of West Odenton, Maryland, isn't much of a town at all, just a post office for people who live in the general area, a few gas stations and a 7-Eleven, plus the usual fast-food places for people who need a fat-filled breakfast on the drive from Columbia, Maryland, to their jobs in Washington, D.C. And half a mile from the modest post office building was a mid-rise office building of government-undistinguished architecture. It was nine stories high, and on the capacious front lawn a low decorative monolith made of gray brick with silvery lettering said HENDLEY ASSOCIATES, without explaining what, exactly, Hendley Associates was. There were few hints. The roof of the building was flat, tar-and-gravel over reinforced concrete, with a small penthouse to house the elevator machinery and another rectangular structure that gave no clue about its identity. In fact, it was made of fiberglass, white in color, and radio-transparent. The building itself was unusual only in one thing: Except for a few old tobacco barns that barely exceeded twenty-five feet in height, it was the only building higher than two stories that sat on a direct line of sight from the National Security Agency located at Fort Meade, Maryland, and the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency at Langley, Virginia. Some other entrepreneurs had wished to build on that sight line, but zoning approval had never been granted, for many reasons, all of them false.
Behind the building was a small antenna farm not unlike that found next to a local television station-a half-dozen six-meter parabolic dishes sat inside a twelve-foot-high, razor-wire-crowned Cyclone fence enclosure and pointed at various commercial communications satellites. The entire complex, which wasn't terribly complex at all, comprised fifteen and a third acres in Maryland's Howard County, and was referred to as "The Campus" by the people who worked there. Nearby was the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, a government-consulting establishment of long standing and well-established sensitivity of function.
To the public, Hendley Associates was a trader in stocks, bonds, and international currencies, though, oddly, it did little in the way of public business. It was not known to have any clients, and while it was whispered to be quietly active in local charities (the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine was rumored to be the main recipient of Hendley's corporate largesse), nothing had ever leaked to the local media. In fact, it had no public-relations department at all. Neither was it rumored to be doing anything untoward, though its chief executive officer was known to have had a somewhat troubled past, as a result of which he was shy of publicity, which, on a few rare occasions, he'd dodged quite adroitly and amiably, until, finally, the local media had stopped asking. Hendley's employees were scattered about locally, mostly in Columbia, lived upper-middle-class lifestyles, and were generally as remarkable as Beaver's father, Ward Cleaver.
Gerald Paul Hendley, Jr., had had a stellar career in the commodities business, during which he'd amassed a sizable personal fortune and then turned to elected public service in his late thirties, soon becoming a United States senator from South Carolina. Very quickly, he'd acquired a reputation as a legislative maverick who eschewed special interests and their campaign money offers, and followed a rather ferociously independent political track, leaning toward liberal on civil-rights issues, but decidedly conservative on defense and foreign relations. He'd never shied away from speaking his mind, which had made him good and entertaining copy for the press, and eventually there were whispered-about presidential aspirations.
Toward the end of his second six-year term, however, he'd suffered a great personal tragedy. He'd lost his wife and three children in an accident on Interstate 185 just outside of Columbia, South Carolina, their station wagon crushed beneath the wheels of a Kenworth tractor-trailer. It had been a predictably crushing blow, and soon thereafter, at the very beginning of the campaign for his third term, more misfortune had struck him. It became known through a column in the New York Times that his personal investment portfolio-he'd always kept it private, saying that since he took no money for his campaigning, he had no need to disclose his net worth except in the most general of terms-showed evidence of insider trading. This suspicion was confirmed with deeper delving by the newspapers and TV, and despite Hendley's protest that the Securities and Exchange Commission had never actually published guidelines about what the law meant, it appeared to some that he'd used his inside knowledge on future government expenditures to benefit a real-estate investment enterprise which would profit him and his co-investors over fifty million dollars. Worse still, when challenged on the question in a public debate by the Republican candidate-a self-described "Mr. Clean"-he responded with two mistakes. First, he'd lost his temper in front of rolling cameras. Second, he'd told the people of South Carolina that if they doubted his honesty, then they could vote for the fool with whom he shared the stage. For a man who'd never put a political foot wrong in his life, that surprise alone had cost him five percent of the state's voters. The remainder of his lackluster campaign had only slid downhill, and despite the lingering sympathy vote from those who remembered the annihilation of his family, his seat had ended up an upset-loss for the Democrats, which had further been exacerbated by a venomous concession statement. Then he'd left public life for good, not even returning to his antebellum plantation northwest of Charleston but rather moving to Maryland and leaving his life entirely behind. One further flamethrower statement at the entire congressional process had burned whatever bridges might have remained open to him.
His current home was a farm dating back to the eighteenth century, where he raised Appaloosa horses-riding and mediocre golf were his only remaining hobbies-and lived the quiet life of a gentleman farmer. He also worked at The Campus seven or eight hours per day, commuting back and forth in a chauffeured stretch Cadillac.
Fifty-two now, tall, slender and silver-haired, he was well known without being known at all, perhaps the one lingering aspect of his political past.
"YOU DID well in the mountains," Jim Hardesty said, waving the young Marine to a chair.
"Thank you, sir. You did okay, too, sir."
"Captain, anytime you walk back through your front door after it's all over, you've done well. I learned that from my training officer. About sixteen years ago," he added.
Captain Caruso did the mental arithmetic and decided that Hardesty was a little older than he looked. Captain in the U.S. Army Special Forces, then CIA, plus sixteen years made him closer to fifty than forty. He must have worked very hard indeed to keep in shape.
"So," the officer asked, "what can I do for you?"
"What did Terry tell you?" the spook asked.
"He told me I'd be talking with somebody named Pete Alexander."
"Pete got called out of town suddenly," Hardesty explained.
The officer accepted the explanation at face value. "Okay, anyway, the general said you Agency guys are on some kind of talent hunt, but you're not willing to grow your own," Caruso answered honestly.
"Terry is a good man, and a damned fine Marine, but he can be a little parochial."
"Maybe so, Mr. Hardesty, but he's going to be my boss soon, when he takes over Second Marine Division, and I'm trying to stay on his good side. And you still haven't told me why I'm here."
"Like the Corps?" the spook asked. The young Marine nodded.
"Yes, sir. The pay ain't all that much, but it's all I need, and the people I work with are the best." "Well, the ones we went up the mountain with are pretty good. How long did you have them?"
"Total? About fourteen months, sir."
"You trained them pretty well."
"It's what they pay me for, sir, and I had good material to start with."
"You also handled that little combat action well," Hardesty observed, taking note of the distant replies he was getting.
Captain Caruso was not quite modest enough to regard it as a "little" combat action. The bullets flying around had been real enough, which made the action big enough. But his training, he'd found, had worked just about as well as his officers had told him it would in all the classes and field exercises. It had been an important and rather gratifying discovery. The Marine Corps actually did make sense. Damn.
"Yes, sir," was all he said in reply, however, adding, "And thank you for your help, sir."
"I'm a little old for that sort of thing, but it's nice to see that I still know how." And it had been quite enough, Hardesty didn't add. Combat was still a kid's game, and he was no longer a kid. "Any thoughts about it, Captain?" he asked next.
"Not really, sir. I did my after-action report."
Hardesty had read it. "Nightmares, anything like that?"
The question surprised Caruso. Nightmares? Why would he have those? "No, sir," he responded with visible puzzlement.
"Any qualms of conscience?" Hardesty went on.
"Sir, those people were making war on my country. We made war back. You ought not to play the game if you can't handle the action. If they had wives and kids, I'm sorry about that, but when you screw with people, you need to understand that they're going to come see you about it."
"It's a tough world?"
"Sir, you'd better not kick a tiger in the ass unless you have a plan for dealing with his teeth."
No nightmares and no regrets, Hardesty thought. That was the way things were supposed to be, but the kinder, gentler United States of America didn't always turn out its people that way. Caruso was a warrior. Hardesty rocked back in his seat and gave his guest a careful look before speaking.
"Cap'n, the reason you're here ... you've seen it in the papers, all the problems we've had dealing with this new spate of international terrorism. There have been a lot of turf wars between the Agency and the Bureau. At the operational level, there's usually no problem, and there isn't all that much trouble at the command level-the FBI director, Murray, is solid troop, and when he worked Legal Attaché in London he got along well with our people."
"But it's the midlevel staff pukes, right?" Caruso asked. He'd seen it in the Corps, too. Staff officers who spent a lot of their time snarling at other staff officers, saying that their daddy could beat up the other staff's daddy. The phenomenon probably dated back to the Romans or the Greeks. It had been stupid and counterproductive back then, too.
"Bingo," Hardesty confirmed. "And you know, God Himself might be able to fix it, but even He would have to have a really good day to bring it off. The bureaucracies are too entrenched. It's not so bad in the military. People there shuffle in and out of jobs, and they have this idea of 'mission,' and everybody generally works to accomplish it, especially if it helps them all hustle up the ladder individually. Generally speaking, the farther you are from the sharp end, the more likely you are to immerse yourself in the minutiae. So, we're looking for people who know about the sharp end."
"And the mission is-what?"
"To identify, locate, and deal with terrorist threats," the spook answered.
"'Deal with'?" Caruso asked.
"Neutralize-shit, okay, when necessary and convenient, kill the son of a bitches. Gather information on the nature and severity of the threat, and take whatever action is necessary, depending on the specific threat. The job is fundamentally intelligence-gathering. The Agency has too many restrictions on how it does business. This special sub-group doesn't."
"Really?" That was a considerable surprise.
Hardesty nodded soberly. "Really. You won't be working for CIA. You may use Agency assets as resources, but that's as far as it goes"
"So, who am I working for?"
"We have a little way to go before we can discuss that." Hardesty lifted what had to be the Marine's personnel folder. "You score in the top three percent among the Marine officers in terms of intelligence. Four-point-oh in nearly everything. Your language skills are particularly impressive."
"My dad is an American citizen-native-born, I mean-but his dad came off the boat from Italy, ran-still runs-a restaurant in Seattle. So, Pop actually grew up speaking mostly Italian, and a lot of that came down on me and my brother, too. Took Spanish in high school and college. I can't pass for a native, but I understand it pretty well."
"That's from my dad, too. It's in there. He works for Boeing-aerodynamicist, mainly designs wings and control surfaces. You know about my mom-it's all in there. She's mainly a mom, does things with the local Catholic schools, too, now that Dominic and I are grown."
"And he's FBI?"
Brian nodded. "That's right, got his law degree and signed up to be a G-man."
"Just made the papers," Hardesty said, handing over a faxed page from the Birmingham papers. Brian scanned it.
"Way to go, Dom," Captain Caruso breathed when he got to the fourth paragraph, which further pleased his host.
IT WAS scarcely a two-hour flight from Birmingham to Reagan National in Washington. Dominic Caruso walked to the Metro station and hopped a subway train for the Hoover Building at Tenth and Pennsylvania. His badge absolved him of the need to pass through the metal detector. FBI agents were supposed to carry heat, and his automatic had earned a notch in the grip-not literally, of course, but FBI agents occasionally joked about it.
The office of Assistant Director Augustus Ernst Werner was on the top floor, overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. The secretary waved him right in.
Caruso had never met Gus Werner. He was a tall, slender, and very experienced street agent, an ex-Marine, and positively monkish in appearance and demeanor. He'd headed the FBI Hostage Rescue Team and two field divisions, and been at the point of retirement before being talked into his new job by his close friend, Director Daniel E. Murray. The Counter-Terrorism Division was a stepchild of the much larger Criminal and Foreign Counter-Intelligence divisions, but it was gaining in importance on a daily basis.
"Grab yourself a seat," Werner said, pointing, as he finished up a call. That just took another minute. Then Gus replaced the phone and hit the DO NOT DISTURB button.