Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
CIA Applicant Processing Unit
Dulles Discovery Building
“IS YOUR FIRST NAME James?”
“Yes,” Reece replied.
“Have you ever lied to get out of trouble?”
“Do you intend to answer these questions truthfully?”
“Is today Wednesday?”
“Have you ever committed a crime for which you were not caught?”
“Are we in Virginia?”
“Have you ever committed murder?”
“Just yes or no, please.”
Reece saw the polygrapher make a note.
“Are you a United States citizen?”
Through his peripheral vision, Reece saw the polygrapher make another notation and adjust a setting on his laptop.
“Have you ever been part of a group that has wanted to overthrow the United States government?”
Reece sat in the nondescript room of what would have been a normal office park anywhere else in America. This one was located in Chantilly, Virginia, and was owned by a front company created by the CIA. Reece was halfway through day one of his three-day CIA processing evaluation. Even with his past experience and relationship with the Agency he still had to pass the medical and psychological screening tests to officially join the ranks of Ground Branch. Bureaucracy was, after all, bureaucracy.
“Let’s try this again,” “John” said in a tone meant to convey exasperation. “Be sure to answer yes or no honestly. And remain completely still. Keep your eyes focused on one point on the wall in front of you or we will have to start all over.”
Reece felt his pulse quicken. He’d been on the receiving end of an interrogation before, and then, just as now, he wanted nothing more than to tear his interrogator’s throat out. He’d completed a form in the waiting area, answering the exact questions he was currently being asked. He’d even gone over them with his “examiner” before being hooked up to the machine.
“Have you ever been part of a group that has wanted to overthrow the United States government?” the polygraph examiner asked a second time.
“Have you ever been in the employment of a foreign intelligence service?”
Reece tried to reframe the question in his mind. Instead, a memory intruded; Ivan Zharkov standing in the snow outside his dacha in Siberia, the flames from the downed Mi8 helicopter smoldering behind him, the dead bodies of his security detail strewn about the ground around him, a security detail Reece had killed.
Are you offering to spy for me, Mr. Reece?
“No,” Reece responded.
The polygraph examiner made another note.
A blood pressure cuff squeezed Reece’s left arm, two rubber air-filled tubes called pneumographs encircled his chest and stomach to record his breathing, and galvanometers had been placed on the first and third fingers of his right hand to measure sweat secretions. His chair was fitted with a sensor pad, thanks to Ana Montes, a senior Cuban analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency who had been recruited by Cuban intelligence while in graduate school at Johns Hopkins. From 1985 until her arrest on espionage charges in 2001, she routinely passed classified information to Havana that was then transferred to the Soviets. Later, that information was sold to China, North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran. Her Cuban handlers had trained her to manipulate her polygraph by contracting her sphincter muscles, which is why Reece now sat on a sensor. He was also in socks, his feet resting on two individual pads. All movements would be recorded by the polygraph.
The room was small, but not claustrophobically so, about twice the size of a single patient room at a doctor’s office. Reece thought it was possible the off-white walls had faded to their current hue by absorbing the fear that permeated the space on an almost daily basis. There was a camera visible in the upper left-hand corner, but Reece was sure the CIA had concealed a few others so as not to miss a single eye twitch or muscle movement. Though he stared at a blank wall, a mirror had been installed just off-center, two-way of course, for observation. The room was bare of any additional distractions other than the small table to his left where the polygrapher sat with his computer. It was unquestionably designed to make CIA candidates as uncomfortable as possible.
“Have you ever committed a crime for which you were not caught?”
Visions of his dead wife and daughter caused his heart rate to increase. Reece swallowed as he remembered watching the silver Mercedes G550 SUV crest the rise on the mountain road outside Jackson through the magnification of his Nightforce NXS 2.5-10x32mm scope, just before pressing the trigger to send a Barnes Triple Shock .300 Winchester Magnum through the brain stem of Marcus Boykin, the first person Reece had eliminated on his quest to avenge his family and SEAL Troop.
“Mr. Reece?” his examiner asked.
“We have to get through these questions. Have you ever committed a crime for which you were not caught?”
Reece felt the working end of his Winkler/Sayoc Tomahawk catch in the bone and brain matter of Imam Hammadi Izmail Masood’s crushed skull before twisting it out and going to work on the gristle of the terrorist’s neck muscles. Reece had freed the head from the terrorist’s body so he could impale it on the spiked fence of the mosque as a warning to the others that death was coming for them all.
“No,” Reece lied.
“Have you visited antipolygraph.org to prepare for this examination?”
This answer visibly perturbed the examiner.
“Are you sitting down?”
“Have you ever committed murder?”
“I thought we covered that.”
“Just yes-or-no answers.”
Again, Reece’s mind accessed memories he’d never be able to repress. He remembered hitting send on the cell phone that detonated the suicide vest on political fundraiser Mike Tedesco, turning him and SEAL Admiral Gerald Pilsner into human mist.
He remembered shoving the HK pistol into Josh Holder’s mouth, feeling teeth breaking around the long suppressor before the .45-caliber bullet blew the back of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service man’s head off.
“Have you ever plotted to overthrow the U.S. government?”
Reece thought of the EFP, Explosively Formed Penetrator, he’d built. It was an instrument of terror overseas, but Reece had used the tactics and techniques of the enemy on home soil. He’d become an insurgent. The IED sent a slug of molten copper through the armored Suburban of Congressman J. D. Hartley in SoHo, eviscerating the conspirator and bringing the reality of war to the home front. Reece saw the look of abject horror in Secretary of Defense Loraine Hartley’s eyes as he shot her twice in the chest and once in the head in her Fishers Island mansion.
“Is the wall white?”
“Once again, just yes or no.”
“Have you ever been involved in the torture of enemy combatants?”
The odor of vomit and piss from the floor of Saul Agnon’s hotel room keyed the memory of the attorney’s waterboarding and untimely death via a concoction of illicit drugs Reece had acquired to make the murder seem like a drug overdose, giving Reece the time he needed to eliminate his remaining targets.
Reece saw the horror in Captain Howard’s eyes as he eviscerated the JAG officer with the sinister curved blade of the HFB karambit. As his guts slipped through his fingers and spilled onto the soft jungle floor, Howard frantically attempted to shove them back inside. Reece skewered them to a tree and forced the lawyer to walk around the trunk, his entrails escaping from his stomach until he collapsed at its base to be eaten alive by the creatures of the swamp.
Reece thought of passing the vodka to General Quism Yedid in Athens, a glass spiked with a Novichok liquid-soluble precursor.
And he remembered filling the 60cc syringe with capsaicin to inject into Dimitry Mashkov to elicit information that led to the location of Oliver Grey.
“No,” Reece said.
“Have you used illegal drugs you have not mentioned previously?”
Reece shut his eyes, remembering the drugs his Troop had been given prior to their last deployment. Those PTSD beta-blockers had sinister side effects, side effects that a group of military, political, and private sector conspirators needed to cover up an ambush in Afghanistan and the murder of Reece’s family in their Coronado home.
“Did you intentionally falsify information on your application or security paperwork?”
“Have you ever stolen anything from your previous place of employment?”
Reece remembered rolling the dolly down the hallway to his Troop’s weapons locker in the SEAL Team Seven armory and loading it with rifles, NODs, AT-4s, LAW rockets, a machine gun, claymores, and C-4 to load out for his mission of vengeance. He’d liberated it all before the admiral and his JAG had suspended his security clearance.
“Have you ever stolen anything worth over five hundred U.S. dollars?”
“No,” Reece said, unsuccessfully attempting to block the vision of himself loading the stolen ordnance into the back of his Land Cruiser.
“Do you have any undisclosed relationships with foreign nationals?”
The faces of Ivan Zharkov, Marco del Toro, and Mohammed Farooq flashed through his mind.
“Have you ever kept a war trophy?”
“Have you ever sold government property?”
“Have you, or do you know anyone who brought back enemy weapons from overseas?”
“Is there anything in your background that would disqualify you from getting this job?”
Reece remembered his best friend and former teammate, Ben Edwards, holding up the detonator attached to strands of det cord wrapped around investigative journalist Katie Buranek’s neck, her head battered and bruised, tears streaming, bandana securing her mouth. Ben had watched in utter disbelief as Reece killed financier Steve Horn and the secretary of defense before centering his M4 on the CIA assassin’s face and pressing the trigger, eliminating the final target on his terminal list.
“John” removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He then made a production of turning off the computer, though Reece knew quite well that it continued to monitor his vitals and that the audio and visual recording devices in the room were still running. He wondered who was watching through the two-way glass.
“Mr. Reece, this is not going well.”
“Really? I’m shocked.”
“You must take this seriously. I have to tell you, almost every answer you’ve given indicated deception on the polygraph, even your name.”
“Well, I’ve used a couple aliases.”
“We covered this, Mr. Reece. Just any names not denoted on your employment questionnaire.”
“It’s been a busy couple of years, John.”
“Let me converse with my supervisors. I’ll be right back.”
“John” left Reece alone in the room, still tethered to the computer and still under surveillance.
Reece looked at the camera in the corner and shook his head.
Reece knew the polygraph was largely theater. Yes, the machine measured blood pressure, breathing, sweat secretions, and muscle movements, but there was a reason that results of a “lie detector” test were inadmissible in every court in the civilized world. Its value was in making the candidate think it could detect deception. It was an expensive prop, one that had gotten more than one candidate over the years to admit to crimes that they would almost certainly have gotten away with otherwise.
Reece had visited the antipolygraph.org site years ago as part of a battlefield interrogation course he’d attended in the SEAL Teams. It was the approved “tactical questioning” course of instruction, meant to provide left and right limits to operators in the field who might not have the luxury of having a BIT, or Battlefield Interrogation Team, attached to their unit. The techniques taught at the approved interrogation school were more akin to how a detective would interview the suspect of a crime in the United States. Reece wouldn’t learn the darker arts of interrogation until he was detailed to a CIA covert action unit in Iraq at the height of the war. There he would learn techniques that had come in handy over the years, techniques that were not part of a manual and were not searchable via Google.
Reece shut his eyes.
Calm down, Reece. This is all part of the game, a game you need to win.
Remember why you are here; you made a promise to Freddy Strain’s widow.
“I’ll find who did this, Joanie. I’ll find everyone responsible.”
The triggerman was still breathing: Nizar Kattan, a Syrian sniper Reece had vowed to put in the ground. An assassin Reece needed the CIA’s robust intelligence capabilities to locate.
There was also the letter. A letter and a safe-deposit box key from his father. A letter from the grave.
Later, Reece. Just get through the day.
Reece’s day had started early that morning with a blood draw. He had given a urine sample and completed his vision and hearing tests. He had an appointment at medical the following day to complete his physical. He’d taken the 567-question MMPI-2 psychological test, which he’d found both amusing and irritating. He would have to sit down with an Agency psychologist on his third day. Reece knew the MMPI was designed to uncover psychological issues that might be disqualifying to a candidate applying for employment with the Central Intelligence Agency. It was administered to uncover repressed aggression, psychoticism, alcoholism, anxiety, marital distress, fears, depression, anger, cynicism, low self-esteem, defensiveness, antisocial behavior, schizophrenia, and paranoia.
Reece noticed that day two contained a long block of “free time” in his printed schedule. He knew this was a placeholder to “retake” the polygraph. Enough SEALs had gone through CIA processing over the years that it was anything but secret. Day three was set aside for an office visit with Victor Rodriguez, director of what was now called the Special Activities Center. The SAC ran the paramilitary wing of the Agency. Vic had tried to recruit him for Ground Branch at their very first meeting when Reece had landed on the USS Kearsarge in the Adriatic Sea after he and Freddy Strain had taken out Amin Nawaz, the terrorist known as Europe’s Osama bin Laden. Reece had agreed to finish the job he’d started at the behest of the United States government to track down and turn or kill a former CIA asset he’d worked with and befriended in Baghdad. That mission had led to Freddy’s death from a sniper’s bullet in Odessa.
His relationship with Katie had taken a bit of a hit when he’d disappeared into the Siberian tundra for six months, tracking the CIA traitor responsible for the death of Reece’s father, a legendary Vietnam-era SEAL and Cold War CIA case officer. Reece glanced at the Rolex Submariner on his wrist, a watch that his father had purchased at the PX in Saigon, a watch that had been slipped from his dead hand in a back alley in Buenos Aires. Reece had taken it back from the man responsible before sending him to the afterlife with seven hundred grams of RDX from a Russian claymore.
The polygraph examiner had been gone for ten minutes.
Was he really meeting with a supervisor? No chance. They were just making him sweat. It was all part of the interrogation playbook: convincing unwitting subjects to admit to disqualifying crimes and thereby putting a feather in the cap of the polygrapher who “caught” them. They were especially fond of “catching” and disqualifying those with special operations backgrounds.
Katie had been supportive of Reece’s decision to accept a provisional contract with the CIA. She had been with him from the start of the nightmare and helped uncover the conspiracy that led to the ambush of his SEAL Team in the mountains of the Hindu Kush and the slaying of his young daughter and pregnant wife. She’d waited and wondered when he disappeared off the coast of Fishers Island, New York, after saving her life, and she’d been by his side as he recovered from brain surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Their relationship had taken a romantic turn in the mountains of Montana before they’d been targeted on home soil by a Russian mafia hit team at the direction of Oliver Grey. She’d been through a lot, and even though she had been less than happy when he went off the grid in Russia, she understood. Reece was on a mission, one that was not yet complete.
Reece heard the door mechanism click and turned his head to see the director of the CIA’s Special Activities Center enter the room.
“Jesus, Reece, can’t you do anything the easy way?” Victor Rodriguez asked.
Vic was second-generation Agency. He was a former Army Special Forces officer whose father had led a squad in Brigade 2506, the CIA-trained group of Cuban exiles that had attempted the 1961 overthrow of Fidel Castro in what would become known as the Bay of Pigs.
Vic had worked his way up through the ranks and had started recruiting Reece when he’d headed the Special Operations Group, the paramilitary side of what was up until 2016 called the Special Activities Division. He still preferred the older nomenclature. He was now responsible for SOG and the Political Action Group, two entities whose work was, more often than not, connected. The dark side of the Agency was in his blood. He’d grown up under the ever-looming specter of Bahía de Cochinos and had vowed to never again allow a failure at the nexus of intelligence and covert action. Victor Rodriguez was responsible for the third arm of U.S. foreign policy; when diplomacy and overt military pressure or intervention failed or was not possible for political reasons, the Special Activities Center was the Tertia Optio: the third option.
Vic had convinced Reece to sign on as a contractor and had put on the full-court press when Reece returned from Russia. He wanted the former frogman on board as a SOG paramilitary operations officer. In a late-night phone call a month earlier, Reece had agreed. This three-day screening was part of the process. If Reece passed, he would get an EOD, or Enter On Duty, date and then begin his training at the Farm.
“Can you just tell the twerp to finish up so we can get through this?”
“It doesn’t work like that. We discussed the poly, Reece. You need to pass just like everyone else. How hard is it? Medical, dental, piss in a cup, answer some questions. You have a presidential pardon, so even if you are technically lying on the exam you are actually telling the truth.”
“Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“No, but you have to do it. Isn’t that even some SEAL saying?”
“You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it,” Reece confirmed.
“Good. Just do it. You are being given a lot of leeway because of what you and Freddy did to save the former president. And even though it’s not officially recognized or condoned, there are rumors swirling about you taking out Oliver Grey. The Agency, and the counter-intel folks in particular, do not take kindly to turncoats in our midst. They missed Nicholson, Ames, and Grey. It’s rumored you gave Grey the sentence most of the Agency wishes on traitors.”
“I’m answering these as best I can, Vic.”
“They’re just counter-intel and lifestyle poly questions. You know the drill; your examiner will tell you to come back tomorrow. Play nice and let’s get you to the Farm.”
“Understood. Just tell ‘John’ to stop pissing me off.”
“Play nice,” Vic repeated before turning to exit the polygraph room. “And please don’t throw him through the two-way mirror. Those things are more expensive than you think.”
When “John” returned, Reece lowered his heart rate the way he would before taking a long-range sniper shot. He focused on Katie’s smile and answered with the correct yes and no answers. It wasn’t every day you got to beat a lie detector test.
Passing the polygraph meant Nizar Kattan was one step closer to death.
Two days later Vic sifted through Reece’s test results. No drugs in his system, no sexually transmitted diseases, vision and hearing well above Agency standards. It was the polygraph and MMPI test that concerned him. The MMPI had resulted in paranoid and aggressive personality traits, which was not totally unexpected considering what Reece had been through over the past three years. Vic shifted his focus from the Multiphasic Personality Inventory to the polygraph.
IS YOUR FIRST NAME JAMES? FALSE POSITIVE
HAVE YOU EVER LIED TO GET OUT OF TROUBLE? TRUTHFUL CONCLUSIVE
DO YOU INTEND TO ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS TRUTHFULLY? DECEPTION INDICATED
IS TODAY WEDNESDAY? TRUTHFUL CONCLUSIVE
HAVE YOU EVER COMMITTED A CRIME FOR WHICH YOU WERE NOT CAUGHT? TRUTHFUL CONCLUSIVE
ARE WE IN VIRGINIA? TRUTHFUL CONCLUSIVE
HAVE YOU EVER COMMITTED MURDER? DECEPTION INDICATED
ARE YOU A UNITED STATES CITIZEN? TRUTHFUL CONCLUSIVE
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN PART OF A GROUP THAT HAS WANTED TO OVERTHROW THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT? DECEPTION INDICATED
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN IN THE EMPLOYMENT OF A FOREIGN INTELLIGENCE SERVICE? TRUTHFUL CONCLUSIVE
HAVE YOU VISITED ANTIPOLYGRAPH.ORG TO PREPARE FOR THIS EXAMINATION? TRUTHFUL CONCLUSIVE
ARE YOU SITTING DOWN? TRUTHFUL CONCLUSIVE
HAVE YOU EVER COMMITTED MURDER? DECEPTION INDICATED
HAVE YOU EVER PLOTTED TO OVERTHROW THE U.S. GOVERNMENT? DECEPTION INDICATED
IS THE WALL WHITE? TRUTHFUL CONCLUSIVE
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN INVOLVED IN THE TORTURE OF ENEMY COMBATANTS? DECEPTION INDICATED
HAVE YOU USED ILLEGAL DRUGS YOU HAVE NOT MENTIONED PREVIOUSLY? DECEPTION INDICATED
DID YOU INTENTIONALLY FALSIFY INFORMATION ON YOUR APPLICATION OR SECURITY PAPERWORK? DECEPTION INDICATED
HAVE YOU EVER STOLEN ANYTHING FROM YOUR PREVIOUS PLACE OF EMPLOYMENT? DECEPTION INDICATED
HAVE YOU EVER STOLEN ANYTHING WORTH OVER FIVE HUNDRED U.S. DOLLARS? DECEPTION INDICATED
DO YOU HAVE ANY UNDISCLOSED RELATIONSHIPS WITH FOREIGN NATIONALS? DECEPTION INDICATED
HAVE YOU EVER KEPT A WAR TROPHY? TRUTHFUL CONCLUSIVE
HAVE YOU EVER SOLD GOVERNMENT PROPERTY? TRUTHFUL CONCLUSIVE
HAVE YOU, OR DO YOU KNOW ANYONE WHO BROUGHT BACK ENEMY WEAPONS FROM OVERSEAS? DECEPTION INDICATED
IS THERE ANYTHING IN YOUR BACKGROUND THAT WOULD DISQUALIFY YOU FROM GETTING THIS JOB? DECEPTION INDICATED
FINAL POLYGRAPH TEST RESULTS: INCONCLUSIVE
Vic closed the file and looked at the faded black-and-white framed photograph on the wall of his office. The men wore World War II–era “duck hunter” patterned camouflage uniforms and carried an assortment of small arms, including a Johnson M1941 held by Vic’s father.
Never again, Vic thought.
On the front cover of the file he signed his name over his director’s signature block and checked a box marked APPROVED.