By: David Baldacci
THE SOMBER GROUP OF MEN SAT IN A LARGE ROOM that rested far below ground accessed by only a single, high-speed elevator. The chamber had been secretly built during the early 1960s under the guise of renovating the private building that squatted over it. The original plan, of course, was to use this "super-bunker" as a refuge during a nuclear attack. This facility was not for the top leaders of American government; it was for those whose level of relative un importance dictated that they probably wouldn't be able to get out in time but who still rated protection afforded no ordinary citizen. Politically, even in the context of total destruction, there must be order.
The bunker was built at a time when people believed it possible to survive a direct nuclear hit by burrowing into the earth inside a steel cocoon. After the holocaust that would annihilate the rest of the country, leaders would emerge from the rubble with absolutely nothing left to lead, unless you counted vapor.
The original, aboveground building had been leveled long ago, but the subterranean room remained under what was now a small strip mall that had been vacant for years. Forgotten by virtually all, the chamber was now used as a meeting place for certain people in the country's primary intelligence-gathering agency. There was some risk involved, since the meetings were not related to the men's official duties. The matters discussed at these gatherings were illegal, and tonight even murderous.
Thus additional precautions had been necessary.
The super-thick steel walls had been supplemented by a copper coating.
That measure, along with tons of dirt overhead, protected against prying electronic ears lurking in space and elsewhere. These men didn't particularly like coming to this underground room. It was inconvenient, and ironically, it seemed far too James Bondish even for their admittedly cloak-and-dagger tastes. However, the truth was the earth was now encircled with so much advanced surveillance technology that virtually no conversation taking place on its surface was safe from interception. One had to dig into the dirt to escape his enemies.
And if there was a place where people could meet with reasonable confidence that their conversations would not be overheard even in their world of ultra sophisticated peekaboo, this was it.
The gray-headed people present at the meeting were all white males, and most were nearing their agency's mandatory retirement age of sixty.
Dressed quietly and professionally, they could have been doctors, lawyers or investment bankers. One would probably not remember any of the group a day after seeing them. This anonymity was their stock-in-trade. These sorts of people lived and died, sometimes violently, over such details.
Collectively, this cabal possessed thousands of secrets that could never be known by the general public because the public would certainly condemn the actions giving rise to these secrets. However, America often demanded results-economic, political, social and otherwise-that could be obtained only by smashing certain parts of the world to a bloody pulp. It was the job of these men to figure out how to do so in a clandestine manner that would not reflect poorly on the United States, yet would still keep the country safe from the pesky international terrorists and other foreigners unhappy with the stretch of America's muscle.
The purpose of tonight's gathering was to plot the killing of Faith Lockhart. Technically, the CIA was prohibited by presidential executive order from engaging in assassination. However, these men, though employed by the Agency, were not representing the CIA tonight.
This was their private agenda, and there was little disagreement that the woman had to die, and soon; it was critical for the well-being of the country. These men knew this, even if American presidents did not.
However, because of another life that was involved, the meeting had become acrimonious, the group resembling a cadre of posturing members fighting on Capitol Hill over billion-dollar slices of pork.
"What you're saying, then," one of the white-haired men said as he poked the smoke-filled air with a slender finger, "is that along with Lockhart we have to kill a federal agent." The man shook his head incredulously. "Why kill one of our own? It can only lead to disaster."
The gentleman at the head of the table nodded thoughtfully. Robert Thornhill was the CIA's most distinguished Cold War soldier, a man whose status at the Agency was unique. His reputation was unassailable, his compilation of professional victories unmatched. As associate deputy director of Operations, he was the Agency's ultimate free safety. The DDO, or deputy director of operations, was responsible for running the field operations that undertook the secret collection of foreign intelligence. The operations directorate of the CIA was also unofficially known as the "spy shop," and the deputy director was still not even publicly identified. It was the perfect place to get meaningful work done.
Thornhill had organized this select group, who were as upset as he about the state of affairs at the CIA. It was he who had remembered that this bloated underground time capsule existed. And it was Thornhill who had found the money to secretly bring the chamber back to working condition and upgrade its facilities. There were thousands of little taxpayer-funded toys like that sprinkled around the country, many of them gone to complete waste. Thornhill suppressed a smile.
Well if governments didn't waste their citizens' hard-earned money, then what would be left for governments to do?
Even now, as he ran his hand over the stainless steel console with its quaint built-in ashtrays, sniffed the filtered air and felt the protective coolness of the earth all around, Thornhill's mind wandered back for a moment to the Cold War period. At least there was a measure of certainty with the hammer and sickle. In truth, Thornhill would take the lumbering Russian bull over the agile sand snake that you never knew was out there until it flung its venom into you. There were many who wanted nothing more in life than to topple the United States.
It was his job to ensure that never happened.
Gazing around the table, Thornhill gauged each man's devotion to his country and was satisfied it matched his own. He had wanted to serve America for as long as he could remember. His father had been with the OSS, the World War II-era predecessor to the CIA. He had known little of what his father did at the time, but the man had instilled in his son the philosophy that there was no greater thing to do with one's life than to serve one's country. Thornhill had joined the Agency right out of Yale. Right up until the day he died, his father had been proud of his son. But no prouder than the son had been of the old man.
Thornhill's hair was a shining silver, which lent him a distinguished air. His eyes were gray and active, the angle of his chin blunt. His voice was deep, cultured; technical jargon and the poetry of Longfellow flowed from his mouth with equal ease. The man still wore three-piece suits and favored pipe smoking over cigarettes. The fifty-eight-year-old Thornhill could have quietly finished out his time at the CIA and led the pleasant life of a former public servant, well traveled, erudite. He had no thought of going out quietly, and the reason was very clear.
For the last ten years, the CIA's responsibilities and budgets had been decimated. It was a disastrous development, for the firestorms that were popping up across the world now often involved fanatical minds accountable to no political body and possessing the capability to obtain weapons of mass destruction. And while just about everyone thought high-tech was the answer for all the ills of the world, the best satellites in the world couldn't stroll down alleys in Baghdad, Seoul or Belgrade and take the emotional temperature of the people there. Computers in space could never capture what people were thinking, what devilish urges were lurking in their hearts. Thornhill would always choose a smart field operative willing to risk his or her life over the best hardware money could buy.<
Thornhill had just such a small group of skilled operatives within the CIA, completely loyal to him and his private agenda. They had all worked hard to regain for the Agency its former prominence. Now Thornhill finally had the vehicle to do that. He would very soon have under his thumb powerful congressmen, senators, even the vice president himself, and enough high-ranking bureaucrats to choke an independent counsel. Thornhill would see his budgets revive, his manpower skyrocket, his agency's scope of responsibility in the world return to its rightful place.
The Strategy had worked for J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. It was no coincidence, Thornhill believed, that the Bureau's budget and influence had flourished under the late director and his allegedly "secret" files on powerful politicians. If there was one organization in the world that Robert Thornhill hated with all his soul, it was the FBI. But he would use whatever tactics he could to bring his agency back to the forefront, even if it meant stealing a page from his most bitter foe.
Well, watch me do you one better, Ed.
Thornhill focused again on the men clustered around him. "Not having to kill one of our own would, of course, be ideal," he said. "However, the fact is, the FBI have her under 'round-the-clock stealth security.
The only time she's truly vulnerable is when she goes to the cottage.
They may place her in Witness Protection without warning, so we have to hit them at the cottage."
Another man spoke up. "Okay, we kill Lockhart, but let the FBI agent live, for God's sake, Bob."
Thornhill shook his head. "The risk is too great. I know that killing a fellow agent is deplorable. But to shirk our duty now would be a catastrophic mistake. You know what we've invested in this operation.
We cannot fail."
"Dammit, Bob," the first man to protest said, "do you know what will happen if the FBI learns we took out one of their people?"
"If we can't keep a secret like that, we have no business doing what we do," Thornhill snapped. "This is not the first time lives have been sacrificed."
Another member of the group leaned forward in his chair. He was the youngest of them. He had, however, earned the respect of the group with his intelligence and his ability to exercise extreme, focused ruthlessness.
"We've only really looked at the scenario of killing Lockhart to forestall the FBI's investigation into Buchanan. Why not appeal to the FBI director and have him order his team to give up the investigation?
Then no one has to die."
Thornhill gave his younger colleague a disappointed look. "And how would you propose going about explaining to the FBI director why we wish him to do so?"
"How about some semblance of the truth?" the younger man said. "Even in the intelligence business there's sometimes room for that, isn't there?"
Thornhill smiled warmly. "So I should say to the FBI director-who, by the way, would love to see us all permanently interred in a museumthat we wish him to call off his potentially blockbuster investigation so that the CIA can use illegal means to trump his agency. Brilliant.
Why didn't I think of that? And where would you like to serve your prison term?"
"For chrissakes, Bob, we work with the FBI now. This isn't 1960 anymore. Don't forget about CTC."
CTC stood for the Counter Terrorism Center, a cooperative effort between the CIA and the FBI to fight terrorism by sharing intelligence and resources. It had been generally deemed a success by those involved. To Thornhill, it was simply another way for the FBI to stick its greedy fingers into his business.
"I happen to be involved in CTC in a modest way," Thornhill said. "I find it an ideal perch on which to keep tabs on the Bureau and what they're up to, which is usually no good, as far as were concerned."
"Come on, were all on the same team, Bob."
Thornhill's eyes focused on the younger man in such a way that everyone in the room froze. "I request that you never say those words in my presence again," Thornhill said.
The man paled and sat back in his chair.
Thornhill clenched his pipe between his teeth. "Would you like me to give you concrete examples of the FBI taking the credit, the glory for work done by our agency? For the blood spilled by our field agents?
For the countless times we've saved the world from annihilation? How they manipulate investigations in order to crush everyone else, to beef up their already bloated budget? Would you like me to give you instances in my thirty-six-year career where the FBI did all it could to discredit our mission, our people? Would you?" The man slowly shook his head as Thornhill's gaze bored into him. "I don't give a damn if the FBI director himself came down here and kissed my shoes and swore his undying allegiance to me-I will not be swayed. Ever! Have I made my position clear?"
"I understand." As he said this, the younger man managed not to shake his head in bewilderment. Everyone in this room other than Robert Thornhill knew that the FBI and CIA actually got along well. Though they could be ham-handed at times in joint investigations because they had more resources than anyone else, the FBI was not on a witch hunt to bring down the Agency. But the men in this room also understood quite clearly that Robert Thornhill believed the FBI was their worst enemy.
And they also knew that Thornhill had, decades ago, orchestrated a number of Agency-authorized assassinations with cunning and zeal. Why cross such a man?
Another colleague said, "But if we kill the agent, don't you think the FBI will go on a crusade to find out the truth? They have the resources to scorch the earth. No matter how good we are, we can't match their strength. Then where are we?"
Some grumbling rose from the others. Thornhill looked around warily.
The collection of men here represented an uneasy alliance. They were paranoid, inscrutable fellows long used to keeping their own counsel.
It had truly been a miracle to forge them together in the first place.
"The FBI will do everything they can to solve the murder of one of their agents and the chief witness to one of their most ambitious investigations ever. So what I would propose doing is to give them the solution we desire them to have." They looked curiously at him.
Thornhill sipped water from his glass and then took a minute to prime his pipe.
"After years of helping Buchanan run his operation, Faith Lockhart's conscience or good sense or paranoia got the better of her. She went to the FBI and has now begun telling them everything she knows. Through a little foresight on my part, we were able to discover this development. Buchanan, however, is completely unaware that his partner has turned against him. He also doesn't know that we intend to kill her. Only we know." Thornhill inwardly congratulated himself for this last remark. It felt good, omniscience; it was the business he was in, after all.