“What do you mean?”
“Every uniform I’ve ever met will automatically relay their rank and what unit they’re assigned to. I go to the Pentagon or I go to buy groceries and see another soldier at the checkout, I say, ‘Hey, I’m a chief warrant officer with the 701st CID based out of Quantico. Before that I was a sergeant first class with 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment out of Fort Benning.’ Rank plus squad, platoon, company, battalion, brigade, division, corps, it’s all just part of the DNA. We’re all attached to something. And we want you to know what that something is. Point of pride, point of belonging. It’s a fact of being a soldier. There’s no getting around it.”
“And I didn’t give you my rank until you asked, and I told you,” she said resignedly. “And didn’t specify a particular unit.”
“And when we first met you addressed me as ‘Agent Puller.’ I’m a chief warrant officer. Anyone actually in uniform would automatically address me as ‘Mister’ or ‘Chief.’ Never as ‘Agent.’”
“Strike two,” she said, clearly irritated.
“And you just don’t seem military to me, Knox.”
“Is that right?” she said in a slightly offended tone, and her body stiffened.
“Oh, you look to be in good shape. But that’s not the issue.”
“So what gave me away?”
“I’ve been in the Army for fifteen years. Before that I was an Army brat from the day I was born. I can smell uniforms from under any layer they try to cover themselves with. And with you, I didn’t get a whiff.” He paused. “Were you really in Iraq?”
“Yes,” she said quietly. “But not in uniform. I was gathering intelligence.”
He glanced at her. “So you weren’t on the front lines.” She didn’t reply. “Knox, I said—”
“Pull over,” she interrupted.
“Just pull over!”
He steered the car to the side of the road and shifted to park.
She turned on the interior dome light, unhitched her shoulder harness, untucked her shirt, and pulled her slacks and underwear on the left side down to near the bottom of her left hip. Puller simply gaped, wondering what the hell was going on.
Until he saw it.
In the middle of the soft white skin was a long ugly scar riding on her left hip that carried around to the fleshy edge of her left buttock. The scar was a dull red, the suture tracks still evident. Though the underlying wound it represented was probably long since healed, it still looked painful.
She said, “I got this courtesy of shrapnel from incoming mortars and RPGs. I was in a motorcade heading into Basra. Rebels were trying to retake it. They were closer and better armed than we thought. Five of my people died. I wasn’t sure I’d walk again. The shrapnel came really close to my spine and I couldn’t feel my legs for about two weeks. Turned out to be concussive paralysis due to the inflammation and swelling. But it finally went away after I lived on prednisone and the surgeons finally got all the metal out and I worked harder than I ever had in my life. And I eventually got all the way back. Except when it rains. Then my hip and butt cheek ache like a bitch. All in all I consider myself the world’s luckiest person. A lot luckier than the rest of my team.”
Puller remained quiet for a few seconds and then said, “Just so you know, while I doubted where you came from, I never doubted your patriotism. Or your courage.”
She slowly pulled her slacks and underwear back up and tucked in her shirt.
“I can’t believe I just did that. Hell, I’ve dated guys for months who never saw that.” She paused and looked out the window. “I just…I just didn’t want you to think I couldn’t hold up my end of the load, Puller. Because I can. I know this part of the world is still very much a man’s world. But I’m damn good at what I do.”
“Like your patriotism and courage, I never doubted that either, Knox.”
She turned to him. “In my line of work sometimes I have to deceive. But I don’t like having to mislead people like you.”
“Okay,” said Puller. “Anything else you need to tell me? Or can tell me?”
“I had a dual purpose coming here.”
“The first was to work with me.”
“The second was to watch you, closely.”
“Why?” he asked.
“I thought that would be obvious.”
“Your bosses really think I’m involved in my brother’s escape?”
“No, that’s not it. But they think he may try to contact you at some point.”
“And why do you think he would do that?”
“Because with your father the way he is, you’re the only family he has left. And all reports indicate you two are very tight.”
“So you hoped I would lead you right to him?”
She slipped her shoulder harness back on and clicked the latch. “I never thought it would be that easy or clear, but we couldn’t simply disregard the possibility. Everyone goes after the low-hanging fruit first.”
“My brother is way too smart to make a mistake that stupid.” Puller put the car in drive and got back on the road.
“So where are we going?” she asked.
“To see the body of the dead guy left in my brother’s cell. I was supposed to go this morning, but as you know, another dead body got in the way.”
“It’s sort of late.”
“Yeah, but if we wait any longer, the body might disappear like the transformers.”
They drove along for a few minutes in silence.
“So are we good?” she asked, breaking the quiet.
“For now, Knox.”
“You know, you can call me Veronica.”
He shot her a glance. “I like Knox better. It seems to suit you.”
She frowned. “In what way?”
He pushed the gas down and the Chevy jumped forward. “As in Fort Knox.”
When he looked over at her again, she was actually smiling.
THERE WERE MULTIPLE possibilities, Robert Puller knew. He was sitting in another motel room staring at his computer.
The sheer arithmetic of the challenge was compelling.
Officially, there were seventeen American intelligence agencies.
While much of the recent media attention had been focused, for good reason, on the NSA and the famous or infamous—depending on your position—Edward Snowden, the fact was the NSA was merely one cog in an ever-expanding wheel known under the rubric of the IC, which stood for “intelligence community.”
With nearly thirteen hundred government organizations and two thousand private companies in over ten thousand locations spread across the country, employing close to a million people, a third of those private contractors, all holding top secret clearances or higher, the IC employed about two-thirds as many people in the United States as did Wal-Mart.
By Executive Order 12333, the IC had six primary objectives. These were burned into Puller’s brain. Yet there was one on which he was especially focused right now. It was catchall that gave titanic power to the executive branch.
Puller recited it in his head: Such other intelligence activities as the president may direct from time to time.
Encapsulated in those thirteen words was nearly incalculable discretion, with the only restriction being the size of the sitting president’s ambitions. When it ran up against legal restrictions, government lawyers employed that loophole as an end run around the courts. And since Congress did little oversight of this area, the end run usually worked.
When he was at STRATCOM, Puller had not judged whether this was right or wrong. His work had benefited from these legal tactics. Now he had a slightly different perspective on them. Well, perhaps more than slight. The NSA was part of the IC. Legally, the NSA, which was known as the “ears” of American intelligence, could not listen in on the conversations of American citizens without a court order. But now much
of what the NSA and rest of the IC collected was digital. And the world’s global data streamers had no national boundaries. Google, Facebook, Verizon, Yahoo, Twitter, and the like had data centers, fiber-optic cables, switches and server farms, and other such infrastructure all over the world. And because many solely American “transactions” took them over this foreign-based infrastructure, they were ripe for exploitation.