Friday, 2:00 P.M.-Langley, Virginia
Alejandro Campos slowed the black Mercedes to a crawl, and carefully negotiated a serpentine series of heavy gray concrete pylons leading up to the security checkpoint at the entrance to CIA Headquarters. The positioning of the barricades looked haphazard.
NASA's astrodynamics lab in Huntington had designed the maze. At four miles an hour or less, traffic flowed smoothly through the pattern. Anything over four mph guaranteed smashing a quarter panel against a pylon at an angle guaranteed to put a vehicle broadside to a guaranteed line of fire from the armored guard station at the end of the serpentine.
The CIA liked their guarantees.
They liked them double-downed hard.
Peeling a couple more antacids off the roll he'd been working since Dulles, Campos gave the mirrored third-story windows in the main building a quick visual once-over. Behind the windows was another NASA-designed product, an array of computer-directed weaponry with a broad range of capabilities, from putting a bullet neatly through a single driver's eyeball to turning an armored vehicle into a smoking tangle of twisted metal, or doing anything in between, depending on the perceived threat level. In terms of firepower, the imposing guard station at street level was mostly for show, but it was a damned convincing show.
When he reached the last of the pylons, he pulled the Mercedes to a stop, popped the antacids in his mouth, and shoved the rest of the half-eaten roll back in his pocket.
Yeah, it was good to see the old place.
Sure it was.
The security officer at the checkpoint was hard and lean, about thirty-five years old, with a layer of Kevlar soft body armor just visible inside the open collar of his uniform shirt, and Campos didn't doubt for a minute that he was capable of handling most situations without third-story assistance.
Approaching the driver's window, the officer pressed a switch on his multifunction communications device. Campos knew everything that happened during the guard's contact with the vehicle, both audio and video, would be transmitted in real time to the control center's computer inside the main building.
To smooth things along, he rolled his window down to the bottom stop and deliberately placed both hands, palms open, on top of the steering wheel.
"Good morning, sir," the officer said pleasantly. "Could I see your entry authorization?"
"Certainly," Campos said, taking a business card off the dash and handing it over.
The guard entered the numeric sequence written on the back of the card into a PDA and viewed the response on the screen. He was carrying a custom single-action .45 caliber sidearm in a tactical SWS polymer holster with four spare magazines on his duty belt. The pistol's rosewood grips showed wear marks, an indication of the amount of use it got-plenty, probably at one of the agency's off-site high-tech qualification ranges.
"Look directly at me," the guard instructed, then aimed the lens of the PDA's digital camera toward Campos. He compared the image with whatever else was on the screen. "Is there anything more you would like to tell me, sir?"
"Zachary," Campos said, just loudly enough for the officer to hear him clearly.
Zachary Prade-the name he'd used the first time he'd come to Langley, and, according to his orders, the name they were giving back to him, at least for a while. Alejandro Campos had served his purpose.
It was the way of things, whether he was ready or not. He knew it. He just didn't know if he was ready or not.
He had a feeling he wasn't.
The guard nodded and handed him a visitor's pass.
"I'm clearing you for building entry, but not through security screening. Park your vehicle in the Alpha Two section on your right, proceed inside the main entrance, and wait outside of screening for your escort. Should pick you up within ten minutes. Any questions?"
"No," Campos said, and put the Mercedes in gear.
A few minutes later he was heading for the building, and it occurred to him that in all his years with the CIA, this was the first time he had ever, literally or figuratively, walked in through the front door.
Four sublevels down, his escort swiped a keycard through the cipher lock reader on a door marked "Forensics." The temperature inside the room was a good ten degrees cooler than the hallway, which made his suit jacket almost comfortable.
Campos noted three rows of what appeared to be oversized stainless-steel filing drawers set into the wall on the left, an assortment of analytical instruments along the remaining walls, and a steel examining table in the center of the room.
Perfect. A morgue.
He wasn't surprised.
Given his involvement in a recent debacle in El Salvador, and his report, he could even guess who the guest of honor would be. Hell.
There were three individuals already in the room, two men and a woman. They were standing close to the table and the thick black body bag lying on top of it, unzipped. He recognized the woman and one of the men immediately, then recognized the other man, but only just barely. Despite an active-some might say hyperactive-history of correspondence between the two of them, conducted through various cutouts, intermediaries, and back channels, he hadn't actually seen the man who had recruited him in over eleven years.
"Hello, Zach," the man said, turning to face him, but leaving both hands inside the deep pockets of his lab coat. Short and stocky, with steel gray having replaced his once dark hair, Alex Maier looked like he'd lived every one of his thirty-odd years with the agency.
"Alex," Zach said, acknowledging his case officer. "Are you planning on telling me what's important enough to terminate my cover?" On the flight up from San Salvador, he'd compiled a pretty good shortlist of reasons for Alejandro Campos to disappear, and his partner, Joya Molara Gualterio-Jewel-could probably add, oh, a million or so even better reasons why it was time for his butt to be pulled out of Central America. Past time, actually. He had no problem with that part, not really, despite eight years of damn hard work and a damn near perfect record as a Salvadoran cocaine kingpin with more connections than a South Central bookie.
Okay, "no problem" was stretching things a bit. He had a couple of problems with it, all of them personal, all of them still living in his villa in Morazán.
Ex-villa, he reminded himself. Dammit.
But this little trip to Langley had required a catalyst beyond any reason to pull him out of deep cover, and that's what really had been eating at him since he'd gotten the call. A lot of shit had hit the fan in El Salvador three weeks ago; and suddenly, after eleven years, he was face to face with his boss. It wasn't a coincidence, not in his business.
"Yes, of course," Alex said, his words measured, his tone tired, reflecting the lines of strain in his face. "But, as always, first things first."
"And what exactly might that be?" Zach asked, already knowing at least part of the answer. Hell, it was stretched out on the table.
"First of all, Zach," Alex said, "allow me to introduce Charles Kesselring and Amanda van Zandt. Charles is Deputy Director, Operations, and Amanda is Deputy Director, Intelligence." The woman was blond, of medium height and build, the man taller, about six two, with a pale complexion and narrow shoulders. The two senior officers each gave Zach a polite nod, which he returned.
The introductions were required by agency protocol, but were completely unnecessary. Zach knew perfectly well who the current DDO and DDI were, and he knew that having the two of them in the same place, especially this place, at the same time, probably meant a situation serious enough to have foreign policy implications.
"And," Alex continued, "may I regretfully direct your attention to the body of Mark Devlin, recently killed while on assignment in Central America." The body bag. The guest of honor, literally.
Zach recognized the dead man as one of the agency's contract aviators, a hard-core former Marine who had been a frequent visitor at Alejandro Campos's plantation in northern El Salvador. He had known the man by another name, a name that would never again be spoken by anyone inside the agency.
"Your most recent field report included a videotape of Devlin's death at the hands of CNL guerrillas after his Cessna was shot down in Morazán," Alex said. "This tape was filmed by one Lily Robbins, an American schoolteacher from Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose return to the States you expedited at the conclusion of the Morazán incident. We are here to discuss Robbins's possible connection with the flash drive from Devlin's downed aircraft."
Well, there it was, his worst-case scenario rearing up and biting him in the ass, the catalyst, the reason he was standing in a morgue with the DDO and DDI-Lily Robbins.
Geezus. Her name was the last damn thing he'd wanted to hear in this place, the absolute fucking last. But he'd known, so help him God, he'd known he hadn't put the mess in Morazán behind him, no matter how brilliantly he and Smith Rydell, a Department of Defense operator on the scene, had performed their missions. All by himself, he'd saved the agency over a million dollars and gotten their stolen courier's pouch back for them. Rydell had recovered the classified flash drive from the CIA's downed Cessna, but by the time the DOD operator had been brought on board, the critically injured Devlin had already been captured by the CNL. No one on the U.S. side had been aware of the pilot's fate until the guerrillas, in an uncharacteristic gesture of decency, had delivered his body to the Catholic mission in San Cristobal for transport back to the States. After that, the entire incident had exploded into a violent tangle of conflicting agendas involving more actors and intrigue than an Italian opera, including cocaine smugglers, arms dealers, international assassins, and Salvadoran insurgents, not to mention deep-cover CIA intelligence assets and a New Mexico schoolteacher. The agency had, at first, suspected Lily Robbins of being an agent for at least one of the players in the drama, but had eventually agreed with Zach's assessment that she had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
At least they had been in agreement, but now-well, hell, now it looked like Lily Robbins was riding shotgun in his handbasket.
"What kind of connection are you thinking?" he asked, keeping his thoughts to himself and wondering if a couple more antacids might help the situation.
Probably not, dammit, and only years of hard training and even harder experience kept him from giving in to a weary sigh.
Van Zandt picked up the conversation, speaking with a clear, refined eastern accent. Zach guessed Vassar, or maybe Yale, definitely not Albuquerque.
"We have downloaded and analyzed the contents of the flash drive," she said. "The files are extensive, mostly routine field reports and other regional data. The largest file, however, initially downloads as an overwritten area of the device's memory, appearing to contain only random bytes with no recoverable data."
"I'm guessing 'appearing to contain' is the operative part of that sentence," he said when she paused, but there really wasn't any guess about it.
"Correct," she continued. "Using the appropriate algorithm, the file can be reordered into random character strings. That, by itself, doesn't accomplish anything of value. When paired with the proper literal key, however, the file becomes readable. In this case, the encoded file was created using a true random one-time literal key."
Zach knew about literal keys. The cryptographic method was centuries old, and had fallen out of favor in the computer age. The technique involved mapping plain-text characters through random characters to create encoded text. If done properly, the only thing a cryptographer could tell from the encoded text alone was that each character was somewhere in the alphabet from A to Z, with each letter being equally probable, assuming that the plain text had started out as English. A computer could make the encoded text mean anything at all, with equal odds of success for each decryption version. Zach knew systematic computer codes, including computer-generated pseudorandom keys, could eventually be broken by other computers. Codes using true random keys, however, could be broken only if the same key were used repeatedly. If the key was only used once, computer analysis could not recover the plain text.
"Normally, of course," Kesselring interjected, "both the originator and the recipient would possess the same literal key. In this case, for reasons that are not pertinent to this discussion, the only copy of the key accompanied the encoded file. One of Devlin's transport options for such data was a macramé bracelet with a polymer strand containing a series of microdots woven into it. Very low tech in this modern age, but still quite effective, especially since so few examiners even look for it." He activated a laptop computer screen on a table next to Devlin's body. "Our medical examiner scanned Devlin's wrists and found a pattern of hemp fibers embedded into the skin on the left one. Here's a color-enhanced image of the pattern." Kesselring paused to let Zach take a close look at the purplish chain-link outline. "Your report states that Ms. Robbins was in physical contact with Devlin just before he died. Her tape shows clearly that Devlin had nothing on his wrist at the time of his death. The report also states that she was wearing various items of personal adornment when she arrived at your residence. Could a fiber bracelet such as this have been one of those items?"
Oh, hell, yeah.
Lily Robbins had been wearing all sorts of jewelry the night she'd shown up at his plantation, including a macramé bracelet. She'd been soaking wet from a rainstorm, packing a guerrilla capitan's engraved pistol, and obviously in more trouble than he'd thought, and he'd thought she'd been in plenty.
"Yes," he said evenly. "It's entirely likely Ms. Robbins has your key." Though he'd be damned if he could think of a reason for an innocent bystander to steal a cheap bracelet off a dying man.
On the other hand, he didn't have any trouble coming up with a thousand and one reasons for a not-so-innocent bystander to steal the bracelet. Neither would the CIA. Hell, they probably had a couple of thousand reasons, any one of which could bury Ms. Lily Robbins.
"Likely enough to send you to find her and look for it," Kesselring agreed. "There are a few more things you need to be aware of, though. First, the only individuals on this end who know of the key's existence are the four of us in this room. Second, we consider it entirely possible that Devlin was photographed after he was captured. Third, there are some pretty clever folks who serve-ah-other interests, and those folks just might figure out that he left without something he arrived with. If we can guess what it is and where it is, then so can they. Best case, you locate Ms. Robbins, recover the bracelet, it turns out to be what we think it is, you return without incident, and that's the end of it. Worst case . . ."
Excerpted from Cutting Loose by Tara Janzen. Copyright © 2007 by Tara Janzen. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.