The long black Lincoln slid to a stop, wipers moving rapidly, dissipating the greasy mist of rain. The man who hurried from the portico of the mansion beyond the iron fence carried a huge umbrella, which he held solicitously over the gnome-sized bundle of overcoats that emerged from the car.
Before they reached the shelter of the portico, quiet men in dark overcoats appeared from the interior of the limousine and posted themselves at strategic points about the garden. They could do nothing about the forest that stood, dark with rain, on every side, yet they watched the fringes of the trees as intently as they did the curving expanse of the patterned brick drive.
The rain intensified, as other quietly expensive automobiles arrived, deposited their riders, and withdrew to the other side of the garden wall to the shelter of an immense garage. There the drivers huddled about an electric heater, gossiping, shooting craps, alert to any signal that they might be needed.
Inside the mansion, people who seldom came face to face were meeting for the first time in years. Cavalieri from Las Vegas, Tomassini from Boston, O'Herlihy from Houston (and Corpus Christi) sat with their peers. They were all big men in their fields of influence, yet many of them were now shrunken with age, looking like a set of distinguished mummies, propped up for some esoteric theatrical production.
Twenty old men sat around the antique refectory table in a room that dwarfed the massive Italian furniture. A fire roared and spat in a fireplace that would have been at home in a medieval castle.
The gentle whisper of central heating added its warmth to comfort the aged bones of those who had come to this conference. Even with so much heat, several huddled thick sweaters about their shoulders as they waited for the meeting to begin.
A manservant removed coffee cups and wineglasses as the murmur of conversation died away. An air of alertness swept over the ancient group as the massive man who sat at the head of the table leaned forward and picked up a file of papers.
"It will be necessary to apply pressure to key people in the Ministry in London,." he began. "Great Britain is not yet securely organized by our people there. In order to achieve our goals we must gain some leverage. Someone who is extremely knowledgeable in the area of military intelligence, yet who is not guarded constantly would make an excellent hostage.
"We have learned that Benjamin Scarlatt has retired to private life, though he still consults with the Ministry when there is need for his expertise. By midsummer he will be taking a cruise for his health. His doctor has been less than discreet in the company of his servants, and we know he will insist upon this.
"By abducting him, we may become able to set our operations into motion, using the leverage that will give us over the various law enforcement agencies in Great Britain."
Tomassini stirred, his dark eyes bright amid the wrinkles of his gnomish face. "Why Scarlatt? I've heard of him, of course. He was in Parliament after he left the Ministry, but he has retired even from that position. Why do you think he will be so useful?" Gianello looked down at the papers he held and smiled. "Scarlatt has never retired from his true profession, which is covert work for M.I.5. True, he went into Law, after the War, and then into politics, but he has always been important to British security.
"He is privy to information that the British government cannot risk having come to light. Now that he has, we believe, truly retired from everything, he should not be guarded closely, but what he contains within his mind will be with him until he dies. Much of that has to be explosive in nature, given the present global situation."
"So we don't just put out a contract ... " mused Cavalieri.
"That would gain us nothing. It is by learning what he knows and using it to blackmail key government officials that we will begin gaining ground in England. Scarlatt dead is a great loss to his country, but those secrets would die with him. Scarlatt alive and in unknown hands will frighten governments and is a tool that anyone in Business would drool over."
"Surely he will be guarded in some way," rumbled O'Herlihy. "Even the British wouldn't risk him, would they? And there's no easy escape from a ship at sea, with so many navies here and there. How do you propose to get at him?"
Gianello smiled again. His rich voice was creamy as he purred "Have you ever heard of the Knit Lady?"
Cavalieri jumped. Two of the others around the big table looked thoughtful but said nothing. Gianello spread the file's contents before him on the polished mahogany. "There is one assassin who is known, literally, to nobody, even those who hire him. He obviously calls himself the Knit Lady in order to mislead everyone, and he achieves results that even the big-time pros cannot equal.
"There has never been even a hint of a description of the man. No clue ever led anywhere except into a stone wall. There have been at least five Knit Lady hits that cost other professionals their lives or their freedom, and at least two KGB agents are no longer working because of him. Never once has there been a slip."
"How long has he been in the game?" asked O'Herlihy, whose gnarled fingers were tapping impatiently on the table. "How do you know so much about him-her, whatever, anyway?"
"He has been in the profession for some time. I know those who first employed him. I am an associate of the Group who recruited and trained him. They are close-mouthed about their assassin, but it is clear they use him only in extremely important and dangerous situations. He was recommended to me by ..." he peered about at his fellows ... "Al Genno."
Several of the men caught their breaths sharply. Cavalieri nodded slowly. "So. The Group has used her? Him? I don't like using someone we have no way to control."
"Genno was very close with information, but he absolutely guaranteed satisfaction. The Knit Lady usually does hits only, but he can do just about anything, Genno says. We want him to get close to Scarlatt, get chummy with him. To be in position to slip him a needle, when the time comes."
"So we send this Knit Lady person on the cruise Scarlatt is taking."
O'Herlihy's fingers were now still, and his expression was interested. "Shouldn't be any problem."
"This is not a cruise you sign up for and pay your fare. This has been organized by prominent doctors in this country and abroad. Many of their wealthy patients who are either too old or too disabled to take a regular trip want to travel. A Liberian cruise ship has been chartered, the doctors are in charge of arrangements, and several are going along to attend the patients, right there on the ship. Genno tells me the Knit Lady can qualify, though on what grounds he did not say. Nobody else I know could possibly do that."
Tomassini interrupted. "I've got a lock on a big society doctor. Old family, big patient load of wealthy people. Uses coke. I supply him free, and he does me favors when I need anything in his line of work. Should be able to work this through him, don't you think? He never asks questions."
Heads nodded, except for one. D'Indio, at the foot of the table, was the only holdout. "I want to know more. I want to hear about something this guy really did, something we all knew about and that we didn't suspect wasn't on the up and up." Gianello nodded. "I will give you one. I cannot prove it, nor could Genno, but it is what the Knit Lady was hired to do. It got done, and there is word on the pipeline that the terrorists involved never intended to do the thing that resulted."
He fumbled through the pages. "Does anyone here recall Balfour G'dami?"
Brows wrinkled with thought. Then Cavalieri said, "That bum from Africa! Dictator who came over here to beg for arms to put down a revolution, I think. Got blown to hell down in Texas someplace, when he was visiting his old teacher from missionary days. That the guy?" Gianello grunted. "That's the one. He was targeted by a bunch of his own people--rebels who refugeed here and waited for a chance to get at him. Those terrorists who took the fall were wanting him for a hostage to get some of their own people released, back in Upper Balvi.
"However, he was killed with a weapon that could be traced to them, and they were on the spot, both dead and alive. It was easier to let them take the rap than to untangle the mess. That was a Knit Lady job. The guys who put out the contract, Genno tells me, paid off like a shot and never asked a question."
"Those people had a lot of hostages, if I remember right," Cavalieri said. "Nobody among them had any idea who killed the guards and released them, did they?"
"They were all kinds, country people, tourists, kids, blacks and whites, and they were stopped on a country highway at twilight. Masked men and women with Uzis. The hostages were so scared and confused they couldn't tell anything worth knowing.
"A few insisted there had been eleven of them at first, but when it all got sorted out there were only ten. The police thought they miscounted, but I think the eleventh must have been the Knit Lady."
A hum of talk went around the table. Small arguments flared and died down again. Gianello sat silent in his big chair. His smug expression told anyone interested that he was confident that his plan would be adopted, no matter how these lesser kingpins sputtered and fumed.
He was correct. By the time a silent-footed butler came into the room to replenish the logs in the fireplace, the arguments had ended.
The thing was put to a vote, and unanimously the men who controlled the Brokers decided to assign the Knit Lady to arrange the abduction of Benjamin Scarlatt, KCB.
Food was served, afterward, and the old men drank a bit more port than was good for them. Then they were put back into their posh vehicles by the silent young men who brought them and driven back to their own power-bases.
Among those clearing away the debris of the meeting were two who served more than one master. They had worked for Gianello for years and knew everything about his business and his house. They saved every scrap of paper found after one of the infrequent meetings of the Brokers.
In time, the fruits of their scavenging found a way into hands the old men would never have believed existed.
* * * *
There were things the old men of the Brokers could not know about their proposed employee. The Knit Lady was certainly not a man. She was not young. And she had her own complicated but stringent code of ethics.