- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
BURNT PAW LAKE
August felt it before he saw it. He raised his head slowly. The sky was the same thick grey as when he'd slid the canoe from the lake. Only the silence seemed different — solid and impenetrable. The kind of stillness that usually supplied the tonic he needed. But now it weighed against him.
Waves licked the sand. A few tarnished leaves hung from thin branches as if suspended in a July heatwave instead of bracing for the first freeze. But it was the silence of the birds that really disturbed him. Their nervous twitter had stopped sometime after he'd flipped the canoe over and begun to dry its smooth skin. The irritable crows had ended their screeching and the honk of the Canada geese resting in a far cove had been muted. Even the solitary loon, so temperamentally suited to this place, had slipped away.
The sky was maddeningly blank, a neutral face. Squinting, August adjusted the Oakland A's cap Sam had given him for his fortieth birthday last month. A rustle pulled his gaze behind him. Nothing. A rat maybe. Or a nervous badger. Grizzlies didn't wander here anymore. He studied the rolling hill that carpeted the land between the lake and the high cliffs to the east. The vegetation was sparse, like the discoloured mat of an old pool table, scruffed and tarnished from the punishing weather and the trails of a hundred small animals.
And then he saw her.
The gyrfalcon, its blazing white breast marking a large female, hovered high above him. She rode the air streams,weaving them into a pattern to her own advantage as she honed in on a target. She circled again, lazily.
A scraping in the mossy rock. And then a rabbit, split with panic, zigzagged across the mercilessly open rise. August squeezed the rag in his hand tight against his knuckles.
Sound sped at him. Wind rushing against mass as the falcon accelerated towards the ground, wings flattened against her body.
The rabbit froze. It was as if the raptor's gaze had paralyzed it.
August crouched, anticipating the gyr's attack. He licked his lips, leashing the part of him that wanted to urge the creature to run ... run! But the moment was lost. The rabbit turned as if the memory of some warm shelter beckoned. It jumped once more, an involuntary twitch of fear. A vestige of instinct warned that to move meant death. The instinct was too late.
The falcon was there.
The rabbit staggered and then collapsed as the gyr swept over the ground once more, clearing the area of interference before claiming its prey. And then she seized the limp body, lifting it from the earth and disappearing over the cliff.
A crow cawed in malevolent congratulation and small whitecaps spit against the shore. Suddenly it was very cold. August straightened up, a twinge in his ankle from an old fracture signalling that he'd been crouched too low. But he continued to watch the far shore as the gyrfalcon keened from somewhere lost to him.
Reluctantly, he turned away and hoisted the canoe over his head, breathing the familiar smell of cedar. It was a comfort he hadn't felt in years. The pressure of the canoe's narrow struts and enfolding shell was a welcome burden, preferable to the mental weights he'd been carrying lately. It had been a good idea to come back to this wild place. Even though he'd told himself that he was too soft now; too cynical to make it here. This notch in the earth demanded decisions. Not committees. Not memos in triplicate. And any compromise was usually on nature's terms.
The canoe fit snugly into a natural bracket between the grey sand and a thicket of stunted fir that crept to meet it. Lots of scrap wood for a fire. Plenty of shelter. The pup tent would fit right up against the bracken. He glanced at the sky. A few bullying clouds were shoving past the sun. There might be snow tonight. Winter was licking its lips for a good solid bite.
He'd just poured the coffee, boiled and stewed, four sugars, no milk, when he heard the plane's engine buzzing into the falling night. August jumped up, spilling the drink, the hot coffee burning through his pants. Shit! He tossed the cup aside and strode to the edge of the lake. Hell! The last thing he needed was a bunch of dilettantes on a trendy trip to the wilderness packing a wolf carcass or a pair of antlers ripped from a Bighorn into their designer trunks.
The drone of the engine grew louder, chopping at his nerves as it churned and sliced at the air. The birds had dropped into silence again. The plane dipped into the valley; it reminded him of some great insect in a Japanese horror movie. Skidding along the surface of the water, it cruised to a stop.
Sam's round face, still as smooth and flushed as an excited kid's, popped out of the pilot's window. "Hi, guy! What do ya want first? The rotten news or the miserable news?" The door squeaked on its hinges as he swung it open, and the engine sputtered impatiently a few times. The plane rocked under Sam's weight as he jumped onto one pontoon and then swung himself, surprisingly gracefully, over the few feet of water towards the gritty shore. But he missed the last step, and water rushed over the rim of his boot. "Damn!" He shuddered and lifted his leg out of the water to shake it.
"Is something wrong? Is Katy okay? What the hell are you doing here?"
Sam flung his hands up as if to fend off an attack. "Whoa! Katy's fine. Perfectly okay ..." He limped up to August, still shaking his leg. "Jesus! Why don't you just go camping in Antarctica? It's about as comfortable." He gestured at the trees swaying in the building wind and the shoreline cluttered with bleached wood and scattered boulders. "You got no cable here, no bar, and," he swivelled his head in mock surprise, "you sure as heck got no women. None of the necessities for survival! Oh," he glanced at the fire, steam rising from where August had tossed his coffee, "but I do see you have room service. What is it tonight? No — don't tell me ...," he pressed his fingers to his forehead like a cheap psychic, "it's coming to me. Yes. Wieners and could it be ... yes, yes, it is — beans. That's it. Beans!"
"What do you want? Why aren't you with Christa and the baby where you belong? I've only been here three days, you bastard. You'd better have a damned good reason for showing up. And it better be that somebody's died. Somebody important. Since my daughter's all right and my wife gave up on me long ago — and you're obviously still breathing — then it seems to me you don't have a good reason for being here." The wind had started to nip through August's flannel shirt. He walked to the campfire and picked up a parka from where he'd tossed it over a tree stump. "And if it's World War Three," he shouted back at Sam, "I don't want to know either."
"Well hello to you too, old buddy." Sam was still smiling. He came up behind August and put a hand on his shoulder. "It might not be World War Three," he said quietly, "but it is war."
August stopped moving, the zipper on his jacket halfway up. Sam released his shoulder and waved towards the sputtering campfire. "I think you'd better plug the kettle back in and sit down."
The coffee was still hot but somehow not quite as satisfying. Sam dumped spoonfuls of dry milk into his cup and shook it vigorously as if he could will it into the real thing. "Rumour has it," he raised a hand as if warding off attack, "far be it from me to pass on rumour, but Wendell Laine did send me after you without so much as a please, let alone a decent explanation, so I'm entitled. Anyway, rumour has it that you might be needed for this Gulf mess. Save the world from Saddam. Keep us safe from nasty oil prices. You know the drill."
"My Arabic stinks, Laine knows that. I barely passed the refresher and that was two years ago. My tongue was in intensive care for a month afterwards!"
Sam noticed the hint of rough beard and hunched shoulders that matched the weariness gathered around his friend's mouth and eyes. "I don't think it's groundwork this time, buddy. Jamie Watts, the new kid upstairs, told me on the q.t. that the more reliable rumour is that there's some glitch in satellite reconnaissance. Everybody's screaming that we can't afford any glitches right now. Not with Mr. Hussein being so difficult. The powers-that-be are jumpy. They don't want so much as a hairline fracture in Desert Shield." He took a sip of the hot liquid and winced as it hit the back of his throat. "And let's face it, August. No one knows satellite imagery like you. Laine wants you in on this. Whatever it is."
August ran his hands over his hair. It was getting long. His fingers grazed the recently discovered balding spot. It irritated him. "Jesus, Sam — my concentration is shot to hell. It has been for months. Why do you think I'm up here at the end of the earth?! If I have to look at one more space shot or argue with one more prick of a politician, I'll go into orbit myself. I mean, Christ almighty — did Laine tell you I nearly punched him in the mouth last month? I'm lucky I just got sent on a little R&R instead of premature retirement." He watched the lemon yellow plane bobbing against the lake.
"Well there you go then! That's the good news! They can't live without you. This will be a fresh start. Go in there. Knock 'em dead. And you'll be the golden boy again."
August raised one brow. "Two things. I've used up my quota of fresh starts — as Lena will tell you, for as long as you want to listen. And number two, I haven't been a golden boy for fifteen years."
Sam shrugged and took a bigger gulp of coffee. "Hey, I'm just the messenger."
"Okay, Mr. Messenger. How about you just hop back in your noisy machine there and go tell Laine you couldn't find me? Some jackass hunter picked me off. Or I fell into a hole in the woods or something. I mean, it's not like it isn't possible. Many a jerk has tossed dice with the elements out here and lost big."
"Look, August, I know you don't like it. But you've gotta go back. In fact, I can't leave here without you. I come up with a bullshit story like that and they'd probably just send the marines to get you instead. There's no gettin' away from it."
The sky had slid from a dark grey to charcoal, the raw red of an interrupted sunset scratching at its insides. "Weather closing in. We better not risk flying out tonight," August said.
Sam slurped back his coffee. "No way. I'm not sharing any pup tent with you. I gave it up when we were twelve, remember?" He tossed back the dregs of his cup. Standing up, he kicked sand over the flames.
August watched the fire sputter and steam before it suffocated.
The plane left the earth behind so easily. From inside the cockpit the engine was just a dull drone. A few fat flakes of snow were squashed against the windowpane, and Sam switched on the ridiculous, carlike, windshield wipers. It was too much like being inside one of those remote-controlled toys. Any minute now the giant who held the control panel would let them crash to earth.
They swept over the rise where the rabbit had died, the plane's wings flirting dangerously with the feces-streaked cliff where the gyrfalcon had disappeared. Over the next cliff lay the clearcuts, the slash and burn of civilization. Tomorrow.
August watched the place that had been his refuge fall away.
It was as if it had never been.
NATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHIC INTERPRETATION CENTER (NPIC)
"Counting cholesterol I see?"
Damn! There was no mistaking the sarcastic tone and no escaping Wendell Laine. Here he was, crowding August's shoulder, his smile pinching into little lines of condescension.
August took the plate of overdone sausage and slippery eggs from the bored girl behind the counter and slid them onto his tray. He added a strawberry Danish that he didn't really want. He'd spent so many years explaining himself to Wendell Laine, he didn't intend to start justifying his choice of breakfast menu now.
Wendell gestured with a brittle move of his elbow towards a small table crowded into an alcove of the cafeteria. "Let's get some privacy," he said in a stage whisper, lifting his tray, which held a plate with two pieces of gritty-looking toast and a pot of tea.
"Oh sure, the only table with a reserved sign on it in the joint. Let's make ourselves inconspicuous and private, Wendell," August said. He glanced around the room. Windowless like the rest of the six-storey cement building at the corner of M and First streets, the cafeteria reflected the staleness of a place that never admitted light. Only a few of the round tables were occupied at this hour in the morning. Several large murals dotted the walls: "Earth As Seen from the Moon"; "Relief Map #183 — the Grand Canyon"; and a few distorted close-ups of the streets and alleys of Washington. Some rebel had pinned a poster of Elvis in his prime near the cash register. At the table next to it Marilu Jarvis and another secretary from the third floor picked at something wholesome and brown. August had dated Marilu once last year. A disaster. A Bon Jovi concert he'd lost the spirit for about five minutes after his ears started ringing.
Marilu waved a small, shy wave at him. He smiled a forced, unnatural smile. The women's heads moved closer together and someone giggled.
August squeezed into his side of the table, its edge pressuring his recently expanded middle. Wendell sat daintily on the other side, seeming to hold the fabric of his expensive suit slightly away from the insult of the cheap plastic chair. The ease with which he slid into position and straightened his napkin, spoon, and plate irritated August. "If you wanted privacy you've got a leather couch in your office that the taxpayers are paying for through their gritted teeth. I'd rather slide my ass onto that."
Wendell took his time opening a minuscule capsule of marmalade. He shook his head conspiratorially. "Never know, August. You never know who's listening these days." He rolled his eyes upwards, glancing around the walls until they rested on Elvis, then he shuddered slightly and went back to picking at the lid of the capsule with one manicured finger. "Much more private here, I am sure."
August watched him spread the marmalade very carefully on the toast. Maybe it had finally happened. Old Wendell had spent so many years entombed in this godawful place, Federal Building No. 213, stuck next to the old Washington Navy Yard on the banks of the Anacostia, that he'd finally succumbed to paranoia. He jabbed a fork into his mustard yellow eggs. Wendell had always been good at his job, no one could take that away from him. It was all they really had in common. Enough to sustain years of meals like this.
"There's a leak." Wendell tore off a piece of the rigid toast and placed it delicately against his tongue. "One of the whiz kids upstairs, Jamie Watts, thinks he might know where. So the mole might not be as smart as he thinks he is. But one thing's clear. Somebody's spilling information. And ...," Wendell studied August Riley as if doubting whether to continue. The thinning blonde hair pulled back into one of those foolish ponytail things like his own hopeless son wore. The denim jacket and jeans that looked like the same pair he must have worn in the back of beyond. "Riley, must you have your mid-life crisis during work time?" Wendell demanded with about as much passion as he ever revealed.
The fork stopped halfway to August's mouth. "If you recall, I was supposed to be on a month's leave. We don't all have the good taste to quietly drown our burn-out in a glass of Jack Daniels, Wendell."
An unaccustomed flush traced Wendell's neck. He cleared his throat.
"You were saying?" August asked quietly as he tasted the eggs.
The hint of a small triumph crossed Wendell's face. August's blunt reminder of a minor embarrassment over a minor hiccup in Wendell's career — it could hardly be called a drinking "problem" — was worth enduring if it meant nailing Riley to this assignment. As a result of his "non-problem," Wendell needed some points upstairs. He needed the best for this assignment. And Riley was the best no matter how much it choked him to admit it. "Desert Shield is escalating every day. No one wants to commit to a ground war if all the Polaroids aren't right."
The eggs were cold in August's mouth. "What's that got to do with me?"
"Don't be coy." Wendell chewed his food like a fussy cat. "You've been stationed at every major satellite reconnaissance base we've got. Xinjiang, Trabzon, Vetan ..."
"Yeah ... beauty spots all." August ripped a napkin from the dispenser and rubbed his mouth. "I've done my time, Wendell. Both for you and the NSA boys."
Wendell ignored him. "None of our other people have your kind of experience." He poured the pale tea from the tin pot, holding the warped lid down tight. "We're ...," he raised his brows, glancing around the room briefly, "not sure where the leak's originating. Could be any one of the ground stations that are receiving the stuff. Or any of the personnel who handle the information. Anyway, that's what we want you to find out." A dribble of tea managed to escape the pot. Wendell placed the thin napkin over it. "And we want you to find out fast."
August watched the spilt tea slowly stain the napkin. "How much leeway do I have?"
Wendell offered a tight, condescending smile. "As much leeway as you've always had. The same kind of leeway that got you kicked out of China and put the Brits' noses out of joint at Menwith Hill."
August forced himself to swallow another mouthful of eggs, then tossed his fork onto the tray. It clanged in the early morning quiet of the cafeteria. Marilu glanced at him. "My reports were sustained in both those incidents. The Chinese were selling off the info to the Pakistanis and that old boy at Menwith had been in the Russians' pocket for ten years trying to support the decrepit family estate."
"Ah, but diplomacy. A little art of diplomacy would not go amiss in these situations."
"I told you after the last stint overseas — a desk job will suit me just fine until I collect my pension."
Wendell smiled thinly. "Well, we're calling your bluff. This is just a straightforward analysis job."
"Why do I have a feeling there's a bit more to it than that? Why do I have the feeling that if I blow this one I might as well forget about a pension?"
August saw the little quiver of temper zip around the other man's nostrils. Wendell squeezed the damp napkin between his fingers. "We've tolerated your ... eccentricities for a long, long time, Riley. And as you've probably guessed — it's not me that you've got to thank for that. It's strictly the quality of your work. You've been right," he swallowed as if the words stuck in his throat, "more than you've been wrong. A lot more. So, your various periods of going AWOL — your Greta Garbo, I vant to be alone act — well, there are those above me who felt you were worth it. But yes," Wendell carefully squeezed the wet napkin over his saucer and then folded it into quarters, "yes, if I was you I'd be putting some thought into your future -- or lack of it — around here. I understand you've got a daughter who might be needing a transfer to another special school soon? Quite an expensive special school?"
August shoved his plate aside and stood up, pushing back his chair. It bounced off the wall and punched him in the lower spine. "Shit ...," he muttered. The secretaries' heads swivelled towards him. "Meet you upstairs," he growled. Wendell, tiny smile, placed one sugar cube in his cup. "When you've finished your tea, of course."
August marched past the yellowing photo of Elvis — Elvis in his prime in black leather cradling a microphone — and headed for the fourth floor.
Upstairs hadn't changed much since his last stint. Anonymous, colourless. The monotonous din of the eighty-foot air-conditioners droning twenty-four hours a day, summer or winter, cooling the delicate innards of the NPIC computers as they chewed up billions of pieces of data every year. The finely tuned high-technology trap enclosed August once again as he stepped farther into the main analysis room.
It hadn't always been like this. Twenty years ago the place had been divided into a dozen cubbyholes, so-called "offices," pressed hardboard dividing one analyst's few yards of space from the next guy's. The tinge of excitement as they'd plunged into a new frontier had kept an invisible chord of camaraderie pulled tight around the room. Although the bricked-in windows had bothered him from the start. But the view wasn't exactly a tourist's dream even if you did catch a glimpse of daylight. They'd shoved the NPIC building into a rancid area of the city that hadn't become any more palatable over the years. Guards dotted the perimeter. And just in case anyone still didn't get the idea, two slices of barbed wire curled along the top of the Cyclone fence that surrounded the place.
But all that had been overshadowed in those first years by the knowledge that he was taking up the challenge of Arthur Lundahl's original team. The pioneers who in 1962 had propelled the NPIC into the forefront of reconnaissance after they zeroed in on Castro's buildup of missiles. It was the stuff of legend how the interpreters had been yanked from their cubicles, along with the frames of U-2 film they were studying. An hour later they were in the White House Cabinet Room pointing out the location of nuclear warhead storage sites and missile shelter tents to the President. By the end of that session John Kennedy, on the basis of a few rather innocuous-looking shots taken from a U-2 at 70,000 feet, had decided to initiate the action that would leave a legacy of humiliation for Nikita Khrushchev and the scent of nuclear war burrowed into the consciousness of a generation. The next day the NPIC was pushed onto the White House priority list. August had jumped on for the ride as soon as he could.
He'd left Salt Lake City behind two days after his eighteenth birthday and had detoured around that particular dot on the map ever since. His parents had four other boys and two girls to keep them busy and August had been somewhere in the middle. So while his absence was a disgrace and they probably still prayed for him to this day, they'd spent only minimum form searching for him. He'd been a thorn in their side anyway since he was eight years old and screamed bloody murder both before and after his baptism. Some violent rebellion had led him to plunge his teeth into the priest's hand as he'd tried to bless August with the holy water. He thought then that the guy had a damned nerve and he still believed it now. Priest or no priest.
His mother never forgave him and his initial punishment was a ban that summer on the annual trip to Alaska to visit his Uncle Olsen. August's immediate kindred spirit of few words, Olsen had escaped to the wild country decades before. He'd been his sister's favourite and she was still trying to save him from himself.
August had met Sam Whitman during his first summer up there, envying his rugged existence with a dad who was a real life guide and trapper. Sam later enlightened him as to how unromantic life without running water or Howdy Doody really was.
August worked two jobs after he got to LA, bartending on weekends, night delivery during the week for a courier service that carried suspicious little parcels to some of the swankier areas of town. He never asked, just took the usually generous tip and got home in time to get in a few hours studying. The scholarships were in short supply and the student loans barely kept him in macaroni and cheese. He messed around with a few biology courses the first year. But the dissecting, the statistics, and the endless note taking in the field robbed his joy in the wild. So he'd been drawn back to another obsession — an obsession seeded when the Sputnik went up, the same year as his farcical baptism. He'd won the Grade Three ice-carving contest depicting the bumpy, clumsy-looking satellite. What a perfect escape from the earth that capsule had seemed to his young eyes.
NASA was too fussy for him. He didn't have the eyesight or the science marks. But the CIA was recruiting for their newly formed NPIC section and August's enthusiasm and knowledge of satellites overcame his bad math marks. They figured his Mormon background made him extra reliable. August didn't bother to point out that the religion was rooted in rebellion and even charges of treason.
He looked around his old office. Far too quiet now. Years ago Led Zeppelin and radio talk shows had blasted through the air ducts. Crusting Styrofoam cups and stale ashtrays had been buried amongst piles of top secret documents. Snapshots of wives and kids, plaques with "words of wisdom" were tucked into cluttered bookshelves. Sam had even kept a stuffed bald eagle perched on the back of the one extra chair in the office until Laine had made him get rid of it. Wonder if Sam still had that thing? Those dull glass eyes so awful in the perfectly shaped, lifelike head.
Now the place seemed too clean, too tidy, too timid. Pulsating, clever chaos bowed to the nineties pace of information gathering. Budget cuts and manpower shortages forcing double-paced work for three times the amount of stuff August had had to deal with every day. These men and women had to be twice as smart, twice the technician that August had been. But they weren't having half the fun. Comparing, contrasting, magnifying, over and over again. Was that smudge a nuclear reactor or a grain elevator? Bomb shelter or storage bunker? Civilian or military target? He glimpsed a few heads bent over the dust-free desks of smooth modern line, with matching adjustable chairs.
"Mr. Riley?" The voice was unnaturally loud and eager in this place.
August turned. A broad friendly face and wide grin punctured by a row of the most crooked teeth August had ever seen. A thick hand seized his and pumped it up and down. "I've been waiting for you."
August tried to hide his puzzlement.
"Jamie Watts. Mr. Laine said you'd be coming in today."
It fell into place. The whiz kid Sam had mentioned. The new golden boy. Could he really be so young?
August gripped the hand in return. "I understand you've got something to show me."
The kid's eyes lit up. He gestured August into a beige-coloured square of space, its narrow area covered with blow-ups of enhanced satellite images. He pointed to one of them. On the surface it looked like one endless, empty plain. But clustered into the lower left-hand corner were what appeared to be a dozen little black boxes.
Jamie nodded. There was no sign of delight now. Just intense concentration.
August leaned closer. "What's that next to them?" Before Jamie could answer, he demanded, "You got a comparison shot?"
Jamie pulled another sheet from below and slid it smoothly over the original. "This was taken two days ago."
August's brow wrinkled. He traced a finger, careful not to actually touch the shots, in between the black boxes. "They've pulled out those Scud launchers."
The grin was back. "That's what I say!" His face realigned into carefully neutral tones. "Laine ... Mr. Laine," he glanced at August as if expecting an admonishment for the slip in respect. When he saw only August's intense interest he continued, "Mr. Laine thinks I'm imagining it and the other guys around here aren't sure. And well, frankly ..."
"Nobody wants to tell the old fart that his eyes aren't what they used to be?"
An involuntary guffaw shifted the boy's features back into their bright enthusiasm. "Something like that."
August turned back to the photos. "Well, they're difficult to spot all right. They've parked them in the shadows. Probably to keep them out of the heat."
"The reason I'm pushing it, Mr. Riley ..."
August raised a hand. "Cut the mister stuff — I'm feeling my age too much lately as it is."
Jamie nodded, his tightly curled black hair gleaming in the fluorescent light. "Well, the thing is — we expected the Iraqis to leave the Scuds in those positions. Misinformation has been spread around that our troops were going to be building to the south. They're in a perfect position. So why would they move them? Except if they knew that it was misinformation?"
August looked at the photos again for one long moment as a traitorous wave of excitement dipped across his chest. "I guess that's what we're here to find out, Jamie."
Late December 1990
August could feel the two men behind him and see the two in front even though they were keeping what was probably considered a discreet distance. The brown and white spaniel scampered ahead, sniffing deeply into piles of frost-bitten leaves clustered along the path. August had been summoned with an hour's notice. He wasn't dressed for it. His jacket was too light and his boots felt awkward and heavy as he tried to match the easy stride of the angular man beside him. He wished they could either walk faster or slow down to a stroll but the President insisted on a measured, steady pace.
The briefing had been succinct. August had felt vaguely uncomfortable under the tight gaze of the narrowed, dark eyes. They'd stood in the large, airy kitchen sipping coffee, the President in an open-necked sports shirt, August leaning against a counter ledge, a leaky faucet dripping steadily into the stainless steel sink. A gap-toothed Santa Claus had been cut from red construction paper and stuck on the kitchen window. A guy built like a locomotive stood on the other side of the window. Every so often he swivelled his head around the maniacally grinning Santa in a way that made August draw back. He wanted out of here. Wanted to get on with the job. What he didn't want was to be any man's excuse for a macho fistfight over so-called leadership qualities to wave at the next primary. And he didn't want to be some kind of ghost-buster for the poltergeist of Vietnam. On the other hand, he had a lot of problem with dictators. And as far as Saddam was concerned, better late than never. But he figured now wasn't the time to ask about the buddy-buddy plan with Hussein during that nasty incident known as the Iran-Iraq War.
He might have liked Camp David under other circumstances. It had a certain qualified wildness to it. The cedar buildings and sheltering low eaves invited you inside. But there were too many guys with thick necks and unblinking eyes appearing without notice from around corners to suit August's taste.
The President had motioned for August to follow him outside. "So, it's not as bad as it could have been?" Bush asked as they stepped onto the trail leading from the cluster of living quarters to several wooded acres.
"No, sir. I've eliminated the National Security Council as being the source of the leak. Our mole doesn't appear to be working out of there."
"How do you know?"
"We've tossed a little misinformation into their daily data. We suggested that several countries were getting soft about the Resolution. That some might be open to a bit of dealing with Hussein. There was no reaction from Baghdad. We could be reasonably certain that if Hussein had any inkling of that piece of news he would have taken the bait. So — it looks like your men are clear."
The narrow lips pulled back on one side. "There's always a `but,' Mr. Riley."
August couldn't help smiling. "Well, you're speaking to a natural pessimist, I suppose. I almost wish the leak had been in the NSC. Now we only have to eliminate the possibilities in the rest of the world."
"From what I've been told you're more than up to it." The President reached down and in one smooth move, one hand still in the pocket of his overcoat, grabbed a fallen branch from the ground. The spaniel turned towards him, her chocolate nose twitching in the air.
August felt the men behind them stiffen. "It might take awhile," he said.
George Bush tore a few rough strands from the branch and tested its strength between his hands, bending it up and down. The dog jumped at their feet, emitting little excited yelps. "How long is awhile?"
Bars of cold sun slanted between the bare trees. He should have tried to see Katy. But he'd been busy. The awful old seduction of late nights and obsessive pursuit once more coming between them. August tried to snap the metal tags on his jacket closed. Two of the tags were missing and the other had to stretch too far to do its job. "Six weeks. Eight. Maybe longer. Depends on how clever our mole is."
Bush stopped walking. So did the four men. The two in front fanned into the trees. "We don't have that long, Mr. Riley. We have an eight-million-dollar Lacrosse satellite about to go up on the Atlantis shuttle. That thing's gonna tell us how many grains of sand are getting up Saddam Hussein's nostrils every day. We don't wanna find out a week from now that its shots have been so compromised that we might as well send him copies for his family album. It's up to you," he raised the suddenly solid-looking stick as if about to jab August with it. "It's up to you," he repeated, "to target your best bet." He flung the stick in a high curve along the leaf-strewn road they were following, barely missing the tallest secret service guy. "And to give me answers." The dog scampered through the leaves, its stub of a tail twitching wildly.
The President turned back to August. "Where do you wanna start?" he asked, the slanted smile lifting half his face into a lopsided grin.
August watched the dog bite into the soft wood of the stick and toss it in the air. "I think it better be our tracking station on Heard Island, sir. From there I can throw some false data into the system and see who scoops it. I can narrow down the leak. Send each station — from Incirlik in Turkey to Pine Gap in Australia — the misinformation. If the bait is swallowed, I'll have to pay a trip in person to wherever the mole is hanging out. But Heard is our best bet to start. There's not much there. And the fewer bodies snooping around, the easier my job."
"Where's this Heard Island?"
August grimaced. "The middle of nowhere, Mr. President." He watched as the sun slid behind the black trees. "The middle of nowhere."
Posted December 22, 2012
No text was provided for this review.
Posted January 21, 2013
No text was provided for this review.