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Man In The Middle
By Brian Haig
Warner BooksCopyright © 2007 Brian Haig
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLateness can be a virtue or a sin.
Arrive late to a party, for instance, and that's fashionable. Arrive late for your own funeral and people envy your good fortune. But come late to a possible murder investigation and you have a career problem.
But nearly every problem has a solution, and I turned to the attractive lady in the brown and tan suit who was standing beside me and asked, "Come here often?"
"Hey, that's very funny." She was not laughing, or even smiling. "It's my best line." "Is it?"
"You'd be surprised how often it works." "You're right," she observed. "I'd be surprised." She placed a hand over her mouth and laughed quietly, or maybe yawned.
I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. "Sean Drummond," then added less truthfully, "Special Agent Drummond. FBI."
"Bian Tran." She ignored my hand, and was trying to ignore me. "Pretty name."
"I like your outfit."
"I'm busy. Can't you make yourself busy?" We were off on the wrong foot already. In all fairness, sharing a small space with a lovely lady and a fresh corpse does push charm and wit to a higher level. I directed a finger at the body on the bed. "It's interesting, don't you think?"
"I might choose a different adjective." "Then let's see if we can agree on nouns-was it suicide or murder?"
Her eyes had been on the corpse since I entered the room, and for the first time she turned and examined me. "What do youthink?" "It sure looks like suicide."
"Sure does. But was it made to look that way by him ... or somebody else?"
Funny. I thought that's what I had asked her. I turned and again eyed the corpse. Unfortunately, a tall, plump forensic examiner was hunched over the body, mining for evidence, and all I could see was the victim's head and two medium-size feet; the territory between was largely obscured.
But here was what I could observe: The victim was male, late fiftyish, neither ugly nor attractive, tall nor short, skinny nor fat, and so forth. An everyday Joe. A man with bland features and a gray brush cut, physically ordinary and entirely unmemorable.
It occurred to me that if you walked past him on the street or sat beside him on the subway, you would look right past or perhaps through him.
And there, I thought, was one putative motive for going either postal or suicidal-fatal anonymity. "How long have you been here?" I asked Ms. Tran.
"Thirty minutes, more or less." She was jotting notes in a small notebook. She shifted her shoulder and-accidentally, I'm sure-blocked my view of her notebook. She asked, "What about you?"
"Just arrived. How about a little help getting oriented?" What I failed to mention was why I was here in the first place, which had something to do with the victim's phone being tapped by people from the FBI, who were working with people from the CIA, who had overheard a phone call from a distressed lady to the local cops, reporting a corpse.
The victim was what is termed in the intelligence business a target of interest; was being the operative tense. Now he was an object of mystery, and in every mystery there are five basic questions. Who died was obvious, as was where, leaving the three questions I was sent here to figure out-when, how, and with any luck, why.
Nobody informed me why and in this business, don't ask. If you need to know, they'll tell you. Irritating, certainly, but there are valid and important reasons for this rule. The fate of our nation might depend on it, so you have to swallow your curiosity, avoid speculation, and get on with it.
Anyway, suspicion of espionage-that was my guess. I mean, the FBI and CIA don't even like or trust each other. They are the Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, except in cases of espionage, when the crap lands on both their doorsteps. Then you have two prima donnas sharing the same small stage, and we all know what that gets you.
Also worth noting, with the country at war-in Afghanistan and Iraq-espionage had become a more noteworthy matter than during the cold war, where spies mostly just gave up other spies, like homicidal incest. By all the spook thrillers and Hollywood flicks you'd think that was what the whole cold war thing was about. In truth, it was little more than the waterboys at a pro football game snapping towels at each other's butts. Entertaining, for sure: Ultimately, however, the successes were never as great, and the failures never as dire, as they sounded. The more serious stuff would be handled by the millions of armed troops glaring across the inter-German border; the genuinely serious issues by a pair of gentlemen with briefcases who could turn out everybody's lights.
Post-9/11, however, was a new world. Times change-espionage today meant falling towers, crushed nations, and soldiers' lives. About that latter point, you can bet my interest was more than passing.
Which brings us to me-a newly promoted Army lieutenant colonel by rank, attorney by trade, Judge Advocate General Corps by branch, temporarily assigned to the CIA, though neither Ms. Tran nor the local cops were supposed to know any of that. The CIA is really into disguises, covers, and concealment. Inside the United States, usually this means we're impersonating other federal agencies, and you have to get your act straight. CIA people tend to be intelligent, clever, snide, and arrogant, and you have to suppress that. Feds tend to be intense Goody Two-shoes, wholesome, nosy, pushy, and obnoxious, so I was good to go on three out of five. I think it's fairly obvious which three.
Anyway, Ms. Tran had returned to ignoring me, so I asked her, "Are you going to help me out or not?" "Why should I?"
"I'll make it worth your while." "Will you? How?"
I smiled. "Afterward, you can take me to lunch, dinner, Bermuda, whatever."
She replied, without visible enthusiasm, "Let me think about it." Apparently she became distracted by something on the other side of the room, and she wandered away.
I should also mention that, at the moment, I was assigned to a small and fairly unique cell inside the CIA titled the Office of Special Projects, or OSP. About the only thing special about this cell that I can see is it gets the stuff nobody else wants-this job, for instance. In my view, it should be called the Office Where All the Bad Shit Gets Dumped, but the spooks are really into smoke and mirrors, so nothing is what it seems, which is how they like it.
Anyway, this office works directly for the Director of Central Intelligence, which has advantages, because we don't have a lot of bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and a big disadvantage, since there's nobody else to pin the screwups on, so it's a bit of a high-wire act.
Also, there are large and significant cultural differences between the clandestine service and the Army, and I was experiencing a few adjustment difficulties. I've been warned, in fact, that if I remove my shoe and speak into the heel again, I can look forward to a long overseas trip someplace that really sucks. These people need to lighten up.
Nor is it unusual for Army officers to be loaned, or, in military parlance, seconded to other government agencies. The idea, as it was explained to me, is we each bring something different to the table-different specialties, different mind-sets, different wardrobes-and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. In an organization, the term for this is synergy, and in an individual it's called multiple personality disorder. I'm not really sure about the difference, but there it is.
But for reasons I have yet to understand, the Agency requested me, and for reasons I fully understood, my former Army boss was happy to shove me out the door, so you might say it seemed to work out for everybody; except perhaps me.
But Phyllis Carney, my boss, likes to say she looks for "misfits, mavericks, and oddballs," for their "willingness to apply unorthodox solutions to ordinary problems." It's an interesting management theory, and I think she's started looking into a new one since my arrival.
Ms. Tran now was poking her head inside the victim's closet. I approached her from behind and asked, "Anything interesting?"
She turned around and faced me. "There are three cops, a forensics expert, and four detectives here. Why me?"
"Update me, and I'll get out of your life."
For the first time she looked interested in what I had to say. "Is this because I'm an attractive woman?"
"Absolutely not." Definitely. I said, "You look smart and you take notes. Like the girl I sat beside in second grade."
"When was that? Last year?" She smiled at her own joke.
Which brings me to the here and now: 10:30 a.m., Monday, October 25, Apartment 1209 in a mammoth complex of rental units, mostly cramped efficiencies and one- and two-bedrooms, on South Glebe Road. There was no sign in front of the building that advertised, "Cribs for Swinging Singles," though I was aware it had that reputation.
The apartment was small, essentially one bedroom, an efficiency-style kitchen, closet-size living room, and an adjoining dining room. A Realtor's brochure would characterize it as cozy and intimate, which is code for cramped and uninhabitable. The furniture was sparse and looked new, and also cheap, the sort of crap you rent by the month or pick up at a discount furniture warehouse. I observed few personal, and no permanent touches; no books, no artwork, few of the usual trinkets or junk people sprinkle around to individualize their living environment.
You can usually tell a lot about a person from their home. Especially women who tend to think that how they dress, and how they decorate, are reflections of their inner selves. More often it reveals who they'd like to be, though that contrast can also be telling. Men aren't that complicated or interesting-they're usually anal or pigs; usually shallow pigs. Anyway, I judged the inhabitant here to be fairly neat, not showy, highly organized, and thrifty. Or, alternatively, broke, with the personality and interior complexity of an empty milk carton.
I knew the victim's name was Clifford Daniels, a career civil servant, and I knew that he was assigned to the Pentagon's Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, or USDP, part of the Secretary of Defense's civilian staff.
I also knew this to be a singularly important office in the vast labyrinth of the Pentagon, the equivalent of the military's own State Department, where strategies for world domination are hatched and war plans are submitted for civilian approval, among other dark and nefarious activities.
Also I knew Clifford was a GS-12, a civilian rank roughly equivalent to an Army colonel, and that he had a Top Secret security clearance. Regarding those facts, I considered it noteworthy that a late-middleaged man in a serious profession such as he, working in a sensitive and prestigious office such as his, would choose to live in a complex nicknamed the "Fuck Palace."
I should mention one interesting personal touch I observed as I passed through his living room: a silver frame inside which was a studio-posed photograph of a mildly attractive, middle-aged lady, a smiling young boy, and a frowning teenage girl.
This seemed incongruous with Clifford's living arrangements, and could suggest that we had just stumbled into his secret nooky nest, or he was divorced, or something in between.
Finally, we were just inside the border of the county of Arlington, which explained all the Arlington cops, homicide dicks, and forensics people trying to get a fix on this thing.
Were this suicide, they were wrapping up and about to knock off for an early lunch. If murder, on the other hand, their day was just starting.
As I mentioned, the smell was really rank, and I was the only one without a patch of white neutralizing disinfectant under my nose-or the only one still breathing.
At least I looked manly and cool while everybody else looked like character actors in a stunningly pathetic milk commercial. But in my short time with the Agency, I had learned that image is all-important: The image creates the illusion, and the illusion creates the reality. Or maybe it was the other way around. The Agency has a school for this stuff, but I was working on the fly.
Anyway, Bian Tran was staring at her watch, and she sort of sighed and said, "Okay, let's get through this. Quickly." She looked at me and continued, "I spoke with the lead detective when I arrived. It happened last night. Around midnight." She said, "I think your nose is already telling you that. Am I right?"
After five or six hours at room temperature, a body begins purging gases, and in a small and enclosed space such as this, the effect was worse than the men's room in a Mexican restaurant. Whatever Cliff had for dinner the night before was revolting.
She noted, "Statistically, that's the witching hour for suicides. Not the exact hour, per se. Just late at night."
"I had no idea."
"About 70 percent of the time."
"Okay." I was looking at the window. Unfortunately, we were on the twelfth floor of a modern high-rise and the windows were permasealed. I would either have to breathe slower or get her to talk faster. She said, "Think about it. Exhaustion, mental defenses are worn down, darkness means gloominess, and if the victim lives alone, a mood of depression and isolation sets in." I must have looked interested in this tutorial because she continued, "Spring. That's the usual season. Holidays, though, like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year's are also fatally popular."
"Isn't it? When normal people's moods go on the upswing, theirs sink into the danger zone."
"Sounds like you know this stuff." "I'm certainly no expert. I've helped investigate seven or eight suicides. How about you?"
"Strictly homicides. A little mob stuff, a few fatal kidnappings, that kind of thing." I asked her, "Did you ever investigate a suicide that looked like this?"
"I've never even heard of one like this." "Was there a note?"
She shook her head. "But that's not conclusive. I've heard of cases where the note was left at the office, or even mailed."
She walked over to the dresser and began a visual inspection of the items on top: a comb and brush, small wooden jewelry box, small mirror, a few male trinkets. I followed her and asked, "How was the body discovered?"
"The victim uses ... used a maid service. The maid had a key, at nine she let herself in and walked into this mess."
"Implying the apartment door was locked when she arrived. Right?"
"It has a self-locking mechanism." She added, "And no ... there are no signs of burglary or break-in."
"The cops already checked for that?" I knew the same question would later be asked of me, so I asked.
"They did. The front door and a glass slider to the outdoor porch are the only entrances. The slider door was also locked, if you're interested. Anyway, we're on the twelfth floor."
"Who called the police?"
"The maid. She dialed 911, and they switched her to the police department."
I already knew that, but when you fail to raise the predictable questions, people get suspicious and start asking you questions. My FBI creds looked genuine enough to get me past the crime recorder at the door; now all I had to do was avoid any serious discussions that would expose what an utter phony I was. I'm good at that.
Checking the next box, I asked, "Where's the maid?" "In the kitchen. Name's Juanita Perez. Young, about twenty. Hispanic, and very Catholic, probably illegal, and at the moment, extremely distraught."
"I'll bet." I mean, I arrived at this apartment anticipating a corpse, and yet, between the malignant stench and the sight, I was still appalled. Juanita expected perhaps a messy apartment, but not a dead client, definitely not one in his vulgar condition, and for sure not a green card inspection.
I tried to imagine the moment she entered the bedroom, lured, perhaps, by the odor, lugging her cleaning bucket and possibly a duster or some other tool of her trade. She opened the bedroom door, stepped inside, and bingo-a man, totally naked, lying on his back, utterly exposed with the sheets rumpled around his feet. On the bedside table was a full glass of water, and discarded on the floor by the bed was a pile of unfolded garments: black socks, white boxers, dogeared brown oxfords, a cheap gray two-piece business suit, white polyester shirt, and a really ugly necktie-it had little birds flying on green and brown stripes. His sartorial tastes aside, it looked like the same outfit Cliff wore to the office the day before. For the watchful observer this is a clue of sorts.
Also, nearly beneath the bed with only a corner sticking out, was a worn and scuffed tan leather valise, which for reasons I'll explain later, you can bet I kept a close eye on.
In fact, I edged my way over, gingerly placed a foot on that valise, and pressed down. The contents felt hard and flat-a thick notebook, or maybe a laptop computer. I then nudged the valise farther under the bed and, to distract Ms. Tran, pointed at the pile of clothes and observed, "He undressed in a hurry."
"Well ... I'll bet messing up his clothes was the least of his worries."
Excerpted from Man In The Middle by Brian Haig Copyright © 2007 by Brian Haig . Excerpted by permission.
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