J. Craig Wheeler


Copyright (c) J. Craig Wheeler 1986

All characters and incidents in this book are purely fictitious and products of the imagination of the author and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. Nothing in this book should be interpreted as a representation of views of any department or agency of any government body.

For my parents, Peggy and G.L.


I am grateful for the valuable editorial help of Lucille Enix, Denise Brink, and David Hartwell. Special thanks go to Peter Sutherland and Linda Mills for reading and commenting on an early draft, to Hugo Bezdek for sharing insights into the workings of government agencies, and especially to my wife, Hsueh Lie, for her keen critical eye. Finally, I thank anonymous colleagues and their institutions who played host to me over several years, thus providing stolen moments in airplanes, motels, and restaurants, to add a few more paragraphs.

Chapter 1

Abd Ar-Rahman was the first. The old shepherd leaned on his staff by the trunk of a gnarled thuja pine, trying to find shade. He gazed down the foothills of the Atlas Mountains to the snaking Oued Moulouya in the distance. The half— wild mouflon sheep clustered near the tree, cropping at sparse spring shoots of tough esparto grass. Ar-Rahman had the briefest impression of a noise overhead. As he raised his eyes upward, an unseen hammer blow sprawled him on his back in the dry North African dust. He was conscious of his infirmities and used to stumbling now, but this left him stunned and confused. As he gazed upward, a branch the thickness of his wizened leg cracked and sagged under its own weight like a broken arm. The bloating finally penetrated his stunned senses. He crawled to where one sheep had staggered and collapsed an arm's span from him, directly beneath the break in the branch. The animal was bleeding copiously from ragged wounds, one along its spine and one in its belly, as if it had been shot through. The old man watched in anguish as the sheep bled its life away.

Robert Isaacs tried to ignore the message from headquarters. He was enjoying himself, and did not relish facing whatever calamity had produced the summons. He kicked his fins and glided along the surface, peering through the sea-churned murk at the occasional brightly coloured fish. An old tyre caught his eye. He gulped air through the snorkel and plunged the six feet to the bottom. Grasping the outer rim, he tugged upward. The small nurse shark, startled from its resting place in the dark hollow of the tyre, dashed for the safety of deeper water.

Isaacs smiled to himself. That's life, honey, he thought, somebody just kicked my tyre, too. Surfacing, he swam to shore. After removing his mask and snorkel he balanced awkwardly, first on one foot, then the other, peeling off his flippers. He towelled himself dry, slipped into thongs, and crossed the narrow strip of beach. A spurt of traffic came along US 1, which separated the beach from Patrick Air Force Base, and he paused to let the cars pass. Immediately across the road was the blunt, brick sprawl of the Air Force Technical Assistance Center which had been his temporary base of operations. One last time his eye scanned the long line of obsolete missiles which stood sentry before the building. He crossed the road and turned left-towards the clump of visitors' bungalows, resigned to packing and catching the next flight back to Washington.

A glorious spring morning greeted him the next day as he headed out of town towards Virginia. March was departing the nation's capital in its finest style, docile, but vibrant with new life. The break in his normal routine fresh in his mind, Isaacs tried to capture the pagan urge to rejoice by foregoing the usual morning radio news and by driving with the window open to the smell of dew-dampened trees. His hands guided the wheel of the compact Mercedes 380 SL semi-automatically as he followed his habitual route. He made the light on Canal Road and swung left onto Chain Bridge across the rocky narrows of the Potomac.

The light at the far end of the bridge stopped him. He glanced back over his shoulder at the distant spires marking Georgetown University. Fragments of breakfast conversation rushed back at him. Damned if I want to foot high tuition to some experimental college to help Isabel find herself, he thought. I can't expect a high school junior to be completely level-headed, but I don't understand Muriel's resistance to a high quality university like Cornell. Hell, it was good enough for us!

The light changed and he turned up Chain Bridge Road. The feel of the accelerating car regenerated his sense of well-being for the moment. Then the tunnel of trees blocked the free blue sky, and the physical ascent towards his destination drew his mind on a parallel course. Unable to focus on the quality of the morning and not wanting to dwell on domestic problems, his thoughts shifted more frequently to the concerns of his job. By the time he made the right turn onto the George Washington Parkway , he was concentrating on his priorities for the day. Top on the list was the emergency meeting at nine o'clock. Bad news, he mused. Scheduled that leave months ago, and they've got to haul me back. Whatever it is, the bastard's going to be an ulcer-buster.

Consciously attempting to quell that unpleasant turn of mind, he admired the fresh tan on the backs of his hands as they gripped the steering wheel. As a Major in the Air Force Reserve he served two weeks' active duty a year, a welcome relief from the tension in his position with the Central Intelligence Agency, Deputy Director of Scientific Intelligence. He thought back on the past ten days, chuckling to himself, recalling his postman's holiday. Intelligence officer at a beachfront Florida base, he thought, not a bad perk. The experience resonated with memories of his younger days of patient collection of raw intelligence data. In this case, however, there had been the lure of the beach and ocean and leisurely hours snorkelling to break the tedium. Those pleasant memories buoyed his spirits as he turned off the parkway towards headquarters. He steered up the off-ramp, following it ninety degrees to the left as it crossed back over the parkway. A small jam of cars feeding into the headquarters entryway from the southbound ramp forced him to brake sharply to a halt. At the pause, his glance strayed up the green embankments to blooming stands of redbud and dogwood. The car ahead of him pulled right at the drive leading to the highway department headquarters. As he closed the resulting gap, he recognized the Fiat two-seater in front of him. It belonged to Alice Lavey, who clerked in his analysis section.

The Fiat accelerated through the gate in the high chain link fence and past the guardhouse. Isaacs did the same, receiving a curt nod from the guard on duty who sat scrutinizing the windshield passes. Isaacs detected a small smile on the guard's face which he presumed to be a remnant of the passage of the Fiat. Alice had a penchant for low necklines. He steered the car on up the winding drive and into his personal parking space. He grabbed his briefcase, checked the doors, locked the driver's side with his key, and stepped across the lot as he extracted and attached his photo ID.

'Good morning, Mr Isaacs, welcome back.'

'Good morning, Ralph. And it's a nice one, isn't it?'

'Sure enough!'

Ralph had been there on duty for fifteen years and knew virtually everyone in the Agency by sight. Isaacs idly wondered whether rotating the guard to insure ID's were more carefully examined would be better or worse for security. He crossed the lobby, skirting the great presidential seal embedded in the floor, and proceeded down the corridor. He climbed six flights of stairs, eschewing the elevator, pleased with the spring in his step which eluded

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