The Matarese Circle - By Robert Ludlum

Chapter One

We three Kings of Orient are, Bearing gifts we traverse afar..

The band of carolers huddled at the comer, stamping their feet and swinging their arms, their young voices penetrating the cold night air between the harsh sounds of automobile horns and police whistles and the metallic strains of Christmas music blaring from storefront speakers. The snowfall was dense, snarling traffic, causing the hordes of last-minute shoppers to shield their eyes. Nevertheless, they managed to sidestep each other, as well as the lurching automobiles, and the mounds of slush. Tires spun on the wet streets; buses inched in maddening starts and stops, and the bells of uniformed Santas kept up their incessant if futile clanging.

Field and fountain, Moor and mow-an-ten....

A dark Cadillac sedan turned the comer and crept past the carolers. The lead singer, dressed in a costume that was somebody's idea of Dickens' Bob Cratchit, approached the right rear window, his gloved hand outstretched, his face contorted in song next to the glass.

Following ya-hon-der star...

'Me angry driver blew his hom and waved the begging caroler away, but the middle-aged passenger in the back seat reached into his overcoat pocket and pulled out several bills. He pressed a button; the rear window glided down and the gray-haired man thrust the money into the outstretched hand.

"God bless you, sir," shouted the caroler. "The Boys Club of East Fiftieth Street thanks you. Merry Christmas, sir!" The words would have been more effective had there not been a stench of whisky emanating from the mouth that yelled them.

"Merry Christmas," said the passenger, pressing the window button to shut off further communication.

There was a momentary break in the traffic. The Cadillac shot forward only to be forced to an abrupt, sliding stop thirty feet down the street. The driver gripped the steering wheel; it was a gesture that took the place of cursing out loud.

"Take it easy, Major," said the gray-haired passenger, his tone of voice at once sympathetic and commanding. "Getting upset won't solve anything; it won't get us where we're going any faster." "You're right, General," answered the driver with a respect be did not feel. Normally, the respect was there, but not tonight, not on this particular trip. The general's self-indulgence aside, he had one hell of a nerve requesting his aide to be available for duty on Christmas Eve. For driving a rented, civilian car to New York so the general could play games.

The major could think of a dozen acceptable reasons for being on duty tonight, but this was not one of them.

A whorehouse. Stripped of its verbal frills, that's what it was. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was going to a whorehouse on Christmas Eve! And because games were played, the general's most confidential aide bad to be there to pick up the mess when the games were over. Pick it up, put it together, nurse it through the next morning at some obscure motel, and make godamn sure no one found out what the games were or who the mess was. And by noon tomorrow, the Chairman would resume his ramrod bearing, issue his orders, and the evening and the mess would be forgotten.

The major had made these trips many times during the past three years-since the day after the general had assumed his awesome position-but the trips always followed periods of intense activity at the Pentagon, or moments of national crisis, when the general had shown his professional mettle. But never on such a night as this.

Never on Christmas Eve, for Christ's sake! If the general Were anyone but Anthony Blackburn, the major might have objected on the grounds that even a subordinate officer's family had certain holiday priorities.

But the major would never offer the slightest objection about anything where the general was concerned. "Mad Anthony" Blackburn had carried a broken young lieutenant out of a North Vietnamese prison camp, away from torture and starvation, and brought him through the jungles back to American lines. That was years ago; the lieutenant was a major now, the senior aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Military men often spoke bromidically of certain officers they'd follow to bell and back. Well, the major had been to bell with Mad Anthony Blackburn and he'd return to hell in a shot with a snap of the general's fingers.

They reached Park Avenue and turned north. The traffic was less snarled than on the crosstown route, as befitted the better section of the city.

Fifteen more blocks to