Below the Belt

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Stone Barrington lands in hot water in the new adventure from the celebrated author of more than fifty New York Timesbestselling novels.
 
Newly ensconced in his Santa Fe abode with a lovely female companion, Stone Barrington receives a call from an old friend requesting a delicate favor. A situation has arisen that could escalate into an explosive quagmire, and only someone with Stone’s stealth and subtlety can contain the damage. At the center of these events is an impressive gentleman whose star is on the rise, and who’d like to get Stone in his corner. He’s charming and ambitious and has friends in high places; the kind of man who seems to be a sure bet. But in the fickle circles of power, fortunes rise and fall on the turn of a dime, and it may turn out that Stone holds the key not just to one man’s fate, but to the fate of the nation.

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise for Stuart Woods

Scandalous Behavior
 
“Woods offers another wild ride with his hero, bringing readers back into a world of action-packed adventure, murder and mayhem, steamy romance, and a twist you don’t see coming.”—Booklist

“Extravagant . . . a series of escalating, sometimes amusing, tit-for-tat maneuvers ensue and eventually turn deadly. . . . Stone remains unflappable.”—Publishers Weekly
 
Foreign Affairs
 
“Appealing . . . boasts Woods’s customary combination of panache and brio.”—Publishers Weekly

“Purrs like a well-tuned dream machine . . . Mr. Woods knows how to set up scenes and link them to keep the action, emotion, and information moving. He presents the places he takes us to vividly and convincingly. . . . Enjoy this slick thriller by a thoroughly satisfying professional.”—Florida Weekly

Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2017 Stuart Woods

 

1

Stone Barrington landed the CJ 3 Plus smoothly at Santa Fe Airport at midafternoon. Holly Barker sat next to him in the copilot’s seat. “Very nice,” she said.

“Thank you,” Stone replied, and taxied to the ramp, where a rental car was waiting for them. He transferred their luggage to the car, and Stone went inside and made arrangements for regular hangar space. Back in the car, he drove through the automatic gate.

“Excited?” Holly asked.

“I guess so, yes.”

“If I had just bought a new house, sight unseen, I’d be terrified.”

“It’s not exactly sight unseen,” he replied. “I’ve visited there a few times. It was owned by Ed Eagle’s wife’s sister.”

“Are we going to have a bed to sleep in?”

“We are. I bought it substantially furnished.”

“What does that mean?”

“We’re going to find out in about twenty minutes,” he said, turning onto the Santa Fe bypass. Twenty minutes later they turned off the main highway at the Tesuque exit.

“What street is it on?”

“This one—Tesuque Village Road.” They passed the Tesuque Village Market, and a quarter mile later, Stone turned into a drive and reached out his window to enter the gate code into the keypad. The gate slid silently open, and they drove up a fairly long drive and parked in front of the house.

“From here, it looks like every other house in Santa Fe,” Holly said.

“It’s true, all Santa Fe houses look a little alike—it’s the architectural style and the mock adobe finish.” He unloaded their luggage, carried it to the front door, and saw that the key was in the lock, as promised. They entered a long hallway and found a large living room on their right. The big pictures that had hung over the fireplaces at either end were gone. Otherwise, things seemed as he remembered them.

He gave Holly the tour of the kitchen, dining room, and his study, then led her to the master suite and showed her her bath and dressing room, where he left her luggage, then he took her into the bedroom. “Look,” he said, “a bed to sleep in.”

“Now?” Holly asked mischievously.

“Later. Unpack.” He found his own bath and dressing room and unpacked his things, and they met in the study for drinks.

“Thank God she left liquor,” Holly said, sipping her bourbon.

They had hardly sat down in the comfortable leather chairs when the phone rang. “I expect that’s for the previous owner,” Stone said, “but I’d better answer it.” He pressed the speaker button. “Hello?”

“Mr. Stone Barrington?” a woman’s voice asked.

“Yes.”

“This is the White House operator. Will you accept a call from President Lee?”

“Which President Lee?” he asked.

“I beg your pardon, the former President.”

“Of course.”

“Stone?”

“Will, how are you?”

“Very well, thank you. How’s the new house?”

“I moved in half an hour ago. How the hell did you find me here?”

“Didn’t you know? The White House operators can find anybody.”

“How’s the other President Lee?”

“Thriving.”

“And William Henry the Fifth?”

“Rambunctious. I wanted to invite you to something in Santa Fe tomorrow evening—a fund-raiser, actually, but never mind that. It’s dinner at the home of friends, followed by an evening at the Santa Fe Opera—La bohème.”

“Sounds wonderful, we’d love to.”

“Oh, yes, and give Holly my best.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” Holly said. “You’re the only person at the White House who will talk to me.”

“I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to Stone. We all have orders from the commander in chief not to speak to you.”

Holly sighed. “Yes, I know.” President Kate Lee had told her to take two weeks off and not to call the office, just to have fun. She had gone to New York to see Stone, but then he had bought the house and they had flown west to see it.

“We’d love to come,” Stone said. “It’s my favorite opera.”

“It’s everybody’s favorite opera,” Will replied. “And you and I will have to find a private moment during the evening. There’s something I need to talk to you about.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Stone said.

“Six o’clock for drinks, followed by dinner. The opera begins at nine—sundown.”

“See you then,” Stone said, then hung up.

“I’m annoyed,” Holly said. “The White House will talk to you, but not to me.”

“That’s because Kate knows you well enough to know that given an inch of access, you’d take a mile. It would be as though you weren’t on vacation at all.”

“I’m unaccustomed to vacations,” Holly replied. She was the national security advisor to the President and, as such, chaired the National Security Council. “And there’s no telling what those people are screwing up in my absence. I’ll probably return to find that the nation is at war.”

“Remember, you chose many of those people. They’re perfectly capable of running the council in your absence.”

“That’s not what a girl wants to hear,” she said moodily.

“I think what you need is another drink,” Stone said, picking up the bottle and refreshing her glass.

“You’re a mind reader.” She took a gulp. “I’m hungry.”

“That’s because it’s two hours later in New York. Let me see what I can find.” He went into the kitchen and found the refrigerator well stocked and returned with some cheese, crackers, and salami.

“That’s better,” Holly said. “What are we doing for dinner?”

“We’ll go up to the Market. It’s a grocery, a restaurant, a pizzeria, a bakery, and, not least, a bar.”

“Everything we need for survival,” she said.

Stone saw an envelope on his chairside table, addressed to him, and he opened it and read it aloud.

Dear Stone,

Welcome to your new home! Everything you see in the house is now yours. My L.A. house is already furnished, so all I took with me were my clothes and a few pictures. You’ll have fun shopping for replacements. I’ve attached a list of numbers for the best restaurants, the maid and cook, the gardener, a handyman, and others you might need. By the way, the hot tub is set to 100 degrees. Feel free to call for advice, and enjoy yourself!

Gala

“That was sweet of her,” Holly said. “I like the sound of the hot tub.”

“Then let’s go find it,” Stone said. “Bring your drink.”

 

 

2

Stone and Holly found the house with his rental-car GPS; it was big, set into a hillside, and had quite a lot of guest parking. He found a spot and they walked toward the front door. A figure stepped out of the darkness: “Mr. Barrington?”

“Yes.”

The man showed him a badge. “Secret Service. May I see some ID, please?”

Stone showed him his New York driver’s license.

“Got anything federal-issued?”

Stone showed him his pilot’s license.

“This way, please. Just you, not the lady.”

“Holly, will you go ahead inside? I’ll join you shortly.”

Holly climbed the steps, rang the bell, and was admitted. The agent led Stone to a large black SUV and rapped on the window. The door opened, and he motioned for Stone to get in.

“Evening, Stone,” Will Lee said, putting aside his New York Times. “How are you?” The agent closed the door, and the only sound Stone could hear was the air-conditioning.

“Very well, Will.”

“Forgive me for ambushing you, but once we’re inside, everyone will be watching.”

“What’s up?”

Will turned his body more toward Stone. “I want to tell you a story, some of which you’ll already know about.”

“All right.”

“Would you like a drink? We have Knob Creek.”

“Sure, thanks.”

Will opened a compartment in front of them and extracted two glasses, some ice, and a bottle of the bourbon and poured them both one. “Happier days,” Will said.

“Are these not happy ones?” Stone asked, taking a swig.

“Think of this as the first day of the election season,” Will said, “though we have a long way to go. The election season is never happy, just frenetic, and often depressing.”

“I suppose you’re right. What’s the story?”

“It begins on a December day in Washington more than ten years ago. We were flying down to Georgia for Christmas, so we left our house in Georgetown and drove up to Silver Spring Airport, where we kept our airplane, at that time a new Piper Mirage. As I was doing my preflight, a marine helicopter set down next to us, and a young officer got out and told me that the vice president would like us to join him and his wife for breakfast at Camp David.

“We arrived there and met Joe and Sue Adams, and after some small talk, Joe got serious. He told us that they had just spent a few days in New York, shopping and going to the theater. There was more to it, though—Joe had had some medical tests, most of them in their suite at the Waldorf, and the results were troubling.”

Stone nodded and had another sip of his drink.

So did Will. “He told us, in the strictest confidence, that he had been diagnosed as being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and that he hadn’t told anybody else.”

“I never knew that,” Stone said.

“No one did, for a while. Remember, this was eleven months before the election, and the President couldn’t run again. Joe was everybody’s favorite for the nomination and the election.”

“That, I remember.”

“Joe told me that I was his personal choice for President, and he wanted me to announce almost immediately.”

“A big surprise.”

“An enormous shock. I’d given thought to running, but I didn’t expect to do that for another eight years. Joe said that he would announce in another month or so that he would not be a candidate, but he didn’t want anyone to know why. He was giving me a heads-up to give me time to get a team together for an announcement of my own.”

“That was very good of him.”

“He knew that George Kiel, the minority leader in the Senate at the time, would jump right in, and that he, being better known than I, would be the immediate favorite. Anyway, we went back to our airplane, flew home, and I talked with my folks about it. They were all for a run, and eventually, as you know, I came around. Something odd happened, though, while we were still at the homeplace. Kate received a letter there.”

“Why was that odd?”

“Because no mail had ever been addressed to her at my folks’ house. She borrowed the car, disappeared for about four hours, then returned. She said it was business, and I knew better than to ask any more. She was deputy director for intelligence at the CIA at the time.”

Stone nodded. “Did you ever find out where she went?”

“Yes, but not until after the election. The letter was from a man named Ed Rawls. Does that ring a bell?”

“Of course—a CIA mole for the Russians. He went to prison for it, and you later pardoned him. He lives near my house in Maine.”

“Right. At that time he was in the Atlanta federal prison. Kate had been responsible for exposing him, and she went to see him.”

“Why?”

“Because he alluded to Joe Adams’s illness in the letter.”

Stone sat up straight. “But you had only learned about it that morning, right? And you and Kate were supposed to be the only ones who knew.”

“Right again. You can see why she went to see him.”

“I guess I can. How the hell could somebody in a federal prison know about this almost as soon as you did?”

“We never learned how he knew, but Ed was a brilliant intelligence agent, and he knew an awful lot of people, even if most of them weren’t speaking to him anymore.”

“I guess not. Why did he want to see Kate?”

“Because he wanted a presidential pardon, and he figured that if he helped get me elected, I might give him one.”

“That must have seemed pretty breathtaking.”

“It certainly took mine away when I finally heard about it. So, let’s skip ahead a few months: I got the nomination, largely because Joe Adams called in some favors that helped us swing the California delegation at the last moment.”

“I remember. I was at the convention, and it was a squeaker.”

“Right. I was losing the battle for the nomination because I had sworn to accept the recommendations of a study committee on whether to close a huge base in California. George Kiel had made the same pledge, but he told a lot of California delegates that he would renege on that promise if elected, and keep the base open. Joe managed to find out that the committee was going to recommend that the base remain open, so George’s promise became meaningless.”

“How’d Adams find out about the committee report?”

“Ed Rawls found out and told Joe.”

“Did you know about this?”

“Not at the time. All I knew was that everybody, including myself, wanted me to take George’s offer to run with him on the ticket—everybody but Joe Adams. He urged me to turn down George’s offer and go for the nomination, but he wouldn’t tell me why. I took his advice. Then word somehow got out that the base would not be closed. Most of George’s delegates from California swung to me, and I got the nomination.”

“And, in due course, the presidency.”

“Right.”

“All because of inside information from a traitor to his country?”

“Right, though I didn’t know it for a long time.”

“Wait a minute,” Stone said. “A while after you were nominated, the President had a stroke and died a few days later.”

“Correct.”

“And the vice president, Joe Adams, became President.”

“Correct again.”

“But he had Alzheimer’s? And you knew that?”

“I did. I had a very difficult time with the decision, but for a lot of reasons I kept my mouth shut, and Joe served out the term with distinction.”

“I never heard any rumors.”

“Few people did, because Ed Rawls had a hand in keeping Joe’s secret from becoming public.”

Stone sucked in a breath. “And when did you find out about that, Will?”

“Yesterday.”

“Who told you?”

“Joe Adams.”

 

 

3

Stone sat back in his seat. “I don’t know if you knew this, but I know Ed Rawls from Islesboro, where my Maine house is. We sort of worked together in solving a series of murders on the island.”

“I didn’t know that,” Will said, “but that could actually be helpful in all this.”

“All what? Let’s get back to your story.”

“Did you know that Ed Rawls was Kate’s mentor at the Agency?”

“I may have read that somewhere at the time she exposed him.”

“They were very close, and she was devastated when she found out what he’d been doing.”

“What, exactly, had Ed been doing?”

“He got caught in a honey trap—photographs and all—and the honey turned out to be a Soviet agent. He was near retirement, and the Soviets blackmailed him into giving them CIA secrets. Ed was smart enough not to give them anything damaging, but they kept a close rein on him, and one evening when two of our people who had become suspicious were following him, they rumbled his Soviet watchers, shots were exchanged, and our two people died. That, in the end, is what sent Ed to prison, even though he had no knowledge of either the Soviets or Americans following him. Except for that, he might never have been prosecuted. When I learned of the circumstances, it made it easier for me to pardon him.”

“I understand. How does all this affect what’s going on now?”

“While Ed was in prison he wrote an account of his years at the Agency, including the end of his career and how he surreptitiously helped Kate’s campaign. Apparently, he held nothing back, and his revelations could be explosive.”

“How explosive?”

“In the worst case, think nuclear. He named names—government officials, military commanders, top journalists, senators and congressmen on both sides of the aisle, Agency personnel—and he related everything in intricate detail and backed it up with documentation.”

“How’d he do that in prison?”

“He wrote the book from memory and hid the manuscript on a computer disc in the prison library, where he worked. Then, after he was pardoned, he went back to his retreat in Maine, where he had cached thousands of documents, and finished it there.”

“I guess it wasn’t published, or I would have heard about it,” Stone said. “What happened to his work?”

“He gave the manuscript and all the backup documents to Joe Adams on computer discs.”

“And what did Joe do with it?”

“Nothing. He still has it.”

“Is he threatening to publish it?”

“Certainly not. Joe’s Alzheimer’s has progressed slowly, and I’m told by Sue, his wife, that he still has lucid intervals—hours or even days. During one of those, he told Sue he wants to give Ed’s documents to me, and Sue wants them out of the house.”

“Why you?”

“Joe appears to believe that some of Ed’s revelations might hurt my legacy—or worse, damage Kate’s chances of reelection. I’m not worried about my legacy, but Kate needs a second term to finish what she started, and that’s very important to both of us.”

“And how did you hear about all this?”

“Sue got a message to me to get in touch with Joe, but carefully. I used someone else’s cell phone to make the call. That remains my only connection with Joe since he left office, and I want to keep it that way.”

“What do you want me to do, Will?”

“I want you to visit Joe and Sue, accept the package from them, and hang onto it until I let you know different. That could be after Kate is out of office, one way or the other. I can’t send a staffer for it or anyone the press might pay attention to.”

“All right, I’d be happy to do that for you. Where does Joe live?”

“He’s at his Santa Fe home, half an hour’s drive from where we sit. He moves among his three homes seasonally. As a former President, he has access to government business jets.” Will handed him a card with an address on it. “He’s high up on the road to the Santa Fe ski area.”

“When shall I do this?”

“Tonight. Stay at the party until we leave for the opera, then go to Joe’s house. I’ll meet you on the south side of the opera parking lot at, say, eleven pm. I’ll be in this car. I won’t be able to wait long—Air Force One will be on the ramp and ready to go.”

“All right.”

“You’ve met Joe, haven’t you?”

“At the convention where Kate was nominated I sat in a skybox belonging to Strategic Services, and Joe and Sue were there, too. As I recall, Joe and I drank some bourbon. Sue, too.”

“They both remember you fondly, and agreed to have you pick up the package. They’ll be expecting you.”

“Can you see that somebody takes Holly back to my house after the opera?”

“Of course.”

Stone scribbled the address on the back of his business card and gave it to Will. “I’d better get inside and speak to Holly.”

“She can ride to the opera with Kate and me and sit in our box, and an agent will take her home afterward.” Will shook his hand. “Thank you, Stone. You’re our good friend, and I don’t know who else I could have entrusted this job to.”

Stone got out of the car, pocketed Joe Adams’s address, and was escorted to the front door of the house and admitted by an agent. He saw Kate Lee on one side of the room and Holly on the other. He went to the President first.

She greeted him with a hug and a kiss and whispered in his ear, “Thank you so much, Stone. Will and I both appreciate it. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Be nice to Holly tonight,” he said, laughing. “She’s miserable from being shut out of the White House.”

“I will be nice to her, but remember, it’s for her own good, and yours. She needs the break, and you need to keep her . . . entertained.”

“I will take it as a sacred duty,” Stone said, then moved on so she could greet others. He went and found Holly leaning on the bar.

“Don’t ask how many I’ve had,” Holly said. “What was that all about with Will?”

“I’ll tell you later,” he said. “You’re going to ride to the opera with the Lees and sit in their box. While you’re doing that, I have to run an errand, and I’ll see you back at the house. Will will send you home with an agent.”

“So, at least I’ll have a date. Shall I ask him in?”

“Let’s just say that, when I get home, I will fulfill any duties he might have dreamed of.”

“All right,” Holly said, “and I won’t have my third drink. You got here just in time.”

 

4

Stone set the Adams address into his GPS and followed instructions to the road up to the Santa Fe Ski Basin. As he ascended his ears began to pop, then, half an hour later, nearing the twelve-thousand-foot elevation, he saw the road sign and turned left.

He followed the unpopulated lane to an open gate at its end, and as he drove through it the front of the house was suddenly floodlit. A man in a suit appeared and tapped on his window. “May I see some ID, please?”

Stone showed him both his driver’s and pilot’s licenses.

“This way, Mr. Barrington.” He opened the car door, led Stone to the front door, and opened it for him. “Mrs. Adams is waiting for you in the library, to your right.”

Stone rapped on the door, and a woman’s voice invited him in.

“Hello, Stone,” Sue Adams said, rising from a wing chair before the fireplace and greeting him with a handshake and a kiss. “Thank you so much for helping us.”

“I’m happy to do whatever I can,” Stone replied, taking a chair she indicated.

The library doors opened, and Joe Adams rode in on an electric scooter. “Stone!” he cried. “It’s so good to see you!” The two men shook hands, and Joe motioned him to sit again. “We really appreciate your taking this thing off our hands.”

“I’m glad to help, Mr. President,” Stone said.

“It’s still Joe. I fondly remember our little party in the skybox at the convention,” Joe said. “I think I may still have a hangover.”

“That was a great evening,” Stone replied.

“Stone,” Sue said, “are you right- or left-handed?”

“I’m right-handed,” Stone replied.

She reached behind her chair and brought out a thick briefcase, then got up, walked around Stone, and snapped a handcuff shut on his left wrist.

Stone had never been handcuffed to anything before, and he was uncomfortable with it.

“Don’t worry,” Sue said, “Will has the key.”

“David, can you stay for a drink?” Joe asked.

It took Stone a moment to realize that he was being addressed.

“I’m afraid I have a date with Will,” Stone said, “and if he has the key to the handcuff, I don’t want to be late.” He stood up and shook hands with both of them.

“You take care of yourself, Tom,” Joe called as Stone was escorted out by the agent. Stone gave a little wave and followed the man to his car. It cost him some effort to get the case into the car next to his left leg, but he discovered the chain was long enough to allow him to use his left hand on the wheel. He started the car, turned around, and retraced his route to the main road, then turned right and started the descent to Santa Fe.

He had gone perhaps three miles when suddenly a flying boulder appeared in his path and bounced across the road. Before he could recover from that, his car ran into a field of smaller rocks in his way, and he heard two loud noises and felt heavy jolts. The car came to a stop, and Stone got out.

There was still patchy snow at this elevation, and the moon was reflected off it enough to allow him to see that two of his tires had been destroyed, and the front rim was bent. He got the keys out of the car and opened the trunk. One spare.

Stone got out his iPhone and switched it on: no service, and his battery was low. He considered his options. He could wait around for a car that might not arrive before dawn; he could walk back up the steep road to the Adams house, but he didn’t relish carrying the heavy case that far; or he could walk downhill several miles to Santa Fe. It was cold up here, and he chose to wait in the car for someone to pass. He had three-quarters of a tank of fuel, so he started the car and turned up the temperature. He switched on the satellite radio, found some jazz, and made himself as comfortable as he could. Warmth flooded into the car. He checked the time: 10:35 pm. He switched on the emergency flashers, then he nodded and dozed.

He was awakened by the slamming of a vehicle door and a man rapping on the passenger window. “Hello?”

Stone checked the clock: 12:10 am. He pressed the down button for the window. “Hello, thanks for stopping. I’m afraid I’ve run into a rock slide and ruined two tires, and I have only one spare.”

“Well, my truck spare will be too big for your car. Can I give you a lift into town?”

“Thank you, yes.” Stone got out and got into the passenger side of the heavy pickup. He noticed a National Forest Service sticker on the door. “I’m Stone Barrington,” he said.

The man offered his hand. “I’m Tim Heard, the ranger up here. Lucky for you I worked late tonight to finish up my monthly report.” He started the truck. “Where can I drop you?”

“Would it be inconvenient for you to leave me at the Sant Fe opera house?”

“I guess I can do that.” He nodded at the case in Stone’s lap. “What you got there?”

“I’m a jewelry salesman, and I’ve just made a house call. My boss makes me handcuff myself to it,” Stone replied.

The man didn’t speak again for the half hour it took them to get to the opera. “There you go,” he said finally. “Looks like everybody’s gone home.”

“There’s someone expecting me,” Stone said. He thanked the ranger and got out and waved him off. He walked into the parking lot and halfway across it before it dawned on him that it was empty of vehicles. “Shit!” he hollered. He tried his cell phone: dead. He’d have to walk home, but it wasn’t much more than a mile. He got started.

Forty minutes later he let himself in his front gate and trudged up the driveway to the house. He walked up the front steps and turned toward the front door. Holly was huddled on the doormat, her shawl wrapped around her.

“It’s about fucking time,” she said, struggling to her feet. “I’m freezing out here, and you didn’t give me a key.”

“I’m so sorry, Holly. I had an accident on the mountain road and ruined two tires. It was a long time before a forest ranger came by and gave me a lift to the opera, then I had to walk home from there.” He got out his key, opened the front door, and they walked into the warm hallway and to the master suite. He poured them both a neat Knob Creek. “This’ll warm us up.” They both tossed it down. He held up his left hand. “Did Will give you the key for this?”

“Not that I recall.”

“Then I’ll go see if there are some bolt cutters in the house,” he said.

“Hang on there, sport,” she said. “That’s an Agency strong case you’ve got there. It’s made out of layers of Kevlar, carbon fiber, lead, and titanium, and it’s equipped with a handy incendiary explosive device inside that will detonate if you mess with it. It will blow you to pieces and set fire to whatever’s left.”

“Swell,” Stone said with disgust. “What am I going to do with it?”

“Well, there’s a quick way out of this,” she said. “I can amputate your hand, and it will come right off. Hang on, I’ll see if I can find a sharp knife.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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