IT’S NEARLY ELEVEN p.m. and Liam Grey is at the Tuckerman Roadhouse outside of Langley, Virginia, finishing up a hot roast beef sandwich, homemade fries, and a draft Sam Adams beer, when he spots a familiar face at the other end of the bar. Nearly sixteen hours have passed since this morning’s meeting with the president but he still feels wired and alert. He drops three ten-dollar bills on the mahogany bar and picks up his beer, to see if the woman down there feels the same.
Noa Himel sees him approaching and lifts a glass of clear liquid in salute, and he returns the gesture. She has on blue jeans and a plain gray sweatshirt, and as he gets near, he leans in and over the noise of the customers, says, “Want to find someplace private?”
“Sure, if there is such a place.”
Noa picks up her drink and he maneuvers her to the rear of the tavern. This roadhouse is off the beaten path for most tourists and is a popular after-hours destination for military and civilian workers from the Pentagon, as well as those working for the Agency. One of the old-timers who had mentored Liam at the Farm told tales of how decades ago, off-duty workers would go to bars wearing Company lanyards around their necks, badges hidden in their shirt pockets. A way of concealing your true employment but quietly demonstrating your importance.
That was probably a cool thing to do during the Cold War, but ever since 1993—when a terrorist shot up a line of cars waiting on Route 123 to turn into CIA headquarters and killing two CIA employees and wounding three others—the rules had changed.
Noa finds a corner table that is cluttered with half-empty glasses and crumpled napkins. She sits down, back to the wall, and he does the same.
He sits quietly with her for a long few seconds and says, “Well?”
“Well, what?” she says sharply. “You were so damn chatty this morning, I thought I’d let you go first. You suddenly shy all the time?”
Liam takes a swallow of his beer. “What to say?” He checks the crowd, knowing from training and instinct how to converse out in public, without letting classified details slip out. “The boss made good points. I liked what he had to say. You . . . you sounded like he was about to set up reeducation camps or something like that.”
Noa frowns, runs a finger around the edge of the glass. “Remember your first real day at work? In the Bubble? We took an oath about defending the Constitution. Not the president of the United States.”
“He’s making it legal. That’s good enough for me.”
“He’s stretching it, and you know it.”
Liam says, “There’s an opportunity here for both of us to make an impact, to really hit some bad guys where it counts.”
“So pretend we’re in the Army, just salute smartly, and go up that hill?”
“No, as Agency employees, we say ‘yes, sir,’ and follow his instructions. The Agency works for the president. I don’t have a problem with that.”
Noa stays quiet. Liam takes in the faces of the government employees and contractors, crowded around the tavern’s square bar and tables, talking in small groups, seeing lots of smiles and laughter, but also seeing the quiet ones. They were the ones with haunted eyes, either just home from abroad with fresh, bloody memories, or just left their offices, the burden of looming deadly threats still fresh in their minds.
Liam says, “Last year I was in the Middle East. Country in the middle of a civil war. Keeping watch on things. A couple of folks of interest wandered into this house we were observing. Checked them using our facial recognition software...two solid hits on...guys of interest. With long histories, you know? We sent word up the line, and the word came back. Leave them alone. Negotiations were in a delicate stage. They left later, and they were responsible for . . . some stuff. Deadly and horrific stuff.”
He finishes his beer. “You know what? Negotiations are always in a delicate stage. Screw it. And if you don’t want to take the job, Noa, don’t. I plan to do it, and with great professionalism and enthusiasm.”
She picks up her drink and lowers it. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Liam.”
“Didn’t think I was.”
“Six or seven months ago, I was in Cambridge,” Noa says.
“The one here or the one over there?”
“The one here,” she says. A loud burst of laughter pauses Noa for a second, and when it quiets down, she continues, “I was assigned liaison to an FBI task force, running surveillance on a foreign intelligence cell working out of Cambridge.”
Liam says, “Were they on the city council?”
For a moment it looks like Noa is considering a smile. “No, it was a husband-and-wife team, and their neighbors were another husband-and-wife team. They all had jobs in various defense firms out on Route 128. I was getting briefed by the lead FBI agent and I asked how long they had been here. Three years . . . can you believe it? Three goddamn years . . . I asked, well, when are you planning to take them out? The FBI guy just laughed at me. ‘Never,’ he said. ‘They’re money in the bank. We keep them happy, let them do their work, and if there ever comes a time when one of you folks gets captured overseas, we use them for an exchange.’”
Liam stays quiet, sensing she wants to say more.
“Get that?” she says. “We were letting those four spies steal our most advanced military technological developments, just because one day, someday, they could be used as poker chips. Meanwhile, our enemies get advanced targeting technology, software, and weapons systems schematics without being bothered. We weren’t thinking about the now, about damage they’re doing every damn day, week, and month. Once again, we were being played for suckers for some possible future goal.”
Noa finishes off her drink, holds up the glass like she’s examining it. “Me, turning this down? Not a chance in the world. I just want to go into it with clear eyes and an understanding of the rewards and the possible risks. Truth be told, I like being picked out by Barrett.”
Liam picks up his empty tavern mug, clinks it against Noa’s empty glass. “Me, too. We just got our hunting license from the boss. Let’s go hunting.”
Noa clinks it in return, puts her glass down. “Yes, let’s go hunting. But remember this, Liam.”
Noa says, “One of these days, the game wardens are going to find out what we’re doing, and there’ll be hell to pay.”
PRESIDENT KEEGAN BARRETT is working late again in his quiet and small office on the second floor of the White House. A tray with the remains of his dinner—a simple egg white omelet—is on the coffee table in front of his old desk as he works through a thick file that two hours ago was couriered over to him from Langley.
Like his predecessors, Barrett is working on a list whose name has changed over the years, with its recent, innocent permutation being the Disposition Matrix. But no matter how much lipstick one puts on this bureaucratic pig, it is still known as the “kill list,” those enemies of the United States who had been determined to be an imminent threat, and who, upon Barrett’s signature, would imminently receive the latest version of a Hellfire missile in their lap.
But Barrett’s personal “kill list” has widened, ever since he set up the two CIA teams under the direction of Liam Grey and Noa Himel, and their initial confidential reports back to him have been encouraging.
Yet he knows, deep down, that his window of opportunity to strike first against his country’s enemies may close at any time. What the various pundits and experts, generals and admirals who still want to fight the last war don’t understand is how damn flexible and pinpointed one has to be in this new age. Army armored divisions, squadrons of Air Force bombers, and fleets of Navy ships are huge sledgehammers, ready to kill and destroy at a moment’s notice.
But today you have to be precise, you have to be quick, and, most of all, you have to be quiet.
And then there’s the iron confidence and will—which he’s had for decades, urged on by a whisper that he was unique—that he was put on this Earth to do great things.
Which is why he is working so diligently at this late hour.
He reads again the summary of this update, prepared by a team of analysts back at the CIA who are still personally loyal to him, and who didn’t feel it was necessary to go through official channels to supply the detailed information he needs.
This update regards one of the biggest banks in South Korea— BK Financial Group—and how for years it’s been secretly by- passing and undercutting the many financial embargoes in place against their neighbor to the North. Even though North Korea is a sworn enemy of Seoul, for years this bank has been using distant branches and other financial cutouts to help Pyongyang launder the funds it’s stolen from cyber phishing attacks or received from slave laborers sent to China or Siberia, or for coal shipments successfully smuggled to Russia or China.
For years there have been stern messages, complaints, and warnings to Seoul that something must be done to stop BK Financial Group’s work in propping up North Korea, but nothing has happened. The various governments of Seoul—who have depended on the BK Financial Group for its campaign contributions and other largesse—have denied the accusations, or promised to “look into it,” or have claimed that the rogue bank’s actions have ceased.
Enough, Barrett thinks, as he puts the file aside for later action. He mutters, “We keep thirty thousand men and women stationed there . . . about time you paid the piper.”
And as he considers how the piper will be paid—a concealed cyberattack to permanently erase the bank’s electronic records, or something old-fashioned like a wayward cruise missile blamed on the South Korea military landing in the main bank’s front lobby— the door opens and Carlton Pope, his special assistant, comes in.
“Yes?” he asks, taking another thick file folder from the pile on his desk.
“The vice president has landed at Andrews,” he says. “She’s being transported to Walter Reed at this moment.”
“Good,” he says. “What’s her condition?”
“Still in a coma,” Pope says. “Unresponsive.”
“And her husband and children?”
“Air Force transport will be bringing them later tonight to Andrews, and I’ll have the Secret Service take them to the hospital.”
“Good,” Barrett says, opening the file folder.
Pope says, “We have a statement ready for release. Do you want to look at it?”
“Is it good?” Barrett asks. “Do you vouch for it?”
“Yes, sir,” Pope says.
“Then give it to the press office, have them release it as soon as they can,” Barrett says. “I’m busy.”
“Yes, sir,” Pope says. “Is there anything else?”
Barrett gestures to the coffee table. “Yes. Get rid of that, all right?” Pope nods, grabs the dinner tray, leaves his office, and Barrett resumes his work.
One thing he’s learned over the years is the importance of picking good people and letting them do their job, whether it’s returning a dinner tray to the White House Mess, or crafting a press release, or putting a bullet in the head of an enemy of the United States.