A remarkable thriller debut of twenty-first-century espionage, by a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State who “knows where all the bodies are buried—literally" (W. E. B. Griffin).
The Golden Hour: In international politics, the hundred hours following a coup, when there is still a chance that diplomacy, a secret back channel, military action—something—may reverse the chain of events.
As the director of the new State Department Crisis Reaction Unit, Judd Ryker gets a chance to prove that his theory of the Golden Hour actually works, when there’s a coup in Mali. But in the real world, those hours include things he’s never even imagined.
As Ryker races from Washington to Europe and across the Sahara Desert, he finds that personalities, loyalties—everything he thought he knew—begin to shift beneath his feet, and that friends and enemies come in many forms.
About the Author
Previously, Moss worked at the World Bank and the Economist Intelligence Unit and taught at the London School of Economics. The author of four nonfiction books on international affairs, he lives in Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
The Golden Hour draws on my real-life experiences, but what follows is entirely a work of fiction. The golden hour principle of rapid intervention in trauma cases is a concept from emergency medicine that I learned when working as an EMT and ambulance driver in Boston. I am unaware of any published academic study so far that has discovered such a time pattern in politics, but there is a growing quantitative literature on drivers of conflict.
In the story that follows, any resemblances to actual people or events are coincidental. Timbuktu is real.
A NOTE ON TIME
Mali and Great Britain are both on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), but Mali does not follow daylight savings time. Thus, in The Golden Hour Mali is four hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time while Britain is five hours ahead. Germany is six hours ahead.
BANGORO VILLAGE, MALI, WEST AFRICA
SIXTY-FIVE MILES NORTH OF TIMBUKTU
At the thought, her mouth watered slightly. A Philly cheesesteak with camel meat?
Kate, dreaming of comfort food, couldn’t be farther from home. For years, her father would joke, “I’m in Timbuktu,” when he’d call from any of the remote towns of rural Pennsylvania he was constantly visiting. Now she was living a three-hour drive—or, for the locals, a three-day walk—outside of the real Timbuktu. Beyond the middle of nowhere.
The steel bolt clanged loudly as Kate locked up the classroom. She clamped on a bright yellow padlock. The key, also school-bus yellow, was on a leather lanyard around her neck. It was mostly for show, everyone knew, but the headmaster insisted that security must be maintained. Especially for the token library of a few dozen books, each preciously hand-delivered by Kate and the string of Peace Corps volunteers that came before her.
Why not camel? Tastes like beef. I could be the first. I’m a cheesesteak pioneer.
She licked her lips. It was futile, she knew, to fantasize about impossible snacks. But it was a ritual she justified as a normal reaction to homesickness. And the searing Saharan desert heat.
The sun was dropping toward the horizon and glowing in the rich burnt orange that exists only in the African sky.
Most of the students were long gone, the girls called home to haul water, the boys to tend the family goats. A few stragglers were still wandering around the school in tattered pale-blue uniforms, watching the foreigner lock up for the day.
Kate slung her backpack over her shoulder and turned down the sandy path toward her home. Other than the school, her house was the only concrete structure in the village. The rest—the huts, the granaries full of millet, and the tiny shops selling Coca-Cola, long bars of pink soap, jugs of cooking oil, and mobile phone scratch cards—were made of dried mud.
Even though dusk was nearing, it was still close to 100 degrees. Bubbles of sweat were sprouting on her nose and along her cheekbones, periodically sliding down salty paths onto her lips. Her long red hair, pulled back into a perky ponytail, bobbed up and down as she walked.
She was exhausted. But her long day was finally over.
“Miss Katie, Miss Katie! Hello! How are you? Miss Katie!” She waved back at a gaggle of small children, naked and dusty, hopping along the path.
“Hello. Good evening.” Kate forced a friendly smile. The price of being a local celebrity, she reminded herself. And the first freckled redhead the village children had ever seen.
“Hello! Miss Katie! Bonjour! Hello!” They giggled and scampered off into the bush.
As she settled into her forty-minute walk, the very one she had made every day for the past five months, she returned to her thoughts.
She missed her family, especially her dad. Kate loved when they would go out for brunch, just the two of them, on weekends. For as long as she could remember, her father had spent the workweek away from Philadelphia, taking the train back home on Fridays. His afternoons and evenings were usually also busy with work. But the mornings were for family. Kate had even chosen Penn over Yale to stay closer to home. So their weekends could stay the same.
Kate revered her father. To be like him, she knew she would have to see the world. After college, the Peace Corps seemed an obvious, almost unconscious choice. Kate had never even heard of Mali when she received her assignment. She had studied French in school so she could spend the summers in Paris. Or maybe the Riviera. Who knew they spoke French in the Sahara Desert? When she was told where she was going, she laughed, as surely Timbuktu was fictional. Like Atlantis. But her father sternly advised that she accept her duty.
So here she was, in Bangoro, teaching English.
Kate barely noticed the sunset that had helped her fall in love with Africa during those tough early weeks of adjustment. She spied a single white camel off in the distance, nibbling lazily at a dry bush. The sight no longer drew Kate’s fascination, but rather pulled her mind back to cheesesteaks.
Lost in her daydreaming, she didn’t notice that the village was unusually quiet that evening. Or that all the children had suddenly disappeared.
Kate followed a bend in the path and was startled by a Toyota pickup truck, spray-painted with the beige and green squiggles of homemade camouflage, parked in front of her house. Her instinct was to run away, but two men—their faces covered by black scarves, AK-47s slung on their chests—stepped into her path. She spun back toward her house only to find more men emerging from the cab of the Toyota.
Large hands grabbed both her arms firmly and, before she could scream, a burlap sack was slipped over her head.
KITTY HAWK, OUTER BANKS, NORTH CAROLINA
MONDAY, 5:42 A.M. EST (EASTERN STANDARD TIME)
It started, unsurprisingly, with the low buzz of a BlackBerry. Judd slowly opened one eye. The phone was lying facedown on the nightstand just six inches from his nose. Its little blinking green light, barely perceptible during the day, illuminated the pitch-dark room in half-second intervals. So much for vacation.
He grabbed the vibrating phone and studied the caller ID. It was flashing “202” but nothing more. A scrambled number from Washington, D.C. He swung his legs off the bed and sat up. Stealing a quick glance to make sure Jessica was still sound asleep, he pushed the answer button with his thumb and whispered into the phone, “This is Ryker.”
“This is White House Operations. What is your confirmation code?” asked the robotic, clearly military voice on the line.
He paused. “Turquoise Mobutu Seven.”
“Good morning, Dr. Ryker. Embassy Bamako is reporting a probable coup overnight in Mali. As of oh five hundred, we have no reports of violence, but there are military roadblocks around the city and the whereabouts of President Maiga are unknown.”
“Okay,” was all Judd could squeeze out, still shaking out the cobwebs.
“State is setting up a task force to run our policy response, and we should have a new Ops report in about an hour.”
Finally waking up, he asked, “Is it Diallo or Idrissa?”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Who is behind the coup? Is it General Oumar Diallo or General Mamadou Idrissa?”
“We don’t know yet, sir. The ambassador and the station chief should have more information soon.”
“Okay, thanks for letting me know. Please tell Larissa James she can reach me on my phone if she wants my input as news rolls in.”
“Ambassador James is the one who asked us to bring you in. A car will be at your location at oh six hundred. They are twelve minutes out.”
He exhaled a deep breath, and sat up straight.
“If that’s your office, it better be goddamn important.” Jessica was awake. “Don’t they know it’s your first day of vacation in a whole year?”
Judd tried to tap her reassuringly, but unable to see in the dark, he just patted the blankets while speaking back into the phone. “Okay, thanks. I’ll look out for the car.” And he hung up.
“A coup in Mali. I can’t say any more. I, um, I don’t know any more. I’m sorry.” He got up and started to get dressed. “It shouldn’t be more than a day or two. The kids won’t even notice that I’m gone.”
“I will,” snapped Jessica.
Judd clipped his BlackBerry onto his belt and picked up his go bag, which was already sitting by the door. He planted a long kiss on Jessica’s lips and then turned to leave.
“Don’t let Rogerson push you around,” she said. “Don’t let him fuck you again,” she added, stopping Judd in his tracks. He turned, gave her a slight, unconvincing nod, and then silently walked away.
As he stepped out of the rented beach house onto the sand driveway, he cursed himself for not setting up the coffeemaker to be ready for just such a possibility. Just as he considered going back in to make a quick double espresso, he saw four beaming headlights approaching in the dark, barreling up the driveway. An all-black Chevy Suburban rolled up and abruptly stopped beside him. A tall, thick man with short hair and a wire looped behind his ear silently exited the front of the vehicle, quickly surveyed the area, then opened the back door while removing the go bag from Judd’s grip.
Judd squinted at the bright lights from inside the cab. “Good morning, sir,” said a young man inside whom he didn’t recognize.
“Morning. We need to stop and get coffee.” He ducked his head and climbed in.
The security officer closed the door, stealing one more glance around, then slid into the car, which was already accelerating. Judd turned around in his seat and waved good-bye to Jessica.
From the bedroom window, she watched the behemoth and its lifeless blacked-out windows speed away.
NORTHBOUND I-95, NORTHERN VIRGINIA
MONDAY, 9:35 A.M. EST
Judd checked his watch. Nearly ten hours since the coup.
Judd had been on the phone and thumbing his BlackBerry since he left his family at the beach house. Futility.
The conflicting rumors had been flying on the Internet like a desert wind funnel: President Maiga had been poisoned by the Saudis, al-Qaeda had attacked the palace, the whole coup was a hoax, the Algerians had sent a brigade over the border, the CIA had bundled Maiga into a car and driven him to a secret prison in Timbuktu, and . . .
Judd shook his head. None of it can be true, of course.
The BlackBerry was hot in his hands. But it wasn’t yielding what Judd craved. For the real information, Judd knew he must wait until he got back to Washington. For the classified videoconference with the ambassador.
Things had been much easier, clearer, when he used to work with numbers. Hard data. Instead he now received a steady stream of assessments. Best guesses, usually. Or, all too often, deliberate misinformation. Lies. But he suppressed any thoughts of returning to his old life yet. No giving up.
Judd took off his glasses and dropped the BlackBerry in his lap as he tried to clear his head by staring out the window. He spied the road sign announcing their approach to the Beltway, the sixty-four-mile-long, eight-lane highway that encircled the nation’s capital. Inside this moat was the globe’s ultimate game of power and influence. To the outside world the key combatants were the public faces, the senators, the press secretaries, and the Sunday-morning TV talking heads. Inside the Beltway, the real action was a layer or two deeper among the Capitol Hill committee staffers, the K Street lobbyists, the wonks deep in the bowels of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Mostly unseen, they made the day-to-day decisions, wielding the power of the United States government.
How different from the genteel campus of Amherst College. Life had been good. Teaching two classes a week, running a small team of graduate students collecting data for his research on political conflict in South Asia and Africa, and taking long walks with his wife and their two young boys in the Berkshires. He’d been within a two-hour drive of his hometown in Vermont, his grandmother at the family house in Burlington, the ballgames at Fenway Park.
The call almost exactly one year ago, so early on a Saturday morning, should have been the first warning sign. . . .
ONE YEAR EARLIER
“Judd Ryker, this is Landon Parker, Chief of Staff to the Secretary of State. I’m calling from Washington. I didn’t wake you, I hope?”
“Uh, no, of course not, Mr. Parker,” Judd lied. The alarm clock blinked a cherry-red 7:55.
“Let me get right to the point, Ryker. The Secretary’s policy planning staff is setting up a new rapid reaction unit inside the department. They have been impressed with your work on crisis response times, especially your conclusions about the Golden Hour. We’d like to bring you in for a briefing.”
Judd sat up. “Well, thank you. The new papers on Sri Lanka and Rwanda are only based on preliminary numbers, and haven’t even been published yet. I wouldn’t really call them conclusions. I should have firmer results late next year when all the data is back from Colombo and Kigali. The Golden Hour is still just a theory.”
“How about Monday, nine fifteen?”
“The day after tomorrow? In Washington?”
“Yes. Here at the State Department.”
“Well, I am supposed to teach a class that afternoon, but I can try to find someone to cover.”
“Good. See you Monday morning, Ryker. Someone will meet you in the lobby to clear you into the building and bring you up.” Click.
Forty-eight hours later, Judd was standing in Foggy Bottom, a soulless zone of bleak office buildings on the western edge of Washington, D.C. He was wearing his best navy blue business suit, although the slight fray in the cuffs and the distressed-leather satchel slung over his shoulder hinted at his academic vocation. His tousled brown hair and retro G-man glasses also exposed him as a mere visitor to this particular neighborhood. Jessica had examined his outfit as he left for the airport and proclaimed, with approval, that he was appropriately shabby and “nerd cute.”
Judd strolled up to the Harry S. Truman Federal Building, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of State, trying to suppress his unexpected nervousness. From the outside, the building appeared colossal, gray, and nondescript, hidden behind the gaudy American Pharmacists Association and the more elegant and subtle National Academy of Sciences.
As Judd stood on Constitution Avenue and looked up Twenty-second Street toward the security barriers, he realized that he had been standing in the same spot a few years earlier when he brought his kids to see the four-ton bronze Albert Einstein memorial. He hadn’t even noticed the State Department headquarters just half a block away.
After passing through airport-like security and a tedious ID check, he was given a bright orange badge emblazoned with ESCORT REQUIRED and was instructed to hang it on a chain around his neck. Once inside the lobby, he recognized the nearly two hundred flags from watching the nightly news.
An elderly heavyset woman with a long gray ponytail, who reminded Judd of the grumpy librarian at his elementary school in Vermont, approached him. “Dr. Ryker? I can take you up to the conference room.”
In the elevator, Judd flipped through the charts he had printed out and ran through his presentation in his head. He had told this story a hundred times in seminars and over departmental dinners, but for some reason his palms were sweating. The elevator doors opened, and he was led down a long and drab hallway of flickering fluorescent lights to a door labeled 7-4504. The escort turned the handle and motioned for him to enter. “I’ll wait for you here.” Judd paused and took a deep breath. I can do this. Then he stepped inside.
It was like a portal to another world. The brightly lit conference room had dark cherrywood paneling with a bank of six large flat-panel monitors along one wall. Just like in the movies. About a dozen men and women, all in dark suits, were sitting in high-backed leather chairs around the table. Behind them, in a concentric ring, sat younger suits, reading papers or thumbing dials on their mobile phones. They look like my students.
No one said a word to Judd or even acknowledged his arrival. He took an empty seat at the table and waited.
A minute later, at exactly nine fifteen, a tall man walked in briskly from a side door. He was in his late thirties and had small round glasses and short-cropped hair. Immediately, the room went silent and the man nodded to no one in general, and then approached Judd.
“Ryker, I’m Landon Parker. Thanks for coming in. We’ve got no more than ten minutes, so I’ll spare introductions. You’ve got the Secretary’s planning staff here, plus the heads of each of the major regional and functional offices.”
Parker turned to the others. “Folks, this is Professor Judd Ryker from Amherst College.”
Back to Judd. “Okay, Ryker. The floor is yours. Take three or four minutes to leave time for questions.”
“I’ll try to make this quick. Thank you, Mr. Parker, for asking me to come here today.” Judd stood up for emphasis. “In emergency medicine, a trauma patient’s chances of survival are greatest if they receive professional care in the hospital within sixty minutes after a severe multisystem injury. This is known as the Golden Hour.”
Judd scanned the room, hoping for hints of recognition. Nothing. He continued, “Although there is some debate about the precise length of time of the Golden Hour, the principle of rapid intervention in trauma cases is universally accepted. If you don’t get help very quickly, you die. It’s that simple.” Judd nodded, but still no reaction from the audience.
“I believe we have found the same principle to apply to international political trauma. We can’t run experiments in a lab, but we can pick up patterns in the data. The numbers can tell us.” Pause. My undergrads love that line.
Judd waved his arms as he got more excited. “Using data over the past forty years, we studied two hundred thirty cases of political crisis in low- and middle-income countries. We found that the probability of resolution declines significantly over time. In fact, time is more dominant in the statistical analysis than ethnic cleavages, type of regime, or the other standard political variables.” Judd waited a moment, to give the crowd time to let that settle in. Am I losing them?
“Most interesting, the time-resolution correlation is not linear. In plain English, this means we have found clear tipping points in time. For the outbreak of a civil war, the critical period is about thirteen or fourteen days. After two weeks, the chances of a speedy resolution decline by more than half. Similarly, if an illegal seizure of power by the military is not reversed within about four days, the chances of reversal over the next year drop by eighty percent.” Judd paused for effect. “In other words, ladies and gentlemen, the Golden Hour for a coup d’état is just one hundred hours.”
Satisfyingly, this led to murmuring and scribbling among the crowd.
“I must stress that these results are still preliminary, and I have teams in Asia and Africa collecting additional data.” Caveats. I have a reputation to protect.
“Are you finding differences across regions? Is Africa different from south Asia, or are they all pretty much the same?” asked one of those seated at the table, without identifying himself.
“No, we haven’t found any of the regional variables to be statistically significant,” responded Judd.
“Did anything change with the end of the Cold War or 9/11?”
“Good question. We haven’t broken the data into periods. We could try that. I just don’t know.”
“What is driving the results on coups? How can you explain what’s so special about timing? I understand the idea of a Golden Hour, but why does it exist?”
“We don’t really know. We can theorize that it probably has something to do with the dynamics of consolidating power after seizure. The coup makers must line up the rest of the security forces and maybe buy off parliament and other local political leaders before those loyal to the deposed president are able to react and countermove. It’s a race for influence. But these are just hypotheses.”
“What about international intervention? Does it matter if an external force gets involved diplomatically?” asked one staffer.
“Or militarily?” interjected another.
“We don’t have classifications for intervention, so it’s not in there,” replied Judd. “The numbers can’t tell us. So, we don’t know. I guess we could—”
Parker interrupted abruptly. “But in your expert opinion, Ryker, does it matter? Would it make a difference? Does the United States need to find ways to intervene more rapidly in emerging crises in the developing world? Can we prevent more wars and coups by reacting more quickly?”
Judd looked around the room at all the eyes locked on him. My numbers don’t answer that question. Isn’t that what you guys are here for?
But instead he sat up straight, turned to look Landon Parker directly in the eyes, and said simply, “Yes.”
And that was it. A few thank-yous and handshakes, and everyone left. Judd’s escort took him down the same elevator and out to the lobby. He dropped his orange security badge into a clear plastic container with a slot at the top, not too dissimilar from the ballot boxes he’d seen used for voting in Nigeria. He walked back down Twenty-second Street for one more look at Einstein and to hail a cab.
The return trip to Ronald Reagan National Airport was only seven minutes. He might even catch an earlier shuttle back to Logan. As the taxi drove behind the Lincoln Memorial and over a bridge, he thought he might just make it back to Amherst in time for class.
Once in Virginia, the cab looped around and headed south, down the George Washington Parkway along the Potomac River. Judd looked over the water at the Washington Monument. For a brief flash, between the trees, he could even make out the Capitol building off in the distance.
The park along the riverbank was mostly empty, save a few joggers and an attractive young woman walking a yellow Labrador. Behind the dog walker, two dark green army helicopters in tight formation banked sharply over the river, then turned to the west and flew directly over Judd’s taxi. Turning in his seat to follow their course, he noticed, sitting low and squat, a colossal stone-colored office building surrounded by an ocean of parked cars. The Pentagon.
The exit for Reagan was almost immediate. As he stood in the security line and waited to take off his shoes, he wondered whether any of this was worth it. All this effort for ten minutes in a conference room?
Settling into a chair in the departure lounge, he was reminded of his old professor and advisor, BJ van Hollen, who had urged him to take an interest in public service. His mentor had even offered to help Judd find a good job inside the U.S. government applying his analytical skills to solving real-world puzzles. Professor van Hollen had been openly disappointed when Judd opted for the academic life.
At least I have a good story for BJ. He’ll be impressed the State Department called me. Why not?
Judd pulled out his phone and dialed a number. After several rings, a weak raspy voice answered, “Huuhh-looooo?”
“BJ? Is that you?”
“Yes,” was the soft reply, followed by a series of coughs so loud and violent that Judd was forced to hold the phone away from his ear. “Who’s this?”
“It’s Judd. Sorry to call you out of the blue. You sound terrible.”
“I know. I’ve been a little sick.”
“I didn’t know. Is it serious?”
“No, no. It’s nothing like that. And don’t say anything to Jessica. It’ll just worry her. We don’t need that.”
“Guess where I am.”
“Here in California?”
“No. Sorry, I didn’t mean that. I’m in Washington, D.C. I just finished briefing the State Department on my conflict metrics.”
“Oh, really? That’s excellent news.”
“They called me.”
“It’s about time, too. I’m very proud. I’m sure Jessica is very proud.”
“They were really interested in the Golden Hour. Asked lots of tough questions. I just thought you’d be pleased I was helping do something real.”
“I am,” said van Hollen before unleashing another barrage of coughs.
“BJ, you sound like you’re dying. I hope you’re seeing a doctor.”
“At my age, I’m seeing too many doctors. I’m tired of it. Judd, congratulations on the State Department. I’m sure they appreciated your help. And thank you for letting me know. Is Jessica with you?”
“No. She’s home with the kids.”
“Is she working again?”
“A bit. She took time off when Noah was born and all the travel became too much. But she’s starting to work again. A coffee project in Ethiopia and rice somewhere in southeast Asia, I think. I’m never sure where’s she’s going. I can never keep track.”
“Good for her,” he said, sounding increasingly weakened. “I’ve got to get off the phone now. I’m sorry. Send my love to Jessica.”
“I will. Thanks. And good-bye, BJ.”
“Good-bye, Judd. Au revoir.”
Judd slumped back into the airport chair. Satisfied the day wasn’t a total loss, he relaxed, half reading through some papers he was supposed to be grading and half scanning the crowds for George Stephanopoulos or David Gergen.
Judd’s flight was finally called, and he stood in line again, waiting to board. As he approached the front to hand over his ticket, his phone rang. The caller ID flashed “202” with no other numbers. How odd, he thought. Handing his ticket to the attendant, and trying not to drop all the papers, he wedged the phone between his ear and shoulder.
“Ryker, this is Landon Parker. That was impressive. Especially the Golden Hour for a coup and the hundred-hour thing. Very illuminating. And timely, too. The Secretary is in Brussels today for the NATO summit and will be announcing a new State Department Crisis Reaction Unit. She is also going to announce the director who will launch and lead this effort. That person is you. Ryker, do not get on that plane.”
FOGGY BOTTOM, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
ONE YEAR LATER
MONDAY, 9:55 A.M. EST
“This is three-one-four, we are two minutes out.”
The security officer in the front seat was holding his right ear and talking into his left wrist. The aide sitting next to Judd was, as he’d been doing for most of the past four hours, tapping feverishly with his thumbs on his BlackBerry.
As the black Suburban crossed over the Arlington Memorial Bridge, returning Judd to the District of Columbia, his dreams of a lazy day of white sand and Carolina barbecue were long gone. Instead, he was reprising all the questions he should have asked Landon Parker that day twelve months ago. If I only knew then . . .
• • •
He had been so surprised and thrilled at being asked, that he hadn’t even considered asking about staff or a budget. It was just plain naïve not to consider how a new office, much less one led by an outside academic parachuting in, would be received by the existing system. All bureaucracies were turf obsessed, he knew. But he was shocked at the particularly virulent, dog-eat-dog subculture of the United States Foreign Service.
Maybe it was all the tours locked in the fishbowl of an embassy fortress in a faraway dangerous place. Perhaps it was the cocktail of hyperambition, natural human pettiness, and living just on the edge of Washington power. Being within reach of those with true influence can make it feel so far away. And even more desirable. Or possibly, Judd thought, it was just a spectacular irony that those tasked to build friends for America around the world would treat each other with such disdain.
The result for Judd Ryker was a beautiful oak-paneled office with a view of the Lincoln Memorial, a mandate to help the United States government respond more quickly to evolving crises around the world, and no means whatsoever to get this task done. Who would want some new guy with his charts and data sticking his nose into their business? No one.
In his first few weeks on the job, shooting had erupted in the Solomon Islands, an unstable archipelago in the South Pacific. Judd had been completely iced out. He’d even had solid new data on the causes of conflict in small island nations. Neither the Pacific team nor the Australia office director would even answer his calls.
A month later, riots broke out in Kenya after a disputed election, and this time the Assistant Secretary for Africa, William Rogerson, had wholly cut him out. He’d only heard about Task Force Kenya after it had already met and decided the course of action for U.S. policy. “Sorry, the meeting must have been moved. Didn’t my assistant tell your assistant?” was the halfhearted reply.
But then it happened again, without even the pretense of a disingenuous excuse. Judd confronted Rogerson over being excluded from a Nigeria meeting. This time, the response was blunt: “Young man, when people get out of their lane, they usually get lost. Or run over.”
Judd’s frustration grew. He began to regret taking the job. How can I speed up response times if I’m ignored?
Judd turned to counsel outside the government. BJ van Hollen advised patience and perseverance. “These things take time,” his mentor scolded him. “You know this.”
His wife Jessica also encouraged him to build new allies and find ways to circumvent obstructers. “You are still learning your way around the building. Still figuring out how to play the game. Wait for your moment,” she suggested.
But with each new failure, Judd’s doubts grew. He even began to wonder, Did Landon Parker set me up to fail?
Impossible to know. At best, Judd began to understand that his office was a mere experiment, that he was an experiment. A lab rat.
• • •
As the driver pulled up to the security barriers in front of State headquarters, Judd fished his ID card out of his briefcase and held it up for the diplomatic security officer leaning into the vehicle window.
Judd ducked his head and slid the ID chain over his neck. Back in Washington. A second officer stood at attention in the guardhouse, patiently waiting for a signal. A third officer slowly circled the car with a sniffing German shepherd on a leash.
“Thank you, sir.” And then, “Lower the barrier!”
“Lowering the barrier!” Down came the metal barricade with a squeal and a hollow thunk.
After being waved through the front security gates, the car roared for fifty yards, then endured the same procedure again at the entrance to the underground garage. ID check. “Thank you, sir. Lower the barrier!” “Lowering the barrier!” Squeal, thunk, roar, and then down into the subterranea of the concrete government building.
At the bottom of the ramp, Judd’s head bobbed to the right, then to the left, as the Suburban swung two sharp corners. His head came forward as the vehicle screeched to a halt in front of a set of Plexiglas revolving doors.
Before Judd could reach for the handle, the door opened and the officer was holding Judd’s go bag. There was still one more security check before entry into the building was complete. Judd swiped his ID card against a keypad and fingered a six-digit PIN. A little light shined green and a loud clack told him it was time to push through the door.
• • •
When Judd arrived at his office, his assistant, Serena, was standing in the doorway holding a folder. Above her head read a small sign: CRISIS REACTION UNIT, OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR.
“Task Force Mali is ready, over at the Operations Center. They are waiting for you.” Serena was all business.
“Good to see you, too. Anything I need to read first?”
“No.” Serena was now actively blocking the doorway. Her short, slight frame was more than matched by the serious look on her face and her no-nonsense jet-black business suit, just a shade or two darker than her skin.
“No other messages?”
“It’s four minutes after ten already, Dr. Ryker. They are waiting for you at Ops.” She handed over the file and gently pushed him down the hallway.
As he walked toward the Operations Center, he opened the file, and the corners of his mouth curled slowly into a faint smile. The folder contained a single piece of paper, almost entirely blank, except: “LJ call T+5.”
Judd locked his BlackBerry in a small locker built into the wall next to the security booth. He flashed his ID badge to a uniformed guard at the door and pushed hard on the thick glass door, which gave way with a whoosh of rushing air.
“Thank you, sir. Task Force Mali and Bamako videoconference is Room G.”
The State Operations Center was the twenty-four-hour beehive that kept headquarters in touch with America’s 305 embassies and diplomatic outposts around the world. It looked like a cross between an air traffic control center and a small trading floor. Young foreign service officers and security specialists sat at terminals with headsets. The walls were lined with large screens, blinking maps, and clocks that flashed the hour of major cities in every global time zone.
Off to one side were several doors that led to highly secure conference rooms. Judd found Room G and pushed open the door.
The scene was much like the one during his fateful seminar for Landon Parker twelve months earlier. There were about a dozen suits sitting around the wood conference table, with younger suits in chairs ringing the outside.
Up on the large screen was a familiar face, Ambassador Larissa James. She was flanked on either side by two men, one in military uniform and one in a rumpled tan suit: the defense attaché and the CIA station chief.
Judd slipped into one of two empty seats at the head of the table.
“Good morning, everybody. I assume we’re waiting for Bill Rogerson. What’s his ETA?”
“Assistant Secretary Rogerson is not here, sir,” said a young staffer sitting along the back.
“Where is he? When is he expected?”
“Away. I have no location and no ETA for the Assistant Secretary. You are chairing the task force, Dr. Ryker,” the staffer said, adding definitively, “Mr. Parker’s orders.”
“Okay, fine.” Lucky break. “Let’s get started. Bamako is plus four hours, everyone, which is fourteen hundred hours GMT.” Judd nodded to the screen. “Good afternoon, Bamako. We’ve got the task force here. For Ambassador James’s sake, and my own, let’s make quick introductions. I’m Judd Ryker, S/CRU, State Crisis Reaction Unit.”
Around the room it went, each in quick succession, announcing a name and an acronym, representing some corner of the State Department bureaucracy and the proliferation of issues and offices. There were reps for the offices of West Africa, North Africa, democracy, human rights, political-military, counterterrorism, economics, regional security, African Union, and consular affairs. Each two-person team, reflecting the strict hierarchy of government, had the more senior person at the table and one staffer, the “plus-one,” sitting in the outside ring, at the ready to whisper a detail or pass a critical fact sheet.
The more experienced of those at the table sat with no paper in front of them, the blank table space a sign of supreme confidence of their grasp of the issues at hand. A single crib sheet was still allowable but, Judd had quickly learned, an unmistakable sign of weakness to the others. The thick binders of papers, stuffed with background, spreadsheets, and maps ready at a moment’s notice to answer a question—or, better, to trump a rival—were strictly the purview of the outer ring.
They were all, of course, present on short notice in order to hear an update from the embassy and to provide input to U.S. policy during a time of crisis and decision making. Or, more to the point, to ensure their offices weren’t cut out of any decisions that impinged on their respective boss’s turf.
Just as the staccato of letters finished and the last person had laid their claim to be in the room, Judd impatiently turned back to the screen. “Ambassador James, what is the situation?”
“Thank you, and good morning, everybody. We’ve got conflicting reports, but we’re fairly confident we have a coup unfolding here in Bamako, which probably took place in the early hours of this morning, local time. We think before dawn, roughly four a.m. The television and radio stations are all off the air, the army’s on the streets setting up roadblocks around the palace at Koulouba and along the airport road.”
Yep, classic signs, thought Judd. It’s a coup.
“Thus far, the city is calm and we have no reports of violence in the capital or other major towns,” continued the ambassador. “I can’t get anyone on their cell phones in President Maiga’s office. The foreign minister is in Beijing this week, so I haven’t been able to reach him, either. Colonel Randy Houston, here, is our defense attaché. Colonel Houston?”
“Thank you, ma’am,” responded the military uniform sitting to her right. “At thirteen hundred hours Bamako time, about an hour ago, the regional security officer and I visually confirmed roadblocks around the city. The roadblocks on the highways leading to the palace and to main army barracks at Wangara are both manned by elite presidential guard, the Bérets Rouges or Red Berets. The road to the airport is also confirmed closed. The troops on the airport road are, however, black-hatted Gendarmerie, the equivalent of the U.S. National Guard. We aren’t sure what this means, but it does suggest a highly coordinated military effort. This is not just the action of one rogue army unit.”
“What about the rest of the military? Where are they?”
“We have private unconfirmed reports that Malian army regulars are on the streets in Kidal, Mopti, Gao, and Timbuktu. We have been unable to reach any of our contacts in the Ministry of Defense by phone. We do have Special Forces officers embedded with the Scorpions. At least one of those units is reported to be AWOL.”
“Excuse me, Colonel, the Scorpions?”
“Mali’s counterterrorism strike teams. The Scorpions are a new weapon in the global war on terror. We trained and equipped them over the past eighteen months and now have advisors embedded inside each of the units. They are the tip of the spear of our fight against al-Qaeda in this part of the world.”
“Thank you, Colonel,” said the ambassador, turning back to face the camera. “Any other questions from Washington?”
“The airport. Is it open?”
“An Ethiopian Airlines flight reportedly landed about three hours ago without incident, but the military has now closed it until further notice. All other arrivals have been diverted to Dakar in neighboring Senegal. Air France has canceled its flight in from Paris tonight. British Airways has done the same from London.”
“What about American citizens?”
“All official Americans in Bamako have been accounted for,” replied Ambassador James. “There are eighty-five Peace Corps volunteers in-country and we will assess their status over the next twenty-four hours. An estimated five hundred private American citizens are also here, but we have no reports of attacks and no reason they are likely to be targeted. Consular Affairs has issued an alert to all AmCits to stay inside. We will also recommend deferring all but essential travel until the situation is clarified.”
“Thank you, Ambassador,” said Judd. “Do we know who is responsible?”
“At this point, we do not,” replied the ambassador. “Mali has a long history of coups and countercoups. The last known attempt was early last year when the then–army Chief of Staff, General Oumar Diallo, tried to arrest President Maiga. Diallo was easily thwarted by Maiga’s Red Beret presidential guard, but he escaped to Senegal and then made his way to Europe. Diallo lives in exile in Paris.”
The rumpled tan suit, so far completely silent and motionless, mechanically turned his head and whispered into Ambassador James’s ear.
“I’m sorry. I mean London,” she corrected herself. “Diallo is, we believe, in exile in London.”
“Is there any indication that General Diallo may be back in Mali today?” asked Judd.
“None yet, but we are checking,” she replied.
The CIA station chief whispered again in her ear. The ambassador nodded slightly, then added, “The current army Chief of Staff is General Mamadou Idrissa. He is supposed to be on leave at his home village up in Dogon Country, near the border with Burkina Faso. But we have unconfirmed reports that he was sighted in Bamako last night. We are checking on this, too.”
“What about a terrorist connection?” interrupted a staffer from the counterterrorism office. He was so young that Judd assumed he was seated at the table only because his superior was too busy to deal with a small West African country. “Could Mali be under terrorist attack?”
“We don’t think so,” quickly responded the ambassador.
“But Mali does have active al-Qaeda affiliates in its territory. We have been tracking increased activity along the Algerian border and a recent change in smuggling patterns by Tuareg nomads along routes from Niger and Burkina Faso,” the staffer continued.
“Yes. That’s all true,” said the ambassador slowly, failing to hide her annoyance. “But there is no indication whatsoever that there is any terrorism link to the unfolding events of today. Until we have a clear indicator, we are not jumping to conclusions.”
Judd interrupted, “Okay, thank you, Madam Ambassador. Do you need anything from Washington?”
What People are Saying About This
“Terror, violence, beauty, good and evil and everything in between. It’s just about impossible to stop reading this book.”—Douglas Preston, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“A tough, realistic, well-written tale…Moss is an insider who knows how these things are really done—and how thin the line is between triumph and disaster.”—John Sandford, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“An extraordinary international thriller debut.”—W.E.B. Griffin, #1 Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestselling author
“A novel that makes your heart race.”—The Washington Post
“Read this novel as a window into politics, power and practice at the U.S. Department of State and you’ll find yourself in the middle of troublesome scenes that ring all too true.”—Alan Cheuse, Dallas Morning News
“Outstanding debut…An intriguing cast of morally dubious characters, an intricately constructed plot, and a tantalizing cliffhanger make this thriller a page-turner of the highest order.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoyed reading this although it was a bit different than my usual style of book to read. It was interesting to see how we might handle a coup in Africa. I am always glad to live in the USA when I read stories like this. I received this ebook from first to read for a fair and honest opinion.