Douglas Preston has published five non-fiction books and thirteen novels, most of which were bestsellers and translated into many languages. With his frequent collaborator, Lincoln Child, he has co-authored such bestselling thrillers as The Cabinet of Curiosities, The Ice Limit, Thunderhead, Riptide, Brimstone and Relic (which was turned into a film starring Tom Sizemore and Penelope Ann Miller). Their novel, The Book of the Dead, which came out in June 2006, was on the New York Times bestseller list for six weeks. Preston writes about archeology for the New Yorker magazine and he has also been published in Smithsonian magazine, Harper's, and National Geographic. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards. Here you can read an extract from his latest solo novel, Blasphemy.
Wyman Ford gazed around the 17th Street office of Dr. Stanton Lockwood III, science adviser to the president of the United States. From long experience in Washington, Ford knew that while an office was designed to show the outer man, the public man, it always betrayed somewhere the secret of the inner man. Ford cast his eyes about, looking for the secret.
The office was done up in that style Ford called IWPB—Important Washington Power Broker. The antiques were all authentic and of the finest quality—from the Second Empire desk, as big and ugly as a Hummer, to the gilded French portico clock and the hushed Sultanabad rug on the floor. Nothing that hadn’t cost a bloody fortune. And of course, there was the obligatory “power wall” of framed diplomas, awards, and photographs of the office’s occupant with presidents, ambassadors, and cabinet members.
Stanton Lockwood wanted the world to see him as a man of importance and wealth, powerful and discreet. But what came through to Ford was the grimness of the effort. Here was a man determined to be something he wasn’t.
Lockwood waited until his guest was seated before he eased himself into the armchair flanking the other side of a coffee table. He crossed his legs and smoothed a long white hand down the crease in his gabardine pants. “Let’s dispense with the usual Washington formalities,” he said. “I’m Stan.”
“Wyman.” He settled back and observed Lockwood: handsome, late fifties, with a hundred-dollar haircut, his fitness-club physique beautifully draped in a charcoal suit. Probably a squash player. Even the photo on the desk of three perfect towheaded children with their attractive mother had all the individuality of a financial-services advertisement.
“Well,” said Lockwood, in a meeting-now-under-way tone, “I’ve heard excellent things about you, Wyman, from your former colleagues at Langley. They’re sorry you left.”
“So awful what happened to your wife. I’m so terribly sorry.”
Ford willed his body not to stiffen. He never had been able to figure out a way to respond when people mentioned his dead wife.
“They tell me you spent a few years in a monastery.”
“The monastic life not to your liking?”
“It takes a special kind of person to be a monk.”
“So you left the monastery and hung up your shingle.”
“A man’s got to make a living.”
“Any interesting cases?”
“No cases at all. I’ve just opened the office. You’re my first client—if that’s what this is about.”
“It is. I have a special assignment for you, to start immediately. It will last for ten days, maybe two weeks.”
“There’s a little catch I need to mention up front. Once I’ve described the assignment, rejecting it is not an option. It’s in the United States, it doesn’t involve risk, and it won’t be difficult—at least in my opinion. Succeed or fail, you can never talk about it, so I’m afraid you can’t use it to buff up your résumé.”
“And the remuneration?”
“One hundred thousand dollars cash under the table, plus an aboveboard G-11 salary commensurate with your cover position.” He raised his eyebrows. “Ready to hear more?”
No hesitation. “Go ahead.”
“Excellent.” Lockwood slid out another folder. “I see you have a B.A. in anthropology from Harvard. We need an anthropologist.”
“Then I’m afraid I’m not your man. That was just my B.A. I went on to MIT and took a doctorate in cybernetics. My work for the CIA was mostly in cryptology and computers. I left anthropology far behind.”
Lockwood waved his hand dismissively, his Princeton ring flashing in the light. “Not important. Are you familiar with, ah, the Isabella project?”
“Hard to avoid hearing about it.”
“Forgive me if I repeat what you already know then. Isabella was completed over two months ago—at a cost of forty billion dollars. It’s a second-generation superconducting supercollider particle accelerator. Its purpose is to probe the energy levels of the Big Bang and explore some exotic ideas for generating power. This is the president’s pet project—the Europeans just completed the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and he wanted to maintain America’s lead in particle physics.”
“Getting Isabella funded was no cakewalk. The left carped that the money should have been spent on the halt and the lame. The right whined that it was just another big-government spending program. The president steered a course between Scylla and Charybdis, rammed Isabella through Congress, and saw it to completion. He sees it as his legacy and he’s anxious to have it running smoothly.”
“Isabella is essentially a circular tunnel, three hundred feet underground and forty-seven miles in circumference, in which protons and antiprotons are circulated in opposite directions at almost the speed of light. When the particles are brought into collision, they duplicate energy levels not seen since the universe was a millionth of a second old.”
“We found a perfect site for it—Red Mesa, a five-hundred-squaremile tableland on the Navajo Indian Reservation, protected by two-thousand-foot cliffs and riddled with abandoned coal mines, which we converted to underground bunkers and tunnels. The U.S. government pays six million a year in leasing fees to the Navajo tribal government in Window Rock, Arizona,an arrangement which was most satisfactory to all parties involved.
“Red Mesa is uninhabited, and there’s just one road to the top. There are a few Navajo towns near the base of the mesa. These are traditional people—most of them still speak Navajo and live by herding sheep, weaving rugs, and making jewelry. That’s the background.”
Ford nodded. “And the problem?”
“In the past few weeks, a self-proclaimed medicine man has been stirring up people against Isabella, spreading rumors and misinformation. He’s gaining traction. Your assignment is to deal with the problem.”
“What’s the Navajo government doing about it?”
“Nothing. The Navajo tribal government is feeble. The former tribal chairman was indicted for embezzlement, and the new chairman’s just taken office. You’re on your own with this medicine man.”
“Tell me about him.”
“His name is Begay, Nelson Begay. Not clear how old he is—we haven’t been able to turn up a birth certificate. Claims the Isabella project is desecrating an ancient burial ground, that they were still using Red Mesa for grazing sheep, and so on. He’s organizing a horseback ride in protest.” Lockwood pulled a soiled flyer from a folder. “Here’s one of his notices.”
The blurry photocopy showed a man on horseback holding a protest sign.
RIDE TO RED MESA!
SEPTEMBER 14 & 15
“Your assignment is to join the scientific team as the anthropologist and establish yourself as a liaison with the local community,” said Lockwood. “Address their concerns. Make friends, calm everyone down.”
“If that doesn’t work?”
“Neutralize Begay’s influence.”
“Dig some dirt out of his past, get him drunk, photograph him in bed with a mule—I don’t care.”
“I’m going to consider that a feeble attempt at humor.”
“Yes, yes, of course. You’re the anthropologist; you’re supposed to know how to handle these people.” Lockwood’s smile was bland, generic.
Silence gathered. Ford finally asked, “So what’s the real assignment?”
Lockwood clasped his hands and leaned forward. The smile widened. “Find out what the hell’s really going on out there.”
“The anthropology bit is your cover. Your real assignment must remain absolutely secret.”
“Isabella was supposed to be calibrated and online eight weeks ago, but they’re still messing around with it. They say they can’t get it to work. They have every excuse under the sun—bugs in the software, bad magnetic coils, leaky roof, broken cable, computer problems. You name it. At first I bought the excuses, but now I’m convinced I’m not getting the real story. There’s something wrong—I just think they’re lying about what it is.”
“Tell me about the people.”
Lockwood leaned back, inhaled. “As you certainly know, Isabella was the brainchild of the physicist Gregory North Hazelius, and he leads a handpicked team. The best and the brightest America has to offer. The FBI vetted them thoroughly,so there’s no question of their loyalty. In addition,there’s a senior intelligence officer assigned by the Department of Energy, and a psychologist.”
“DOE? What’s their involvement?”
“One of the major research goals of the Isabella project is to look for exotic new forms of energy—fusion, mini black holes, matter–antimatter. DOE’s nominally in charge, although—if I may be frank—I’m running the show at this stage.”
“And the psychologist? What’s his role?”
“It’s like the Manhattan Project out there—isolated, high security, long hours, no families permitted. A high-stress environment. We wanted to make sure nobody went nuts.”
“The team went out there ten weeks ago to get Isabella up and running. It was supposed to take two weeks maximum, but they’re still at it.”
“Meanwhile, they’re burning a hell of a lot of electricity—at peak power, Isabella eats up the megawattage of a medium-sized city. They run the damn machine at a hundred percent power again and again, all the while claiming it isn’t working. When I press Hazelius for details, he has answers for everything. He charms you and cajoles you until he convinces you black is white. But something’s wrong and they’re covering it up. It could be an equipment problem, a software problem—or, God knows, a human problem. But this comes at a terrible time. It’s September already. The presidential election’s in two months. This would be a hell of a time for a scandal.”
“Why the name Isabella?”
“The chief engineer, Dolby, the guy who headed the design team, nicknamed it that. It sort of stuck—sounded a lot better than SSCII, the official name. Maybe Isabella’s his girlfriend or something.”
“You mentioned a senior intelligence officer. What’s his background?”
“Tony Wardlaw’s the name. Former Special Forces, distinguished himself in Afghanistan before joining the DOE’s Office of Intelligence. First-rate.”
Ford thought for a moment, and then spoke. “I’m still not sure, Stan, what makes you think they’re not telling the truth. Maybe they really are having the problems you mentioned.”
“Wyman, I’ve got the best bullshit meter in town, and that’s not Chanel Number Five I’m smelling out in Arizona.” He leaned forward. “Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are sharpening their long knives. They lost the first time around. Now they smell a second feeding.”
“Sounds just like Washington: build a machine for forty billion dollars and then kill the funding to run it.”
“You got that right, Wyman. The only constant in this town is its yearning for imbecility. Your assignment is to find out what’s really going on and report back to me personally. That’s it. Don’t take any action on your own. We’ll handle it from here.”
He went to his desk, pulled a stack of dossiers from a drawer, and smacked them down beside the phone. “There’s one here for each scientist. Medical records, psychological evaluations, religious beliefs—even extramarital affairs.” He smiled mirthlessly. “These came from the NSA, and you know how thorough they are.”
Ford looked at the top dossier, opened it. Stapled to the front was a picture of Gregory North Hazelius, an enigmatic look of amusement dancing about in his brilliant blue eyes.
“Hazelius—you know him personally?”
“Yes.” Lockwood dropped his voice. “And I want to . . . caution you about him.”
“He has a way of focusing on a person, dazzling him, making him feel special. His mind burns with such incredible intensity that it seems to throw a spell over people. Even his most offhand comment seems charged with hidden importance. I’ve seen him point out something as common as a lichen-covered rock and speak about it in a way that makes you feel that it’s extraordinary and filled with wonder. He showers you with attention, treats you as if you’re the most important person in the world. The effect is irresistible—something a dossier can’t capture. This may sound odd, but it’s...it’s almost like falling in love, the way the man draws you in and lifts you out of the humdrum world. You have to experience it to understand. Forewarned is forearmed. Keep your distance.”
He paused, looking at Ford. The muffled sounds of tires, car horns, and voices from the street seeped into the silence. Ford clasped his hands behind his head and looked across at Lockwood. “The FBI or the intelligence arm of the DOE would normally conduct an investigation of this kind. Why me?”
“Isn’t it obvious? There’s a presidential election in two months. The president wants this thing fixed fast, on the quiet, with no paper trail. He needs speed and deniability. If you screw up, we don’t know you. Even if you succeed, we don’t know you.”
“Yes, but why me specifically? I’ve got a B.A. in anthropology and that’s it.”
“You’ve got the background—anthropology, computers, ex-CIA.” He pulled a dossier out of the pile. “And you have another asset.”
Ford didn’t like the sudden shift in tone. “Meaning?”
Lockwood pushed the folder across the table to Ford, who opened it and stared at the photograph stapled to the inside cover—a smiling woman with glossy black hair and mahogany eyes.
He slapped it shut, pushed it back at Lockwood, and rose to go. “You call me in here on a Sunday morning and pull a trick like this? Sorry, I don’t mix work with my personal life.”
“It’s too late to withdraw.”
A cold smile. “You going to stop me from walking out?”
“You were CIA,Wyman. You know what we can do.”
Ford took a step forward, towering over Lockwood. “I’m trembling in my boots.”
The science adviser looked up, hands clasped, smiling mildly. “Wyman, I’m sorry. That was a stupid thing for me to say. But you of all people should know the importance of the Isabella project. It’ll open the doors on our understanding of the universe. Of the very moment of creation. It could lead us to an unlimited source of carbon-free power. It would be a huge tragedy for American science if we flushed that investment down the toilet. Please do this—if not for the president or for me, then for your country. Isabella, quite frankly, is the best thing this administration has done. It’s our legacy. When all the political sound and fury has passed, this is the one thing that will make a difference.” He passed the folder back to Ford. “She’s the assistant director of Isabella. Thirty-five now, Ph.D. from Stanford, a top string theorist. What happened between you and her was a long time ago. I met her. Brilliant, of course, professional, still single, but then I don’t suppose that’ll be an issue. She’s an entrée, a friend, someone to talk to—that’s all.”
“Someone to pump for information, you mean.”
“The most important scientific experiment in human history is at stake.” He tapped the dossier, then raised his eyes to Ford. “Well?”
When Ford returned the gaze, he noticed that Lockwood’s left hand was nervously caressing a pebble that had been sitting on the desk.
Lockwood followed his eyes and smiled sheepishly, as if having been caught. “This?”
Ford could see a sudden guarded look in Lockwood’s eyes. “What is it?” he asked.
“My lucky stone.”
“May I see it?”
Lockwood reluctantly passed the stone to Ford. He turned it over to see a small fossil trilobite embedded in one side.
“Interesting. Any special meaning?”
Lockwood seemed to hesitate. “My twin brother found this the summer we turned nine, gave it to me. That fossil is what started me on the road to science. He ...drowned a few weeks later.”
Ford fingered the stone, polished by years of handling. He had found the inner man—and, unexpectedly, he liked him.
“I really need you to take this assignment,Wyman.”
And I need it, too. He laid the rock gently on the desk. “All right. I’ll do it. But I work in my own way.”
“Fair enough. But don’t forget—no action on your own.”
Lockwood rose and pulled a briefcase from his desk, shoved in the dossiers, shut and locked it. “In there you’ll find a satellite phone, laptop, orientation packet,wallet,money,and your official cover assignment.A helicopter’s waiting. The guard outside my office will escort you. Your clothing and sundries will be sent separately.” He locked the briefcase and gave the dial a twirl. “The combination is the seventh to tenth digits of the number pi.” He smiled at his cleverness.
“What if we don’t agree on the meaning of ‘no action on my own’?”
Lockwood shoved the briefcase across the desk. “Remember,” he said, “we never knew you.”
© Douglas Preston, 2008
© Paul Kane 2003-2018. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.