Prologue (Part 2) – Penn Quarter

Penn Quarter, Washington, DC

For purely basic logistical reasons Max had always preferred to use short term property rentals in the Penn Quarter in downtown Washington, DC. The neighborhood runs north of Pennsylvania Avenue, south of Mount Vernon Square, between the White House and I-395. Until recently the area had always been referred to as “Old Downtown”. There had been significant changes over the past two decades, and it had become an arts and entertainment district with many restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, art galleries and rejuvenated theaters.

The district has superb access to The White House, Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, the National Mall, Eastern Market, free museums and monuments. It is a vibrant area with a blend of celebrities, joggers, visitors and interns, who are all surrounded by a sea of people in suits and ties who insist on beginning every conversation with “Where do you work?”

Those rentals had to be close to either the Metro Stations of Gallery Place, in Chinatown or the Archives-Navy Memorial, this was purely due to the heavy schedules of well financed but very demanding clients. Unfortunately, there is only limited parking available in the surrounding area and those valuable spaces fill up very quickly and Max knew that the much-loved, but impractical SUV would be a liability in that enclosed frustrating environment and subsequently used the modern, inexpensive local transport options when visiting the city, which was fundamentally for business purposes.

Max was concentrating on the screen of the Apple Mac and was both concerned and troubled, for very good reasons. The coffee in the red hello mug was now almost cold, therefore unfit for purpose and deemed totally undrinkable. Max contemplated for a while, this was not a typical contract, the risks were different now, possibly immense with many unforeseen challenges. Did those elements of danger drive Max or was it purely about the rewards, and of course the money? Information had begun to surface across the various network channels and those details needed to be logged, clarified and cross checked to enable a complete and comprehensive report to be delivered in the agreed format.

The contract had to be completed within a very tight timeframe, and the supporting evidence within the report needed to be extensive and compiled with attention down to the very smallest details. Sometimes the most important information is hidden in those details. Max had some nagging doubts about the report, because it was beginning to feel that if it was to be delivered in the agreed format, then it would have to be completed in the style of a suspense novel.

Max was no Harold Robins or Rachel Abbott, who were both well-established authors with substantial and respected international pedigrees. This particular contract demanded a similar type of professional ability, however finding that specific someone was proving to be very difficult, even for a person of Max’s awesome personal attributes and capabilities.

At this moment in time there was very little information to substantiate any of the elements of a believable plot: The who, what, when, where, why and the how!

Max needed answers to all those questions, and the immediate lack of those answers was a very good reason to be concerned, very concerned. Each question needed to have factual answers, and those facts were necessary for the report to be considered complete. Importantly, none of these questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.

The sums involved for the delivery of the assignment had been substantial, but in hindsight the question had to be asked, “would it be enough?”. Fear and self-doubt had never been emotions that Max had experienced before, but the initial confidence was beginning to be tested as the enormity of the task ahead began to darken that confidence like a giant plague of locusts.

Would genuine and substantiated facts combined with ingenuity guarantee successful contract delivery? This was however a most unusual contract, even for Max who had history, a proven history of contract delivery. Each of those contracts, from the simplest to the most complex had been completed, sometimes under the most extreme and complicated conditions. Several of the most demanding of clients had been so impressed that additional bonus payments had been made through Zurich, even though there were no additional payment clauses stated within their contracts that instigated those further payments.

This particular contract was to investigate, compile and deliver a comprehensive report with full supporting documentation on the Zodiac Program with the contract fees being paid in two instalments, half in advance and half on completion, the total being $5 million to an account in Zurich. It had also been made perfectly clear during the preliminary discussions about the brief that the complete report should include significant details about the members of the Zodiac Program. Failure to deliver on the contract was not an option, Max had ambitious plans and those plans did not include the possibility of failure.

The directors of the program were each referred to by a sign of the zodiac, and seven of those directors were due to meet in Moscow in December for a “special” business conference. It was unusual for such meetings to be conducted with so many members of the program, but there were apparently serious and far reaching matters to discuss and a full agenda had been planned and co-ordinated by Kirill in Russia. That special agenda would include detailed analysis of both past, present and future developments within the Zodiac Program itself.

On the screen was the first page of the report from Katherine, the whole report had been successfully downloaded from the cloud account which had also been terminated as soon as the download had finished.

Max had plenty of time to read and digest the report and complete a few personal admin chores that needed immediate attention before flying to Moscow. Unfortunately flights were being delayed or cancelled as a result of staff shortages due to the worsening weather conditions across the North Eastern seaboard, which meant there would be at least a further twenty-four to spend in DC, before the next available flight. Max also had personal needs which had not been fulfilled for several weeks due the unusually demanding workload, but the unexpected delays would give an opportunity to satisfy those needs. Another few hours spent on the report and some necessary R&R would give Max a much-needed personal boost before the long journey ahead.

The report had been well written, concise, succinct and to the point, the way Max preferred. Some of the details were disturbing, but that had been expected. A clearer picture was beginning to emerge and as Max had witnessed many times before, the truth was often more shocking and unbelievable than most people could ever imagine. The details were on the Mac, a copy was made on a mini stick before sealing it in an envelope to be sent to a post box in a small town in Maine.

A quick visit to the post office, bank, mini-mart and finally the currency exchange office before returning to the apartment. The rental fee had been suitably increased on the request of smoking, which had been restricted internally to the lounge area and the balcony. Max wanted some comforts during the long periods of travel, and that meant rolling cigarettes in advance, to be consumed during the flight transfer periods which in some cases could take several hours with forever changing international schedules.

Max always used a blend of Auld Kendal Dark, simply the best quality loose hand rolling tobacco that you could buy with absolutely no exceptions. A fine loose tobacco which is hand made in Kendal, a small town in the Lake District region of the UK, using only the finest leaf available in the world today. It would never come to a compromise on quality, only the best would do and that included the paper to wrap the flakes in.

That paper would be RAW® Unrefined papers which contain a blend of unbleached fibers and finished with a special, natural gumline to match the burn rate of the rolling paper. The papers are also watermarked with the proprietary Criss-Cross imprint that helps prevent runs and maintains the smoothest burn.

The cigarettes would be rolled in a much cherished Germanus premium cigarette rolling machine. This method was also a necessity due to an unfortunate accident with the left index finger which had ripped the tendon and meant that the finger could never function properly for even basic tasks. Finally, the cigarettes would be lit with the old faithful silver plated but now dented Zippo lighter which had an ornate letter M in Roman Italics engraved on both sides. A cigarette was to be enjoyed, and subsequently Max treated the whole process very much as a ritual.

Standing in the kitchen area and away from any possible wind that could displace any light flakes of tobacco Max prepared several cigarettes, which were then stored in the metal box and saved a final one for consumption with a drink on the balcony. Now the drink was also another matter of quality before compromise, it was preferably Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey which had to be Maker’s Mark or Irish Whiskey which had to be Jameson, they were usually drunk with plenty of ice and a slice of fresh lime. Today there was only Bourbon, and a large measure was poured over several chunks of ice into an expensive heavy cut glass tumbler and finished with the fresh lime from the mini-mart.

The balcony was cold, but fortunately the wind was blowing the rain away from the building. The cigarette was a satisfying smoke with a great after taste which created a perfect harmony with the light sweet whiskey which caressed and teased the palate. Max was fighting the initial pangs of hunger and wanted to savor the moment on the balcony, before taking a long hot shower and changing into a fresh set of clothing which had to be suitable for the falling temperature, fortunately Chinatown and delicious food was only a short block away.

Max was refreshed and felt good, the clothes were loose fitting and comfortable, and the fur line boots were perfect for the weather conditions. A gold Russian style cross dangled around the neck in the middle of the open collar of the starched white shirt with double cuffs and simple but stylish cufflinks. Max smiled into the mirror and was pleased, the glasses were contemporary, the tan looked very real, and the overall effect just oozed sex appeal. Max left the building and headed for an intimate restaurant in the heart of Chinatown that specialized in authentic and contemporary Chinese cuisine.

Five minutes later, Max was walking on a very busy sidewalk, before stopping at number 88 and descended a narrow stairwell to a red oak door. It was heavy and creaked with eerie anticipation as Max pushed it open and entered-into the restaurant and waited for service at the reception desk. Business was quiet, but not for long, it was very popular with both the local-residents, and the vibrant business fraternity. The atmosphere was casual and relaxed, with soft dimmed lights and comfortable surroundings blending smoothly with the light international jazz music which played over the multiple Bluetooth speakers around the restaurant.

To the right there were a several diners seated beside the open log fire, who had come for the early bird specials and the table was littered with serving bowls and glasses. Around the room were several other dining areas, specifically designed to enhance the feeling of privacy and intimacy. To the left was a cosy bar area and small dining area which had only one enormous ornate round table with viewing access to the nightly theater of the open kitchen.

The table was laid for eight covers, but a few more guests could be squeezed together when deemed to be absolutely-necessary, a feat that was achieved almost every night, which produced fun and theater for both the guests and the staff. The table was referred to by regular patrons as the “Circle” and was extensively used by single diners and friends from the bustling local community and by 7:00pm the seating would be taken, and a queue would start to gather noisily beside the bar.

There was an unwritten house rule from the owner Freddie Lee, that the table was off limits to the conversation of both politics and religion, and over the years it had worked remarkably well with only a few dissenting guests. It was the perfect dining arrangement for Max, the out of towner.

A petite and attractive waitress appeared wearing only a tight-fitting black polo shirt, a very short black mini skirt, black fishnet stockings and a pair of unbelievably high heels which were totally inappropriate for serving tables. She smiled sweetly and escorted Max to the Circle, it was still early and there were no other guests. Max ordered a drink and nibbles and almost immediately she returned with a long glass of ice-cold beer and crackers with dips and presented the extensive menu before disappearing to the reception desk to attend other new arrivals. The beer was delicious, as expected, Flying Fist, an excellent IPA pulled beer, the evening had started well and could only get better! Max flicked through the extensive menu, there were so many delicious choices but did not want to eat alone and waited for other guests to arrive before ordering. The wait did not take long, and twenty minutes later there were six people at the table and several customers chatting around the bar.

A tall attractive woman in a coral blue pin striped suit sat down on the seat to the left of Max, the seat to the right remained vacant. She said a warm hello to everybody and judging from the response she was well-known and a popular client. Turning to Max, she introduced herself as Samantha Roxas, and insisted on being called Roxy. Max shook her hand lightly and replied Max, it’s a pleasure and smiled. The petite waitress appeared as if by magic, Roxy pondered and was about to order a large glass of Semillon before asking Max what was in the tall glass and changed her mind. “I’ll have the same please Cookie, and what’s the special tonight?” Cookie spoke quickly, she was busy, “Lobster and Scallop dumplings with lime and ginger in a sweet chili sauce, Freddie recommends it, I come back in few minutes.” Then she was gone, the atmosphere was warming up and there were clients to please and tips to be earned.

Max indicated to Roxy that tonight was a first visit, was unsure what to order and had chosen the deep-fried kung po tiger prawns, beef in black bean sauce, Hong Kong style noodles and crab fried rice, but after hearing the description of the special was now a little unsure. Roxy indicated that the best solution would be to have the lot and share it for luck, a perfect suggestion replied Max and they chinked glasses with a supporting toast of “cheers”.

They continued, engrossed in each other’s company, almost oblivious of the other diners, the food was delicious and there was plenty of it. Max could have eaten more but chose the company over the food and left far more than initially intended. The Circle was busy with a continual change of diners who created a warm friendly and sometimes loud but intoxicating atmosphere. The beers were followed by coffees, during which requests were made for their seats, so they moved across to the bar area, mingling with other patrons, who as a group were good looking, sophisticated, chic and good company. Max ordered Jameson on the rocks with a slice of fresh lime which Roxy insisted on sharing and reiterated that she was curious and wanted to taste everything but also insisted that she was usually very conservative and well behaved.

Max needed a cigarette which on most visits to DC had been accompanied with the usual derision from the ever-growing goody-goody PC brigade, but this time Roxy insisted on sharing the experience of a self-made cigarette on the tiny patio located outside the sliding door of the bar, which was quickly pulled closed behind them as the cold wind chill hit it. Max produced the Germanus cigarette holder and offered Roxy a sinful delight before lighting it from the old faithful Zippo.

Max had not figured on Roxy being a smoker, but she put the cigarette to her lips and drew a lungful of the warm leafy smoke before releasing it gradually and blowing a perfect smoke ring above her head. Very impressive Max thought, hiding the jealousy as Roxy leaned back and Max wrapped the free hand around her waist, they were not wearing their coats, so the extra although little warmth was a bonus. Roxy turned slowly before complimenting the quality of the cigarette and planting a soft delicate kiss on the left cheek of a freezing but delirious Max. The cigarette butts were discarded into an ashtray under the parasol and they returned to the glorious warmth of the bar.

At 06:30am the following morning Max was thankfully considering how lucky it was that the events of the night before did not have to be included in the report. It would indeed take some explaining on how it was that Max, Roxy and Cookie had ended up together on the same queen-sized bed with silky soft satin sheets with all their clothing and accessories discarded and littered around a superbly decorated apartment which apparently belonged to a relation of Roxy’s. But Max was not going to think any further about the matter, personal details had been recorded for the future and Max was almost certain that the future involved further contact with Roxy.

The next 24hrs should have given Max the opportunity to concentrate on just two people, Katherine and Kirill, both of whom could have a major impact on how the contract would progress in the days ahead. There was now however an additional complication, one that should have been avoided and that was the delightful and deliciously complicated Roxy.

Max needed a taxi, a bath and a packed suitcase, in that order before the long and arduous flight to Moscow which would begin from the Washington Ronald Reagan International Airport to NY (JFK), then London (LHR) Heathrow and finally Moscow (DME) Domodedovo airport.