Toulos Restaurant, adjacent to Capitol Hill, boasts a politically incorrect menu of baby veal and horse carpaccio, making it an ironic hotspot for the quintessential Washingtonian power breakfast. This morning Toulos was busy - a cacophony of clanking silverware, espresso machines, and cellphone conversations.
The maitre d' was sneaking a sip of his morning Bloody Mary when the woman entered. He turned with a practiced smile.
"Good morning," he said. "May I help you?"
The woman was attractive, in her mid-thirties, wearing gray, pleated flannel pants, conservative flats, and an ivory Laura Ashley blouse. Her posture was straight - chin raised ever so slightly - not arrogant, just strong. The woman's hair was light brown and fashioned in Washington's most popular style - the "anchor-woman" - a lush feathering, curled under at the shoulders... long enough to be sexy, but short enough to remind you she was probably smarter than you.
"I'm a little late," the woman said, her voice unassuming. "I have a breakfast meeting with Senator Sexton."
The maitre d' felt an unexpected tingle of nerves. Senator Sedgewick Sexton. The senator was a regular here and currently one of the country's most famous men. Last week, having swept all twelve Republican primaries on Super Tuesday, the senator was virtually guaranteed his party's nomination for President of the United States. Many believed the senator had a superb chance of stealing the White House from the embattled President next fall. Lately Sexton's face seemed to be on every national magazine, his campaign slogan plastered all across America: "Stop spending. Start mending."
"Senator Sexton is in his booth," the maitre d' said. "And you are?"
"Rachel Sexton. His daughter."
How foolish of me, he thought. The resemblance was quite apparent. The woman had the senator's penetrating eyes and refined carriage - that polished air of resilient nobility. Clearly the senator's classic good looks had not skipped generations, although Rachel Sexton seemed to carry her blessings with a grace and humility her father could learn from.
"A pleasure to have you, Ms. Sexton."
As the maitre d' led the senator's daughter across the dining area, he was embarrassed by the gauntlet of male eyes following her... some discreet, others less so. Few women dined at Toulos and even fewer who looked like Rachel Sexton.
"Nice body," one diner whispered. "Sexton already find himself a new wife?"
"That's his daughter, you idiot," another replied.
The man chuckled. "Knowing Sexton, he'd probably screw her anyway."
When Rachel arrived at her father's table, the senator was on his cellphone talking loudly about one of his recent successes. He glanced up at Rachel only long enough to tap his Cartier and remind her she was late.
I missed you, too, Rachel thought.
Her father's first name was Thomas, although he'd adopted his middle name long ago. Rachel suspected it was because he liked the alliteration. Senator Sedgewick Sexton. The man was a silver-haired, silver-tongued political animal who had been anointed with the slick look of soap opera doctor, which seemed appropriate considering his talents of impersonation.
"Rachel!" Her father clicked off his phone and stood to kiss her cheek.
"Hi, Dad." She did not kiss him back.
"You look exhausted."
And so it begins, she thought. "I got your message. What's up?"
"I can't ask my daughter out for breakfast?"
Rachel had learned long ago her father seldom requested her company unless he had some ulterior motive.
Sexton took a sip of coffee. "So, how are things with you?"
"Busy. I see your campaign's going well."
"Oh, let's not talk business." Sexton leaned across the table, lowering his voice. "How's that guy at the State Department I set you up with?"
Rachel exhaled, already fighting the urge to check her watch. "Dad, I really haven't had time to call him. And I wish you'd stop trying to-"
"You've got to make time for the important things, Rachel. Without love, everything else is meaningless."
A number of comebacks came to mind, but Rachel chose silence. Being the bigger person was not difficult when it came to her father. "Dad, you wanted to see me? You said this was important."
"It is." Her father's eyes studied her closely.
Rachel felt part of her defenses melt away under his gaze, and she cursed the man's power. The senator's eyes were his gift - a gift Rachel suspected would probably carry him to the White House. On cue, his eyes would well with tears, and then, an instant later, they would clear, opening a window to an impassioned soul, extending a bond of trust to all. It's all about trust, her father always said. The senator had lost Rachel's years ago, but he was quickly gaining the country's.
"I have a proposition for you," Senator Sexton said.
"Let me guess," Rachel replied, attempting to refortify her position. "Some prominent divorce looking for a young wife?"
"Don't kid yourself, honey. You're not that young anymore."
Rachel felt the familiar shrinking sensation that so often accompanied meetings with her father.
"I want to throw you a life raft," he said.
"I wasn't aware I was drowning."
"You're not. The President is. You should jump ship before it's too late."
"Haven't we had this conversation?"
"Think about your future, Rachel. You can come work for me."
"I hope that's not why you asked me to breakfast."
The senator's veneer of calm broke ever so slightly. "Rachel, can't you see that your working for him reflects badly on me. And on my campaign."
Rachel sighed. She and her father had been through this. "Dad, I don't work for the President. I haven't even met the President. I work in Fairfax, for God's sake!"
"Politics is perception, Rachel. It appears you work for the President."
Rachel exhaled, trying to keep her cool. "I worked too hard to get this job, Dad. I'm not quitting."
The senator's eyes narrowed. "You know, sometimes your selfish attitude really-"
"Senator Sexton?" A reporter materialized beside the table.
Sexton's demeanor thawed instantly. Rachel groaned and took a croissant from the basket on the table.
"Ralph Sneeden," the reporter said. "Washington Post. May I ask you a few questions?"
The senator smiled, dabbing his mouth with a napkin. "My pleasure, Ralph. Just make it quick. I don't want my coffee getting cold."
The reporter laughed on cue. "Of course, sir." He pulled out a minirecorder and turned it on. "Senator, your television ads call for legislation ensuring equal salaries for women in the workplace... as well as for tax cuts for new families. Can you comment on your rationale?"
"Sure. I'm simply a huge fan of strong women and strong families."
Rachel practically choked on her croissant.
"And on the subject of families," the reporter followed up, "you talk a lot about education. You've proposed some highly controversial budget cuts in an effort to allocate more funds to our nation's schools."
"I believe the children are our future."
Rachel could not believe her father had sunk to quoting pop songs.
"Finally, sir," the reporter said, "you've taken an enormous jump in the polls these past few weeks. The President has got to be worried. Any thoughts on your recent success?"
"I think it has to do with trust. Americans are starting to see that the President cannot be trusted to make the tough decisions facing this nation. Runaway government spending is putting this country deeper in debt every day, and Americans are starting to realize that it's time to stop spending and start mending."
Like a stay of execution from her father's rhetoric, the pager in Rachel's handbag went off. Normally the harsh electronic beeping was an unwelcome interruption, but at the moment, it sounded almost melodious.
The senator glared indignantly at having been interrupted.
Rachel fished the pager from her handbag and pressed a preset sequence of five buttons, confirming that she was indeed the person holding the pager. The beeping stopped, and the LCD began blinking. In fifteen seconds she would receive a secure text message.
Sneeden grinned at the senator. "Your daughter is obviously a busy woman. It's refreshing to see you two still find time in your schedules to dine together."
"As I said, family comes first."
Sneeden nodded, and then his gaze hardened. "Might I ask, sir, how you and your daughter manage your conflicts of interest?"
"Conflicts?" Senator Sexton cocked his head with an innocent look of confusion. "What conflicts do you mean?"
Rachel glanced up, grimacing at her father's act. She knew exactly where this was headed. Damn reporters, she thought. Half of them were on political payrolls. The reporter's question was what journalists called a grapefruit - a question that was supposed to look like a tough inquiry but was in fact a scripted favor to the senator - a slow lob pitch that her father could line up and smash out of the park, clearing the air about a few things.
"Well, sir... " The reporter coughed, feigning uneasiness over the question. "The conflict is that your daughter works for your opponent."
Senator Sexton exploded in laughter, defusing the question instantly. "Ralph, first of all, the President and I are not opponents. We are simply two patriots who have different ideas about how to run the country we love."
The reporter beamed. He had his sound bite. "And second?"
"Second, my daughter is not employed by the President; she is employed by the intelligence community. She compiles intel reports and sends them to the White House. It's a fairly low-level position." He paused and looked at Rachel. "In fact, dear, I'm not sure you've even met the President, have you?"
Rachel stared, her eyes smoldering.
The beeper chirped, drawing Rachel's gaze to the incoming message on the LCD screen.
- RPRT DIRNRO STAT -
She deciphered the shorthand instantly and frowned. The message was unexpected, and most certainly bad news. At least she had her exit cue.
"Gentlemen," she said. "It breaks my heart, but I have to go. I'm late for work."
"Ms. Sexton," the reporter said quickly, "before you go, I was wondering if you could comment on the rumors that you called this breakfast meeting to discuss the possibility of leaving your current post to work for your father's campaign?"
Rachel felt like someone had thrown hot coffee in her face. The question took her totally off guard. She looked at her father and sensed in his smirk that the question had been prepped. She wanted to climb across the table and stab him with a fork.
The reporter shoved the recorder into her face. "Miss Sexton?"
Rachel locked eyes with the reporter. "Ralph, or whoever the hell you are, get this straight: I have no intention of abandoning my job to work for Senator Sexton, and if you print anything to the contrary, you'll need a shoehorn to get that recorder out of your ass."
The reporter's eyes widened. He clicked off his recorder, hiding a grin. "Thank you both." He disappeared.
Rachel immediately regretted the outburst. She had inherited her father's temper, and she hated him for it. Smooth, Rachel. Very smooth.
Her father glared disapprovingly. "You'd do well to learn some poise."
Rachel began collecting her things. "This meeting is over."
The senator was apparently done with her anyway. He pulled out his cellphone to make a call. "'Bye, sweetie. Stop by the office one of these days and say hello. And get married, for God's sake. You're thirty-three years old."
"Thirty-four," she snapped. "Your secretary sent a card."
He clucked ruefully. "Thirty-four. Almost an old maid. You know by the time I was thirty-four, I'd already-"
"Married Mom and screwed the neighbor?" The words came out louder than Rachel had intended, her voice hanging naked in an ill-timed lull. Diners nearby glanced over.
Senator Sexton's eyes flash-froze, two ice-crystals boring into her. "You watch yourself, young lady."
Rachel headed for the door. No, you watch yourself, senator.
The three men sat in silence inside their ThermaTech storm tent. Outside, an icy wind buffeted the shelter, threatening to tear it from its moorings. None of the men took notice; each had seen situations far more threatening than this one.
Their tent was stark white, pitched in a shallow depression, out of sight. Their communication devices, transport, and weapons were all state-of-the-art. The group leader was code-named Delta-One. He was muscular and lithe with eyes as desolate as the topography on which he was stationed.
The military chronograph on Delta-One's wrist emitted a sharp beep. The sound coincided in perfect unison with beeps emitted from the chronographs worn by the other two men.
Another thirty minutes had passed.
It was time. Again.
Reflexively, Delta-One left his two partners and stepped outside into the darkness and pounding wind. He scanned the moonlit horizon with infrared binoculars. As always, he focused on the structure. It was a thousand meters away - an enormous and unlikely edifice rising from the barren terrain. He and his team had been watching it for ten days now, since its construction. Delta-One had no doubt that the information inside would change the world. Lives already had been lost to protect it.
At the moment, everything looked quiet outside the structure.
The true test, however, was what was happening inside.
Delta-One reentered the tent and addressed his two fellow soldiers. "Time for a flyby."
Both men nodded. The taller of them, Delta-Two, opened a laptop computer and turned it on. Positioning himself in front of the screen, Delta-Two placed his hand on a mechanical joystick and gave it a short jerk. A thousand meters away, hidden deep within the building, a surveillance robot the size of a mosquito received his transmission and sprang to life.
Rachel Sexton was still steaming as she drove her white Integra up Leesburg Highway. The bare maples of the Falls Church foothills rose stark against a crisp March sky, but the peaceful setting did little to calm her anger. Her father's recent surge in the polls should have endowed him with a modicum of confident grace, and yet it seemed only to fuel his self-importance.
The man's deceit was doubly painful because he was the only immediate family Rachel had left. Rachel's mother had died three years ago, a devastating loss whose emotional scars still raked at Rachel's heart. Rachel's only solace was knowing that the death, with ironic compassion, had liberated her mother from a deep despair over a miserable marriage to the senator.
Rachel's pager beeped again, pulling her thoughts back to the road in front of her. The incoming message was the same.
- RPRT DIRNRO STAT -
Report to the director of NRO stat. She sighed. I'm coming, for God's sake!
With rising uncertainty, Rachel drove to her usual exit, turned onto the private access road, and rolled to a stop at the heavily armed sentry booth. This was 14225 Leesburg Highway, one of the most secretive addresses in the country.
While the guard scanned her car for bugs, Rachel gazed out at the mammoth structure in the distance. The one-million-square-foot complex sat majestically on sixty-eight forested acres just outside D.C. in Fairfax, Virginia. The building's facade was a bastion of one-way glass that reflected the army of satellite dishes, antennas, and rayodomes on the surrounding grounds, doubling their already awe-inspiring numbers.
Two minutes later, Rachel had parked and crossed the manicured grounds to the main entrance, where a carved granite sign announced
NATIONAL RECONNAISSANCE OFFICE (NRO)
The two armed Marines flanking the bulletproof revolving door stared straight ahead as Rachel passed between them. She felt the same sensation she always felt as she pushed through these doors... that she was entering the belly of a sleeping giant.
Inside the vaulted lobby, Rachel sensed the faint echoes of hushed conversations all around her, as if the words were sifting down from the offices above. An enormous tiled mosaic proclaimed the NRO directive:
ENABLING U.S. GLOBAL INFORMATION SUPERIORITY, DURING PEACE AND THROUGH WAR.
The walls here were lined with massive photographs - rocket launches, submarine christenings, intercept installations - towering achievements that could be celebrated only within these walls.
Now, as always, Rachel felt the problems of the outside world fading behind her. She was entering the shadow world. A world where the problems thundered in like freight trains, and the solutions were meted out with barely a whisper.
As Rachel approached the final checkpoint, she wondered what kind of problem had caused her pager to ring twice in the last thirty minutes.
"Good morning, Ms. Sexton." The guard smiled as she approached the steel doorway.
Rachel returned the smile as the guard held out a tiny swab for Rachel to take.
"You know the drill," he said.
Rachel took the hermetically sealed cotton swab and removed the plastic covering. Then she placed it in her mouth like a thermometer. She held it under her tongue for two seconds. Then, leaning forward, she allowed the guard to remove it. The guard inserted the moistened swab into a slit in a machine behind him. The machine took four seconds to confirm the DNA sequences in Rachel's saliva. Then a monitor flickered on, displaying Rachel's photo and security clearance.
The guard winked. "Looks like you're still you." He pulled the used swab from the machine and dropped it through an opening, where it was instantly incinerated. "Have a good one." He pressed a button and the huge steel doors swung open.
As Rachel made her way into the maze of bustling corridors beyond, she was amazed that even after six years here she was still daunted by the colossal scope of this operation. The agency encompassed six other U.S. installations, employed over ten thousand agents, and had operating costs of over $10 billion per year.
In total secrecy, the NRO built and maintained an astonishing arsenal of cutting-edge spy technologies: worldwide electronic intercepts; spy satellites; silent, embedded relay chips in telecomm products; even a global naval-recon network known as Classic Wizard, a secret web of 1,456 hydrophones mounted on seafloors around the world, capable of monitoring ship movements anywhere on the globe.
NRO technologies not only helped the United States win military conflicts, but they provided an endless stream of peacetime data to agencies such as the CIA, NSA, and Department of Defense, helping them thwart terrorism, locate crimes against the environment, and give policymakers the data needed to make informed decisions on an enormous array of topics.
Rachel worked here as a "gister." Gisting, or data reduction, required analyzing complex reports and distilling their essence or "gist" into concise, single-page briefs. Rachel had proven herself a natural. All those years of cutting through my father's bullshit, she thought.
Rachel now held the NRO's premier gisting post-intelligence liaison to the White House. She was responsible for sifting through the NRO's daily intelligence reports, deciding which stories were relevant to the President, distilling those reports into single-page briefs, and then forwarding the synopsized material to the President's National Security Adviser. In NRO-speak, Rachel Sexton "manufactured finished product and serviced the customer."
Although the job was difficult and required long hours, the position was a badge of honor for her, a way to assert her independence from her father. Senator Sexton had offered many times to support Rachel if she would quit the post, but Rachel had no intention of becoming financially beholden to a man like Sedgewick Sexton. Her mother was testimony to what could happen when a man like that held too many cards.
The sound of Rachel's pager echoed in the marble hall.
Again? She didn't even bother to check the message.
Wondering what the hell was going on, she boarded the elevator, skipped her own floor, and went straight to the top.