The Doomsday Conspiracy

Chapter Twenty-Three


Dustin Thornton was getting restless. He had power now, and it was like a drug. He wanted more. His father-in-law, Willard Stone, kept promising to bring him into some mysterious inner circle, but so far, he had failed to fulfil that promise.
It was by pure chance that Thornton learned that his father-in-law disappeared every Friday. Thornton had called to have lunch with him.
"I'm sorry," Willard Stone's personal secretary said, "but Mr Stone is away for the day."
"Oh, too bad. What about lunch next Friday?"
"I'm sorry, Mr Thornton. Mr Stone will be away next Friday, also."
Strange. And it became even stranger, because when Thornton called two weeks later, he received the same reply. Where did the old man disappear to every Friday? He was not a golfer, or a man to indulge in any hobbies.
The obvious answer was a woman. Willard Stone's wife was very social and very rich. She was an imperious woman, almost as strong in her way as her husband. She was not the sort of woman who would tolerate her husband having an affair. If he is having an affair, Thornton thought, I've got him by the balls. He knew he had to find out.
With all the facilities at his command, Dustin Thornton could have found out very quickly what his father-in-law was up to, but Thornton was no fool. He was well aware that if he made one misstep, he would be in big trouble. Willard Stone was not the kind of man to brook any interference in his life. Thornton decided to investigate the matter himself.
At five a.m., on the following Friday, Dustin Thornton was slumped behind the wheel of an inconspicuous Ford Taurus, half a block from Willard Stone's imposing mansion. It was a cold, miserable dawn, and Thornton kept asking himself what he was doing there. There was probably some perfectly reasonable explanation for Stone's odd behaviour. I'm wasting my time, Thornton thought. But something kept him there.
At seven o'clock, the driveway gates opened and a car appeared. Willard Stone was at the wheel. Instead of his usual limousine, he was in a small, black van used by the household staff. A feeling of exultation spread through Thornton. He knew he was on to something. People lived according to their pattern, and Stone was breaking the pattern. It had to be another woman.
Driving carefully, and staying well behind the van, Thornton followed his father-in-law through the streets of Washington to the road that led to Arlington.
I'll have to handle this very delicately, Thornton thought. I don't want to push him too hard. I'll get all the information I can about his mistress, and then I'll confront him with it. I'll tell him my only interest is in protecting him. He'll get the message. The last thing he wants is a public scandal.
Dustin Thornton was so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he almost missed the turn that Willard Stone had taken. They were in an exclusive residential district. The black van abruptly disappeared up a long, tree-shaded driveway.
Dustin Thornton stopped the car, deciding the best way to proceed. Should he face Willard Stone with his infidelity now? Or should he wait until Stone left and then talk to the woman first? Or should he quietly gather all the information he needed, and then have a talk with his father-in-law? He decided to reconnoitre.
Thornton parked his car on a side street and walked around to the alley at the back of the two-storey house. A wooden fence blocked off the back of the yard, but that was no problem. Thornton opened the gate, and stepped inside. He was facing huge, beautiful, manicured grounds with the house at the rear.
He moved quietly in the shadow of the trees that lined the lawn, and stood at the back door, deciding what his next move should be. He needed proof of what was going on. Without it, the old man would laugh at him. Whatever was happening inside at this moment could be the key to his future. He had to find out.
Very gently, Thornton tried the back door. It was unlocked. He slipped inside, and found himself in a large, old-fashioned kitchen. There was no one around. Thornton moved toward the service door, and pushed it open slightly. He was facing a large reception hall. At the far end was a closed door that could have led to a library. Thornton walked toward it, moving quietly. He stood there, listening. There was no sign of life in the house. The old man was probably upstairs in the bedroom.
Thornton walked toward the closed door and opened it. He stood in the doorway, staring. There were a dozen men seated in the room around a large table.
"Come in, Dustin," Willard Stone said. "We've been expecting you."