Eight days earlier . . .
The fat man in the light blue jogging suit lit a cigar as he sat back behind a desk in the office of his palatial home outside of Washington, D.C. After a few puffs to get the Mancuso going, he turned his attention to the enormous television mounted on the wall across the darkened room.
Beyond the heavy drapes pulled across the windows, it was midafternoon on a sunny day in wealthy Loudoun County. But halfway around the world, it was nighttime where a Predator drone circled three thousand feet above the scene displayed in black and white infrared images on the television. Only seconds behind real time, ghostly figures of human beings showed up clearly as they ran across open spaces or ducked behind corners of a dark cluster of buildings and vehicles. Several fires also blazed away in white-hot pixels—one clearly a truck, another on a roof—and bursts of brilliant ellipses he knew were tracer rounds raced back and forth across the screen.
A half hour earlier when he was rudely interrupted during an afternoon quickie with his mistress to watch the events as they unfolded, the firefight between the attackers on the outside and
the besieged defenders inside the buildings had been intense. But the defenders were clearly outnumbered and outgunned; without help the outcome had been inevitable. Now almost all of the sporadic shooting was coming from the attackers, including shots apparently fired at figures lying on the ground. Executing the wounded, he guessed. Good, this is FUBAR enough already, we don’t need any witnesses.
“How long ago did you say this started?” the fat man asked. A short, neat man in black-rimmed glasses, wearing a three-piece vested suit, standing off to the side of his desk and also watching the screen, looked at his watch. “Almost three hours ago,” he replied. “State Department got an encoded radio transmission about 1300 hours our time, 0300 Sunday there, from the compound stating that they were under attack and requesting help. State called me and scrambled an NSA drone from the airbase in Turkey. I called you after that.”
“Good,” the fat man said as he studied the cigar. “Then what?”
The neat man pushed his glasses up his nose and looked over at a very large, hard-looking younger man sitting in a chair in a dark corner of the room watching the television intently, seemingly oblivious to their conversation. “More calls for assistance but those stopped right before I got here. The drone was over the target and could have fired on the hostiles, but I did what you said and told them to stand down.”
“A necessary evil,” the fat man replied with a shrug. “We aren’t supposed to be there, right? At least not doing whatever it was in the hell you were doing. We don’t know who we would have been shooting at and that’s not our airspace. We need to keep this under wraps if at all possible. . . . What about the Russians?”
The neat man shrugged. “Somebody in the compound also sent a general distress call to the Russian army base near Grozny, but . . . um . . . there was no response,” he replied. “I finally got through to the Russian embassy and told them that our ‘trade mission’ in Zandaq had been attacked. One of their undersecretaries
got back to me on my way over here and said that apparently the post’s communication system had been down for repairs, but they were sending a counterterrorism team to ‘investigate.’ It’s a pretty good hop to the compound, and they won’t be there for at least another hour and by that time . . .” He stopped and looked at the television. There were no more signs of resistance from the buildings; some of the attackers were still running about, but others appeared to be just milling around. “It’s over,” he concluded simply.
The fat man looked at the screen. In some ways he looked like just another overweight limousine liberal; the sort who sat around in coffee shops in Birkenstock sandals over white socks and tie-dyed rock concert T-shirts while talking to their stockbrokers on their smartphones. He wore his hair, which he dyed ash blond, swept back and longish, and his well-scrubbed, hairless face with its round pink cheeks and full lips looked almost boyish. He was sixty years old and with the toadying press liked coming off as an affable political geek holdover from the late sixties. But he was shrewd, ruthless, and committed to his far left of center politics, and right now, his weak blue eyes glinted with anger behind the round wire-rim glasses he wore.
“It may be over in fucking Chechnya,” he growled as he stabbed his cigar at the screen, “but it’s not fucking over here. In fact, the shitstorm hasn’t even started here, but it will if we don’t keep a lid on this and know what we’re going to do to distract the voters if anything does get out.” He took a long drag and blew the smoke at the ceiling. “So tell me again what the fuck we were doing there?”
The neat man, Tucker Lindsey, cleared his throat. He didn’t like the fat man, detested him as a matter of fact. A crude, obese, arrogant asshole from the Midwest, he’d described him to his former colleagues at the State Department. Certainly not a member of “The Club” that permeated the entourage around the president, as well as his cabinet and appointed posts, particularly at State. Not an Ivy League man, he thought with disdain.
In a world that made any sense, there would have been no way
that he, a Harvard Law grad and the president’s national security adviser, should have to answer to the boorish tub of goo. But Rod Fauhomme was the president’s re-election campaign manager, probably the best in his dirty business, and with the election only three weeks away, orders from the top were that the corpulent politico was calling the shots on anything that might affect the president’s run at a second term.
“Officially, it’s a trade mission,” Lindsey said. “A deputy chief of mission from the U.S. consulate in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, reaching out to the locals. In reality, DCM David Huff and a small security detail drove to Zandaq, a small, out-of-the-way town in southeastern Chechnya, to meet with one of the leaders of the Chechen separatist movement.” He nodded at the television screen. “What you’re looking at there is a small gated compound about five miles from town that we lease as part of an agricultural and cultural outreach program run by State.”
“And why are we meeting with this Chechen separatist?”
“To work out a quid pro quo deal,” Lindsey said. “He helps us get arms to the rebels in Syria; in exchange he keeps some to get rid of foreign fighters—mostly Islamic extremists—and the Russians; we also agree to support their bid for independence from Russia at the United Nations.”
“Do we care about their independence?”
“To some extent where it meets our foreign policy goals; but it’s a dangerous world out there, a constant juggling act. These Chechen separatists are Muslim but they’re secular and moderate; they’re a better counterbalance to extremist Islamic states than any government we could have created on our own. Plus they hate the Russians with a passion, and anything that distracts the Kremlin can’t be all bad.”
“Why not just give the guns to the Syrian rebels openly? Everybody knows we want Assad out of there; nobody likes the guy.”
Again, Lindsey shrugged. “The usual walking a tightrope when it comes to the Middle East. We don’t want to be seen as toppling
yet another government in a Muslim country. And if the weapons wind up in the wrong hands after Assad’s out—i.e., killing U.S. soldiers in some other place or bringing down an airliner in Munich—we need to be able to deny it was the administration.”
“Then why Chechens? Why not just tell the Israelis to do it?”
“The Israelis have the same concern about where the arms will eventually wind up and also don’t want them being traced back to them. Imagine how it would go over in Tehran or Cairo if the Arab press got wind of the Israelis’ providing arms to rebels to topple Muslim governments. . . . To be honest, we’re also yanking the Russians’ chain a little bit. They’re not helping us out with Syria, or with the damn Iranians, so we’re stirring the pot in their backyard.”
Fauhomme shook his head. “Jesus, don’t you spooks ever get tired of ‘stirring the pot’? It never seems to pan out, or is Iran-Contra such a distant memory that the lesson has been forgotten?”
Stung, Lindsey countered. “No more than you get tired of manipulating voters.”
“Yeah,” Fauhomme snorted. “But I get results.”
“No offense,” Lindsey replied tersely, “but you have no idea what has worked and what hasn’t. All you hear about is the occasional foul-up that is bound to happen now and again, but believe it or not, we have reasons for doing what we do that might not be apparent to someone who isn’t in the loop.”
Lindsey made his last comment pointedly, but Fauhomme just brushed it off with a wave of his cigar. “If I want in the loop, I’ll get in the loop,” he replied. “But we have experts, like yourself, to muck it up just fine on your own.”
The fat man rubbed his face with his pudgy fingers. He had been in the political game for most of his adult life. The son of an auto worker and avowed communist, he’d joined Students for a Democratic Society when he arrived on a college campus in Illinois in the late sixties. But when the SDS wasn’t radical enough in its plans to topple the Establishment, he’d signed on
with the violent Weathermen faction, hoping to plant bombs and kill cops.
However, times changed and he and his fellow “revolutionaries” decided that they would have a better chance of bringing down the corrupt capitalist system if they worked insidiously from the inside. So he turned to the political party most closely aligned with his politics, even though the party leadership was far too close to the middle and away from the left for his tastes. Then he made a name for himself as a “community organizer.” That was where he’d met the president, a kindred spirit, and a few years later ran his first political campaign for alderman.
Fauhomme had gone on to run other campaigns for candidates who fit his left-wing profile, but always dropped whatever else he was doing if the then-future president called asking for help as he climbed the ladder from state to federal offices. He was a true believer, and what he believed in was a socialist America, whether its population chose to identify itself that way or not. The men and women he helped elect were those he thought would push the United States further to the left with every election cycle.
Over the past few years, it had helped that the opposition party seemed bent on self-destruction, trotting out pathetic candidates who seemed to relish snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It went hand-in-hand with his favorite campaign ploy, which was to attack the candidate on a personal level and avoid talking about the real issues whenever possible. With the economy in shambles, two foreign wars, and massive debt, the opposition should have run away with the upcoming election. But instead, the other party selected a candidate who fit the stereotype Fauhomme himself had worked to convince the low-information masses was their biggest enemy—wealthy, out of touch with working people, and part of the good old white boys’ club that was “holding them back” and unfairly hoarding all the wealth. Toss in a few Neanderthal candidates to spew insults at minorities and women—which the opposition party had not countered successfully while Fauhomme, with
the help of a willing media, used to paint the entire party with the same broad “mean-spirited” brush—and that runaway victory was instead a double-digit lead in the polls for the president.
Still, not everyone in the country was buying the bullshit he was spreading. Many were paying attention to a stagnant economy, trillion-dollar deficits, runaway entitlement programs, the haphazard and dangerous foreign policy, and a steady encroachment on rights and traditional values. Not everyone believed that the government could spend its way out of a deep recession or trusted the manipulated employment numbers. Thus the election was not a shoo-in for Fauhomme’s man either.
In fact, three weeks earlier, the normally wooden opposition candidate had delivered a surprisingly passionate performance in the first debate that had centered on the economy and had the president up against the ropes by its end. The drubbing had shown up immediately in the polls with the opposition closing that double-digit lead to mid-single digit. Reeling from the disaster, Fauhomme immediately fired the team appointed to prepare the president for the debate, even though the real problem had been the candidate’s arrogance.
As a result, two nights earlier the president had rebounded with a strong showing in the second debate, which had centered on foreign policy and terrorism. For reasons even Fauhomme couldn’t fathom, the opposition candidate backed off attacking the weaknesses in the president’s policies, saying that “in these dangerous times, we need to come together and present a united front to America’s enemies.” Bullshit, he’d thought when he heard that, you are the enemy.
The president’s performance had for the moment stopped the opposition’s momentum, but the losses in the polls had not been regained. The one thing the campaign did not need now was a debacle like the one playing out on the television screen.
“Okay, so we’re playing games with the Russians and trying to clandestinely get weapons into the hands of God-knows-who to
get rid of Assad, probably in violation of U.S. and maybe even international law . . . business as usual for you national ‘insecurity’ types, I get it,” Fauhomme said. “But I got an election hanging in the balance, and if we lose, not only is it over for the president, it’s over for you.”
He let his warning sink in as he stared at Lindsey until the little man looked away. He smiled slightly and stole a glance at the younger man in the corner, a former Marine named “Big Ray” Baum who’d been drummed out of the Corps for brutal acts against civilians in Afghanistan. Baum was smirking, having listened to the exchange.
“Do you think the Russians could be behind the attack?” he asked, turning back to Lindsey.
“I wouldn’t put it past them. The attack looked pretty organized, but some of it was haphazard and took a long time considering their superior numbers and firepower, not the discipline you’d expect to see from Russian special forces masquerading as insurgents. But the Russians certainly wouldn’t have been happy if they found out what our ‘trade mission’ was really about and could have got someone else to do their dirty work for them.”
“So what will they do now after their ‘investigation’ turns up dead Americans?” Fauhomme asked.
“They’ll blame it on the separatists,” Lindsey replied. “The more they can link the separatists with terrorism, the more they can crack down on the movement. Officially we’d have to go along with it; we don’t say anything about the brutal things they do to ‘terrorists’ in Chechnya, and they don’t say anything when we take out someone with a drone strike. This little incident is going to give them a free pass to go to town on those poor bastards.”
Fauhomme nodded at the television screen. “So I take it you don’t think these were the separatists?”
“Doubtful,” Lindsey replied. “We were there to make arrangements to give them weapons and back them up at the UN. They had nothing to win by attacking us and everything to lose, especially
when the Russians let loose on them with our blessing. The bad guys are more likely foreign fighters—Islamic extremists from other countries who flock anywhere Muslims are fighting a secular government or infidels. They’re probably Al Qaeda or linked . . .”
“WRONG!” the fat man shouted as he sat up suddenly in his seat. “They’re not fucking Al Qaeda!”
Lindsey furrowed his brow. “What do you mean? There’s a good chance that they are. One of the reasons we assigned this to Huff was we’ve been getting reports about Al Qaeda increasing their activities in the area, coming over the border from Dagestan, and . . .” He was interrupted again when Fauhomme slammed a meaty palm down on his desk and pointed his cigar at Lindsey. “Al Qaeda doesn’t exist as an effective terrorist organization anymore,” he hissed. “The president said so on national television two days ago. Or don’t you remember the last debate? That’s when he told John and Susie Q. Public and 300-plus million of their fellow citizens that one of the finest moments of his administration was eradicating Public Enemy Number One, fucking Al Qaeda. Therefore, Al Qaeda doesn’t exist.”
“We warned the president against making too broad a statement . . .”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about your warning . . . we needed to give the masses something after the first debate debacle, so we gave them the death of Al Qaeda and now we can all sleep safe in our beds tonight thanks to this administration.”
There was a knock at the door of his office, which opened before he could reply. A beautiful young brunette woman in a silk dressing gown poked her head in. “Is everything okay, honey?” she asked the fat man. “I heard a bang and I . . .”
“Get the fuck out!” Fauhomme exclaimed. “Jesus, Connie, how many fucking times do I have to tell you to stay out of my office when I’m in a meeting!”
The young woman’s face crumpled and it looked for a moment like she might cry, but she quickly ducked back out. Fauhomme
continued to look at the door for a moment as if she might try to come in again, and then shook his head. “Jesus, what a ditz,” he exclaimed. “Great in the sack, but that plane’s flying without a pilot.”
“Uh-oh, what have we got here?” Baum interrupted.
The other two turned to look back at the television. Although the images were small and grainy, they were clear enough; a crowd of armed men were pushing and shoving three prisoners toward the open area between the main building and the compound’s outer fence. They could see that one of the captives appeared to be a slightly built woman; the others were definitely larger males. One of the men suddenly turned on his captors and began to fight, but he was quickly clubbed to his knees and then dragged forward to where they were all forced to line up side by side.
A man, apparently the terrorist leader, stepped in front of the prisoners. He then turned and looked up and appeared to be staring right at the Predator. Holding up a finger, he tracked the circling drone that he could hear but not see as though to say he knew he was being watched. He then turned back to the captives.
Walking over to the prisoner on his left, a tall man, he pointed his gun as if he was going to execute him. But then he lowered the gun and stepped over to the female captive, where he seemed to say something to her. He then reached out and appeared to touch her face before moving on to the last male prisoner, who was still on his knees. The leader pointed his gun at the prisoner, who looked steadily up at him; there was a flash and the prisoner pitched sideways and lay still.
“Jesus,” Lindsey muttered.
“Better for us if those sons of bitches kill all of them,” Fauhomme replied.
Lindsey frowned. “What the hell kind of man are you? Those are Americans.”
“What kind of a man am I?” Fauhomme repeated rhetorically. “I’m a man who sees the big picture, and sometimes sacrifices
need to be made for the greater good. I’m the man who cleans up everybody else’s fuckups, including you James Bond wannabes. And I’m a man trying to win an important election that could determine the course of this country for the next century.”
Suddenly there was another knock at the door. “Yeah, what is it?” Fauhomme shouted.
When the door opened a clean-cut young man poked his head in and looked at Lindsey. “Excuse, sir, but you said to let you know if there were any more communications from Chechnya,” he said as he walked in and shut the door behind him. “We just learned that a call was placed to the U.S. embassy in Moscow about ten minutes ago. The caller left a message.” He held up a small digital recorder. “Want to hear it?”
“Yeah, Augie, go ahead, play it,” Lindsey replied.
Augie pressed a button and a young woman’s voice, cracking with strain and fear, entered the room. “This is codename Wallflower. We are at the compound in Zandaq. We’ve been attacked and overrun. They’re trying to get in. I don’t think it will be much longer. They are not Chechen; they’re speaking Arabic, several native Saudi speakers, a Yemeni, not sure of the others, but I repeat, they are not Chechen. . . . I’m with David Huff.” The woman’s voice paused and a loud pounding could be heard. “They’re here,” she said, then the phone went dead.
Lindsey motioned for Augie to leave. “Let me know if anything else comes in.”
“Who the hell is Wallflower?” Fauhomme demanded.
Lindsey shook his head. “Couldn’t tell you. There was no one with our people using that codename. In fact, I didn’t think there were any women on the mission.”
“Well apparently there is, and it’s somebody who knows the difference between a Saudi and a Yemeni speaking Arabic,” Fauhomme retorted. “She sounded American.”
“I’ll have to ask around, see if some other agency was in the area,” Lindsey said. “So what now?”
“I want every copy of that fucking tape. And nobody, I mean nobody, says anything about it; it doesn’t exist.” Fauhomme stopped talking and looked at the television screen, where the remaining two hostages were being herded onto a flatbed truck. “Tell the drone operator to light ’em up,” he said.
“Light who up?” Lindsey asked.
“The hostages, who the hell do you think?” Fauhomme said. “We’ve got a hostage situation, and I won’t have this administration’s chances of re-election pulling a Jimmy Carter on me. They need to go!”
Lindsey punched a number into his cell phone. “Take out the truck with the friendlies,” he said quietly. “Yeah, you heard me right, the friendlies; in fact, take them all out, as many as you can, but make sure you get that truck. Am I clear?” He put his cell phone down and looked back at Fauhomme. “Then what’s our story?”
“Our story is that our peaceful trade mission was attacked by Chechen separatist terrorists, a cowardly betrayal of heroic Deputy Chief of Mission Huff and his brave security team, who were trying to offer the hand of friendship and instead were stabbed in the back,” Fauhomme said. “There were no survivors. I’ll bet the Russians will back us on this, but they’ll be bending us over a barrel for the next decade as payback.”
“Something’s happening with the drone,” Baum said.
They all looked at the television screen just as it wavered and then went to black. At the same time, Lindsey’s phone buzzed. “Yeah?” he answered, then cursed. “What the hell do you mean you lost contact? Get it back!”
A minute later, the screen blinked on again but all that could be seen were the buildings and vehicles, as well as a couple of bodies, now only slightly warmer than their surroundings, according to the drone’s infrared electro-optical sensor. There was no sign of life.
“Where in the hell did they go?” Lindsey asked and got back on
his phone. “Goddammit, expand the search area,” he yelled. “Do I have to tell you everything?” He ended the call with an angry push of a button and looked at Fauhomme. “They’re gone,” he said.
“And you, my friend, are a master of the obvious,” Fauhomme said and stubbed his cigar out. “Just make sure they stay gone.”