Hayley Chill descends even deeper into the dangerous political web of Washington, DC, in this thrilling sequel to the “propulsive, page-turning, compelling” (C.J. Box, #1 New York Times bestselling author) national bestseller Deep State.
When a series of devastating cyber attacks rock the United States, Hayley Chill is tasked by the “deeper state” to track down their source. NSA analysts insist that Moscow is the culprit, but that accusation brings plenty of complications with Hayley directing the president as a double agent against the Russians. With increasing pressure on the president to steer him towards a devastating war, it’s up to Hayley to stop the mysterious computer hacker and prevent World War III—while also uncovering some shocking truths about her own life.
Magnificently crafted and superbly unpredictable, Savage Road is an edge-of-your-seat political thriller ideal for our times.
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Chapter 1: The Lives We Save 1 THE LIVES WE SAVE
Ten Days Earlier
Wednesday, 8:25 a.m., Kyle Rodgers, a bespectacled black man of expanding girth, is waiting for Hayley when she walks through the office door. His coveted position as president whisperer and sounding board landed Rodgers with premium real estate on the West Wing’s main floor. Richard Monroe’s chaotic first year as president culminated with an attempt on his life. The wholesale purge that followed those tumultuous events spared the genial and eminently capable senior advisor. Among several outstanding attributes, Rodgers is notable in Washington for having gained his influential position without having made bones of anybody.
He is as good a boss as one can expect in the White House’s pressure-cooker environment. For that indisputable fact, Hayley Chill esteems and admires Kyle Rodgers. The feelings are mutual. His office is the best run in the building, and he has his young chief of staff from West Virginia to thank for it. The secret machinations of Hayley’s superiors in the deeper state—a clandestine association of former presidents and Supreme Court justices, retired directors from the intelligence community, and other discharged heavyweights of the government establishment that calls itself “Publius”—placed her in the West Wing twenty months ago as an intern. But it has been by the sheer dint of her extraordinary skills that Hayley is where she is today: fifty feet down the carpeted corridor from the Oval Office.
“Thank God you’re here,” Rodgers says without looking at her. “Today is going to be insane.” He mixes sugar-free Red Bull with coffee at his desk, his go-to breakfast.
Hayley’s meteoric rise from humble intern to the chief of staff for one of the president’s key advisors generated widespread acrimony among the other West Wing staffers. The army veteran—possessing only an associate’s degree from a two-year community college and an accent particular to people from the Appalachians—is widely considered by her peers to be undeserving of her fantastic success. Hayley Chill has dealt with this poisonous envy all her life and unfailingly turns it to her advantage. But the exertions of holding down two high-pressure jobs—as White House staffer and covert agent—has taken its toll. Twenty-hour workdays are the norm.
Wearing a Jones of New York knee-length, dark blue skirt, a tie-front silk blouse, and sensible shoes, she drops her knock-off tote on the couch. “What’s up?”
Rodgers scans his computer screen for Monroe’s daily schedule, a detailed, minute-by-minute rundown available only to West Wing staffers. “Okay. First off, we—”
“—need to get the president up to speed on the LA Times, Washington Post, and New York Times hack.” Hayley read reports on her way into work. Coordinated cyberattacks hit computer servers at printing plants across the country. The nation’s major newspapers managed to get the day’s editions out, but only after significant delays.
“Yeah, I heard about that,” Rodgers says absently, taking a sip of his energy drink concoction. Glancing toward his young chief of staff for the first time since she’d arrived, he notes Hayley’s slightly haggard countenance. “What happened to you?”
She got only a few hours of sleep the night before. Hayley spent most of her Tuesday at the Library of Congress; the president’s speechwriters required material for Monroe’s address to workers at an auto plant in Ohio on Wednesday, and the job was tasked to Kyle Rodgers’s wunderkind. A two-hour workout—six sets of a circuit of exercises that included timed pull-ups, crunches, and push-ups, followed by a twelve-mile run—followed a nine-hour stint at the library. After a quick dinner, Hayley put in several hours compiling a detailed weekly report on the president’s activities for her superiors in the deeper state. Naturally, she squeezed in another workout this morning before leaving for the White House.
She disregards her boss’s question. “Has there been any attribution yet?”
“Who do you think?”
“We can’t always blame Russia, sir. Other players out there have the same capabilities. North Korea, for instance. Tehran.”
Rodgers shrugs and turns his attention back to his computer, reading through an email to the president’s chief of staff and vice president one last time before sending. He had joined Monroe’s presidential campaign just before the start of the primary swing, proving indispensable in tailoring the candidate’s message for early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. A veteran of numerous national and state-level campaigns, Kyle Rodgers possesses the highly desirable ability to distill a politician’s incoherent and insecure ramblings into network-ready sound bites. Married to his college sweetheart and distracted dad of four-year-old twin girls, he is a pessimistic optimist. Rodgers recognizes humanity is on a collision course with its stunning idiocy. Simultaneously, he believes in the restorative powers of a competent executive branch. Bolstered by that conviction, Rodgers sets himself apart from 98 percent of the other political wonks in town mired by their jaded nihilism.
Hayley persists. “Communications working on a statement?”
“The president will continue treating these low-level, nuisance attacks on private sector institutions as a nongovernment matter,” Rodgers says by rote. He checks his watch. “I’m heading up to the residence to talk to the big guy.” He hurriedly loads files and briefing books into a large leather satchel. “Don’t forget. The Rose Garden thing has been moved to nine forty-five.”
“Shutting down the printing operations of the three national daily newspapers seems something more than a nuisance, sir.” Hayley adds, with greater emphasis, “You might even call it a direct attack on the First Amendment by one of the nation’s historic enemies.”
Her boss doesn’t seem overly concerned. “Well, if Moscow really wants our attention, they’ll just have to turn off the lights at the Pentagon.”
“Y’all know they can do that, don’t you?” Hayley shouts after her boss as he heads out the door with his satchel. Of course, Kyle Rodgers is well aware of the capabilities of Moscow’s cyber army. They match those of the United States. Soldiers at Cyber Command could turn the lights off in the entire country of Russia with a few clicks on a computer keyboard. But having that power is a far different matter from exercising it. The consensus in Washington is a cyber Mexican standoff will continue for the foreseeable future.
With a cascade of pressing concerns requiring President Richard Monroe’s attention, Rodgers offers only a raised middle finger as he heads up the corridor. He thinks the world of his chief of staff but finds her to be galling as hell at times, too.
WEDNESDAY, 10:10 A.M. President Monroe strides down the West Colonnade accompanied by a navy chief in full dress uniform. The president’s affinity for the Rose Garden is easy to understand. The outdoor location has been an effective tool for White House communications for decades, used as a backdrop for welcoming other world leaders, staging official ceremonies, signing significant pieces of legislation, and holding non-campaign campaign events. More so than his predecessors, Richard Monroe has deployed the French-style garden adjacent to the Oval Office as his preferred venue for presidential stagecraft. With chiseled features and a hawklike profile that wouldn’t be out of place on Mount Rushmore, his looks are perfect for the iconic setting.
The president steps down from the colonnade, turns to face the one-hundred-plus invited guests—members of his cabinet, assorted dignitaries, military brass in dress uniforms—and blasts them with his trademark grin. A career soldier before winning his first and only political campaign for president of the United States, Richard Monroe led a tank charge across the sands of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. Later, as a major general and commander of the First Armored Division, he drove the tyrant Saddam Hussein from Fortress Baghdad in Operation Iraqi Freedom. His obvious strengths, commanding presence, and unassailable integrity have been the perfect tonic for a nation torn by division and political polarization.
Everyone stands with the president’s arrival, the electricity in the Rose Garden supercharged by his charismatic presence. Monroe smiles good-naturedly. This morning’s event is one of the “good” ones, a time of celebration. After a wet and cold spring, the weather in the nation’s capital has finally turned. Bright, warm sunshine bathes the proceedings in magnificence. The president is relaxed, and his casual attitude goes a long way to putting all in attendance—especially the US Navy warrant officer who accompanied him from the Oval Office and now stands at attention beside him—at ease. Monroe gestures with both hands. “Thank you, everyone. Please, sit.”
All those assembled before the podium take their seats, while aides and staff members to either side of the garden remain standing.
“Thank you again, everyone, for coming out for today’s event. It gives me enormous pleasure to be here today to honor one of America’s finest and a true hero, US Navy chief Edward Ramos. The Medal of Honor is the highest award our great nation bestows on an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States. Chief Ramos receives this award, the Medal of Honor, for conspicuous gallantry at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a Hostage Rescue Force Team Member in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom on November 9, 2012.”
Generous applause washes over the president and his invited honoree. Hayley watches from the sidelines, standing next to Kyle Rodgers. She listens to the president’s speech and reflects on her extraordinary journey from an impoverished childhood in West Virginia to the White House Rose Garden. The deeper state plucked her from the army’s infantry ranks, trained her in covert operations, and infiltrated her into the West Wing as an intern. Hayley fully appreciates the enormity of her responsibilities.
After Monroe finishes his speech and has draped the medal around the war hero’s neck, the assembled crowd remains seated while the president and Ramos turn and retreat to the West Colonnade. A trio of Secret Service agents follows at a discreet distance. Kyle Rodgers and Hayley Chill, having ducked out from the ceremony moments from its conclusion, wait near the French doors leading into the Oval Office as the president approaches with his honored guest.
Monroe exchanges small talk with Chief Ramos as they stop in front of the West Wing staffers. “Well, the weather couldn’t have been better for the occasion.”
The war hero is understandably stiff in the presence of his commander in chief. “Yes, Mr. President. Thank you.”
“So very grateful for your service, Chief.” Monroe gestures toward his top advisor. “Mr. Rodgers will show you the way out of here. Kyle?”
Hayley looks to the ground to avoid Rodgers’s startled expression. He’s not used to being dismissed in favor of his much more junior chief of staff.
“Yes, sir. Of course,” says Rodgers. He indicates the way back up the West Colonnade. “Chief, after you.”
CWO4 Edward J. Ramos and Kyle Rodgers walk off, leaving the president alone with Hayley outside the French doors that lead into the Oval Office. They remain there, rooted in place, avoiding whatever prying eyes or electronic ears might be lurking on the other side of those doors.
“What do you want?” Monroe’s voice is flat and hostile. That he hates the young woman with the powder blue eyes is abruptly clear. His transformation from charismatic chief executive to an angry old man is instantaneous.
Hayley absorbs the president’s aggressive malice with cool aplomb, glancing over her shoulder to ensure the president’s protection detail, posted at different points on the colonnade, is out of earshot.
Turning back to Monroe, she says, “You read my message earlier. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have saddled Kyle Rodgers with the task of the lowliest aide.”
“I’ll flag the dead drop when I go upstairs again before lunch... okay?” The man’s bitterness doesn’t befit his station. Hayley ignores it.
“Ask them if they know anything about the cyberattack on the newspapers’ servers last night.”
Monroe smolders. He cannot bear taking orders from the twenty-seven-year-old female. By all appearances, he has no choice but to do so.
“Mr. President?” Hayley prods him, desiring only one thing: his unquestioned compliance.
“I’ll ask them, goddammit.” His voice is a low growl of frustrated rage.
“Good. That’s why you’re here, sir, remember? Instead of a federal prison.”
Monroe’s lip curls as if he’s on the verge of a bestial snarl. But he remains silent.
“Очень хорошо . До тех пор.” Hayley’s Russian is flawless, spoken only with the slightest American accent. Good. Until later, then.
The president of the United States looks over his shoulder, confirming their privacy. He grudgingly says, “До ттоЗжє.” Later.
Monroe turns and reenters the Oval Office, where a scrum of subservient aides meets him. Hayley Chill remains just outside the door, watching him. Inside that hallowed space, Richard Monroe is the leader of the free world, the face of the greatest democracy that humanity has ever achieved. But Hayley—and only Hayley, in these precincts—knows better. Since before her arrival at the White House as a covert agent of the deeper state she has known the truth. Richard Monroe is a Russian mole, covertly entering the US with his parents as a one-year-old and since then under orders of the Main Directorate of the Russian General Chief of Staff. Moscow’s corruption of America’s highest office represents the most successful operation in history until Hayley Chill flipped Richard Monroe and, as his handler, uses him to undermine Russia.
Message delivered, and anxious to get to other pressing tasks, she turns away from the door and nearly collides with a female Secret Service agent. Hayley experiences a sharp, stabbing fear. How long had the agent been standing so close behind her and the president? How much did she hear?
The expression on the woman’s face is stern, even for a Secret Service agent. Her eyes are accusatory.
Stepping aside, Hayley begins improvising a response to a possible inquisition. Why is she speaking Russian with the US president?
The agent peers through the glass door, into the Oval Office, and then looks to Hayley again. Her expression softens, culminating in a friendly smile.
“It never gets old, does it?” she asks.
Hayley effortlessly masks her relief, returning the other woman’s smile. “No, ma’am, it never does.”
KYLE RODGERS HAD correctly predicted the day would be a difficult one. But that’s a safe bet on almost any day in the Monroe White House. The president was elected on the promise of being a disrupter. The voters who turned out for Richard Monroe, of course, didn’t know just how much of a destructive force his Russian handlers intend for him to be. Blunting that attack on US institutions is only one of Hayley’s responsibilities. Another is turning the Russian mole Richard Monroe back on Moscow in the form of a disinformation campaign. In both cases, Hayley relied on her supervising agent with Publius, Andrew Wilde, for direction. He contacted her before five that morning with new orders regarding the night’s cyberattacks on the nation’s major newspapers. Even for someone as cold and relentlessly officious as Wilde, so devoid of human emotion, his manner seemed brusque. Has she done something to displease her superiors in the deeper state? Paranoia is a career hazard in both of her worlds, public and covert. One fact for certain is that the low-grade insanity of running Kyle Rodgers’s office seems like a vacation in comparison to her clandestine duties for Andrew Wilde and the deeper state.
Leaving the White House complex after ten that night, she Ubers to the Darlington House, a restaurant in Dupont Circle on Twentieth Street. For forty years, the Darlington was one of Washington’s legendary bars. Musical artists, including the Ramones, Bonnie Raitt, and Bruce Springsteen, wailed, thrashed, and bounced across its ancient floorboards. In 2007, new owners gave all three levels of the building a makeover. They made only a faint effort to preserve the venue’s original ambiance, with electric guitars bracketed to exposed brick walls. Open mic night once a week fails to capture the magic of a bygone era.
The guy behind the bar greets her with a friendly wave.
She nods and pulls up a stool at the all-but-deserted bar.
Billy Esposito has long nurtured a thing for Hayley Chill, one that the White House staffer has deftly sidetracked. Her work for the deeper state precludes a normal life, but this simply perpetuates a long pattern of Hayley’s being stubbornly single. Physical entanglements have been easy and, no doubt, she has been willing to go there in more convenient times of her life. Some of those casual affairs ended badly. Others were complete debacles. Hayley long ago made peace with the realization that she might not fulfill a man’s vision of a female partner. If hindsight is twenty-twenty, then her ability to predict the inevitable failure of a possible romantic entanglement is positively uncanny. Love is for civilians. She’s got a job to do.
Grabbing a bottle of tequila from the shelf behind him, Billy pours her a double.
“An hour ago, this place was packed. Think it was something I said?” He grins, hoping for a kind smile or full-fledged interaction.
“Not you, Billy. Them.”
The bartender takes her polite response as an invitation to hike one foot up on the cooler behind the bar and settle in for a more extended conversation. Hayley feels her phone vibrate. Checking it, she finds a message from her drinks date canceling five minutes after their meeting time. Hayley would throttle her phone if it did any good.
“I tell you about the gig I’ve got next weekend? We’re playing—”
She raises a hand. “You mind, Billy? Need a little downtime.”
He drops his foot down and backs away with both hands raised, grinning sheepishly. “Like I said. Radioactive.”
Billy retreats to the far end of the bar, leaving Hayley to her concerns about the president’s hostility. Will Monroe have increasing difficulty concealing his potentially dangerous emotional outbursts? Hayley can hardly blame him. He’s in a terrible situation despite being “the most powerful man on Earth.” Richard Monroe is beholden to rival espionage entities simultaneously. Even Hayley has no idea what the endgame is here. These uncertainties do nothing to mollify Hayley’s perennial feelings of isolation and exposure.
“Hey, there.” The voice is a male. Mid- to late twenties, she surmises, keeping her gaze fixed on the Strat on the opposite wall. Friendly and assured.
“Bad timing, friend,” Hayley says, without looking in that direction. “I mean, bad in a tragic, gothic kind of way.”
“Guess I’m the run-toward-danger type of guy,” the male voice says, not too close to her ear to be weird but not exactly fleeing for the hills, either.
Hayley slowly turns to look at him. He has an open expression and hazel eyes under an unruly mop of auburn hair. The stubble on his face suggests either a careless man or one too busy to bother shaving. The DC Fire Department T-shirt he wears isn’t clean, either. An off-duty fireman is an easy guess. The “run-toward-danger” comment, then, was tongue in cheek. Funny, even. He seems harmless enough. But, as she stated, tonight is not a good night.
“Honestly, you have a better chance driving over to Arlington National Cemetery and romancing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,” Hayley says, despite feeling that particular feeling.
The fireman puts up both hands in mock surrender and moves so that one empty bar stool is between him and Hayley.
The bartender approaches. “Usual, Sam?”
Sam McGovern nods.
Hayley silently curses herself. If she didn’t want human interaction, why come to a bar?
“Put it on my tab, Billy,” she says. Or maybe it’s just because he is so good-looking.
Both Billy and Sam are surprised by the gesture. Without further comment, the bartender draws a tall, chilled mug of Bass Ale for the firefighter, who casts a questioning look in Hayley’s direction.
She fixes her gaze on the Strat but feels his eyes on her. “For the lives you saved today,” says Hayley.
Billy places the beer in front of Sam, who lifts it high.
Sam says, “To the lives we save.”
The bartender retrieves his bottomless mug of heavily iced diet root beer from next to the cash register and clinks it with Sam’s.
MORE THAN TWO hours later, Hayley stands on the sidewalk with Sam McGovern outside Darlington House. Despite the late hour, a warm breeze wafts over them. The grin on the firefighter’s face is playfully inebriated, a testament to several pints he raised to defuse a stressful day. But it’s not just the alcohol. Sam vibes on Hayley in a way that he hasn’t felt in a long time. The opportunity presents itself. Their initial banter, easy and jocular, begat actual conversation, words that fit together like one thousand puzzle pieces to form a picture of something real.
Hayley gives him a quizzical look. “What the hell are you thinking?”
He only laughs, at himself, in response.
“I’m not going home with you,” she says.
“I don’t remember inviting you.”
“That smile was invitation enough.” Her resolve is especially admirable given the amount of tequila consumed and regrettable history of casual intimacies.
“What’s yours saying?” Sam asks, appreciating her beaming face.
Hayley realizes how rare it is for her to smile and says nothing.
“I want to see you again.”
“I’m a busy girl.”
“That’s not a valid excuse.”
“How do I get in touch with you? Dial 911?”
He laughs. “Sure. Ask for Sam.”
She turns and takes a few steps toward the Prius that has just stopped at the curb, her Uber.
“I had fun,” Hayley says over her shoulder, her right hand reaching for the door handle. “Thanks for cheering me up.”
She climbs into the back of the Prius and pulls the door closed, leaving Sam feeling weirdly bereft. As the vehicle pulls away, however, the rear window rolls down and Hayley’s face appears.
“Hayley Chill. I work at the White House. Last I checked, we’re listed.”
ARRIVING AT HER apartment on P Street near Logan Circle well after midnight, slightly buzzed from the tequila she consumed, Hayley discovers the door ajar. Sobering instantly, she pushes it open and sees the place is ransacked. She remains on her guard; whoever wrecked the apartment might still be inside. Keeping her back to the wall, Hayley moves quickly to the kitchen area and retrieves the biggest blade in the knife block. Checking each room and closet with the butcher’s knife in hand, the White House staffer establishes she is alone in the apartment.
She picks up one of her dining chairs lying on its side and sets it upright. After retrieving her laptop from her bag, Hayley accesses the server that stores images from the surveillance cameras she placed inside the apartment for precisely this occasion. She has zero concerns that the break-in has compromised her identity as a covert agent for the deeper state. Hayley carries on her person at all times the KryptAll phone issued to her by Andrew Wilde. No other physical evidence exists tying her to Publius. But was the break-in an ordinary case of robbery, or was it counterespionage?
Locating the minicam’s footage online is a trivial matter. Motion-activated, the camera’s recording is time-stamped a few minutes past three that afternoon when Hayley would have been at the White House. With the camera focused on the main living area of the apartment, the single intruder enters the frame from the left. The individual is slim and average height, wearing loose-fitting dark clothing and a balaclava mask that obscures the entire head and face. Gender is impossible to establish. Stopping, the individual scans the entire living room for several seconds. After that lengthy pause, he or she approaches the camera with a purposeful stride. Hayley can now see the expandable steel baton in the individual’s right hand. The intruder draws nearer to the surveillance camera and swings the baton violently forward as the footage abruptly ends.
Hayley looks up from the computer and glances toward the shelf on the opposite wall, where she wedged the matchbox-size minicam between a stack of books. She reverses the recording playback and then freezes frame on the intruder approaching the camera. There is much to suggest the break-in was something more than simple robbery. The tactical balaclava and telescoping steel baton are not the typical kit of the average meth addict, but these objects aren’t absolute proof of a professional operative. Nor is the fact that the front door showed no sign of forced entry. What troubles Hayley most is how the intruder methodically scanned the room and so readily spotted the recording device, as if they knew to look for it.
The break-in indicates the possibility of a severe security breach. Suspicion of her being something more than a White House staffer is the only reason to target Hayley. Before doing anything else, including putting her place back together, the deeper state operative knows what she must do. Reaching for her KryptAll phone, she prepares in her head how best to communicate the news to Andrew Wilde.
THURSDAY, 5:15 A.M. When she sets out for her run the next morning, the season’s first hint of predawn humidity reminds her of Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas. Hayley enlisted in the US Army straight out of high school, reveling in the regimentation and directedness of military life. At that time, a career with the army seemed more rewarding than anything available to her back home in Lincoln County, West Virginia. In a single meeting at a Red Lobster fifty miles south of the base, Hayley’s journey shifted, taking a turn that she could never have predicted. Having appeared in her life only the day before, like the professional spook that he was, Andrew Wilde offered the opportunity for patriotic service that far surpassed her role as a corporal in the US Army.
Since she was a child, Hayley’s almost daily runs have been an integral part of her exercise regimen. She eschews high-tech training attire, favoring her old army PT gear instead. Her gait is effortless. Automatic. With physical conditioning at peak levels, breaking a sweat requires a high-energy output. Hayley quickly overtakes a 63 Metrobus devoid of passengers lumbering south on Thirteenth Street. After fifteen minutes at a fast pace, sweat drenches her shirtfront. She eases up with that intensity, feet thinking for her as she turns east on K Street. The capital’s streets are gloriously traffic-free. Within a few minutes of easy jogging and cooling down, Hayley arrives at Franklin Square.
Last renovated in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt and eerily suggestive of that era’s Great Depression, the park seems inhabited by ghosts of unemployed tramps and phantom breadlines. Fifteen minutes until sunrise and not another living soul is in evidence. Hayley enjoys the strangeness of the place, especially at this time of day. She customarily pauses on the west side of the park to stretch, near the commanding statue of John Barry, an officer of the Continental Navy and one of three contenders for “Father of the American Navy.”
Andrew Wilde is waiting for her on a bench near the Barry statue.
He says, “Too predictable. Too routine.”
Hayley does nothing to disagree with Wilde’s assessment. She finds herself marveling at Wilde’s deep tan. When they first met, the spy explained his skin tone was a result of a vacation home in Puerto Rico. Hayley assumes this is only one more cover story. The man’s inherent gravitas convinced Hayley of the significance of his recruitment pitch. As it turned out, that first impression was fully warranted. She has gotten enough gravitas in her association with the deeper state to last a lifetime.
“What’s up?” she asks, guarded. Andrew Wilde had only popped up like this once before when he first appeared at one of her amateur bouts at Fort Hood. Following her recruitment, their communications have been limited to encrypted messages, calls, and emails over the KryptAll phone.
Wilde shrugs. “Checking up, face-to-face. What with the break-in and all.” He says the second sentence archly and with a tinge of mockery.
“Are we okay here?” Her voice becomes sharper. “Am I okay?”
“What on earth do you mean?”
“Have I done something to displease you or whoever it is that’s above you?”
“You’re insecure. Why?”
Hayley scoffs. “What’s going on? Please, sir. You owe me that much.”
“We all appreciate the challenges inherent in your mission, Hayley. It would be impossible for me to overstate the pressures you’re under.”
“I’m fine. You don’t have to worry about me.” She feels the heat of anger, her affliction, go up a few degrees. What does he actually want?
“Tell me more about this break-in. Could it have been a disgruntled lover?”
“If you know enough to find me here at thirteen minutes before six, you know ‘man trouble’ isn’t exactly in the cards.”
Hayley stares off.
Wilde doesn’t wait for her answer. “We’ve analyzed the images you forwarded last night. There is little question the individual is trained and professionally equipped.”
She cannot argue with that assessment. “Nothing was found. I’m good.”
“Why would you be targeted? A low-level staffer for an advisor to the president wouldn’t typically fall in the sphere of interest by foreign intelligence services.”
“But that’s a possibility, sir. Or, I’m simply the victim of a very meticulous junkie.”
Wilde stares at Hayley with a placid expression, his tan face infuriating in its impeccable smoothness. “Would you like to be replaced?”
The question is a thunderbolt, out of the blue and shocking.
“What? No!” Her mind races. Her worries that she has done something to displease Wilde were well placed. But why? She has filed her reports in a timely fashion and maintained perfect mission integrity. Hayley can’t think of one misstep or careless incident.
His gaze holds hers. With a long history in intelligence work and overseas covert operations, Wilde possesses a better understanding of human psychology than many trained mental health professionals. He has Hayley Chill’s number. She will do whatever it takes to succeed at an assigned task.
“If you’ve been compromised in any way, you’re done.”
Hayley controls her emotions. Life as an army boxer taught her many lessons. A rudimentary one is the art of the counterpunch. “If I’m compromised, someone in the organization screwed up. Not me. Maybe if you figured out who broke, the threat could be neutralized.”
“We’re working on it.” He doesn’t seem all that concerned, however. “This cyber business. Monroe is contacting his Russian handler?”
“Yes, sir. We should hear something in the next day or two.”
“Good.” Wilde stands. “We’re done here.”
Without further ceremony, he turns and strolls quickly away, heading toward I Street along the southern reaches of the park. The first pedestrians are entering the park a few hundred feet away.
Hayley watches her deeper state supervisor go, attempting to decipher the true meaning behind his final words. We’re done here. As with everything in this clandestine world of subterfuge and deceit, the surface of things is all for show. The real truth lies beneath that veneer. Trust no one. That was the first lesson she learned in this town, spoken to her by a mentor, the president’s assassinated chief of staff. They remain words to live by.
THURSDAY, 10:50 A.M. Four people await the president’s arrival in the Oval Office. Sitting in awkward silence on the couch and chairs at the opposite end of the room from the Resolute desk is Vice President Vincent Landers, National Security Agency director General Carlos Hernandez, and secretary of Homeland Security Clare Ryan. Standing nearby is senior advisor, Kyle Rodgers, with an attentive Hayley Chill at his side. She possesses the necessary security clearance in case someone needs a fresh cup of coffee, the identity of Russia’s State Duma chairman (Vyacheslav Viktorovich Volodin), or the technical name of the synthetic chemical compound more commonly known as the nerve agent VX (O-ethyl S-2-diisopropylaminoethyl methylphosphonothioate). Hayley impresses many of her colleagues in the White House with her astounding wealth of knowledge. Only her boss, Kyle Rodgers, knows her gift of eidetic memory is behind her erudition.
The attack on the nation’s newspapers required the president’s attention. With Hayley’s pressure on Kyle Rodgers the day before, time was made in Monroe’s schedule for a sit-down with the government officials most responsible for cyber preparedness. But the meeting’s participants have been waiting for some time, Monroe’s problems keeping to a meticulously crafted daily schedule legendary. Hernandez impatiently checks his wristwatch. Clare Ryan clears her throat. Rodgers is about to stand to check on the president when the door leading to a private study adjoining the Oval Office swings open. Richard Monroe enters the room like a summer storm. Everyone stands.
“Sorry for the delay, folks.” Monroe drops into an upholstered chair before the dark fireplace. The others take their seats as well, greeting the president respectfully. Hayley remains to the side of the room. The president knows she’s there but refuses to look in her direction.
“So, this cyber business. Who wants to start?” the president asks.
Clare Ryan, in her forties and possessing an efficient intensity that commands attention, beats the NSA director to the punch. “Mr. President, as you know, DHS hasn’t the mandate to provide network protection for the private sector. As much as we’d like defending the American people from these attacks—whether on the major newspapers or Iran’s Operation Ababil against the US banking system a few years back—our directives are clear. Government networks are the responsibility of Homeland Security. And we’re confident with those protections we have in place.”
Monroe looks to Hernandez, a lean man in his fifties with a prominent forehead and iron-gray hair. He wears his US Army uniform with enormous pride. “Cyber Command is responsible for defending military networks, Mr. President, while the NSA is by its mandate an offensive component,” he says.
“The private sector is expected to fend for itself?” asks Monroe.
“Yes, sir. Entirely,” Clare Ryan says.
“Is that something that should change?” asks Vincent Landers. As vice president, he is upset about the uselessness of his position. Only one of the manifestations of that frustration is Lander’s habit of forcing his way into a conversation with leading questions.
Hernandez says, “Not a problem if you’ve got ten years and about that many trillion dollars to spare.”
Monroe frowns, unhappy with his vice president’s interruption. “We have neither.”
“Sir, as long as we can do to them what they can do to us, we’re in a stalemate not unlike the nuclear standoff of the last six decades,” Hernandez says.
The president reacts to Hernandez’s hectoring with an exasperated sigh. “What about rogue or terrorist actors? Radical Islamists claimed credit for this latest thing. What’d they call themselves? ‘Cyber Jihad’?”
Hernandez adopts a more respectful tone. “Mr. President, analysis and accurate attribution is in the early stages. We were able to trace the malware, in this case, a logic bomb, back to servers in Estonia.”
“Logic bomb? What the hell is that?” asks Landers.
Clare Ryan elbows her way back into the briefing. “Mr. Vice President, a logic bomb is a small bit of code inserted into a computer system that will set off a malicious function when specified conditions are met. In this case, servers at the targeted newspapers were wiped out simultaneously, the conditions being the time and date. North Korea, China, and Iran have used these same hijacked servers in the past.”
Hernandez shoots an angry look at his Department of Homeland Security counterpart. Their shared animosity is well-known in Washington.
“For the sake of getting our hands around a coherent policy, let’s agree it’s impossible to know who’s hitting us,” Kyle Rodgers says.
“Well, that makes my job so much easier,” says Monroe, adding sarcastically, “If we can’t possibly know who’s attacking us, we can counterattack anyone we please.”
“Mr. President, we’ve had time to study the malware used in the attack on the newspapers. It bears signatures of code we’ve associated in past attacks with the GRU’s Unit 26165,” Hernandez says, referencing a cyber-specific division of Russia’s military intelligence agency. Under the direct command of the Minister of Defense, the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation runs a more orthodox hacking operation than the FSB, which outsources missions to independent hackers and criminal groups.
Clare Ryan scoffs. “Big surprise.”
The general presses his case with Monroe. “Sir, I propose we respond with an action that degrades comparable assets in Moscow.”
“Computer servers at the GRU or any of the FSB’s hacking centers in Saint Petersburg.”
Monroe dismisses the suggestion with a wave of his right hand. Everyone in the room is aware that Hernandez’s only son had been a passenger on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down by a Buk surface-to-air missile launched from pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine on July 17, 2014. GRU Unit 26165 was accused of hacking the international investigations into the incident. The general’s antipathy for Russia ought to have disqualified him for the jobs he currently holds as director of both the NSA and US Cyber Command. Powerful allies in Congress, however, helped secure his position. His expertise in signals intelligence is second to none, and he is an adept administrator. Nevertheless, the president was advised by Kyle Rodgers to keep a tight leash on the general. Hernandez has been looking for any excuse to punch Moscow’s lights out since his first days running the show at Fort Meade.
Clare Ryan seizes the opportunity to gain an advantage over her rival. “An alternative, Mr. President, might be emergency legislation that provides the funding for DHS to ramp up the defense of the nation’s most vital and vulnerable civilian targets. What’s of critical need, sir, is a federal initiative to protect our electrical grid, utilities, and financial networks.”
Her suggestion prompts another glare from the NSA director. The kind of money she is talking about would finance an extra battle group or stealth fighter battalion. No one in Washington with any power would let a rival incur that kind of windfall, not without a fight.
Before Hernandez can deploy his counterargument, Monroe shifts uneasily in his chair. Kyle Rodgers takes the president’s restlessness as his cue to wrap up the meeting. “We’ll table this until the folks over at Savage Road develop confirmable attribution,” he says, referring to the physical address of Fort Meade, headquarters for both the NSA and Cyber Command.
A visibly relieved Monroe stands. “Who knows? This attack could be a one-off. We might never hear from Cyber Jihad again.” He looks to Rodgers, signaling for him to clear the room, and makes a beeline for the door leading to his private study.
The meeting’s participants head toward the exit to the Outer Oval Office. Kyle Rodgers follows General Hernandez and Vice President Landers out the door, the men engaged in a private conversation that seems intentional in its exclusion of Clare Ryan.
The DHS secretary pauses to buttonhole Hayley, who remained respectfully behind while the principals cleared the room. “Ms. Chill? You have a second?”
“How can I be of assistance, Madam Secretary?” Hayley has met Clare Ryan a dozen times in the past year. She always found the older woman to be unusually inclusive and cordial, despite the difference in their government pay grades. West Wing scuttlebutt had it that the DHS secretary’s marriage was a rocky one. Hayley is sympathetic to the cabinet secretary’s plight as the only female in Monroe’s cabinet.
“Is it my imagination, or are these meetings in the Oval becoming shorter and shorter? This is the presidency by haiku.”
“A lot on his plate, ma’am,” Hayley says, carefully neutral.
“We both know of General Hernandez’s penchant for blaming the Kremlin for everything but bad weather. I hope I can count on your wise counsel in a policy discussion that is certain to get rough.”
“Please, call me Clare.”
That sort of casual familiarity with a cabinet secretary isn’t in Hayley’s DNA. “Ma’am, I’m only a staffer working for—”
The secretary for Homeland Security interrupts her a second time. “Your special standing with the president couldn’t even be classified as an open secret. Nor could your keen insight and true, patriotic commitment to our nation.”
Singling her out in this way makes Hayley uncomfortable. Her role as an agent for the deeper state requires she seek neither attention nor commendation.
“Words like ‘patriot’ are too often co-opted by politicians and ideologues, ma’am.”
“?‘Freedom’ is another.”
“What does compel you to be here, Hayley? It can’t be the money.”
“A devotion to country, ma’am, and its Constitution. There’s never been a better articulation of democratic goals.”
The West Wing aide’s sterling sincerity is humbling. Clare Ryan can’t help but admire Hayley. “I don’t think I have to convince you of the threat cyberattack poses for the United States. We need your help.” Clare emphasizes her last sentence with a squeeze of Hayley’s forearm.
“Of course, ma’am.”
The cabinet secretary smiles inscrutably and continues out the door, disappearing into the reception area. For a moment, Hayley Chill is left alone in the office where so much history has been made. The Secret Service agent was exactly right the day before. No matter how many times Hayley has ventured into this hallowed room, the Oval Office never ceases to instill awe in the young woman from West Virginia.
The vibration of her phone snaps Hayley out of her reverie. As she retrieves the device from a jacket pocket, her face reflects surprise. She can’t recall the last time her younger sister, Tammy, called.
SHE REQUESTS TIME off from both of her bosses, public and covert, to attend Jessica Cole’s funeral in Charleston. Kyle Rodgers tells Hayley to take as much time as she needs. Andrew Wilde is a more stringent taskmaster. He grants her only two days, barely enough time given the almost seven-hour drive. Hayley has not seen Jessica, her best friend growing up, since returning home for her mother’s funeral years earlier. They spoke a few times on the phone—desultory conversations that left Hayley somewhat depressed—but their shared, scarred history bound them in ways that can’t be said of many childhood friendships. Now Hayley is going back home for Jessica’s funeral, a disorienting event but not wholly unexpected.
Jessica never left Green Shoals, marrying a boy from their high school and becoming pregnant almost immediately. Two more babies followed, a burden too great for the young marriage to bear. Jessica’s husband lit out for California and a less demanding future. Like many in her situation, the young, single mother developed a dependence on opiates that left her incapable of performing parental duties. The children were raised by their grandmother as Jessica’s illness devolved into a harrowing heroin addiction. Her repeated overdoses were unremarkable except for the last one that claimed her life. A motorist found Jessica’s rail-thin corpse in the bathroom of a gas station.
Only seven other mourners attend the funeral service and interment. Drug addiction has so thoroughly ravaged the community that scenes like Jessica’s burial are sadly commonplace. Standing at the gravesite and staring intently at the coffin poised for burial, Hayley feels unconnected to the event. Rain threatens, a prospect that matches the ritual’s mood. In these circumstances and others, Hayley’s primary emotion is a pronounced lack of emotion. How strange, too, that she can’t recognize any of the faces encircling this black hole in the ground. Bearing witness to the ceremony’s dreary conclusion, Hayley reflects on her long absence from home and childhood friends, and is ashamedly grateful for it. Had she remained in West Virginia, would she have raced her friend to an even earlier grave?
She strolls through the pointless garden of gravestones, returning to her car in the cemetery parking lot. Hayley prefers remembering Jessica for the giddy, scrappy girl of her school years. For that reason, she avoids the requisite conversations with the bedraggled funeral-goers that would only corrupt those memories. Her youngest sister, Tammy, lives in Chapmanville. Hayley points the car for the drive south. In passing the speck of a town that was once her home, Hayley once again feels nothing. She barely glances at the bland structures that jut from the green landscape. Green Shoals represents a prior life that has no connection to the one she lives now. This whole trip, it occurs to her, is a continued exploration of emotional detachment. She came because that’s what people do. They attend the funeral of their best childhood friend. But there’s no guarantee you feel anything in the process, right?
Tammy answers the door, her girth enlarged with pregnancy in its eighth month. She is the only one of Hayley’s five siblings to have stayed local. Nineteen years old, Tammy married her high school boyfriend the day of their graduation. With a calm smile and freckled cheeks framed by long, straight red hair parted down the middle, she looks every bit the high school homecoming queen she once was. Hayley adores her little sister in a way possible only with siblings separated in age by nearly seven years. That adulation is mutual. Tammy never tires of telling friends her big sister works in the White House, rubbing elbows with the president and inhabiting a city that is a veritable Shangri-La in comparison to Chapmanville. The sisters hug with genuine affection. Hayley is relieved to feel a stirring within her heart. Finally! She feels something genuine. In an instant, she knows that thing is love.
Tammy’s husband, Jeff, is at work at a Walmart in Logan, giving the sisters plenty of time to visit. Hayley tells Tammy about her job as Kyle Rodgers’s chief of staff, about the travesty of her romantic life, and, surprisingly, even about meeting Sam McGovern. Having talked plenty enough about herself, only something a favorite sister could draw out of her, Hayley goes silent and listens. Tammy opens up and relays the details of a small life by comparison but, in most ways, good. Jeff is proving to be a better husband than one might have considered possible of someone so young and inexperienced. The expectant parents are thrilled about the prospect of starting a family. They’ve enthusiastically outfitted their small rental home with items from Walmart for the baby’s arrival. Sitting in a chair in the kitchen—the cherry tree outside the window having bloomed a month earlier but offering the ghost of a sweet scent even still—Hayley is flooded with emotion. These robust feelings are a welcome change to the existential void she’d experienced at Jessica’s gravesite. A valiant sun has broken up the storm clouds’ monopoly of the sky. Hayley decides her younger sister is an angel on earth.
Toward evening, Tammy retrieves a big cardboard box stuffed haphazardly with family photos. They are artifacts from a pre-smartphone era, and the two sisters delight in picking through the pile of random snapshots. So many photos of the six kids! The old photos incite more chatter between the sisters about their other siblings. Robert, second to the oldest, is stationed at Fort Benning, having washed out of Ranger School. Next is Harper, sickly like their mother was, who lives in Richmond and works at a Waffle House there. Sadie, a year younger, is shacked up with a biker dude in Florida. William, the youngest, hasn’t been heard from by anyone in more than a year. The unspoken truth is that, of the six siblings, Tammy and Hayley seem to be doing the best.
Near the bottom of the pile, Hayley unearths a photo of four Marines grouped in front of a shrapnel-pocked armored personnel carrier. The man at the far right she recognizes as her father, glaring sternly at the camera in a clear effort to look sufficiently badass. Hayley holds the borderless photograph with reverence as if it were a religious icon.
“Wow,” she says.
“Look at Daddy. Such a stud.”
“This could’ve been taken in Fallujah.”
“Is that where... is that the place where he was killed?” Tammy asks. His death in combat occurred when she was barely walking.
“Yeah. He’d been home just four months before. We had a party for him, down at the community center.”
“That must’ve been really something,” Tammy says, wistful.
Hayley continues to gaze at the picture, looking for answers. “I wonder who these other guys are.”
Four Marines. High and tight haircuts. Tall, lean, and muscled. Two white. One black. One brown. The men represent the great melting pot that is the US military. Except for any differences in skin color, they are interchangeable. They are men at war. Brothers. One of them was their father.
“I wish I’d had a chance to really know him.”
“He was a good man, Tammy.” Hayley doesn’t know what else to say, wishing she could give her sister more. “He was a really good man.”
It’s getting late. Hayley has to get on the road for the long drive back to Washington. She places the photograph to the side.
“Mind if I borrow this?” she asks, gesturing.
“Of course! Take it! Jeez, you have as much a right to it as I do. Take as many as you like.”
Hayley shakes her head. “I just want this one.”
WELL PAST TWO a.m., after she returned to her apartment on P Street, a last name scrawled on the back of the photo and sleuthing on the Internet has led Hayley to determine the identity of at least one of the other Marines. Charles Hicks has retired from active duty in favor of a desk job at the Pentagon. He is the other white guy in the photo and resembles Tommy Chill enough to be his brother. They stand next to one another, arms thrown over each other’s shoulders. Without access to classified military databases, Hayley has never been able to gather details of her father’s death. Despite repeated requests, the military refused to divulge more information other than the barest essential facts. Thomas Chill was killed in action during the later stages of the Second Battle of Fallujah. The old snapshot has had the profound effect of igniting within Hayley a desire to know more. Answers are within reach, as close as across the Potomac River. Sitting behind a desk in the Pentagon.
Hayley shuts down her computer and stands up from her seat in the apartment’s living room. She has restored order to the space since the break-in, replacing those few items that she couldn’t fix. Her place is a refuge again, familiar and organized. This new determination to learn more about her father’s death is a good thing, Hayley decides. Not knowing the whole truth for so long is a source of constant anxiety. She wonders if the damage done, like her belongings in the busted-up apartment, can ever be repaired.