Five miles off the coast of Italy, the 237-foot luxury yacht The Mendacium motored through the predawn mist that rose from the gently rolling swells of the Adriatic.
The ship's stealth-profile hull was painted gunmetal gray, giving it the distinctly unwelcoming aura of a military vessel.
With a price tag of over 300 million U.S. dollars, the craft boasted all the usual amenities—spa, pool, cinema, personal submarine, and helicopter pad.
The ship's creature comforts, however, were of little interest to its owner, who had taken delivery of the yacht five years ago and immediately gutted most of these spaces to install a lead-lined, military-grade, electronic command center.
Fed by three dedicated satellite links and a redundant array of terrestrial relay stations, the control room on The Mendacium had a staff of nearly two dozen—technicians, analysts, operation coordinators—who lived on board and remained in constant contact with the organization's various land-based operation centers.
The ship's onboard security included a small unit of military-trained soldiers, two missile-detection systems, and an arsenal of the latest weapons available. Other support staff—cooks, cleaning, and service—pushed the total number on board to more than forty. The Mendacium was, in effect, the portable office building from which the owner ran his empire.
Known to his employees only as "the provost," he was a tiny, stunted man with tanned skin and deep-set eyes. His unimposing physique and direct manner seemed well suited to one who had made a vast fortune providing a private menu of covert services along the shadowy fringes of society.
He had been called many things—a soulless mercenary, a facilitator of sin, the devil's enabler—but he was none of these. The provost simply provided his clients with the opportunity to pursue their ambitions and desires without consequence; that mankind was sinful in nature was not his problem.
Despite his detractors and their ethical objections, the provost's moral compass was a fixed star. He had built his reputation—and the Consortium itself—on two golden rules.
Never make a promise you cannot keep. And never lie to a client. Ever.
In his professional career, the provost had never broken a promise or reneged on a deal. His word was bankable—an absolute guarantee—and while there were certainly contracts he regretted having made, backing out of them was never an option.
This morning, as he stepped onto the private balcony of his yacht's stateroom, the provost looked across the churning sea and tried to fend off the disquiet that had settled in his gut.
The decisions of our past are the architects of our present.
The decisions of the provost's past had put him in a position to negotiate almost any minefield and always come out on top. Today, however, as he gazed out the window at the distant lights of the Italian mainland, he felt uncharacteristically on edge.
One year ago, on this very yacht, he had made a decision whose ramifications now threatened to unravel everything he had built. I agreed to provide services to the wrong man.
There had been no way the provost could have known at the time, and yet now the miscalculation had brought a tempest of unforeseen challenges, forcing him to send some of his best agents into the field with orders to do "whatever it took" to keep his listing ship from capsizing.
At the moment the provost was waiting to hear from one field agent in particular.
Vayentha, he thought, picturing the sinewy, spike-haired specialist. Vayentha, who had served him perfectly until this mission, had made a mistake last night that had dire consequences.
The last six hours had been a scramble, a desperate attempt to regain control of the situation.
Vayentha claimed her error was the result of simple bad luck—the untimely coo of a dove.
The provost, however, did not believe in luck. Everything he did was orchestrated to eradicate randomness and remove chance.
Control was the provost's expertise—foreseeing every possibility, anticipating every response, and molding reality toward the desired outcome.
He had an immaculate track record of success and secrecy, and with it came a staggering clientele—billionaires, politicians, sheikhs, and even entire governments.
To the east, the first faint light of morning had begun to consume the lowest stars on the horizon. On the deck the provost stood and patiently awaited word from Vayentha that her mission had gone exactly as planned.