Five Weeks Later
The patient was conveyed by a chartered jet to a private landing strip twenty miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Although the patient was the only passenger on the entire aircraft, no one spoke to him except to ascertain his immediate needs. No one knew his name. All they knew was that this was clearly an extremely important passenger. The flight’s arrival appeared on no aviation logs anywhere, military or civilian.
The nameless passenger was then taken by unmarked sedan to downtown Washington and dropped off, at his own request, near a parking garage in the middle of an unremarkable block near Dupont Circle. He wore an unimpressive gray suit with a pair of tasseled cordovan loafers that had been scuffed and shined a few too many times, and looked like one of a thousand midlevel lobbyists and bureaucrats, the faceless, colorless staffers of a permanent Washington.
Nobody gave him a second look as he emerged from the parking garage, then walked, stiffly and with a pronounced limp, to a dun-colored, four-story building at 1324 K Street, near Twenty-first. The building, all cement and gray-tinted glass, was scarcely distinguishable from all the other bland, boxy low-rises along this stretch of northwest Washington. These were the offices, invariably, of lobbying groups and trade organizations, travel bureaus and industry boards. Beside its front entrance a couple of brass plaques were mounted, announcing the offices of innovation enterprises and American trade international.
Only a trained engineer with highly rarefied expertise might have noticed a few anomalous details-the fact, for example, that every window frame was equipped with a piezoelectric oscillator, rendering futile any attempt at laser-acoustic surveillance from outside. Or the high-frequency white-noise "drench" that enveloped the building in a cone of radio waves, sufficient to defeat most forms of electronic eavesdropping.
Certainly nothing ever attracted the attention of its K Street neighbors-the balding lawyers at the grains board, the grim-faced accountants in their ties and short-sleeved shirts at the slowly failing business consulting firm. People arrived at 1324 K Street in the morning and left in the evening and trash was deposited in the alley Dumpster on the appropriate days. What else did anybody care to know? But that was how the Directorate liked to be: hidden in plain view.
The man almost smiled to himself when he thought about it. For who would ever suspect that the most secretive of the world’s covert agencies would be headquartered in an ordinary-looking office building in the middle of K Street, right out in the open?
The Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, and the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Mary-land, were housed in moated fortresses that proclaimed their existence! Here I am, they seemed to say, right here, pay no attention to me! They virtually dared their opponents to breach their security-as inevitably happened. The Directorate made those so-called clandestine bureaucracies look about as reclusive as the U.S. Postal Service.
The man stood inside the lobby of 1324 K Street and scanned the sleek brass panel, on which was mounted a perfectly conventional-looking telephone handset beneath a dial pad, from all appearances the sort of arrangement that appears in lobbies in office buildings around the world. The man picked up the handset and then pressed a series of numbers, a predetermined code. He kept his index finger pressed on the last button, the # sign, for a few seconds until he heard a faint ring, signifying that his fingerprint had been electronically scanned, analyzed, matched against a preexisting and precleared database of digitized fingerprints, and approved. Then he listened to the telephone handset as it rang precisely three times. A disembodied, mechanical female voice commanded him to state his business.
"I have an appointment with Mr. Mackenzie," said the man. In a matter of seconds his words were converted into bits of data and matched against another database of precleared voiceprints. Only then did a faint buzzing in the lobby indicate that the first inner set of glass doors could be opened. He hung up the telephone receiver and pushed open the heavy, bulletproof glass doors, entered a tiny antechamber, and stood there for a few seconds as his facial features were scanned by three separate high-resolution surveillance cameras and checked against stored, authorized patterns.
The second set of doors opened onto a small, featureless reception area of white walls and gray industrial carpeting, equipped with hidden monitoring devices that could detect all manner of concealed weapons. On a marble-topped console in one corner, there was a stack of pamphlets emblazoned with the logo of American Trade International, an organization that existed only as a set of legal documents and registrations. The rest of the pamphlets were given over to an unreadable mission statement, filled with platitudes about international trade. An unsmiling guard waved Bryson past, through another set of doors and into a handsomely appointed hall, paneled in dark, burled walnut, where about a dozen clerical types were at their desks. It might have been an upscale art gallery of the sort one might find on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan, or perhaps a prosperous law firm.
"Nick Bryson, my main man!" exclaimed Chris Edge comb, bounding from his seat at a computer monitor. Born in Guyana, he was a lithe, tall man with mocha skin and green eyes. He’d been at the Directorate for four years, working on the communications-and-coordination team; he fielded distress calls, figured out ways to relay information to agents in the field when it was necessary. Edgecomb clasped Bryson’s hand warmly.
Nicholas Bryson knew he was something of a hero to people like Edgecomb, who yearned to be field operatives. "Join the Directorate and change the world," Edgecomb would joke in his lilting English, and it was Bryson he had in mind when he said it. It was a rare event, Bryson knew, that the office staff saw Bryson face-to-face; for Edgecomb, this was an occasion.
"Somebody hurt you?" Edgecomb’s expression was sympathetic; he saw a strong man who had been hospitalized until recently. Then he continued hastily, knowing better than to ask questions: "I’ll pray to Saint Christopher for you. You’ll be a hundred percent in no time."
The Directorate’s creed, above all, was segmentation and compartmentalization. No one agent or staffer should ever know enough to be in the position to jeopardize the security of the whole. The organizational chart was shrouded even to a veteran like Bryson. He knew a few of the desk jockeys, of course. But the field personnel all operated in isolation, through their own proprietary networks. If you had to work together, you knew each other only by a field legend, a temporary alias. The rule was more than procedure, it was Holy Writ.
"You’re a good man, Chris," Bryson remarked.
Edgecomb smiled modestly, then pointed a finger upward. He knew Bryson had an appointment-or was it a summons?-with the big man himself, Ted Waller. Bryson smiled, gave Edgecomb a friendly clap on the shoulder, and made his way to the elevator.
"Don’t get up," Bryson said heartily as he entered Ted Waller’s third-floor office. Waller did anyway, all six feet, four inches and three hundred pounds of him.
"Good Lord, look at you," Waller said, his eyes appraising Bryson with alarm. "You look like you came out of a POW camp."
"Thirty-three days in a U.S. government clinic in Morocco will do that to you," Bryson said. "It’s not exactly the Ritz."
"Perhaps I should try being gutted by a mad terrorist someday." Waller patted his ample girth. He was even larger than the last time Bryson had seen him, though his avoirdupois was elegantly sheathed in a suit of navy cashmere, his bull neck flattered by the spread collar of one of his Turnbull & Asser shirts. "Nick, I’ve been tormenting myself since this happened. It was a serrated Verenski blade from Bulgaria, I’m told. Plunge and twist. Terribly low-tech, but it usually does the job. What a business we’re in. Never forget, it’s what you don’t see that always gets you." Waller settled weightily back in the tufted-leather chair behind his oak desk. The early-afternoon sun filtered through the polarized glass behind him. Bryson took a seat in front of him, an unaccustomed formality. Waller, who was normally ruddy and seemingly robust, now looked pallid, the circles under his eyes deep. "They say you’ve made a remarkable recovery."
"In a few more weeks, I’ll be as good as new. At least that’s what the doctors tell me. They also say I’ll never need an appendectomy, a side benefit I never thought of." As he spoke, he felt the dull ache in his lower-right abdomen.
Waller nodded distractedly. "You know why you’re here?"
"A kid gets a note to see the principal, he expects a reprimand." Bryson feigned lightheartedness, but his mood was tense, somber.
"A reprimand," Waller said enigmatically. He was silent for a moment, his eyes settling on a row of leather-bound books on the shelves near the door. Then he turned back and said in a gentle, pained voice: "The Directorate doesn’t exactly post an organizational chart, but I think you have some inkling of the command-and-control structure. Decisions, particularly ones concerning key personnel, do not always stop at my desk. And as important as loyalty is to you and to me-hell, to most of the people in this goddamned place-it’s coldhearted pragmatism that rules the day. You know that."
Bryson had had only had one serious job in his life, and this was it; still, he recognized the undertones of the pink-slip talk. He fought the urge to defend himself, for that was not Directorate procedure; it was unseemly. He recalled one of Waller’s mantras: There’s no such thing as bad luck, then thought of another maxim. "All’s well that ends well," Bryson said. "And it did end well."
"We almost lost you," Waller said. "I almost lost you," he added ruefully, a teacher speaking to a prize student who has disappointed him.
"That’s not pertinent," Bryson said quietly. "Anyway, you can’t read the rules on the side of the box when you’re in the field; you know that. You taught me that. You improvise, you follow instinct-not just established protocol."
"Losing you could have meant losing Tunisia. There’s a cascade effect: when we intervene, we do so early enough to make a difference. Actions are carefully titrated, reactions calibrated, variables accounted for. And so you nearly compromised quite a few other undercover operations, in Maghreb and other places around the sandbox. You put other lives in jeopardy, Nicky-other operations and other lives. The Technician’s legend was intricately connected to other legends we’d manufactured; you know that. Yet you let your cover get blown. Years of undercover work compromised because of you!"
"Now, wait a second-"
"Giving them ‘defective munitions’-how did you think they wouldn’t suspect you?"
"Damn it, they weren’t supposed to be defective!"
"But they were. Why?"
"I don’t know!"
"Did you inspect them?"
"Yes! No! I don’t know. It never crossed my mind that the goods weren’t as they were represented."
"That was a serious lapse, Nicky. You endangered years of work, years of deep-cover planning, cultivation of valuable assets. The lives of some of our most valuable assets! Goddamn it, what were you thinking?"
Bryson was silent for a moment. "I was set up," he said at last.
"Set up how?"
"I can’t say for sure."
"If you were ‘set up,’ that means you were already under suspicion, correct?"
"I-I don’t know."
" ‘I don’t know’? Not exactly words that inspire con-fidence, are they? They’re not words I like to hear. You used to be our top field operative. What happened to you, Nick?"
"Maybe-somehow-I screwed up. Don’t you think I’ve gone over it and over it in my mind?"
"I’m not hearing answers, Nick."
"Maybe there aren’t any answers-not now, not yet."
"We can’t afford such screwups. We can’t tolerate this kind of carelessness. None of us can. We allow for margins of error. But we cannot go beyond them. The Directorate doesn’t tolerate mistakes. You’ve known that since day one."
"You think there was something I could have done differently? Or maybe you think somebody else could have done it better?"
"You were the best we ever had, you know that. But as I told you, these decisions are reached at consortium level, not at my desk."
A chill ran through Bryson upon hearing the bu-reaucratese that told him Waller had already distanced himself from the consequences of the decision to let him go. Ted Waller was Bryson’s mentor, boss, and friend, and, fifteen years ago, his teacher. He had supervised his apprenticeship, briefed him personally before the operations he worked on early in his career. It was an immense honor, and Bryson felt it to this day. Waller was the most brilliant man he’d ever met. He could solve partial differential equations in his head; he possessed vast stores of arcane geopolitical knowledge. At the same time his lumbering frame belied his extraordinary physical dexterity. Bryson recalled him at a shooting range, absently hitting one bull’s-eye after another from seventy feet while chatting about the sad decline of British bespoke tailoring. The .22 looked puny in his large, plump, soft hand; it was so under his control that it might have been another finger.
"You used the past tense, Ted," Bryson said. "The implication being that you believe I’ve lost it."
"I simply meant what I said," Waller replied quietly. "I’ve never worked with anyone better, and I doubt I ever will."
By temperament and by training, Nick knew how to remain impassive, but now his heart was thudding. You were the best we ever had, Nick. That sounded like an homage, and homage, he knew, was a key element of the ritual of separation. Bryson would never forget Waller’s reaction when he pulled off his first operational hat trick-foiling the assassination of a moderate reform candidate in South America. It was a taciturn Not bad: Waller had pressed his lips together to keep from smiling, and to Nick, it was a greater accolade than any that followed. It’s when they begin to acknowledge how valuable you are, Bryson had learned, that you know they’re putting you out to pasture.
"Nick, nobody else could have accomplished what you did in the Comoros. The place would have been in the hands of that madman, Colonel Denard. In Sri Lanka, there are probably thousands of people who are alive, on both sides, because of the arms-trading routes you exposed. And what you did in Belarus? The GRU still doesn’t have a clue, and they never will. Leave it to the politicians to color inside the lines, because those are the lines that we’ve drawn, that you’ve drawn. The historians will never know, and the truth is, it’s better that way. But we know that, don’t we?"
Bryson didn’t reply; no reply was called for.
"And on a separate matter, Nick, noses are out of joint around here about the Banque du Nord business." He was referring to Bryson’s penetration of a Tunis bank that channeled laundered funds to Abu and Hezbollah to fund the coup attempt. One night during the operation more than 1.5 billion dollars simply disappeared, vanished into cyberspace. Months of investigation had failed to account for the missing assets. It was a loose end, and the Directorate disliked loose ends.
"You’re not suggesting that I had my hand in the cookie jar, are you?"
"Of course not. But you understand that there are always going to be suspicions. When there are no answers, the questions linger; you know that."
"I’ve had plenty of opportunities for ‘personal enrichment’ that would have been far more lucrative and considerably more discreet."
"You’ve been tested, yes, and you’ve passed with fly-ing colors. But I question the method of diversion, the monies transferred through false flags to Abu’s colleagues to purchase compromisable background data."
"That’s called improvisation. It’s what you pay me for-using my powers of discretion when and where necessary." Bryson stopped, realizing something. "But I was never debriefed about this!"
"You offered up the details yourself, Nick," said Waller.
"I sure as hell never-oh, Christ, it was chemicals, wasn’t it?"
Waller hesitated a split-second, but just long enough that Bryson’s question was answered. Ted Waller could lie, blithely and easily, when the need dictated, but Bryson knew his old friend and mentor found lying to him distasteful. "Where we obtain our information is compartmented, Nick. You know that."
Now he understood the need for such a protracted stay in an American-staffed clinic in Laayoune. Chemicals had to be administered without the subject’s knowledge, preferably injected into the intravenous drip.
Excerpted from The Prometheus Deception by Robert Ludlum.
Copyright 2000 by Myn Pyn LLC.
Published in November 2000 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.