The Library Bar, St. Regis Hotel
923 16th Street NW, Washington, D.C.
Monday, August 18, 11:00 PM EDT
The navy-blue envelope lay on the polished oak table in the center of a pool of warm yellow light, the embossed crest of the National Security Agency in its center gleaming like a fifty-dollar gold piece. During his tenure as a senator attached to the Intelligence Oversight Committee, Drew Langan had been handed several navy-blue envelopes exactly like this one, and he had learned through bitter experience that what was contained inside them was often dangerous to know. Gunther Krugman was sitting on the other side of the low round wooden table, watching Drew through half-closed gray eyes in which a pale light glittered. They were in the Library Bar of the St. Regis Hotel. It was Krugman's usual base of operations; where you looked for him if you needed him, where he waited until you did. The richly detailed, wood-paneled room was nearly empty on this rainy Monday evening. It was the last full week of the August recess, and those few government staffers still in town were safely back in Georgetown or Cherrydale or Adams Morgan.
Drew Langan's Secret Service escort was parked at a table a few steps away; Dale Rickett and Orlando Buriss, two sleek young hard-cases with gelled hair wearing Hugo Boss suits and Armani glasses, as alike as a pair of artillery shells. They were both tactically deployed; one man facing the service door behind the long wooden bar, the other watching the entrance to the lobby of the hotel. Black coffee steamed untouched in white porcelain cups on the table top between them. He knew very little about them, and he intended to keep it that way. Cigar smoke was curling and rising through the yellow haze and Krugman was watching it with an air of zenlike calm, as if he had a universe of time to burn. Drew sat back in the chair and studied Krugman's blunt, irregular face, the skin cracked and seamed, the pale eyes slightly hooded, the jawline clear-cut and lean, his bloodless lips thin and tight, as if their only purpose was to seal his mouth; the result of a lifetime spent keeping other people's secrets.
Krugman returned Drew's look with the unblinking self-possession of a tombstone. An artery pulsed slowly on the left side of his throat where the perfect white linen of his shirt collar cut deep into his leathery hide. His tie was a silken ladder of Egyptian hieroglyphs in bright copper against a deep ocher field. Hieroglyphs, thought Drew, one of the first ciphers. A nice touch. A Django Reinhardt number was floating faintly through the cigar-scented air; Cole Porter's "Night and Day." A distant echoing murmur was coming from the lobby, the milling stamp-and-shuffle of guests, the crystalline ping-ping of the bellman's signal and, whenever someone opened the French doors that led to the street, the hissing rattle of rain drumming on car roofs and pooling in the gutters.
"Who sent this?" asked Drew, feeling that he had lost something by speaking first, the scotch working on him now, a smoky burn in his throat and belly. He was tired and he needed to sleep. He'd felt this way for longer than he could remember. Krugman put the cigar down onto the crystal ashtray in front of him, his long fingers moving precisely. He had no fingertips at all, just ten blunt fleshy conclusions at the ends of his fingers. Krugman had never told him how he lost his fingertips, but then Drew had never asked him directly. Krugman's military service had been as an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps during World War II. He had served in the South Pacific, in the same unit as Drew's father, Henry Langan. Once, a long while back, Drew had asked his father what had happened to Krugman's fingertips. The old man's demeanor -- usually quite genial -- had immediately altered: he said nothing and a cold and distant expression hardened his face. Drew never raised the subject again. Krugman's tone was one of polite regret.
"Obviously this is from the National Security Agency. The specific sender wishes to remain anonymous."
"Why? I can figure out who sent it by what's in it."
"You can infer what pleases you."
"So he wants...what? Deniability?"
"There is no such thing. And I didn't say it was a 'he' at all."
"Fine. Tell me what you think is the reason for this contact."
Krugman gave the question his glacial consideration.
"Well...actually I think it's a warning."
"A warning? A warning to me?"
"Not necessarily you."
"Then someone connected to me? Someone on the committee?"
"Do you know this?"
"I suspect it. That's why I agreed to deliver it."
"Why to me? Helen McDowell is the chair. If I have the protocols right, she has to approve every rated release, doesn't she?"
Krugman closed his eyes and inclined his head gravely. Drew took this for agreement and restated the question.
"So why is this coming to me?"
"Let us say that a decision was made to deliver this directly to you. I assume that the same communication will find its way to her desk in a timely way. I infer but cannot define a specific reason."
"You understand that by accepting this document I may be committing a breach of the Oversight Committee protocols?"
"I take full responsibility for that. You will be indemnified."
"Even from Helen McDowell?"
"Particularly from her. She has vulnerabilities."
"McDowell? What sort of vulnerabilities?"
"I'm not at liberty to say. But I assure you they are sufficient to keep her at bay, even in a protocol breach."
"You're a cryptic old bastard, aren't you?"
"I prefer to think of myself as discreet."
Drew picked up the envelope, weighed it in his left hand.
"What's the rating?"
"VRK...Umbra," said Krugman. His voice was a breathy whisper in a throat burred by heavy smoking. Drew shook his head and forced a counterfeit smile.
"Spare me, Gunther. Please. Almost everything is Very Restricted Knowledge now. And everything that isn't Gamma or Zarf is Umbra. If it isn't a Goddamn press release, they code it VRK. We're not on good terms with the intelligence sectors and you know why. You read the findings from the Select Committee. Everybody did. It was all about shifting the blame to another agency. Even the nontactical geeks at NIMA and the National Reconnaissance office, for Christ's sake."
"Hindsight is a deceptively pleasing opiate."
"Hindsight! You could see the threat building. You said so yourself. It was exponential. This all started with the embassy bombing in Beirut back in eighty-three. They send in Captain Crunch and he ID's Elias Nimr -- and what does the CIA do with that nasty bit of Lebanese crap? They let him walk and fire Keith Hall for treating him badly and a year later the same group -- funded by Nimr -- kidnaps Bill Buckley, Hall's station chief. They torture him to death and send us the video. And what do we do about that? Not a damn thing. Except Clinton issues a directive forbidding the CIA to associate with unsavory sources, which effectively killed any chance they ever had of tracing real terrorists. And all through the nineties the CIA lets the DEA suck up all their operational resources so they can be pissed away on The Never-Ending War On Drugs while a bunch of Saudi killers take flying lessons in the heartland. And in the end -- after September eleventh -- they all lied like wild dogs, burned their own people, the field people, the operational troops. The analysts blamed the operational people, and the agency brass blamed anybody but the men in their shaving mirrors. They tried to save themselves by torching the only real talent they had in this game. And what happened to the senior officials at the FBI and the CIA, the mutts who let this atrocity happen on their watch? The hapless drones at the top, who should have been frog-marched out of the building by a platoon of security guards?"
"That's a bit harsh, Drew. Some very strong private condemnations have come out of the Executive Branch. Quite a few senior people saw their careers wither in the chill that followed."
"Chill? Hardly that. Most of the people who appeared at our hearings have either been promoted or retired with honors."
"My point exactly. Promoted out of operational areas or retired. That's how it's done. We don't put them up against a wall."
"Maybe we should. And now somebody at the NSA wants to back-channel this thing to me? I've been here before and I always get screwed one way or another. I'm being worked for somebody's endgame and I'm getting tired of it. Tell me why I should care about one more eyes-only packet of disinformation from the NSA?"
"You are free to regard this in any way you choose. I have no brief for or against it. In this matter, I am merely the courier. However, in my view, it may have some intriguing implications."
"What exactly is it?"
"It's an intercept from the Kunia listening post in Hawaii. They rated it a CRITIC flash at three-eleven this afternoon."
"What was the originating language?"
"Tagalog. Not a native speaker. A senior Reader translated it."
"They gave it to a senior Reader. Why the urgency?"
Krugman shrugged, reached for his cigar, drew on it. The ring of red fire in the tip glowed and spread up the shaft of the cigar. Krugman's face was briefly obscured by the smoke, then slowly rematerialized through it like a drowned man rising in a lake. He said nothing, merely shrugged his shoulders and smiled. In his heart Drew wanted Krugman's package to mean nothing. He wanted to go home and crack a bottle of Gamay and let that sanctimonious old gasbag Larry King irritate the hell out of him until he fell asleep on the sofa.
"Look, Gunther, if it's rated CRITIC the President already has it. He gets them within ten minutes. Then they show up on the National Sigint File website. If it's relevant to our brief I'll get it when the security adviser hands it to the oversight committee."
"I think that would be a bold decision. In this case, time is a critical factor. Something in this has implications for someone on your side of the debate."
In Krugman's vocabulary, "bold" meant "stupid and risky." And "the debate," as Krugman put it, probably meant the antagonism that had arisen between the Congress and the Executive Branch over what people on Drew's side of the House saw as the deepening worldwide morass that had started out as a War on Terror. Aside from the ongoing complications that had resulted from the destruction of Hussein's regime in Iraq, there were combat troops in Afghanistan and other American military elements engaged in over seventy "advisory missions" all around the world. Even the chronically commitment-phobic UN had managed to get itself buried up to its wheel wells in a nasty little peacekeeping mission in the southern Philippines -- for once body bags were coming home in places farther away than Terre Haute and Laramie -- and the Hill was trying to get the current Administration to define an endgame, a point where the States could get out of the ugly -- and so far worse than thankless -- task of saving Western Civilization, without any substantial success. The idea that American soldiers were out in the global swamp trying to reshape a hell-bound world into a Republican pipe dream of good order was a constant goad to him.
"I take it you've read this already."
"I have. I never deliver a packet I haven't read; people who do that kind of thing sometimes end up being blamed for what's inside."
"And this is hardly the place. Drew, as a long-time friend of your family, and for your father's sake at least, who is one of my oldest friends, my earnest and heartfelt recommendation is that you take this envelope with you and read it at home. With your Beringer Gamay. Then do whatever seems required. It may be that nothing is required. It has been my experience that many of life's truly vexatious problems go away of their own accord, without any action ever being taken against them. We can but hope."
A brief revelation of his long white teeth, his canines prominent. He pushed the envelope closer, picked up his antique rosewood cane with the solid gold horse-head, and got to his feet, breathing heavily, favoring his left hip.
"You'll forgive me if I slip away. I'm being stalked by Britney Vogel. The Post thinks I'm still green enough to let myself be profiled in their weekend section. Now, are you in touch with Cole at all?"
Drew suppressed his startled reaction to this unexpected mention of his son Coleman -- their relationship, already strained by Cole's midterm departure from Harvard to enlist in the U.S. Army, and further complicated by his equally sudden resignation from the army after a long combat tour in Iraq -- was now almost nonexistent, an estrangement of which Krugman, an old family friend, was perfectly aware. After a prolonged pause during which Krugman regarded him with detached amusement, Drew shrugged.
"Cole and I don't talk. Haven't for over two years. I think he's in Thailand on a walking tour. At least that's what his mother tells me."
"Thailand, is it?" said Krugman, nodding absently as if this confirmed something he already knew. "Well, if you do hear from him, give him my very best, will you?"
Drew said that in the highly unlikely event that Cole ever called him, he'd convey Krugman's regards, and rose with Krugman, taking the envelope from the table top and holding it under the light. It felt solid and heavy -- NSA packets were usually lined with inert metals as a security measure -- and seemed to contain a plastic disc. Krugman extended his hand and Drew shook it. Krugman's skin was hot and dry, his palm leathery, his grip hard. He held Drew's hand in that tight grip for a moment longer as he leaned forward and slipped a silver cigar tube into the breast pocket of Drew's suit jacket. Krugman then spoke very softly, his breath scented with cigar smoke and scotch, his whisper barely audible.
"Read the report, Drew. Look at the CD. Enjoy the cigar. I think you should have it tonight. I really do. I'll say goodnight now. And if we don't see each other for a while, I want you to know that I have always been proud to have been associated with your family....I'll take my leave now and I wish you good luck."
He smiled then, perhaps at Drew's visible surprise at such an intimate expression of friendship from a man so famous for his wintry heart. Krugman offered him a half-ironic faintly Prussian head-bob and a smile that seemed strangely off, almost regretful. Then he turned unsteadily and cane-walked away toward the lobby, the slender rosewood shaft flexing under his weight. Drew watched him go -- Krugman's ambiguous smile floating in his mind -- and promptly felt the heightened attention of Rickett and Buriss, like heat on the back of his neck. Krugman's last words felt like a farewell to Drew, and he wondered if the ancient Cold Warrior might be sicker than he let on. Rickett and Buriss were staring at him, taut and at the ready. "Okay," he said, as the men got to their feet. "Take me home."
Copyright © 2004 by Absaroke, Inc.
A master of "gut-grabbing action and hairpin turn plotting" (Booklist), Carsten Stroud delivers an adrenaline-charged novel of America's secret wars, told with stunning authenticity, mordant humor, and heart-pounding suspense.