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Chapter Nine

"Mr. Jenkins?" the major said as Mike got out. He was carrying the only the briefcase he'd ever owned. He kept it just for such occasions. The calf-leather case had come from the same haberdasher's as the suit and said: "I'm a rich and powerful asshole" in full operatic splendor.

"What day is it?" Mike asked, pulling out his passports, checking them to find the right one and handing it to the MP.

The MP smiled slightly as he checked the name against his roster and nodded as he checked it off.

"You're cleared, Mr. 'Jenkins'," the MP said handing over a visitor badge with his name and a very bad picture already on it.

"Major Pauley," the officer said, sticking out his hand.

"I read it on your nametag," Mike said, shaking his hand. "Sorry I'm so grumpy; I hate visiting this place."

"You ought to try working here," the major said. "You don't know what hate is until you've been stuck here for a couple of years. But we'll try to make you feel at home. This way, sir."

One of the reasons Mike hated the Pentagon was that it was one of the few buildings that could cause him to lose his spatial awareness. It was like the place was some sort of intentional puzzle, designed to get people lost. And it happened to him again; they'd only been walking the corridors—which were literally infinite if you considered they were concentric pentagons—for five minutes and he was totally lost.

Finally, though, they arrived at another MP post, the fourth they'd had to clear, beyond which was a small door marked "Office of Special Operations Liaison."

Mike had never actually visited the office that "controlled" him, to the extent that he was controlled at all. He'd spoken to various officers besides Pierson over the years, but he'd only ever met Pierson, and that only when Mike was shot up in the hospital.

He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but this wasn't it. The main room was filled with cubicles, most of them overflowing with papers, most of which had "Top Secret" cover sheets and all manned by officers. With the exception of the MPs outside and a couple of very senior NCOs who appeared to be pushing even more paper than the officers, the place was staffed with nothing but O types, and Major was the lowest rank Mike saw. There also wasn't anything along the lines of a receptionist; apparently if you made it past the MPs you were supposed to know where you were going.

To a former Petty Officer it was a wonder the place worked at all.

Pauley led him past the ranks of cubicles to the far end of the room where there were three offices and a small conference room. Mike wondered how they had staff meetings; there was no way to fit everyone in this room. He also wondered how secure the damned area was; there were none of the trappings of secure rooms about either the office or this conference room. It appeared to be very standard construction. He'd seen more secure rooms in a battalion headquarters.

Mike sat down at the conference table and cooled his heels for a couple of minutes, internally grousing. Right about now...he'd probably be taking one of the girls to bed come to think of it. Depending on what time it was in... Yep.

"Sorry to make you wait, Mike," Pierson said, opening the door and sticking his head in. "Wander with me?"

"Sure," Mike said, getting up and following Pierson back down the line of cubicles.

"I'd have met you outside but it's the usual cluster fuck," Pierson said. "We just got tasked with briefing the OMB on SOCOM budgeting and procurement. Since that's as far out of our usual line as you can get, we're all hopping around like fleas on a skillet. And then we got this dropped in our laps."

"I guess I get to wait to find out what this is?" Mike said.

"Yep," Pierson said, grinning as he turned into the main corridor.

They walked down the corridor a short distance and turned inward, as far as Mike could tell.

"The deal around here used to be 'who's closer to the E ring'?" Pierson said, making another couple of turns. "These days, being on the E-ring makes you important. But after that it's 'how deep are you?' Which means how close are you to the Tank and the other really secure rooms?"

"So, how deep are we?" Mike asked, raising an eyebrow.

"In just a second," Pierson said as they made their way through another checkpoint and entered a stairwell, "we're going to be about as deep as you can get. Of course, it's in bullshit. But even deep enough bullshit has an allure."

"I can tell I'm going to love the fuck out of this," Mike said. "Aren't I?"

"Absolutely," Pierson said, grinning evilly.

The stairs opened onto a very short corridor and another damned checkpoint at which Mike had to fish out his, totally false, passport in addition to his visitor's pass. But on the other side of the checkpoint they entered a shield room. It was the real deal, full Faraday cage, soundproofed, no electronics in or out with hard-eyed guards with wands to ensure same.

Three men were already waiting in the room and Mike could tell that, yes, he was going to love the fuck out of this mission. All three were in suits, but unlike Mike they wore theirs as if they were daily clothing. Including the guy who looked like a tennis pro that Mike pegged as Agency. And not the covert-ops side, this guy was "old agency", the group that gave the OSS the moniker "Oh, So Social." Northeastern Liberal WASP, one each. Bred with a silver spoon in his mouth which was why he had to keep his teeth clamped all the time. The other two were pure "GS": civil servants. They could have been anything from Agency to NSA to...Office of Management and Budget. A bureaucrat was a bureaucrat was a bureaucrat.

"Mr. Jenkins," Pierson said, waving at Mike.

"Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Jenkins," one of the bureaucrats said. "I'm Mr. Mannly."

"Pleasure to meet you," Mike said, shaking the man's hand perfunctorily and sitting down.

"Mr. Jenkins," Bureaucrat Two said, sliding a folder across the table. "We have detected what could be called a business opportunity."

"I don't work just for money, guys," Mike said, darkly. "And I have plenty. So let's cut the horseshit fast or I'll just go home. Got it?"

"Got it," Mr. Mannly said, his forehead wrinkling. "The situation involves the Pansiki Gorge..."

"I told the Russian military attaché," Mike replied, starting to stand up, "and I'll tell you. The Pansiki is Georgia and Russia's problem, not mine. See you..."

"Sit, Mike," Pierson said, waving at the chair. "Seriously. Listen."

"Shit," Mike said, sitting back down. "I do not want to take the Keldara into the Pansiki. They're not ready by a long shot."

"Understood," the colonel replied. "But listen anyway."

"This is all your fault, anyway," Pierson said. "You remember that Russian you picked up just before the Balkans op?"

"Mikhail or something," Mike said, frowning. "What did we ever do with him?"

"I love your prisoner management technique," Tennis Pro said, shaking his head. "While you were gone some of your people called Colonel Pierson and asked him what to do with the guy. He had no earthly idea, so he called us. We got him to the Russians who bled him dry and got everybody on the trail of this mission. Boss?" he added, looking at Mannly.

"This is a picture of Doctor Tolegen Arensky," Mr. "Mannly" said, sliding a pic across the table. It had been taken from a distance with a telephoto by the looks, maybe digitally enhanced. Dr. Arensky wasn't much to look at, short, dark, balding, graying and fat with long side-burns that made him look vaguely like a hobbit trying to look like Elvis. "Dr. Arensky is a Russian scientist who recently dropped off the radar screen. We thought, at first, that the Russians had just taken him fully 'black', but then sources indicated that they were looking for him as well. About the same time, technical means picked up the Chechens talking about a weapon that would win the war for them in one blow. The intercept actually used the word 'world-wide jihad.'"

"That's a phrase," Mike pointed out. "Even in Arabic."

"So you're an Arabic expert?" Tennis Pro asked.

"I can hum the tune and dance a few steps," Mike replied. "What does this have to do with me? And why the Pansiki, which is a bitch and half of an area. I mean just the environmental conditions suck, not to mention the fact that it's crawling with bad-guys with guns."

"We've been able to build some Humint contacts among the senior mujaheddin," Tennis Pro said in a pure Cambridge accent. "It hasn't been easy, but we get information, finally. The information that we got is that Dr. Arensky is providing the Chechens with three back-pack nukes in exchange for sixty million euros in cash, bearer bonds and gems."

"Woohooo," Mike said, whistling. He suspected that "Tennis Pro" was better than he looked, he clearly was part of the team managing the Al Qaeda penetration. "That's an ugly scenario. But backpack nukes...aren't exactly backpack. Not the Russian ones. They're in a damned big container, if I remember correctly. Two containers."

"Not any more," Manly sighed, sliding a picture across the table. It was of a small tubular device with a ruler for scale. "That's what we're looking at. Not huge yield, about ten kilotons, but..."

"But that's the same size as Hiroshima," Pierson pointed out. "And the damn things are easy to smuggle."

"So this Russian scientist is selling the Chechens nukes?" Mike said, incredulously. "And the go betweens are in the Russian mob? Last but not least: Sixty mil isn't chump change to the muj. I smell a rat. Is it plausible?"

"The Chechens didn't have that kind of money," Bureaucrat Two said. "So they have contacted senior Al Qaeda to try to raise the money. They have finally done so and the trade is scheduled for a month from now. In the Pansiki, which is their most secure area."

Okay, that placed Bureaucrat Two. Some of the discussion had to have been electronic and he was from the National Security Agency, the group that handled electronic intercepts and analysis. It had once been so secret it was called "No Such Agency" but had come a bit more out of the closet in the last couple of decades. They still were very low profile, but very very good.

"The Georgians can't or won't get troops into the area," Mr. "Mannly" said. "And they freak out if Russian troops violate their border."

"Can't," Mike said, definitely. "They've tried and gotten handed their ass every time. And I think Svasili would probably turn a blind eye to Spetznaz over this. Spetz might be able to penetrate."

"They won't," Pierson said, unhappily. "We asked. At the highest level. Nor will they let us take care of it."

"Did you ask about this thing in particular?" Mike asked, frowning. "Svasili is not, in my experience, that much of an asshole."

"No, just to let us quietly send some spec ops into the Pansiki," Mannly said. "Or let the Russians go in. We were willing to let the Georgians have all the credit if it worked and we'd go black if it went south."

Which made "Mannly" the CIA case officer managing the investigation. There were various covert ops groups that "Mannly" could use for this mission, but clearly they'd been ruled out. Probably at the level of the White House. The problem would be inserting and extracting them without the Georgians even knowing they were there. Things were too touchy in the area to piss off the Georgians. Among other things, they had gotten close to the US over the Russians for various reasons. And what with one thing and another, nobody wanted to drive them back. Whether it would be worth it over nukes was a question much higher than Mike's paygrade.

"And they didn't bite," Mr. "Mannly" said. "But we just happen to have the precise rendezvous point and time," he added, removing a CD crystal case from the folder and sliding it across the table.

Mike looked at the CD as if it was snake then picked it up.

"Two questions and a comment," Mike said, flipping the crystal case open and looking at the unmarked CD inside. "First the comment: There's a reason that I created a tidily little militia in the first place. It's called 'security.' Who's going to watch the store while the Keldara are gone for from a week to a month?"

"This shouldn't take a month," Tennis Pro protested.

"I wasn't asking you," Mike said, looking at Pierson.

"We can do Rangers again," Pierson said. "The usual company. Good enough?"

"That should do. Now for the questions: Was this discussed at a higher level? Specifically, at a high enough level?"

"Yes," Pierson replied, definitely. "It was."

"Question two: what's my take?"

"Standard recovery on a nuke is five mil," Mannly said. "If you recover the full shipment, the vig is twenty-five mil."

"Okay," Mike said, blowing out his breath. "I hate to sound mercenary but this is going to cost like crazy; that will do nicely. Nice to have never met you, gentlemen."

* * *

"The shipment of copra is ready for delivery," Rashid said, slipping into a chair.

The coffee shop in Docklands—a recently gentrified section of London—was a multi-ethnic stew of "traditional" English, islanders, Africans and every version of "brown" from Hindu to pale Berber North Africans. Set close to a major financial district, most of the patrons were business clothes but a few college students from nearby UEL in distressed chic added color. As did the occasional flash of "native" dress.

Two vaguely Arabic gentlemen in business suits were hardly out of place.

Mohammed Al-Kariya looked up from his laptop and tapped pudgy fingers together thoughtfully.

"Allah is benevolent," he replied. "The copra is first quality?"

"Impossible to tell until we examine the shipment," Rashid replied. "I have the proper reagents They were difficult to obtain. But I found them."

"As Allah wills," Al-Kariya breathed. "The umah shall be secure. Forever. The payment side is arranged, all as agreed. Arrange the transportation. With all due care."

* * *

"Copra?" The technician leaned back in his chair and looked around. "We got a code-link for copra?"

"Situational," the analyst across the van said. "Could be anything. He's bloody happy, though. Hard to tell with Kari-Lad but he is. Whatever it is it's big. And Rashid is not one of his usual middle-man. Says he mostly works with KLA and sometimes the Chechens."

"I hope somebody has a clue," the tech said, spinning back around and fiddling with the filter on the shotgun mike. "Because I'm sodding clueless."

* * *

Mike took a sip of his mocha and then flipped a page without looking around.

He wasn't sure if it was good trade-craft or lousy but he was, as instructed, sitting at an outside table at the Perk's Coffee Shop on N. Fairfax Street in Alexandria, Virginia, reading a book called "Spy Dust" about intelligence operations and methods during the Cold War.

As far as he could tell from the book, the tradecraft was lousy. On the other hand, he didn't expect the KGB to come arrest him. Or the FBI for that matter.

"Mr. Jenkins?"

Mike looked up and nodded as the businessman sat down. Nice suit, good shoes, great tie. Middling height, thin, ascetic face, brown eyes, light brown hair. Could be anywhere from forty to sixty. He looked like a thousand other guys wandering around Alexandria. The eyes really got caught by the tie. Bright yellow. Silk, for sure. Probably Thai. And one purchased overseas. Not the sort of thing you could pick up even in an expensive shop in the US.

"Mr. Jay?"

"Just Jay, please," the man said with a winning smile. "And may I call you Mike? Or would Kildar be more appropriate?"

"Mike works," he replied. "The whole Kildar thing is a little strange."

"Not really," Jay said with a shrug. "An international security specialist needs shooters. I understand that the Keldara are coming along nicely. I suppose you could hire Ghurkas, but the really good ones are getting very expensive these days. But I understand that Vanner isn't getting the job done."

"Not the way I'd say it," Mike said with a frown. "Vanner's sigint. I need humint. Vanner is probably at your level on sigint or very close. Less of a rep, admittedly, but he's very good."

"I accept the clarification," Jay said. "I take it, though, that if I work with you I won't be working for him."

"No," Mike said. "I'm not even sure exactly how a chain would look. I'd suggest that you two work it out. Frankly, I'm sure that there are plenty of times Vanner would prefer somebody with more experience around. But try to work together. If you start working at cross purposes we'll have a problem."

"Agreed," Jay said. "Payment?"

"Hard to say," Mike replied. "I can give you a salary number if you wish, but what I think would work better is to just say: Tell me what you want. That is, besides your salary, you're going to have expenses. I'm not going to nit-pick those. All I ask for is results. You tell me what kind of money you need and if I can't afford it I'll lay out my books and show you why. I'm running a very expensive operation. I make quite a bit of money on ops, enough to run it so far, but there's an upper limit. However, I'd put the upper limit on a million a year. I'd prefer that you tell me what you want to get paid, but understand that that is part of the budget. And if you don't use it all, that's fine too. I'm not going to ask why you paid some guy twenty-grand. You're not doing this for the money, anyway, or I wouldn't be talking to you. You're doing it for the fun, the excitement, the professional challenge and because you're a patriot."

"I am, am I?" Jay said with a slight smile. "You're sure."

"Yeah, I'm sure," Mike replied.

"Very well," the man said, smiling more broadly. "What are the parameters? Be aware that there are reasons DC hates humint. For one, it's slow. You have to take time building networks. For another, it's uncertain. You're depending upon what people tell you. People lie. Everyone lies all the time and especially in the intelligence world. So I may get a piece of information that looks good and it will be terribly wrong. For a third, any intel is a two-edged sword. If you use it, you're often going to burn a source. That, in fact, was why I quit. I got tired of the State Department under our last president using my intel in negotiations and burning my networks."

"You ought to hear Vanner some time when he's going on about Clinton revealing we had OBL's satellite phone number and were listening in every day. I mean, the guy called his step-mom every damned day he could. And naturally she wanted to know what he was doing to further the jihad. And then our lovely president goes and talks about it on national TV."

"And, of course, there was the Chechen attack because the Russians revealed you were intercepting their calls," Jay said, nodding.

"You have good sources," Mike replied. "You going to stay out in the cold or you want to come to Georgia?"

"I wouldn't necessarily say that Georgia is in the warm," Jay replied.

"You'd be secure," Mike pointed out. "As secure as anywhere forward and arguably more secure than here. You're also going to need support. I'm not sure how much the Keldara can do along those lines, but they're there. I don't know what kind of support, exactly," he added, holding up the book, "but I keep realizing how much I'd depended on support staff back when I was working for Uncle Sam."

"But there's that long damned drive to the airport," Jay pointed out, smiling very slightly and quickly. The smile was just with the lips, not the eyes, and come and gone so quickly it was almost invisible. "However, I understand that the perks are great."

"I'm eventually going to get a helicopter," Mike said. "I don't like the drive, either."

"Oh, yes, now that would be covert," the man replied, snorting. "But your comment about support staff is germane. I don't suppose they sew?"

"All their own clothes," Mike said, nodding.

"I'll need to get some stuff to set up a shop," Jay replied. "Initial outlay may be high."

"I've spent better than four million outfitting the Keldara," Mike said with a grimace. "Higher than that?"

"Uh, no," Jay said with another fleeting smile. "I see a vast number of issues, however. I know just about every skill or task related to supporting my job. Except some of the more esoteric chemistry. However, passing those skills on will require time on my part."

"You want another body?" Mike asked.

"Again, no," the man replied. "I know a number of people who could provide support but none I would care to actually put my life in their hands. For the time being, I'll simply provide my own when necessary. There are professionals, as well, I can call upon for individual items."

"How's your Rolodex?" Mike asked. "Those tend to get out of date fast."

"For the technical items it is, in fact, up to date," Jay said. That smile again. "There are even a few... associates, a very few, on it that were not burned during my tenure or after I left. Notably in Iran and Syria. I'm not sure I can reactivate those networks, but I can look into it. Alas, I haven't anyone on the Chechen side. Those I had were all rolled by either the Russians or, in two cases, the Chechens. Okay, I just wanted to check you out in person. I'm in. Three hundred kay for me. And budget up to a million a year. I'll try to keep it much lower than that. Most of the time it will be well under. Works?"

"Okay," Mike said, shrugging. "I'm planning on going back tomorrow if you want a ride..."

"I'll make my own way," the man said, standing up.

"I'd be surprised if you didn't know this," Mike said, frowning, "but the valley is in a Georgian military controlled zone. You can't just waltz in and out. There are a slew of checkpoints to get through."

"Excuse me?" Jay said, the smile reaching his eyes this time. "Exactly why are you hiring me?"

"Oh," Mike replied. "Brain fart. Good point."

"I'll see you in Georgia," Jay said, walking into the shop.

Mike just had to do it. He sat out in the Alexandria sunshine for the next two hours, flipping through the book and not really reading while keeping an eye on the only entrance. But Jay never reappeared.

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