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By LEO J. MALONEY
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Leo J. Maloney
All rights reserved.
Washington, D.C., December 14
"So what have we got?"
William Schroeder's voice came across as tired, mechanical and unceremonious. Philip Chapman—"Buck" to just about everyone who knew him—sat along with the rest of the Emergency Task Force in their conference room in the Pentagon, with its dark hardwood table, which was arrayed with telephones and Ethernet outlets and surrounded by ten chairs and blank monitors. The room was bare and sterile compared to Chapman's situation room back at Langley, where he led a Crisis Response Team that he had personally handpicked. There, the walls were covered with clippings and photos forming complex diagrams, and boxes of takeout littered the floor, with none of the people on the team having had the time to stop and clean up in days. This was the kind of fancy, official room that Chapman had never gotten used to, where things were discussed but never done. Schroeder, who was a Section Chief at the DoD but was currently serving as Task Force Chair and Special Liaison to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commanded the head of the table. Chapman, as the principal CIA representative at the table, was at his left. Populating the other chairs were representatives from various other government agencies, from the FBI to the NSA.
Schroeder's heavy brow was furrowed into a stony scowl, and he looked no one in the eye. His face was pale, with heavy, dark bags under his eyes, his shirt wrinkled and his collar undone. He looked like he hadn't slept in a week, and all energy had been completely drained from him. Chapman could sympathize.
"Death toll is at thirty-two at the moment," said Chapman, relating what his contact in the French Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence had reported. "Three Americans among them. Tourists on vacation. A couple with their young son."
"Jesus," said Schroeder. "I'll let the Director of National Intelligence know. The President is going to want to mention them in his address to the nation. Do we have names for the family?"
"I'll find out and make sure to send that along to you," said Chapman.
Chapman's exhaustion didn't stem from the fact that he'd gotten pulled out of bed at 2:30 AM for this meeting; he was as used to being pulled out of bed at all hours as anyone who worked in foreign affairs. And it wasn't his having to burn the midnight oil every night besides. No, it was the relentlessness of this crisis. Three months now since the first attack, since the New York–bound airplane had crashed in Atlanta, streaking across Interstate 20 minutes after taking off from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Everyone on board, a hundred and seven people, was dead, plus six more on the ground who had been in the path of the crash. Chapman remembered vividly where he had been, running on his treadmill and watching the morning news, when the announcement came. Along with probably most of the country, he had thought terrorists from the moment he'd heard about the disaster. After that, every hour that passed with no terrorist group taking credit for the attack was a relief. Horrible as it might have been, an accident was self-contained and its repercussions were limited. People would not have to live in fear of the next one. No wars would be launched because of mechanical failure. There was a cold comfort in that.
But then came the early forensic reports. The pilots and most of the passengers had been dead by the time the plane hit the ground. Toxicology screens had found that they had been poisoned with mustard gas. Hidden canisters had been found near the plane's air filters. They had begun releasing their deadly payload into the cabin just moments after takeoff.
The Emergency Investigative Task Force, the group Chapman was sitting with right now, had been convened immediately. It had been bracing at first. Energizing. They had been full of righteous anger, and it was, in its own way, intoxicating. He remembered their first meeting. They had been ready—pumped even—to find the culprits and rain vengeance upon them. It was an energy that he brought back to his people at the CIA. But then, no one claimed responsibility. No indication that any of the usual suspects, domestic or foreign, had been involved. The chatter, of course, had recently escalated, and the anti-American message boards had been abuzz with activity. But intelligence agencies had been turning up nothing of value. Little by little, they ran out of places to look. Their intelligence resources exhausted themselves, and they were no closer to catching the culprits.
It made no sense. Armchair psychoanalyzing aside, terrorists did what they did for a political purpose. The point was to make it public. Why create terror but not tell people why? What was the reason?
Weeks after the crash, when they had been almost lulled into believing that the attack had been an isolated incident, perhaps a lone madman, it happened again. Three bombs in a coordinated attack in a trade fair in Barcelona this time. There was nothing to connect the two events, except the utter silence from the perpetrators. There were those who said they couldn't possibly be related, that it had to be coincidence. And even Chapman had had his doubts. Until the bombs had gone off in the Port of Oslo.
The process had been constant stress and frustration for them. Their energy and anger had quickly seeped out of them. The strain had ground them all down to a hard kernel, wearing away all courtesies and politeness and leaving behind only a grim determination to see the task through.
And now another one. Christ.
"Tell me we've got something on whoever is behind this Paris bombing," Schroeder demanded of the room. He scanned the people present, and downcast eyes gave him his answer. Schroeder cast a glance, and Chapman followed his eyes, to NSA liaison Dick Browning.
"Chatter's through the roof, but we've still got no credible intel," he said. "Our agency analysts are just sorting through it all at the moment. Lots of gloating and celebrating, but nothing actionable. I'll be the first to tell once something of interest comes up."
"What about forensics?"
"The French are playing this pretty close to the chest for now," said Browning. "I think we're going to have to wait—"
"They're still combing the site," Chapman cut in. "But preliminary reports aren't promising. The Paris bomb squad experts said there was nothing out of the ordinary about the explosives, at least at first glance. The devices were expertly built, no amateur work, but beyond that, nothing much. Absolutely no materials that might turn your head and no signature details."
Schroeder cursed. "Nothing new then."
"We should wait for the full reports, but—"
"Right," said Schroeder. "We'll manage our expectations on that. George, what's your take?"
That was George Stanley, the group's expert consultant on terrorism—the egghead. He was a professor type, balding, with long hair and a tweed jacket with shoulder pads. He spoke softly, at a high register and with a slight stammer that was made worse by the tension of the moment.
"W-well," said Stanley, with as discouraging a tone as Schroeder had ever heard, "taking into account the p-precise location and nature of the attack—w-well, it fits no discernible pattern. At this juncture, there is nothing to tell us who might have done this."
Well, there had been claims, of course. After the dead silence following the Barcelona attack, fledgling anti-Western terrorist groups had tripped over one another to claim responsibility. Even a couple of the big ones had gotten in the game. And meanwhile, whoever was really behind this was sitting quietly in the shadows, playing the greatest intelligence community in the world for fools.
"W-what remains is what we already knew," continued Stanley. "The c-continued anonymity of the perpetrators tells us we're not dealing with ordinary terrorists. Political terrorism hinges on the doers of the attack—and the m-motives behind it—being well publicized. All this mystery makes no sense at all, in that respect. The persistent silence after today's attack tells us that this isn't political, at least not in the ordinary sense. And with the g-goals still so obscure, we're left knowing—"
"Precisely nothing," cut in Schroeder. "Great. Anyone got anything else they need to share?" No one moved to speak. "Goddammit," he said, slamming his fist into the table. "We reconvene in three hours. Find me something. Anything. Just do your goddamned jobs and get us something to go on. Go. Go!"
As they got up to leave, he said, "Buck, stay behind a minute. I gotta talk to you."
Chapman waited as the others shuffled out. When they were alone, Schroeder sat across from him and looked him straight in the eye. "I've got to talk to the Joint Chiefs, and I want your honest opinion. How likely are we to come up with anything actionable on this?"
Chapman frowned. He wasn't scared of Schroeder, and if he was worth anything, he wouldn't be the kind of person who would beat around the bush and tell half-truths to cover his own ass. That was the only reason he was sitting in this room. "Not very. Whoever is behind this is as professional as they come. Expert at covering their tracks. We can hope that they'll make a mistake, but that's all that is: hope."
"That's what you got? Hope?" said Schroeder in a voice laden with anger. "Hope gets us all of nothing. People are scared. And they're right to be. They should be terrified. It's gonna happen again, and who's to say it won't happen on American soil again next time?"
"Not us, that's for damn sure," said Chapman ruefully.
Schroeder stared intensely at Chapman. "I know you have contacts, Buck," he said in a low voice. "You've delved much deeper into the intelligence rabbit hole than me or anyone else in this group."
Chapman looked at Schroeder, taken aback. He was right, of course. Chapman had worked in extralegal intelligence for over ten years, collecting information from sources that ranged from shady to outright criminal. He often tapped in to his eyes and ears in the underworld—it was what made him such an asset. But this time, even in the criminal underworld, all he'd heard was crickets. "I've exhausted all the resources that I had in this, Bill," he said. "I've done everything I can."
"Don't give me that crap," said Schroeder. "It's time to pull out all the stops, Buck. This cannot go on. Not on our watch."
"Jesus, Bill, what do you think I've been doing for the past—"
"Do more," said Schroeder. "The lines you wouldn't cross before? It's time to cross them. Do you understand what I'm saying, Buck?"
"I do," said Chapman, his heart sinking.
He left the situation room with his mind a jumble of thoughts and misgivings. There were lines he hadn't crossed, had told himself he wouldn't cross. He knew that some doors, once opened, couldn't be shut again. But what was he supposed to do? How could he hold anything back in a situation like this? And now Schroeder was pushing him as well.
Chapman walked out into the parking lot to make the fifteen-minute drive back to CIA Headquarters. He called his second-in-command at the CIA Crisis Response Team, Cynthia Gillespie.
"Talk to me, Cyn."
"Waiting on updates from Paris, Buck. Just like when you last called, twenty minutes ago. I told you, if something turns up, you'll be the first to know."
"Make sure to do that," he said.
"Are you coming back now?" she asked.
"I just have to make one quick stop."
Chapman hung up. As he drove listlessly down the George Washington Memorial Parkway, he wondered how fast he could get ahold of a secure phone line.
Budapest, December 27
"I'm here to see Roman Lubarsky."
The voice was self-assured, brash even; if the accent had not given away that he was not from Budapest, but rather from America, then surely the characteristic lack of subtlety would have been plenty to identify the nationality of the speaker.
"I'm afraid Mr. Lubarsky isn't seeing anyone at the moment, sir," said the girl at the hardwood and brass reception desk, offering him a "what-can-you-do?" shrug and a practiced look of commiseration from across the counter, and motioning him out of the wood-paneled, red-carpeted foyer into the brisk grey morning.
"Oh, I think he's going to want to see me," the man said, then grinned. She did not smile back at his comment. He was approaching middle age, but still handsome in that rough American way, with a chiseled jaw, a full head of dark hair with grey streaks, and a trim mustache with a goatee. He was not tall, but had broad shoulders that were emphasized by his grey pinstripe suit. He had an expensive-looking black leather briefcase in his right hand, which she had noticed when he'd walked into the lobby. She had also noticed that he was unusually fit and vigorous. The kind of man who could cause a lot of trouble if he wanted to—of one kind and the other, she couldn't help thinking, looking him up and down. She shut those thoughts out. She had to look at him as a security risk and nothing more, and those thoughts only compounded the danger. Under his suit jacket she could see a well-concealed gun holster. Barely perceptible, but it was the kind of thing she was paid to notice.
She could tell she wouldn't get rid of him easily, but this wasn't the first person who had insisted on coming in off the street to see the boss. He was definitely not the first one who had come in packing heat. But she knew how to deal with this type.
"Mr. Lubarsky does not receive anyone without an appointment," she told him. She leaned in closer, resting her weight on her right elbow on the counter, as if to say something confidential, just between him and her. "Trust me, sir," she said. "It will do no good to insist." As she spoke, she reached down discreetly with her right hand and pushed the tiny button hidden on the underside of the counter.
"I've got a standing appointment with Lubarsky," said the man coolly.
"It's not in my book," she said, pointing at the leather-bound planner and shrugging to signal her utter incapacity to do anything about this situation.
"Oh, I think he's going to want to see me anyway."
This was getting tiresome. Her tone took on an edge of annoyance. "I insist, sir, that even if you are His Holiness the Pope himself, Mr. Lubarsky will not—" She was interrupted as Marko and Lyudmil emerged from the louvre door next to the reception desk and flanked the American. She couldn't help grinning slightly as the balance of power shifted in her favor, and became altogether less subtle.
"This guy giving you trouble, Rositsa?"
"Some men just can't take no for an answer," she said, teasing the man by looking straight into his eyes as she spoke. She loved having the muscle behind her.
The man did not stop smiling. "Some men just know when not to fold."
"Come on, asshole," said Lyudmil, grabbing the man's left arm. "The lady has had enough of you."
The American, totally unfazed, did not move. Instead, he reached into his breast pocket. The two men seemed alarmed by the gesture and began to move to restrain him, but relaxed when they saw him pulling out a business card. The American proffered it to them, holding it between two outstretched fingers. Marko took it, examined it, and then handed it to Lyudmil. They nodded between them.
"Please follow us this way, sir," said Marko. "We apologize on behalf of the girl. Mr. Lubarsky will see you very soon."
The three disappeared into the louvre door into the employees-only area of the ground floor. The girl from reception looked down and the counter and saw that they had left the card. She picked it up and looked at it curiously. On it was no name—in fact, no words at all. All there was on the rich white stock was a simple black ink drawing of a snake, a cobra, coiled and ready to strike.
Excerpted from SILENT ASSASSIN by LEO J. MALONEY. Copyright © 2013 Leo J. Maloney. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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