuclear bomb attack against the United States would take place. Robert had arranged for a corner table where they would have a degree of privacy. Admiral Whit-taker was punctual, and as Robert watched him approach the table, it seemed to him that the Admiral looked older and smaller, as though semi-retirement had somehow aged and shrunk him. He was still a striking-looking man with strong features, a Roman nose, good cheekbones, and a crown of silvered hair. Robert had served under the Admiral in Vietnam and later in the Office of Naval Intelligence, and he had a high regard for him. More than a high regard, Robert admitted to himself. Admiral Whittaker was his surrogate father.
The Admiral sat down. "Good morning, Robert. Well, did they transfer you to NSA?"
Robert nodded. "Temporarily."
The waitress arrived and the two men studied the menu.
"I had forgotten how bad the food here was." Admiral Whittaker smiled. He looked around the room, his face filled with an unspoken nostalgia.
He wishes he were back here, Robert thought. Amen.
They ordered. When the waitress was out of earshot, Robert said, "Admiral, General Hilliard is sending me on an urgent three-thousand-mile trip to locate some witnesses who saw a weather balloon crash. I find that strange. And there's something else that's even stranger. 'Time is of the essence,' to quote the General, but I've been ordered not to use any of my intelligence contacts abroad to help me."
Admiral Whittaker looked puzzled. "I suppose the General must have his reasons."
Robert said, "I can't imagine what they are."
Admiral Whittaker studied Robert. Commander Bellamy had served under him in Vietnam and had been the best pilot in the squadron. The Admiral's son, Edward, had been Robert's bombardier, and on the terrible day their plane had been shot down, Edward had been killed. Robert had barely survived. The Admiral had gone to the hospital to visit him.
"He's not going to make it," the doctors had told him. Robert, lying there in agonizing pain, had whispered, "I'm sorry about Edward ... I'm so sorry."
Admiral Whittaker had squeezed Robert's hand. "I know you did everything you could. You've got to get well, now. You're going to be fine." He wanted desperately for Robert to live. In the Admiral's mind, Robert was his son now, the son who would take Edward's place.
And Robert had pulled through.
"Robert ..."
"Yes, Admiral?"
"I hope your mission to Switzerland is successful."
"So do I. It's my last one."
"You're still determined to quit?"
The Admiral was the only one Robert had confided in. "I've had enough."
"It's not just him. It's me. I'm tired of interfering with other people's lives." I'm tired of the lies and the cheating, and the broken promises that were never meant to be kept. I'm tired of manipulating people, and of being manipulated. I'm tired of the games and the danger and the betrayals. It's cost me everything I ever gave a damn about.
"Do you have any idea what you're going to do?"
"I'll try to find something useful to do with my life, something positive."
"What if they won't let you go?"
Robert said, "They have no choice, have they?"