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The huge, glistening white yacht, its length over a hundred fifty feet from bow to stern, slowly maneuvered its way into the marina at Estepona, the northern point of Spain's opulent Costa del Sol, a retirement haven for the wealthy of the world.
The gaunt old man in the luxurious master stateroom sat in a velvet-covered chair, attended to by his personal valet of nearly three decades. The aged owner of the ship was being groomed by his servant and friend for the most important conference of his long life, a life that spanned over ninety years, the precise age kept secret, for much of that life was spent in the cutthroat arenas of men much younger. Why give those avaricious turks the advantage of his rumored senility, which in reality amounted to several generations of superior experience? Three cosmetic operations on his features might have left his face partially masklike, but that was merely superficial, a misleading image to confuse the opportunists who would usurp his financial empire, given half a chance.
An empire that meant nothing any longer. It was a paper colossus worth over seven billion American dollars, seven thousand times a million, built on the manipulations of a long-forgotten entity. It began with a vision of revenge and turned ever more violently satanic, further corrupted by underlings who had no vision beyond themselves.
"How do I look, Antoine?"
"Splendid, monsieur," replied the valet, applying a mild aftershave lotion and removing a lap cloth to reveal formal clothes complete with a striped cravat.
"This isn't too much, is it?" asked the elegant employer, gesturing at his finery.
"Not at all. You are the chairman, sir, and they must understand that. You can brook no opposition."
"Oh, my old friend, there'll be no opposition. I plan to instruct my various boards to prepare for destructurization. I intend to give generous benefits to all who have devoted their time and energy to enterprises they essentially knew nothing about."
"There will be those who will find your instructions difficult to accept, mon ami Rene."
"Good! You're dropping our pretenses, you're about to tell me something." Both men laughed softly as the old man continued. "If the truth were told, Antoine, I should have put you on some executive committee. I can't remember when your advice was in error."
"I only offered it when you asked and when I thought I understood the circumstances. Never in the areas of business negotiations, of which I understand nothing."
"Only of people, correct?"
"Let's say I'm protective, Rene. . . . Come, let me help you up and put you in the wheelchair--"
"No, Antoine, no wheelchair! Take my arm and I'll walk into the meeting. . . . By the way, what did you mean when you said there'll be those who won't like my instructions? They'll get their benefits. They'll all be more than comfortable."
"Security is not the same as active involvement, mon ami. The workers will be grateful, indeed, but your executives may feel otherwise. You are removing them from their fiefdoms of power, of influence. Beware, Rene, several who'll be at this conference are among that group."
The yacht's large dining room was a low-ceilinged replica of a fashionable Paris restaurant, the impressionistic murals on the walls depicting scenes of the Seine, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and various other Parisian sights. The circular mahogany table held five chairs, four occupied, one vacant. Seated were four men in severe business suits, bottles of Evian water in front of each, ashtrays with boxes of Gauloises cigarettes beside them. Only two ashtrays were in use, the others firmly set aside.
The frail old man walked into the room, accompanied by his valet of twenty-eight years, known by all around the table from previous meetings. Salutations were exchanged; the ancient "chairman" was lowered into a middle chair, as his servant sat behind him against the wall. The procedure was accepted, none objected, nor could they, for it was tradition.
"So here are all the attorneys. Mon avocat in Paris, ein Rechtsanwalt in Berlin, mio avvocato in Rome, and, of course, our corporate lawyer in Washington, D.C. It is good to see you again." There were muted acceptances of the greeting; the old man went on. "I can see by your eager reception that you are not enthralled by our meeting. That's a pity, for my instructions will be carried out, whether you like it or not."
"If you please, Herr Mouchistine," said the attorney from Germany, "we have all received your coded instructions, now locked away in our vaults, and, frankly, we are appalled! It's not merely your intention to sell your companies and all their assets--"
"Excluding rather extraordinary sums for your professional services, of course," Rene Mouchistine abruptly, firmly, broke in.
"We're most appreciative of your generosity, RenÚ, but that's not our concern," said the lawyer from Washington, D.C. "It's what follows. Certain markets will crash, stocks plummet . . . questions will be asked! There could be investigations . . . all of us compromised."
"Nonsense. Each of you has been following the orders of the elusive Rene Pierre Mouchistine, sole owner of my enterprises. To do otherwise would result in your dismissal. For once, tell the truth, gentlemen. With the truth, no one can touch you."
"But, monsignore," exclaimed the avvocato from Italy, "you are selling assets far below market value! For what purpose? You delegate millions upon millions to charities everywhere, to nobodies who cannot tell a lira from a deutsche mark! What are you, a socialista who wants to reform the world while destroying the thousands who believed in you, in us?"
"Not at all. You are all part of something that began years before you were born, the vision of the great padrone, the Baron of Matarese."
"Who?" asked the French attorney.
"I vaguely remember hearing the name, mein Herr," said the German. "But it has no relevance for me."
"Why should it?" Rene Mouchistine glanced briefly over his shoulder at his valet, Antoine. "You are all nothing but the webs of spiders that spun out from the source, hired by the source, making its operations appear legitimate, for you were legitimate. You say I'm giving back millions to those who lost the games--where do you suppose my riches came from? We became greed gone berserk."
"You cannot do this, Mouchistine!" shouted the American, springing to his feet. "I'll be hauled before Congress!"
"And I! The Bundestag will insist on investigating!" yelled the Rechtsanwalt from Berlin.
"I will not subject myself to the Chamber of Deputies!" cried the Parisian.
"I'll have our associates in Palermo convince you otherwise," said the man from Rome ominously. "You'll see the logic."
"Why not try it now yourself? Are you afraid of an old man?"
The Italian rose in fury to his feet, his hand reaching under his tailored jacket. It was as far as he got. Kesitch! A silenced, single gunshot blew his face apart, fired by Antoine, the valet. The Roman lawyer fell, soiling the parquet floor.
"You're insane!" screamed the German. "He was merely showing you a newspaper article in which several of your companies are linked to the Mafia, which is true. You are a monster!"
"That's sheer irony coming from you, considering Auschwitz and Dachau."
"I wasn't born then!"
"Read history. . . . What do you say, Antoine?"
"Self-defense, monsieur. As a senior informer to the Súrete, I will put it in my report. He reached for a weapon."
"Shit!" yelled the lawyer from Washington. "You set us up here, you son of a bitch!"
"Not really. I simply wanted to make sure you would carry out my orders."
"We can't! For God's sake, don't you understand? It would be the end of all of us--"
"One certainly, but we'll get rid of the body, fish for the fish under the sea."
"You are insane!"
"We became insane. We were not at the beginning. . . .Stop! Antoine! . . .The portholes!"
The yacht's small circular windows were suddenly filled with faces covered with rubber masks. One by one, each smashed the glass with his weapon and began firing indiscriminately at every corner and shadow of the room. The valet, Antoine, pulled Mouchistine under a bulkhead armoire, his own shoulder blown apart, his master punctured around the chest. His friend of thirty years would not survive.
"RenÚ, RenÚ!" cried Antoine. "Take deep breaths, keep breathing! They've gone! I'll get you to the hospital!"
"No, Antoine, it is too late!" Mouchistine choked. "The lawyers are gone and I do not regret my end. I lived with evil and I die rejecting it. Perhaps it will mean something somewhere."
"What are you talking about, mon ami, the dearest friend of my life?"
"Find Beowulf Agate."
"Ask Washington. They have to know where he is! Vasili Taleniekov was killed, yes, but not Beowulf Agate. He is somewhere and he knows the truth."
"What truth, my closest friend?"
"The Matarese! They're back. They knew about this conference, the coded instructions that are meaningless without the ciphers. Whoever's left had to stop me, so you must stop them!"
"Fight it with all your heart and soul! Soon it will be everywhere. It was the evil that the archangel of hell prophesied, the good that became the servant of Satan."
"You're not making sense. I'm not a biblical scholar!"
"You don't have to be," whispered the dying Mouchistine. "Ideas are greater monuments than cathedrals. They last millennia beyond the stone."
"What the hell are you saying?"
"Find Beowulf Agate. He's the key."
RenÚ Mouchistine spastically lurched forward, then fell back, his head resting against the bulkhead. His last words were so clear they might have been gutturally whispered through an echo chamber. "The Matarese . . . the evil incarnate." The old man with the secrets was dead.
In the rugged Corsican hills above the waters of Porto Vecchio on the Tyrrhenian Sea, there stood the skeletal remains of a once-majestic estate. The exterior stonework, built to stand for centuries, was by and large intact, the insides of the various structures destroyed, gutted by fire decades ago. It was midafternoon, the skies dark, heavy rain imminent as a late-winter storm made its way up the coast from Bonifacio. Soon the air and the earth would be drenched, mud everywhere, the overgrown, barely visible paths around the great house to be slogged through, not walked over.
"I would suggest that we hurry, padrone," said the heavyset Corsican in a hooded parka. "The roads back to the Senetosa airfield are difficult enough without the storm," he added in accented English, the language mutually agreed upon.
"Senetosa can wait," replied the slender man in a raincoat, his speech betraying a Netherlands origin. "Everything can wait until I'm finished!...Let me have the survey map for the north property, if you please." The Corsican reached into his pocket and withdrew a many-folded sheaf of heavy paper. He gave it to the man from Amsterdam, who rapidly unfolded it, placed it against a stone wall, and anxiously studied it. He kept turning his gaze away from the map, looking over at the area that momentarily consumed his attention. The rain began, a drizzle that quickly became a steady shower.
"Over here, padrone," cried the guide from Bonifacio, pointing at an archway in the stone wall. It was the entrance to a long-ago garden arbor of sorts, odd insofar as the arch itself was barely four feet wide while its thickness was nearly six feet--tunnel-like, strange. It was overgrown with vines crawling up the sides, strangling the entrance--forbidding. Still, it was a refuge from the sudden downpour.
The "padrone," a man in his early forties, dashed into the small sanctuary, immediately pressing the unfolded map against the spidery foliage; he took out a red felt marker from his raincoat pocket and circled a wide area. "This section," he yelled to be heard over the pounding rain hitting the stone, "it must be roped off, sealed off, so that no one enters it or disturbs it in any way! Is that clear?"
"If that is your order, it is done. But, padrone, you're talking about a hundred or so acres."
"Then that is my order. My representatives will check constantly to make sure it's carried out."
"That is not necessary, sir, I shall carry it out."
"Good, fine, do so."
"And the rest, grande signore?"
"As we discussed in Senetosa. Everything must be precisely duplicated from the original plans as recorded in Bastia two hundred years ago, updated, of course, with modern conveniences. Whatever you need will be supplied by my ships and cargo aircraft in Marseilles. You have the numbers and the codes for my unlisted telephones and fax machines. Accomplish what I ask of you--demand from you--and you can retire a wealthy man, your future secure."
"It is a privilege to have been chosen, padrone."
"And you understand the need for absolute secrecy?"
"Naturalmente, padrone! You are an eccentric Bavarian man of immense riches who cares to live out his life in the magnificent hills of Porto Vecchio. That is all anyone knows!"
"But if I may, grande signore, we stopped in the village and the old woman who runs that decrepit inn saw you. In truth, she fell to her knees in the kitchen and gave thanks to the Savior that you had come back."
"If you recall, when our refreshments were so long in coming, I went into the cucina and found her in very loud prayers. She wept as she spoke, saying that she could tell by your face, your eyes. "The Barone di Matarese has returned,' she repeated over and over again." The Corsican spoke the name as it was in Italian, Mataresa. "She thanked the Lord God that you had come back, that greatness and happiness would return to the mountains."
"That incident must be erased from your memory, do you understand me?"
"Of course, sir. I heard nothing!"
"To the reconstruction. It must be completed in six months. Spare nothing, just do it."
"I will endeavor to do my best."
"If your best is not good enough, you'll have no retirement, wealthy or otherwise, capisce?"
"I do, padrone," said the Corsican, swallowing.
"As to the old woman at the inn--"