Truth to power
All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions of the CIA or any other U.S. government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. government authentication of information or Agency endorsement of the author’s views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.
Symptoms begin with fever, malaise, head and body aches, and sometimes vomiting. The fever is usually high, in the range of 101 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. At this time in the progression of the disease, victims are usually too sick to carry on their normal activities.
By the fourth day of symptoms, a rash emerges, first as small red spots on the tongue and in the mouth, then developing into sores. As the sores in the mouth break down, the rash moves to the skin, starting on the face and spreading to the arms and legs and then to the hands and feet. Usually the rash covers all parts of the body within 24 hours before turning to bumps.
The bumps fill with a thick, opaque fluid and become pustules— sharply raised, usually round and firm to the touch. People often say the bumps feel like BB pellets embedded in the skin.
Up to 30 percent of those infected will die.
--Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response
I know every whisker now on a little brown mouse that has become my faithful companion. At first, I thought her visits wouldn’t last because I don’t always have food or am too weak to share. But she keeps coming back. I hear her clawing her way through the far wall of my cell to a tiny hole just below the ceiling. She struggles for a few moments to squeeze through the opening, and then slides precariously down the damp stones to the floor. Her sides, always streaked with mud and bits of mortar, are heaving when she finally reaches me. She accepts whatever crumbs I can give her, lets me stroke her back, and then leaves by the same difficult route.
I look forward to her appearances because they help me with my almost desperate need for a sense of time. The dull light that seeps in beneath the rusted metal door never seems to change, and I still can’t predict when my next meal will come. The disorientation is a constant challenge, but my mouse friend helps.
The survival courses have also helped. I am forever grateful for the same instructors we once cursed for pushing us past the regulations. No, they never generated what I’m experiencing now; they couldn’t have, given our belief that we could always walk away into the relative safety and certainty of our previous lives. We always had that edge on them, knowing that they could never inflict permanent harm. They could never beat us or starve us. They could never hang us naked by our feet and laugh at our reactions to electric current passing through different parts of our bodies. But they did push us enough to give us a taste of life’s nightmares and make us believe we can get through them to a better place.
Expect the disorientation, they said. Expect to feel a growing panic as your regular, familiar indicators of time and place are stripped away. Be ready for the lurking terror as you begin to doubt your faiths. Then find inspiration in your trying in the face of the terror or the most excruciating pain, even if that trying is nothing more than a determination to remember your name or survive for just one more day.
Their advice might have been lost had it come from some other source, but we listened and never doubted. They were like gods to us. They were the ones who had survived the real thing, the unspeakable horrors in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and dozens of other dark places deemed key to our country’s national security. We accepted their wisdom and pretended to understand.
I remember them making me crawl into a wooden box so small that they had to push my feet in behind me to shut and bolt the door. The darkness and quiet were absolute and unchanging. At first, I was aware only of loose gravel biting into my knees, but far more discomforting was the creeping anxiety over losing control of my own consciousness. Before long I was grinding my knees further into the gravel, but it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t tell whether I was awake or asleep, and—exactly as they had predicted—I lost all sense of time. The effect was terrifying, but—for at least a few moments and possibly a good deal longer—I kept faith in myself, I kept faith in life, and I discovered a surprising exhilaration in thinking I could prevail. This mix of sensations was still churning when the instructors opened the door, their timing perfect. In the end, the instructors never really taught us courage, but they allowed some of us to find it— that uniquely human quality that makes our lives so worthwhile.
Most of us don’t need survival training to want to live through even the horrific experiences, if only because we fear the less certain alternative, but those who can embrace life’s challenges and draw nourishment from them will thrive in our world. The most fortunate among us seem to be born with this hunger for life. Something in their chemistry or environment drives them forward over life’s hurdles and injustices toward something better or more satisfying. Others, if they’re lucky, discover satisfaction, even exhilaration, in the trying, not because it promises them something better but because it enables hope for something better. And with hope they find their courage.
The instructors must have realized that throwing us at adversity would give us more chances to know the fulfillment in rising to the challenges. I remember feeling absolutely triumphant when I finally emerged from that box. The feeling was the same when they pulled me cold and exhausted out of a putrid Florida swamp, or when, without a hand against my back, I leaped out of an airplane into the darkness to find a patch of grass 25,000 feet below. I made mistakes that might have killed me in a less forgiving environment, but, as long as I was trying, I was giving myself a chance to succeed or at least a chance to last long enough for that something better.
No matter how naïve or illogical the trying might be, no matter how remote those chances might be, they are always enough to keep defeat at bay. And sometimes they are enough to allow us to prevail. They were enough to get me out of the swamp. Years later, they were enough to get me back to you and the children after we lost Eddie. And now, they’re gonna be enough to get me past this rusted metal door.
Only now, however, do I realize how much my courage depends on sharing. For me, the trying and the hope it inspires require belief that they can bring a result that matters to others. Successes and better places require external validation. Had I stepped out of the box or the swamp or the airplane into a world where no one could ever know or appreciate what I had accomplished, my courage eventually would have faltered. Had I never witnessed the sacrifices our teammates made for each other or thrilled at their own personal triumphs and extraordinary feats, life would have begun to discourage and overwhelm. Had I not had you and the children giving me purpose, I would not have survived Eddie’s death. I need—selfishly, perhaps—to believe that someone appreciates me or, at least, that someone might appreciate me someday.
I know this because my hunger is fading. Our toughest instructor would tell you that I’ve been rising to every challenge placed before me here, that I’ve learned to welcome the pain and never once forgotten my name. But the trying isn’t enough. I need to believe that there still is a caring world beyond this metal door. I need to know that I’m not in this alone and, especially, that my best friend is still rooting for me.
My keepers here seem to understand this. Whenever they question me, which seems less and less frequently, they begin by reminding me how they killed you and the dancer in alley behind the nightclub. They seem to delight in describing the effect of their handiwork on your bodies. And they assure me that the world thinks that I’m dead, shoving obituaries from the Washington Post and Fauquier County’s local papers in front of me. They’ve even come up with a compelling photograph of the open book of names that rests beneath the stars chiseled into the marble wall at Langley. Both our names are there, the first acknowledged couple to die in service of the Central Intelligence Agency.
I suppose they want me to believe that nothing matters anymore, so that I’ll start divulging the secrets to the grand operation they imagine the Agency is directing against their cause. Or maybe they’re just playing with my head for their own entertainment.
Whatever their motives, I know they’re lying. Yes, I heard the shots from the alley as I lay paralyzed just a few steps away, but I know that you survived. I know because you would have survived anything that night. I also know that you still believed in me, even after seeing me in a situation that screamed the cruelest betrayal.
But with each passing day, the memory of your faith is fading. I hold on to the unconditional love I saw in your eyes with the desperation of a drowning man. I cling to it even as I can feel it slipping from my grasp. I know now that I can beat the disorientation, the pain, and the fear, but my success against anything depends on thinking it matters.
Stronger men might not share their horrors with those who love them. They may not ask their best friends to keep hoping against all odds. But our strength, both yours and mine, has always come from each other. Sharing all—the good, the bad, even the worst—has always been the bedrock of our relationship because it gives us reassurance that we’re on course or that we can achieve better.
Stay with me just a little longer. Help me keep the passion— help me believe that I can still get out of here...
BOOK ONE: FLAG UP
Chapter 1: Barometer Readings
Trevor Cole lifted his sleeping boy from the superhero action figures that guarded him through the night. The child protested briefly before finding a comfortable niche against his father’s khaki suit.
“Sorry, Cal,” Cole whispered as he patted the boy’s back. “Just one of those parental needs. But don’t you even think about waking up. You know I’d be in big trouble if you did. Huge trouble.”
Hearing his wife stir in the bedroom across the hall, Cole quickly returned his son to the warmth of his covers and tiptoed through the darkness to his daughter’s bedroom. At just over six feet, he was tall enough to have to duck slightly to pass through the low doorways typical of old Virginia farmhouses.
As usual, Lindsey was on her back, on top of her covers. One of her legs dangled over the side of her bed, arms open to the world. Certain that she couldn’t possibly be comfortable in such an awkward position, Cole carefully returned the child’s leg to the mattress and folded her arms across her chest. The result was always the same: before he had even left the room, Lindsey’s arms were stretching back toward the bed posts, and her leg was back off the mattress, reestablishing the picture of fearless innocence.
Cole’s wife lay on her side, her white tee shirt ending just above her slightly rounded belly. Cole knew she was only half asleep, savoring those last minutes of precious rest before the children would awaken and demand her attention. He leaned over and brushed her hair from her face. There was never enough time.
“All my bags are packed,” he said softly, trying not to sing the words. “I’m ready to go. I hate to wake you up to say goodbye.”
Cole sat down on the bed and tried again. “You may not believe this, Hannah, but already I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
“Come on, Hannah; this is where you say, ‘So kiss me and smile for me.’ And then we have the most passionate goodbye kiss of all time.”
The corners of her mouth might have turned up slightly, but he wasn’t sure.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, touching her hair again. “I’m not really hurt, because the hurting runs off my shoulders. Anyway, coffee’s on. I’ll be back early tonight, even if you won’t ask for the kiss or tell me that you’ll wait for me. Seriously, all I’m planning to do today is catch up on e-mails— unless, of course, the Director has actually read my memo and used up a little of his capital with the ops side. But I probably shouldn’t be holding my breath for that.”
Hannah rolled away from his hand. “Call me when you know,” she mumbled.
Cole sighed, loudly enough for her to hear. With one subtle movement of her body and five barely audible words from her lips, she had managed to unravel his hopes that his time away from work had stopped their descent. Just moments before, he had been looking forward to a new balance between work and family. He was going to leave his work after the regulation eight and one-half hours and come home to his three most important responsibilities, to a family whose well-being corresponded directly to his time at home. In contrast, his time preparing scores of highly classified papers and briefings—delivered with great seriousness to serious-looking policymakers and even more serious-looking military officials—would, in the end, be negligible specks on America’s journey through a troubled world. The free world wasn’t going to collapse without him. His new balance, however, would depend on a supportive partner.
Maybe he shouldn’t have expected two weeks of uninterrupted family time to finally turn her around, especially given that he had yet to follow through on his own promises. But the two weeks were just the latest bid in three years of trying to get her back, and she still seemed nothing but ambivalent about trying to make them great again.
She didn’t need to forget Eddie to move on. She could focus on the nearly five wonderful years they had with him, not on his last horrific day on the mountain. She could remember those nightly battles against Hannah’s disagreeable breast milk, when the three of them, equally exhausted and excited by their new world, would venture out into the frosty Rectortown air wrapped in thick blankets to encourage the more stubborn air bubbles to bounce free. Or the times Cole would scoop Eddie out of his playpen and, holding him on his forearm as though he was a football, dance around the living room to loud rock music, while Hannah gave them the obligatory disapproving look. She could even remember and treasure Eddie’s excitement in hiking the mountain— Sky Meadows, where the Laughing Monster, unseen among the trees high above, would unleash his unnerving shrieks of laughter. Where Eddie could see just like a bird when they reached the summit.
And she could find new inspiration in Lindsey and Calvin. They had been the keys to Cole’s recovery, the everyday reminders that he still mattered. Forged in the shared sadness in the days following Eddie’s death, his friendship with Lindsey had grown from trust and purpose. Together they had conquered the diving board and bicycle, and they had made a good start towards mastering most of the white keys on the piano. They could share everything, from the humor in her baby doll’s much-anticipated efforts to hide from her while she was in the bathroom brushing her teeth to the quiet satisfaction brought by Saturday morning hot chocolates at Middleburg’s Cuppa Giddy Up. Seeing the sparkle in Lindsey’s eyes was always a welcome relief from the dark hole swallowing him at Langley.
Calvin was another reason to know that life could be good again. At just over four years he seemed, at least to his father, destined for the lacrosse field. Although Cole’s own enthusiasm for athletic competition may have encouraged premature judgments on the boy’s destiny, Calvin did love to play with any kind of ball in sight, and he never let a bad fall from the magnolia tree in the front yard keep him from making another attempt to climb higher. The ever-present nicks and bruises across his serious face reflected a determined little character. On some workday mornings, Cole would look up from his breakfast analysis of a cereal box to find Calvin standing before him, his eyes blinking furiously in the bright light. The little boy would insist on his own cereal bowl and cereal box and, avoiding his highchair, seat himself in a grownup chair next to his dad. They would eat in silence, each with his free arm wrapped around his cereal bowl, each studying the back of his cereal box.
Cole treasured the rare evenings when he could pull himself away from work and return home before the children needed to be in bed. If there was still light, he would take them down to a stream that fed Goose Creek, a tributary to the Potomac River. Together, they could spend the better part of an hour throwing rocks from a bridge above the water, finding great satisfaction in watching one giant splash after another. “Wait, wait—watch this one!” one of them would yell. Lindsey or Calvin would push a rock over the guardrail, watch it send up a plume of water, and then scramble down the embankment in search of the next perfect projectile.
On the walk home, one of them would ride on his shoulders, high enough to smack the road signs, sending the exceptionally pleasing sound of flexing sheet metal echoing through the neighborhood. After dinner, Lindsey and Calvin would climb on his back and ride him around the kitchen floor until he bucked them off onto the sofa. “More, Daddy, more!” they would scream.
The children were just stepping into their worlds, and they begged for his attention and guidance. They made him feel worthy, always forgiving him and always welcoming him back. They made him feel loved.
Yes, he still mattered.
Hannah still mattered, too. She mattered to her husband, who needed an engaged and caring partner, and she mattered to her children. Cole could keep waiting for her, but Lindsey and Calvin depended on her now, as their father struggled for balance between country and family. Their fleeting youth and the opportunities to shape their futures weren’t waiting for Cole to come home from work. He hadn’t been there for Calvin’s first steps from beside the kitchen sofa into his mother’s outstretched arms, and he had yet to watch one of Lindsey’s ballet lessons. Overwhelmed at work, Cole had been missing the spilled milks and skinned knees, the runs through the backyard sprinkler, the impromptu costume parties, and the other countless everyday adventures defining their characters.
Fortunately, Hannah was there for them. Unfortunately, she couldn’t seem to find inspiration in her relevance. Instead of being excited by life’s possibilities, she was mired in its injustices. The result was a wife and mother who barely managed, a joyless woman muddling through life.
One morning, Cole feared, he would wake up with Hannah in an empty house, suddenly much older and wishing they could have found a better way.
The ferocity of the storm surprised Cole when he opened the back door to go outside. He hadn’t even been aware of the weather during his morning ritual and was momentarily caught off-guard by Mother Nature’s onslaught. Before he could shut the door, rainwater came slashing into the foyer, staining its brick floor. A quick look in the mirror hanging by the door confirmed that his khaki suit hadn’t escaped the weather, and his hair, neatly parted just moments before, was now a disheveled mess across his blue eyes, where his thirty-five years were just beginning to make an impression. He needed a haircut.
Smiling in awe of the storm’s power, Cole found his raincoat and maneuvered his still athletic frame into it before stepping again into the driving rain. About half way down the flagstones leading to his car, he paused for the German Shepherd that had emerged from his nighttime station in the tool shed. But the dog, which really belonged to Hannah, was quickly discouraged by the storm and turned back to the shed before reaching him.
For a moment, Cole considered turning back himself. Maybe, he thought, he should wait until the worst of the storm had passed before venturing out on the twisting back roads of the Piedmont. He could extend the much-needed respite from work for just a few more hours. He could climb back into bed before the children woke up and see where that exposed belly might take him.
Two weeks earlier, he wouldn’t have even considered staying home, but his vacation, brief as it was, had allowed him the time to recognize not only the children’s growing demands but also the accelerating decline of his marriage. Before his break, he had resigned himself to a long wait for her to recover, but he worried now that he might lose her before she found her way again.
Hannah had been a part of Cole’s life practically since he could remember. They grew up together in the rolling countryside north of Baltimore. Like many in Worthington Valley, they found each other through horses, the area’s primary social currency. Many of the families there would socialize according to their associations with the various horse activities in the area. Some belonged to one or more of the several foxhunts that shared the valley, while others were part of the racing or show circuits. In their very early years, Cole and Hannah barely knew each other because they belonged to different crowds—he to the racing families and she to the show families—but their relationship changed well before either reached adolescence. At ten years of age, old enough to tack up her own pony and ride without supervision, Hannah broke ranks with the show world and joined the valley’s racing circles. Once there she became fast friends with Cole and his younger sister, Mary.
Cole loved to recall the cold winter mornings before the spring pony racing season began when he would walk on foot alongside Hannah and Mary on their ponies down Shawan Road to the fields below South Hill. The ponies, knowing what lay ahead of them, would be pulling strongly against the reins, snorting and prancing in anticipation. Mary would begin describing her stride-by-stride plan for the race, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she never could control her pony once they started, while Hannah, her whip twirling back and forth through her fingers and her eyes focused on the space between her pony’s ears, would never say a word.
When they turned off the road at the sharp bend that marked the northern end of South Hill and the beginning of a great stretch of closely cropped grass, Cole would leave the girls and sprint toward his viewing spot about half way up a slope that separated the field from the South Hill barns. Yelling as he ran for the girls to wait, he would pull out his binoculars as he neared his position. If he was fast enough, he would turn and focus in time to see Hannah set her lower lip firmly between her teeth and turn to Mary. The two girls would simply look at each other with knowing smiles, nod three times, and scream “Go!” as they unleashed the passion raging beneath them.
Twenty years later, the sight was still vivid in Cole’s mind. From his vantage point on the hillside, he would watch as the two bundles of concentrated power shot out of the shadows along the bottom of the field, nearly a quarter mile away. They would charge across the great expanse before them, hooves rhythmically drumming the frozen ground. Even against the broad backdrop of the wooded mountain behind them, the ponies’ progress was breathtaking. They clearly reveled in the thrill of racing, needing no encouragement from the girls crouched low along their withers. Not once did Cole ever see Hannah use her whip on her pony or on the horses that followed. Believing that her mounts shouldn’t be punished into running faster, she used her voice and legs to inspire the animals to give their all. The whip, she insisted, was simply a reminder to herself to keep trying in the difficult moments.
At the southern end of the field, the ponies turned and headed back toward Cole’s position on the hillside. As the sound of their hooves grew louder and louder, Cole would feel his heart begin to pound. The ponies, their ears flat back in competitive fury, seemed to gain speed as they neared his spot. Then they would sweep by him, the sound of jangling bits and protesting leather briefly joining the thunder of the pounding hooves. And sometimes, through the ponies’ mane, Cole would catch a glimpse of the joy blazing from the girls’ eyes.
By the time they reached their seventeenth birthdays, Hannah and Mary had graduated to steeplechasing, riding professionally for whatever trainer would take a chance on them. Up at five every morning, Hannah and Mary would each exercise three or four horses before suffering through their schooldays. On the weekends, the horse world ruled without competition, especially during the spring and fall racing seasons, when the girls would ride in races up and down the East Coast. Radnor, Andrew’s Bridge, Fair Hill, Morvan Park, Belmont, Glenwood, Great Meadow, Camden— looking back, the names seemed part of another world.
Cole, while never comfortable on a horse, loved to be around the races and their unique combinations of grooms, owners, trainers, and riders. And, of course, he loved the excitement of the racing itself. Whenever possible, he would travel to the meets with his sister and Hannah, serving as their driver, their groom, and, as the girls called him, their Third Opinion. Together the three friends would laugh with cocky riders and scheme with struggling trainers. And they would put on their most serious faces in front of nervous owners, reassuring the old money that their horses were healthy and fit enough to run, and encouraging the newer money to be patient with their latest investment.
Through it all, Cole’s feelings for Hannah never moved beyond a brotherly affection. Even as they swept through college, he never considered Hannah anything more than the sister she had been to him since they were children. And he never felt her eyes watching him for what was already burning inside her.
“What are you thinking, Mr. Cole?” she would always ask after each race. “Did I do alright?”
He would respond with his typical candid advice, “Pretty good ride, but you’re still pushing for the big fence. Sooner or later, your horse is gonna take that extra stride, and you’ll be in too deep. Gotta keep their back legs under and let ’em pull you over.” She would nod her agreement but always seem disappointed with his answer. He hadn’t realized she was looking for something else in his words, something that answered her real question: “Did I impress you, Trevor? Did I seem a little special in the way I gave it my all?”
Years later, he often wondered whether he would have ever seen what was in front of him had it not been for an extraordinary race at Middleburg’s Glenwood Park.
The storm didn’t seem quite so bad from inside Cole’s dilapidated Volkswagen Scirocco; getting through it wouldn’t be a problem if he went slowly. Besides, no one ever stayed home because of rain— snow, perhaps, but not rain.
He turned his attention to finding the car keys he had placed in one of the pockets of his raincoat before leaving the house. As he twisted about awkwardly to access an elusive pocket, he noticed water trickling into the car from the top of the driver-side window. Recent storms had been leaving his floor mats damp, but he had never actually seen the water coming in. This time, the rain was clearly penetrating his car, and the sight was strangely disquieting. It sent a chill flashing through his chest.
After confirming that the window crank was turned to its limit, he tried rolling the window down slightly and then back up again for a better seal, but his efforts only produced a steadier stream of water. He cursed out loud, surprising himself with his rush to anger. One more problem to fix. One more priority that would have to wait. He took a breath and exhaled slowly. The amount of water coming in wasn’t going to wreck the car, and he’d be late for work if he fooled with it any longer. Encouraged by his logic, he located his keys and started the engine.
The car’s headlights switched on as he turned the key, just as they had every other morning he went to work, but what they revealed this time was anything but normal.
Cole jumped back in his seat, gasping as the headlights illuminated the small space between his car and the tool shed. Occupying nearly all of that space were two large eyes— piercing steel-blue discs surrounding smaller circles of unfathomable black. So surreal was the sight that Cole’s first thought was that he was still in bed and dreaming, but the eyes didn’t give him a chance to confirm safe ground. They hovered for just an instant and then shot toward him, closing with paranormal speed. Instinctively, Cole put up his arms and braced for the impact, but the eyes stopped just in front of him before dissolving into a blur of windshield condensation and rain.
Unable to breathe through the adrenaline flooding up his throat, Cole forced his way to a logical explanation. The eyes, he finally concluded, belonged to the German Shepherd staring at him through the tool shed window. Magnified and distorted by the downpour between the shed and his car, they had seemed to be attacking him. Cole found his breath but not before another chill had knifed through his chest, this one much deeper and more painful than the last.
Just her dog. Just her goddamn dog— the same goddamn dog that had turned back because of the weather.
Cole shook the rain from his soaked hair and waited for the windshield to clear. He unzipped his raincoat— the same old green oilskin, he remembered, that he had worn for the race at Glenwood Park nearly twelve years before. The memory of that day never failed to restore his confidence that he and Hannah could be alright again. Eventually, she was going to rediscover the excitement in reaching for the extraordinary.
Glenwood’s biannual steeplechase races had always promised an exciting finish or two in front of the tall trees that bordered the final stretch run, but the Temple Gwathmey race a dozen years ago had no equal. Cole remembered watching Hannah and his sister—far ahead of the rest of the field—dueling over the last half mile of muddy turf. All of the nearly 10,000 spectators there that day, even the kids who normally ignored the races as they played on the rocky hillside above the stretch run, were cheering wildly as the young women came over the last hurdle together, their horses matching strides up the slight rise that led to the final turn and stretch run.
As they leaned in close to the white railing that bordered the turn, fighting for every inch of ground, Hannah’s horse slipped slightly on the soft footing. It recovered quickly, but its misstep sent Hannah sprawling down the animal’s left shoulder. Mary’s horse was so close that it broke Hannah’s fall, giving her the split second she needed to grab a stirrup leather before hitting the turf. For a terrifying moment, Hannah’s head was just inches from both horses’ churning hooves.
Then, showing a strength that shocked the suddenly silent Glenwood crowd, Hannah pulled herself up and away from the ground as her horse continued charging down the stretch run. With her left hand gripping a stirrup leather and her right hand smacking her horse’s side, Hannah began screaming encouragement.
“Come on!” she yelled to her wide-eyed horse. “Come on!” she yelled to herself.
The crowd, its voice restored by Hannah’s heroics, roared at the spectacle as the two horses raced toward the finish. Despite Hannah’s awkward position—or perhaps because of it—her horse shot forward over the last few yards to draw even at the wire. Or nearly so. The judges eventually gave the race to Mary, but in everyone else’s mind, Hannah was the indisputable winner.
Awed by the enormity of Hannah’s effort, the crowd was buzzing with excitement as the horses pulled up. Hushed exchanges between incredulous friends quickly turned into raucous celebrations that included perfect strangers. Soon the entire place was the very definition of pandemonium. People were cavorting about, replaying the scene again and again. They couldn’t get enough of Hannah’s extraordinary feat.
“Did you see that? Did you see how close her head was to the ground?”
“Unbelievable. She must lift weights to be able to hang on like that— one handed, too! I bet she’s ripped.”
“Dude, that chick’s insane— totally insane.”
At least one impeccably dressed owner was hugging his toothless groom. Two of the most hardened trainers on the circuit were crying openly. And probably about a hundred young girls put down their smart phones and began begging their parents for a horse of their own.
Everyone, of course, was completely in love with Hannah, and Cole was no exception. After the race, as he pushed through the crowds toward the girls, he was shaking in anticipation of something wonderful, something suddenly there that was bigger and grander than anything he had ever experienced or imagined. He felt stronger, confident that anything was possible.
When he reached the girls, they had already dismounted and removed their saddles and were leading their horses back toward the judges’ tower, smiling broadly. Feeling strangely awkward to be near them, Cole watched as they handed their horses to grooms and stepped up to the scales.
Throngs of reporters and admirers had already begun closing in around the girls when Cole finally found Hannah’s eyes, sparkling under the muddy brim of her helmet. In the briefest of moments, when the milling bodies finally aligned to open a tunnel between them, she looked straight at him, and he could tell she immediately recognized the churning inside him. Her mouth opened as she saw it and then curved into a smile that whispered the words, “What are you thinking, Mr. Cole?”
Just before the tunnel closed, she took a step in his direction, letting her whip drop to the mud beneath her feet.
Cole was spellbound. He had known Hannah for years, but she completely new to him. No longer was she the awkward fourteen-year-old in pigtails who had begged him to drive her two hours to watch the Virginia Gold Cup in a cold fall rain. No longer the teenager who would fall asleep against his shoulder on late night drives back to Maryland. Her seven seconds of brilliance had finally opened his heart and mind to what was possible, to a love just waiting to be recognized and set free. To a love that astonished him.
Later he would come to worship her physical beauty—straight brown hair falling just past her strong, broad shoulders, large brown eyes, soft, vibrant skin, and a body whose soft curves belied her years in the saddle—but at that moment he loved her for the happiness she was spreading inside him. As he watched her accepting congratulations and chatting happily with her horse’s trainer and owner, he thrilled at her every move, her smile, and the familiar way she swept her hair from her face. He remembered how she kept looking for him through all the faces and how they had both cried when they finally embraced.
Over the years, Cole grew to treasure other attributes that Hannah brought to their relationship. She was strong enough to stand up to him and pursue her own interests, but she also was strong enough to follow without jealousy. Most importantly, she accepted his need for unfiltered companionship. He shared everything with her, not only their common interests but also his concerns— his fear of life’s random cruelty, his frequent disillusionment with mankind, even his doubts about marriage. She seemed to understand, subconsciously perhaps, that sharing was the basis of their friendship. She even joined the Agency as a part-timer soon after their wedding to share with Cole the professional experiences that national security interests kept hidden from the outside world. Their relationship prospered because they knew each other so well, so completely, and because they continued to appreciate what they found. Sharing, not dependency, was their bedrock.
In time, however, the balancing act familiar to most working couples with children had begun to falter. The September 11th attacks and the United States’ subsequent failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq made impossible a forty hour workweek for many of the Agency’s analysts. Not only were they under enormous pressure to check—and check again—the reliability of every source and every assessment, but they also suffered from the double-edged sword of the proliferating intelligence information clogging their computer screens. The post-9/11 investments in multibillion dollar satellites designed to monitor the movements of America’s enemies, the development of software tools capable of pinpointing locations of terrorists and their associates within seconds of an e-mail communication, and the hiring of dozens of new case officers trained to recruit agents with access to terrorist networks gave CIA and the rest of the US Intelligence Community a fighting chance of preventing the next disaster, or at least delaying it. But the additional information provided by these new collection capabilities greatly outpaced the Agency’s ability to field qualified analysts to make sense of it all.
Hundreds of new analysts had joined Cole’s Directorate of Intelligence, the CIA’s analytic wing, to help sift through the new reporting and find connections between the multiplying dots, but they all needed to learn the DI’s tradecraft before they could contribute effectively. Although the Agency’s Sherman Kent School provided new analysts with months of formal training on how to task Intelligence Community collection platforms and how to use structured analytical methods to interpret the information they acquired, experienced analysts like Cole were expected to help support the Agency’s training efforts as briefers or guest instructors. These same experienced analysts also were responsible for helping the newcomers apply their training to their specific intelligence accounts and for helping introduce them to their counterparts in other Intelligence Community agencies. With so much of their time spent as instructors and mentors, intelligence officers like Cole were forced to choose between longer workdays or the near certainty of additional intelligence failures.
At the same time, new “centers” for counterterrorism and counterproliferation were established to meet Congressional interest in visible responses to the 9/11 disaster and the rising specter of terrorists pursuing weapons of mass destruction. These centers pulled analysts from their areas of expertise to address the new priorities, leaving fewer analysts in place to monitor traditional threats that had diminished only in relative terms. Cole, who was monitoring Russia and other former Soviet republics for any indications that they were maintaining remnants of the Soviet biological weapons program, fell into the group of analysts left behind to monitor the traditional threats. With the assistance of two or three colleagues scattered across the Intelligence Community, he continued to track threats from the Cold War that once had fully occupied dozens of analysts in the CIA alone.
Cole and many of his colleagues had chosen the longer workdays, and the strain was apparent both inside and outside the workplace. At work, tempers flared as overworked analysts struggled to hold off superficiality in their finished products and managers negotiated increasingly unrealistic deadlines with anxious policymakers and military officials. The pressure was enough to discourage even the greyest heads at the Agency, but the broadly shared commitment to the Agency’s mission—the sense of being part of something greater, something supremely necessary and worthwhile—kept Cole and his colleagues marching resolutely through the badge machines morning after morning.
At home, the first casualty of Cole’s longer workdays was his love affair with Hannah. Well before the nightmare at Sky Meadows, his special bond with her had begun to bend under the pressure from Langley. Their shortened time together had gradually gone from caring for each other first to the business of parenting and paying bills. Slowly, their embraces lost affection, their playful humor faded, and the apologies that were once so obviously necessary became too obviously hollow to offer. As the shift became more and more apparent and their relationship slid toward the ordinary, Cole would promise to find more time for Hannah and the children, but his late night efforts to repair the damage, always launched from his side of the bed, rarely generated more than a tired nod from his partner.
“Don’t worry about it, Trevor; I know you’re busy. We’re managing okay.” And then she would be asleep, leaving him alone to ponder his creeping infidelity and wonder how he could set things right again.
And then, before they found their way back to the passion that had burned so brightly that day at Glenwood Park, they lost their eldest child.
Cole pulled out his handkerchief to wipe away the rainwater that had trickled from his hair into his eyes. The roads would be fine if he went carefully.
The storm hesitated as Cole shifted into reverse and backed his car away from the tool shed. Above him, the rain abated and the sky lightened just enough for him to make out the blackness of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains beyond the rear window. As a powerful backdrop to the wide-open countryside of the Piedmont, they were the western edge of the most beautiful area Cole had ever known. Every year, however, the broad patchwork of rolling fields and woods that stretched below the mountain range lost more ground to Washington. So frenetic seemed the pace of suburban sprawl from the east that Cole could rarely appreciate the Piedmont’s majesty without worrying about its future. He often wondered how much time he and his family had to enjoy this special area before the developers with their subdivisions and theme parks and strip malls finished the destruction they had begun.
Cole eased his Volkswagen onto Route 710, its headlights making little impression against the resurging storm. He couldn’t remember a harder rain. Above him, its assault against the car roof sounded like angry bees determined to punish. Flooding would be a problem if the downpour continued much longer.
As he made his way down the twisting country roads, Cole began to think of the tasks that awaited him at the Agency’s Office of Russian and European Analysis, better known as OREA. After two weeks of leave, he was sure to face an endless stream of emails, most of them having little direct relevance to the substantive aspects of his account. He probably would spend the first couple of days just answering administrative actions—anything from a memo on another computer “upgrade” to a notice about mandatory training on gender or ethnic sensitivities.
Nonetheless, he was looking forward to getting back. In addition to the more mundane aspects of his job, he was anxiously awaiting a response from the Director of Intelligence, the most senior officer in the Agency’s analytic directorate. By now the Director should have reviewed his case for releasing information from a controversial CIA source who had become pivotal to Cole’s investigation of a French student from Lapalisse University with troubling connections to terrorists and biological pathogens.
A month earlier, before he had even known about the source, Cole’s regular reviews of regional press in Russia had revealed a feature on the student’s internship at a research institute deep inside Russia’s Siberian District— a research institute that CIA analysts suspected of being associated with the Moscow’s biological warfare program. In the Soviet days, little had been known about the Pravda Biotechnology Institute, even among those who made their livings trying to reveal its secrets. Satellite photographs of concentric fencing around the facility had suggested a military connection, and stories from the occasional emigre about piles of animal carcasses burning on the frozen tundra outside the institute’s fence line had suggested biological experimentation. But no one in the Intelligence Community had enough information about the institute to determine whether its activities were supporting the legitimate development of vaccines or the development of biological warfare agents.
At first, Cole saw the French student’s internship at the Pravda Institute as little more than another positive step for Russia from its paranoid past toward the international exchange of ideas propelling science into the 21st century. Slowly, but surely, Russia seemed to be recognizing that spies were not behind every foreign visitor— that not every foreigner was looking to steal Russian scientific achievements to feed the West’s military machines or its pharmaceutical conglomerates.
The news of the student’s visit to the Pravda Institute might have made its way quickly to the archives had Cole not serendipitously heard a radio report several days later on his way to work. According to the broadcast, French authorities had just arrested nearly a dozen other French students at Lapalisse University for plotting terrorist attacks against the Paris metro system.
Motivated perhaps more by the prospect of breaking a dramatic story after years of trudging through the nothingness of his account than by a sober assessment of the facts, Cole had immediately seen a possible connection between the arrested students and the French student at the Pravda Institute. Like most CIA analysts, he was intimately familiar with the Director’s annual threat briefing to Congress that voiced the Agency’s concern with terrorist groups trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and, of course, he was well aware that the Pravda Institute stored some of the world’s most dangerous biological pathogens, including viral agents that could decimate whole countries.
Cole had raced into work that morning to investigate his concerns. Thrilled to be back on the cutting edge, if only for the moment, Cole immediately contacted one of his former officemates who had transferred to CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.
“Jessica, hi, it’s Trevor,” he began, trying to control the excitement in his voice.
“Oh, no,” the former officemate replied, already on her guard. “What is it this time? Still worried about the Chechens getting their hands on Russian nukes at Dombarovskiy?”
“Good morning to you, too, Ms. Sunshine.”
“What is it?” she repeated, ignoring his gentle nudge toward politeness. “I’m super busy already and really don’t have time to run down another one of your Armageddon warnings.”
Cole was surprised by her tone. This was going to be even harder than he had anticipated. “Listen, Jessica; I think there could be a WMD connection to those arrests at Lapalisse University that someone in CTC should know about.”
“Palisse. Lapalisse University— you know, where those French students were arrested for plotting attacks against the French metro system?”
“Yeah, so?” She obviously hadn’t yet heard about the arrests, but, true to form, she wasn’t about to admit not knowing about something that might be related to her account.
Cole let her off the hook. “I heard on the news on the way in this morning that students at Lapalisse University in France were arrested for a plot against the Paris metro system. It may be nothing, but I was concerned that a separate Lapalisse student doing an internship at a Russian biotechnology institute might be associated with the ones arrested.”
“Trevor, you’re not making a lot of sense here.”
A classic response. When the prouder analysts couldn’t make a connection and were worried about looking incompetent, they would blame someone else for their shortcomings.
“Sorry, Jessica,” Cole answered, “I’m rushing things, as always. There’s a French student in Russia who might have might have access to biological pathogens there, so I’m concerned—you know, given that he’s from Lapalisse University—concerned that he might be in Russia to get pathogens for this terrorist group at his university.”
“Yeah; I know! I knew right away this was worth a closer look.” Cole hadn’t detected her sarcasm.
“No, I mean, ‘Wow’ as in ‘Wow, I can’t believe you’re bothering us with this!’ Don’t you think you might be stretching things again, Trevor? Just a little? Do you even know whether this student is linked to the students at Lapalisse? Or whether those students have backgrounds that would allow them to handle biological pathogens?” Her tone dripped condescension.
“No; I thought you—”
“Do you know whether the arrested Lapalisse students have ever expressed even a remote interest in acquiring a biological attack capability? Or why this student of yours would travel half way across the world to find pathogens he could find in about twenty-two dozen pharmaceutical facilities or vet clinics in Paris alone?”
“No.” Cole could see where she was going. “Well, actually, yes to the last question— I mean, maybe. Pravda, the Russian institute, is just one of two places in the world holding variola— the smallpox virus. CDC Atlanta being the other. If the student gets access to the Pravda stockpile, he might be able to access a few organisms long enough to reproduce some for his own purposes and then return the originals. The Russians would never be the wiser. I don’t know; I just wanted to bring this to your attention. It’s not really my subject area.”
“Apparently not. Listen, we’re up to our necks over here chasing down people who are killing our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan every day. This morning, I’ve already received two reports from FBI walk-ins claiming that al-Qa`ida has nukes planted in Washington and Los Angeles ready to go Friday— or Saturday, depending on which one you believe. Which one of these issues do you want us to drop so that we can check out your La-whatever story? You know, the one where the Russians are stupid enough to allow a French student anywhere near their smallpox collection. Don’t they still assume every Westerner is a spy to begin with?”
Cole’s pulse began to quicken as anger replaced his earlier enthusiasm. “We’re all busy,” he said. “Goes with a job that doesn’t allow us to fail anywhere. We can’t ignore this one just because we have higher priorities. Maybe’s there’s someone else who might have time to run this down?”
Jessica didn’t back down. “Hey,” she answered, “I don’t need the lecture, Trevor. I sleep just fine every night with my effort. I’m still getting fours and fives on my PARs and still getting promoted. Ever wonder why you’re still a GS-14 after, what, four or five years? Maybe it’s because you make a regular habit of pissing people off who live in the real world.”
She had crossed a line. “Ever wonder why 9/11 happened?” Cole retorted. “Maybe it’s because the US Government didn’t find the time to investigate foreign nationals from the Middle East attending US flight schools. Ever wonder why Pakistan surprised us with a nuclear detonation in 1998? Maybe I need to piss more people off. Excuse me, Jessica, but this is all serious stuff. We can’t ignore it because we’re ‘super busy.’”
His former colleague hesitated before responding. “Listen,” she finally replied, her tone noticeably softer. “We just have a lot going on here. I’ll kick your French student thing to the right folks as soon as I can clear my plate. Sound reasonable enough?”
“Yeah, sounds reasonable. Thanks.”
“Sure, this job is just impossible sometimes. Know what I mean?”
She was apologizing. “Understood,” Cole answered. “Thanks.” He hung up, hopeful that he had at least pricked some interest.
Two weeks had passed, however, with no word from CTC. He decided to risk an email to Jessica. Bracing for a stinging rebuke from her, and possibly his own mangers if she complained about his meddling, he asked as delicately as he could whether she had had a chance to follow up on their exchange. Almost immediately, she had replied: Yes, we did look into your French student. In fact, we were already on it well before we last chatted. Turns out the student at Pravda is a Sunni Muslim, as are the arrested jihadists at Lapalisse University. His trip is being funded by a Muslim philanthropic organization in Islamabad— not much more than a mailing address but certainly no derogatory information. But that’s about as far as it goes; we don’t have any real indication that he’s connected. Cheers.
Cole was amazed, and not just by the unexpectedly informative reply. A student with possible access to biological pathogens and at least indirect links to a Sunni terrorist group plus a mysterious sponsor, but CTC didn’t see a threat? Were they really that swamped? He decided to piss them off again: Jessica— What else are we doing to run this down? Anything I can do to help from my end? Maybe I could run some more searches on the student? Also, I can point you toward the right people in Russia’s security services if you want to share this with them. They are my subject area. ; )) I can tell you whom to trust in FSB.
This time, two full days went by before he received a reply. Trevor: We’re on it, trust me. We’ve contacted both the French and Russian liaison services about our concerns. Not much more we can do at this point until we hear back from them.
The buck had been passed into a black hole. If the intelligence organization with the world’s greatest resources wasn’t going to run this case down, then the Russian and French security services almost certainly weren’t going to do much better. He would have to find another approach.
Within days of his exchange with Jessica, however, the report from the controversial source had appeared. In Cole’s mind, it immediately validated his concerns. According to the source, the Lapalisse University student had gone to Pravda to acquire smallpox virus for an attack against the United States.
Clearly, this was a front burner threat. Smallpox: a disease that could stand shoulder to shoulder with nuclear weapons. One of the world’s most infectious and deadly diseases, it had stalked mankind for thousands of years. In the twentieth century alone, it had killed hundreds of millions of people before finally being eradicated in 1979, thanks largely to an aggressive vaccine program administered by the World Health Organization. Now, by international agreement, only the Pravda Biotechnology Institute and Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control were supposed to store the smallpox virus, although analysts inside and outside the Intelligence Community continued to be concerned that rogue nations like North Korea had managed to hide their strains from the eradication program or had somehow acquired the virus from persistent natural reservoirs unbeknownst to the rest of the world.
Within minutes of the report’s dissemination, Jessica had contacted him.
“Hi, Trevor,” she began, her voice sunnier than he had ever remembered.
“Hi— guess you saw the report?”
“Indeed we did. In fact, we saw it in draft form several days ago,” she answered, already maneuvering for the high ground. “Our ops counterparts gave us a heads up.”
“Nice,” he said, determined to keep from sounding jealous about CTC analysts’ unparalleled collaboration with operational counterparts in the Directorate of Operations. “You have some truly amazing connections. So, what do you think?”
“The source sucks, actually.”
“The source sucks, and the information is easily manufactured.”
Cole couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “So you’re dismissing it?”
“Not dismissing it, but we’re certainly not gonna do anything with it. Even if we wanted to, the Directorate of Operations wouldn’t let the reporting out of the Agency.”
“But the source’s information tracks with what we already know. That’s supposed to make the source more credible— not put him into the ‘suck’ department.”
Jessica didn’t reply for several seconds to make sure Cole registered her displeasure over being challenged. “Actually, Trevor,” she said at length, “the source’s information tracks with your own worst case analysis, which most anyone could have put together. Think about it for half a second. Sources do this all the time.”
She was right, Cole realized, but she was missing his point. “Listen, Jessica,” he said slowly. “I know we can’t launch the Marines with this, but we need to get this information out there—properly caveated, of course—so our government can decide on appropriate responses. The NSC needs to know about this. DHS, HHS. Our liaison partners need to know about this!”
“To do what? As you said, we’re not gonna launch the Marines, and I seriously doubt the White House is going to dust off our smallpox vaccine production lines because of this report. Listen, there is nothing in this report that the source couldn’t have pulled from the Internet. This person has access to the same information on the student at Pravda and the arrests at Lapalisse University as anyone else in the world. Your daughter could have written the report.”
“My daughter’s only six, but even she’s smart enough to know that we can take steps short of mass vaccina—”
“Trevor,” she interrupted before he could finish comparing her to a six-year-old. “The point is that this kind of reporting from this kind of source doesn’t really change anything. More than a few of these people regurgitate press reports to keep our money coming, you know.”
“First time reporter?”
“The source isn’t reliable. Get over it.”
Cole repeated the question. “Is the source a first time reporter?”
“No, the source actually has a long history of credible reporting, including reporting on this student group.”
“Then what’s the flippin’ problem? The DO seems to like the source enough to keep him on its payroll.” Cole was fighting hard to control his temper— and his language.
“The flippin’ problem belongs to the DO, and they have concerns with the source.”
“Great. So when do we find out how reliable the report is?”
“Dunno— not my call.” Her voice sounded triumphant.
“Okay,” Cole replied. “Anything yet from our liaison friends? Do the Russians have any concerns about what the student is doing at Pravda?”
“Nope— not yet. Of course, they’re pretty busy keeping their nuclear weapons safe from the Chechens.”
Cole ignored the jab. “Okay, I guess we’re done here. Thanks for calling.”
After hanging up, Cole had immediately gone to his supervisors for their support, arguing that, even with the concerns about the source, they couldn’t risk assuming the information was bad; the impact of a terrorist group spreading a lethal biological pathogen across a populated area could be catastrophic. His appeals, however, had not found a receptive audience. Agency managers were notorious for their reluctance to ruffle feathers, especially feathers in other offices. Too many of them banked on keeping low profiles and minimizing adversaries to advance their career interests. Their promotion boards included officers from other Directorate components, including CTC, so career interests dictated avoiding confrontation between offices, unless the need was obvious. Cole’s need, apparently, wasn’t obvious, and his well-earned reputation throughout the Directorate for making mountains out of molehills made his case even less convincing.
In Cole’s view, the molehills had always been significant because of the nature of the Agency’s business. Details and low probabilities deserved attention when mistakes might bring disaster. This perspective had once served him well. During earlier administrations, when Cold War legacies still preoccupied the Agency and the status of the Russian biological warfare program was a front and center issue, Cole’s colleagues and managers had welcomed his thoroughness and even depended on it. They counted on him to know the program from top to bottom to defend CIA assessments against those who were convinced that the President and his advisors were exaggerating the Russian threat to justify dramatic increases in military spending.
Years later, Cole had lost none of his determination to find truth. He still regularly called for more investment against the intelligence targets crossing his screen, and he was always ready to second-guess longstanding assessments. But with new threats emerging around the world, he no longer commanded the resources and support that had once been the norm for his account. More often than not, he was in the minority on debates involving resource allocations, overruled by his Agency masters and, ultimately, by the American taxpayer, who believed that America was sacrificing enough for its security.
Some of Cole’s more politically-savvy colleagues probably would have backed off the Lapalisse student story after CTC’s first pushback, but Cole—as his relatively unimpressive promotion record would suggest—was never able to play the political game; he had joined the Agency nearly a decade before in an idealistic crusade to help protect his country and the world from mankind’s penchant for self-destruction, not to pursue money and stature. And his goals hadn’t changed.
Even Cole, however, was occasionally pragmatic enough to know when his idealism wasn’t going to carry the day, and he might have deferred to CTC’s judgment had it not been for his own manager wondering aloud whether he was sensationalizing his findings to rescue his career. The manager’s statement, despite being made in an offhand way, had been unforgettable:
“Looking to get out of your rut again? Fine, Trevor; I’ll let you run with it, but I don’t want anyone calling me to get you off their back. You’ve been close to creating hostile working environments for your colleagues more than once, and I can’t keep protecting you forever. Know what I mean?”
Rut? Hostile working environments? Had his star really fallen so low as to elicit comments like that? Was he to blame for sticking with a subject area that still directly affected national security, while others flocked to the limelight of the moment? Was he about to become the next victim of the Agency’s subservience to its policy of “zero tolerance” for any form of harassment, a policy that personnel at all levels were exploiting more and more to rid themselves of inconvenient colleagues?
With these words from his manager, his future at the Agency seemed to be at issue— at least from his perspective. While probably no one anywhere in the Agency thought his career was even at a turning point, Cole felt suddenly vulnerable, as though his very relevance was at issue. Validating his concerns about the Lapalisse-Pravda connection had seemed more necessary than ever.
Yes, he would ‘run with it,’ just as he always had: at a full gallop. But for the first time in his life, he wondered whether he would stay on.
Zack Ranes is the author's pen name. Truth to Power draws from his real world experiences not only as a CIA officer but also as a husband, father, and resident in Virginia’s extraordinarily beautiful horse country. The novel weaves into the plot uninhibited discussions of marriage, parenting, religion, and other issues familiar and fascinating to all of us. Ranes hopes to publish one of the most thought-provoking works of fiction in recent memory. He wants it to spark conversations at dinner tables and in subway cars about everything from the business of the intelligence world to the business of living and dying in an imperfect world. Most of all, however, he wants it to inspire. Truth to Power is the author's first novel.