Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
(Who will guard the guards?)
George Bush Center for Intelligence
Wednesday, September 27
Seth Timmons would have made a remarkable spy --- if that had been his mission.
The fact that the authorities would kill him and search his car after he was dead didn’t bother him at all. It would do them no good. He’d left nothing but fingerprints --- and Human Resources already had those in his file. They knew who he was --- or thought they did. Americans tended to call notorious killers by their full names. At the time of his birth he’d been Tum-afik Pedram, but before the day was over he’d take his place in history as Robert Seth Timmons.
The dumbfounded investigators who scrutinized his past would find he was a twenty-six-year-old white male from Dayton, Ohio, with no surviving relatives. They would see he had an above-average intellect, with a graduate degree from MIT and a fluency in three Persian languages including Tajik. His present assignment at the Central Asian desk would reveal he knew far more than he should have about American intelligence.
Timmons’s willow-thin build made him appear taller than his six feet. Wild eyebrows, bushy as ripe heads of wheat, shielded twilight-blue eyes. A prominent Adam’s apple displayed the swollen knot of a goiter, something rarely seen in the well-fed youth of North America. The CIA security personnel who’d done his background investigation had been much too polite to mention such a thing. They had been comforted by his sandy hair, had gazed into his familiar face and seen a pleasant reflection of themselves.
Timmons switched off the slapping windshield wipers. Rivulets of water zigzagged down the glass as acres of employee parking filled up around him. Many had been at their cubicles for more than an hour. Flanked by armed guards and cloistered behind multiple layers of cameras and motion sensors, these early birds were lulled into a sense of security as sure as a mother’s embrace. Timmons counted on the fact that they would be at ease among their own. Relaxed sheep were all the easier to slaughter.
A brutal, gray rain pelted his face as he hauled himself from the stuffy confines of the Taurus. He chanced a quick glance over his shoulder at the hazy tangle of dark woods beyond the employee parking lots, past Colonial Farm Road. Mujaheed would surely be hidden there, watching from the shadows, ready to kill him if he backed out before the job was done. There was no need. Timmons found himself looking forward to the end. He’d waited, it seemed, so very long.
He slung a canvas messenger bag over his shoulder and began the soggy trudge across the parking lot toward the main entrance of the Original Headquarters Building --- OHB to CIA staff. Dozens of other early arrivals slogged silently along with him, umbrellas, book bags, and wilted newspapers held above their heads against the incessant hiss of rain. Timmons studied them with his peripheral vision, wondering which ones would be alive to walk back to their cars at the end of the day.
The gathering herd of employees slowed and bunched at the bottleneck of security screening aisles they often called the cattle chutes. Timmons swiped his ID card, and gave what he hoped was an easy smile to the black uniformed guard who stood at parade rest eyeing the incoming tide of workers. CIA analysts were not allowed to bring weapons into the building and there was the outside chance the officer would search his messenger bag.
It didn’t matter. The items Timmons would need for his mission were already inside, waiting.
On the elevator he had to force himself to stop tapping his foot. He paused at his cubicle at the Central Asian Desk long enough to log on to the computer. He stood, stooping in front of the keyboard, the empty canvas messenger bag still draped over his shoulder.
No emails. That was good. Everything was still moving according to plan.
He looked at his watch --- 7:24.
Alex Gerard was waiting inside the supply closet off the back of the mail room. Everyone called it a closet, but in reality it was a ten-by-eight room packed with reams of computer paper, toner, and everything else one might need to run an office.
“Are you excited, brother?” The redhead leaned against a stack of paper boxes, tapping an unsharpened yellow pencil against a cardboard lid. Gerard’s birth name was Yazad Kabuli. He’d been with Timmons from the beginning, since they were filthy, starving boys.
“Of course I’m excited,” Timmons said. “Who wouldn’t be? Have you got them?” He tried to keep his hands from trembling.
At this early hour everyone who was at work would be settling in at their desks or making their way down to the food court for coffee. Even so, Timmons made sure to pull the door shut behind him.
“I do, indeed.” Gerard nodded smugly. He was six inches shorter than Timmons and two years younger, but he always acted superior. He insisted on being the one who dealt with the go-between. He had to be the one who distributed the weapons.
“We have over a hundred rounds each,” Gerard continued, his face turning passive, thoughtful. “I suppose that will be enough.” He took a shiny blue-black pistol from his own messenger bag, racked the slide so it locked open, and pushed it toward Timmons ---
The supply room door yawned open with a sickening creak at the same moment Timmons’s fingers closed around the butt of the weapon. Both men looked up, shoulders slumped, eyes shining like rats caught in a bright light.
“Hey, Seth.” It was Ginger Durham, the IT specialist responsible for the computer network in their department. Her jet-black hair was braided into cornrows and festooned with gold extenders and colorful beads. Timmons had been on several dates with her, the last four of which had ended up at her apartment. He found her ebony skin and easy laughter a pleasant distraction.
She smiled, showing her perfect teeth. “What are you guys up t---?”
Her eyes fell on the gun at the same moment the door swung shut behind her. She froze.
Gerard, who was closer, lunged forward, slamming his palm over her mouth as he drove her against the door with the point of his shoulder. He used his free hand to punch her hard in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her.
“Grab her legs,” he hissed.
Timmons stuffed the handgun in his waistband and took the terrified girl around her thighs like a football player on a low tackle. She had the muscular legs of a sprinter and her stiletto heels could have done some real damage had she fought back. Amazingly, she allowed the men to lower her to the floor without a struggle.
Gerard lay across her chest, pinning her arms with his body, his hand still across her mouth. Her hair spread out on the tile around her face like a beaded fan.
“I could use some help here,” Gerard grunted.
Timmons released the girl’s legs and maneuvered himself higher so he could trade places with Gerard and straddle her belly, pinning her arms with both hands. He could smell the familiar, breezy scent of hyacinth perfume.
“Have you got her?” Gerard pressed the blade of a box cutter to the quivering vein on the side of the girl’s throat.
“I have her,” Timmons said. It was strange to see her lying there this way, helpless, frightened as a trapped bird.
“Not a sound,” Gerard threatened as he raised his hand an inch.
“Seth,” she gurgled. “Why---”
Gerard’s hand slammed back down on her face. “I told you to keep quiet.” He pressed the box cutter deeper so it drew a trickle of blood from her neck.
She nodded quickly, eyes round and white with terror.
Timmons spotted a roll of clear packing tape on top of the counter.
“Ginger,” he whispered, in the same voice he’d whispered much more personal things. “You’ve got to stay still so he won’t hurt you. Do you understand me?”
She nodded again, blinking away the tears that pressed from her thick lashes. Mascara ran in black streams down her cheeks.
“Okay... I’m trusting you....” He let her hands go long enough to get the tape. Once her mouth was covered he took several wraps around her ankles and her wrists.
When he was satisfied she was well restrained, he looked up at Gerard. “It’s done.”
“Finally,” Gerard said, shaking his head as if disgusted. He breathed a long sigh of relief. “That was just about the end of us.”
“How are we going to do this?” Timmons looked down at the terrified woman’s face. Ten minutes before, she would have called him her boyfriend. They’d even joked about starting a family together.
“Good question,” Gerard said. “She’ll bleed all over everything if we cut her throat—and I only have this one shirt here at work. It would be pretty hard to break her neck without making too much noise....” His nostrils flared with all the talk of killing. Such things had always excited him.
“Well, we can’t leave her alive,” Timmons said. “Everything won’t be in place until one-thirty.... That’s over five hours away.”
Ginger looked back and forth; her chest began to heave uncontrollably. She clenched her eyes as if closing them might drown out their words.
“We can hide her body behind these boxes,” Gerard stared down in thought. “But someone will report her missing if she just disappears.” Ginger’s denim skirt had hiked up during the assault and he seemed transfixed by the dark, chocolate flesh of her thighs and snow-white glimpse of her underwear.
Timmons shrugged. “I’ll tell Selma she got sick and had to run home. She knows we’ve been dating. It’ll seem a plausible story coming from me....”
Ginger’s eyes flicked open. She stared up at Timmons, heartbroken.
Her muffled sobs turned into angry screams beneath the tape. She began to pitch and squirm, pounding her head against the floor and kicking out with her bound feet.
It was too late.
Timmons lay his full weight across her writhing chest. He pressed his palm over her mouth to help dampen the sound as Gerard reached in to slide a plastic garbage bag over her head. Timmons slipped his hand out quickly, then replaced it again while Gerard sealed the bag around her neck.
Her silent screams buzzed against Seth’s palm. Dark lashes, soaked with tears, fluttered against the plastic.
Though he’d seen it done many times, Timmons had never actually killed anyone himself. He was surprised it took Ginger Durham such a very long time to die.
The others would go much more quickly. He would make certain of that.
The White House
Secretary of Defense Andrew Filson had the pinched mouth of someone who woke up angry every day. He was a man constantly in motion, and the tail of his starched French-cuffed shirt was generally flapping over his belt ten minutes into any meeting.
He tossed a navy-blue folder onto the long polished oak table surrounded by thirteen fellow members of the National Security Council. Six muted flat-screen televisions flickered along the walls of the cramped, subterranean room. Five were tuned to major media outlets. One glowed in vibrantly blank blue screen, attached to a laptop computer for the very few times a cabinet member was foolish enough to bring in a PowerPoint presentation for the commander in chief.
Winfield “Win” Palmer, the former director of national intelligence, and newly appointed national security advisor, sat to the immediate right of his boss --- President Chris Clark. Sometimes brash, often outspoken, and ever devoted, the ruddy, stone-faced Palmer had been Clark’s right-hand man from the time they’d been assigned to the same company in the United States Military Academy at West Point, too many decades before.
Two seats away, SecDef Filson had reached nuclear-option-only mode more quickly than usual. Palmer shot a furtive glance at the commander in chief to see if he wanted the retired three-star reined in a notch or two.
Clark’s gunmetal brow arched almost imperceptibly. Their time together in the military gave Palmer the edge when it came to reading his boss’s unspoken cues. POTUS liked a robust discussion among his cabinet, sometimes allowing things to heat dangerously close to an all-out brawl before offering any sort of mediation. The White House Situation Room was code-named Cement Mixer for good reason.
Filson raged on with all the wind and fury of a true zealot. He waved another navy-blue folder in the air before tossing it on the leather desk blotter in front of him.
“The three yesterday make five,” he said, black reading glasses perched on a bulbous nose as he consulted a hand-scrawled note on his legal pad. “I’m sure you have seen the markets this morning. Dropping like a glass-jawed boxer at our inability to protect our citizens.”
He looked at the folder in front of him, shaking his head in disgust. “Look at this. A rogue policeman working off-duty security in Oakland takes his service pistol and guns down fifteen at a Raiders game. Fans tackled the son of a bitch, but he was able to get away and blow the head off a young father in front of his wife and two kids before a sniper from his own department pops him between the running lights....
“And how about this one?” Filson’s eyes flicked up and down the document, pressing on with his grim news. “A TSA screener sneaks a bomb inside the secure area at Miami International, managing to turn the thirteen innocents nearest him into pink mist. Twenty more injured in one way or another.” He scanned the last folder in his pile. “There was one tiny shred of decent news,” he snorted. “A flight attendant out of Detroit tried to strong-arm a Delta pilot into crashing their 767. Luckily for the souls on board, the copilot happens to be a flight deck safety officer. He shoots her in the eye at thirty thousand feet. They had to do an emergency landing in Philly to wipe her brains off the instrum---”
“All right, Andrew,” the president cut him off. “I know everyone here appreciates your vivid descriptions, but we do have our own copy of the files. The real question before us is the connection. All of these people were under thirty.” He flipped through his executive brief. “What makes Americans with not so much as a parking ticket suddenly go berserk?”
“These people may have looked American.” Filson jammed a thick index finger against the table. “But witnesses at three separate events heard the actors whisper something in another language shortly before each killing. Mark my words Mr. President, an outside group is behind each and every one of these incidents. My money is on al-Qaeda---”
“Someone heard a whisper in something they think was an unknown tongue?” At the far end of the table Jamal Ramidi, the president’s assistant for economic policy, threw up his hands. He was a tall, birdlike academic who looked fragile enough to snap in a strong wind. Doctorates from Stanford in international trade and macroeconomics made him the perfect choice for dispensing executive advice on bean-counting. “For crying out loud, Andrew, just once, might it be possible that our troubles are domestic?”
Filson wagged his head with a curling sneer. “I’m not pulling this out of my ass, Jamal. These are coordinated acts of terrorism with Sandbox fingerprints all over them and you know it.”
“Way to generalize, General.” Ramidi pursed narrow lips. “I suppose you advocate a wholesale roundup of all us towel heads at once---?”
“Believe me.” Filson clenched his teeth, leaning across the table. “I love this country enough that if---”
“Oh,” Ramidi snapped. “And I suddenly hate my country because my grandparents are from Lebanon?” He threw his pen on the table, exasperated. “Mr. Secretary, you do not know Hamas from hummus.”
“You know I’m not referring to you, Jamal.” Filson did a poor job of masking his disdain for the man. He looked around the room. “Doesn’t anyone but me see we are at war here?”
Secretary of State Melissa Ryan, who sat on Palmer’s immediate right, looked across the table at her arch-rival in matters of foreign policy. Palmer caught the flash of indignation in her eyes. The product of an Irish boxer and a Roma, Ryan’s sultry features and penchant for keeping the top two buttons on her Cavalli silk blouses unfastened had the power to befuddle the wisest man during a debate. At fifty-one, she’d graced the cover of Vogue only a month before. A former U.S. senator from Maryland, she’d been plucked from a prestigious job at the Brookings Institution when Clark took office. Many thought she would run for president when his tenure was over.
Filson blustered on, unaware he was about to be attacked. “Don’t be so quick to take offense. Americans are dying. It is our duty to find those responsible and stomp them out---”
“The problem with that rationale, Andrew” --- Melissa Ryan leaned back in a black leather chair to steeple her fingers in front of her chin, a condescending gesture everyone knew enraged Filson --- “is that you’ve got to have a target or you’ll find yourself merely stomping around looking foolish.” She tapped the pile of crime scene photographs on her desk folio with a perfectly manicured hand. “Whom do you suggest we stomp first?”
Filson rolled his eyes.
Ryan turned to address the president. “As Dr. Ramidi points out, each and every one of these actors was an American citizen --- all white for that matter.”
“She’s right, Andrew,” President Clark said, pushing back from the table. It was a clear indication this meeting of the National Security Council was drawing to a close. “The Bureau is already knee-deep into this investigation. They believe there is a domestic terrorism connection.” He looked at FBI Director Kurt Bodington, who sat in one of the chairs along the outer wall. As a guest of the NSC, he didn’t get a seat at the table. “Am I correct there, Kurt? You’re still thinking domestic?”
The man flushed. More lawyer than cop, he hated being pinned down on anything, especially in front of the Situation Room. Near the middle of his customary ten-year term as the FBI top boss, he was an inheritance from past administrations and Palmer had a list of possible replacements on his desk for the president’s review.
“To be clear, Mr. President,” he blustered, looking like he might cry. A bully to his staff, Bodington folded quickly when someone of greater authority challenged him. “Insomuch as my people have briefed me, I believe that to be correct....”
Clark stared at him for a long moment, then shook his head. “Well, there you have it,” he said. “The definitive bureaucratic answer.”
There was a flutter of shuffled paper and the clatter of chairs as the rest of the room rose along with the president.
Filson and Ramidi carried on their animated argument at the far end of the table. The other council members milled together with their deputies in pods of three or four, following up on action items. The spirited conversations seemed to mingle and collide in the small room, statically charged with decisions that affected the entire world.
Palmer stood, waiting for a chance to talk with Melissa Ryan. A widower, he’d become the envy of single men in Washington by seeing her socially for the past four months. He found her charming, intelligent, and extremely athletic.
The president flashed his Midwestern schoolboy grin and cut in, taking Ryan’s hand.
“So,” he said, “that son of yours talked the vice president into giving up his one and only daughter?”
“You know Garrett, Mr. President.” The SecState twirled tortoiseshell reading glasses in delicate fingers that belied her inner strength. “He’s got a silver tongue.”
“Just like his mother.” The president nodded. “See that your boss gets an invitation, will you? It’ll piss off my Secret Service detail, but I’d love to attend.
“We’d be honored, Mr. President.”
Palmer’s BlackBerry began to buzz. He was one of a small handful of people who kept his phone on in the Situation Room. Only a week before, Clark had relieved Palmer of his duties as the director of national intelligence to name him the new president’s national security advisor. Over the years he’d been a key confidant and counselor. The new position just made it official.
“Go ahead and take that, Win,” the president said. “I’ll entertain Melissa for another minute.”
Palmer nodded, taking the BlackBerry from his belt.
“Winfield Palmer.” It was Millie, his personal secretary. “Mr. Palmer. I’m sorry to bother you, but something terrible has happened out at Langley....”
At that same moment, FBI Director Kurt Bodington walked back into the Situation Room, a cell phone to his ear. His face had gone pale.
Sally Portman, the president’s iron-fisted chief of staff, came striding in from the direction of the Navy Mess. She was flanked by two dour-looking Secret Service agents.
“Mr. President,” she said, her mouth a tight line. “I need you to come with me. There’s been an incident at CIA Headquarters. . . .”
Clark shot a glance at Palmer, eyes flashing like the fighter that he was.
“You know what I know, Mr. President,” Palmer said. “I’ll brief you as soon as I get more information.”
“They’re hitting the CIA now? I have had enough of this shit,” Clark spat. “Call him in.”
Portman and the two Secret Service agents hustled Clark through the door. They would take him to the subbasement bunker until things got sorted out. Palmer told Millie to get Director Ross from the CIA and call back when she was on the line.
Ryan moved in as close to Palmer as White House decorum would allow. She kept her voice to a hoarse whisper. “I know that look, Win,” she said. “Who’s the old man calling in? Everyone in the cabinet knows he doesn’t trust Kurt Bodington.”
“For this...” Palmer gave a sly nod. “The president has someone... special in mind....”