The older, heavyset man knelt down for the third time and held his thick fingers against her neck.
“Well?” the young man said.
“Yes. Finally,” the older man said, standing up. He looked around the dense forest of beech, oak and ash. The damp soil was full of roots that made the digging difficult, but he let the young man do most of it.
“She is very pretty,” the young man said, kneeling down. “I like her tan.” He brushed a piece of dirt off the woman’s face. “How much of that stuff did you give her?”
“A lot,” the older man said.
“Are you sure she’s dead?”
“There’s enough in her to kill ten people.”
“Do you think anyone is looking for her?”
“Someone is always looking for a lost person.”
“She is very pretty,” the younger man said.
“She was pretty,” the older man said. “She’s dead now.”
“I think she’s still pretty,” the younger man said.
“You’re getting on my nerves. Let’s get going.”
“Is the next part necessary?” the young man said. “Who will know?”
“You’ve done this before, so stop complaining. Help me remove her clothes. Look for tattoos. Then the hands, the feet, the head. It’s the same. We take the hands, the feet and the head; we leave the rest here in the grave.”
“I know how to do it, I just don’t like it.”
“If they find out we didn’t do it right, there will be much pain and suffering, I promise you. You have no idea how cruel these people are. The body here, if it’s ever found, will be nameless. We bag the hands, feet and head and bury them far away from here. Help me remove her shirt. And don’t drop anything, like an earring or something.”
They struggled to remove her clothing and underwear.
“See, a tattoo,” the older man said. “Go get the razor. And don’t forget the saw. You do the feet, I’ll do the hands.”
“I’m not going to help you with the head,” the young man said. “Not this time. She’s too pretty.”
“I will do the head myself; you just shut up and go to work. It will be dark soon. And you’re getting on my nerves.”
Dennis was uncomfortable and did little to hide it. This was his first meeting with Louise Nordland, his new boss.
“I know we have not worked together before, but I can assure you we’ll get along fine,” she said. “While I’ve been accused of looking young, I’ve been in the agency for thirteen years. I’ve had many overseas assignments in operations and moved to the Office of the Inspector General thirteen months ago. I was in the OIG’s inspections group for one year and am now working in investigations. As you can imagine, I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“You’ll have to forgive me,” Dennis said, “but you seem really, really young to be managing investigators here in OIG.”
“What’s ‘young’ got to do with anything?” she said.
“I’m just saying that, you know, my job is difficult,” Dennis said, stirring in his seat. “This work can be kind of crappy. People inside the agency hate you when you come calling, and people outside the agency hate you because they think you’re covering stuff up. It helps when you know your ass is being protected back here at OIG.”
“You don’t think I can cover your ass back here?” she said. “I told you I’ve worked at the agency for more than a decade. Just because I look young doesn’t mean I’m not competent.”
“So how old are you then?” Dennis asked.
Her brow wrinkled in two, long horizontal lines. “Cunningham, you know that’s not an appropriate question. I was warned that you are irritatingly blunt, but asking my age?”
“Well, you brought it up. I didn’t.” He shrugged.
At five feet two inches, Louise had classic Nordic straight natural blond hair, parted down the middle and falling like lead weights to her shoulders. She wore the informal uniform of many agency female managers: an open-necked, starched white cotton blouse and a two-piece dark business suit. A simple gold chain circled her thin neck.
“You really are something,” she said. “I’m thirty-nine. How old are you?”
“You can’t ask questions like that,” Dennis said. “I’ll have to report you to HR.”
“Ah, HR,” she said, twisting her small mouth into a smirk. “Don’t they run Langley? When I started here, I thought the director ran the agency, but it’s actually run by HR. Who knew?”
Dennis laughed. “They said you were a straight shooter with a sense of humor.”
“Who’s ‘they?’” she parried.
“You know, the faceless minions here, the great ‘they,’” Dennis said. “There are twenty thousand of us going to work at the agency every day to make this country safe.”
“Mmm,” she said. “Safe from whom?”
“Ourselves?” He shrugged.
“Ain’t that the truth.”
Louise opened a dark brown folder and scanned a document. Dennis watched her pursed lips as she concentrated and wondered if that was why she ended up in OIG. She seemed incapable of disguising her emotions. As she read the document, her forehead wrinkled in concentration.
“Okay,” she said, looking up. “We have a meeting with the IG in fifteen minutes. He’d like to speak with you.”
“We have a meeting with the inspector general in fifteen minutes,” Louise said.
“Yes, what’s wrong?”
“Well, I’ve never met the IG, for one,” he said. “I mean, he doesn’t want to talk about what happened in Australia and all that stuff, does he? I’m tired of talking about that. I’m back to work. I’m healed. Why the hell does he want to talk to me?”
“Which reminds me,” she said. “How are you feeling? Physically?”
“I’m fine. It wasn’t that big a deal. The bullet just grazed me here,” Dennis said, pointing to his right temple. “You can’t even see the scar.”
“There was a skull fracture, correct?”
“Yes, but there were no clots or bleeding in the brain. I’m just left with a tendency to drool in public and wet my bed. Otherwise, I’m fine.”
“God,” she said, shaking her head. “You really are too much. Well, for the record, and I have to get this out of the way — you’ll never hear me refer to it again — but I’m embarrassed and ashamed by what happened to you at the hands of your old boss Marty and his pals.”
Dennis flicked his wrist upward as if he were brushing smoke from his face.
“Fine. I got that out of the way,” she said.
“But the IG wants to see me? In his office?” Dennis said.
She exploded in a guttural laugh. “What is it with you and the IG?”
“Well, for one, I don’t even know his name, because they change them every couple of years. And secondly, I don’t like hanging with the brass. I like hanging with people like you, who keep me away from hanging with people like the IG.”
“Relax, Cunningham,” she said. “Chill. His name is Bill Richardson. Call him Bill.”
“Ah, the famous Dennis Cunningham,” Richardson said, coming around the huge mahogany desk. “It’s a pleasure to finally shake your hand. I hope you got the letter I sent you.”
“Yes, I did,” Dennis said. “Very nice of you to send it.”
“Well, you went through a lot, and I’m not going to dig up the whole episode again, but I’m deeply sorry for what happened to you.”
“Thank you,” Dennis said.
“Please, sit,” Richardson said waving to a round table with several, black Windsor-style chairs.
After they settled in, Louise said, “Bill, I see there has been an external request for Cunningham to be assigned to a specific project. That’s a little unusual, isn’t it?”
Dennis shot her a glance, but she kept her eyes on Richardson.
“Yes Louise, it is a little unusual. Awkward is probably the better word.”
“Can you fill us in a bit more, since Cunningham has just returned to work? And he and I have not had a chance to discuss this issue. I want to make sure he is not disadvantaged in any way.”
Dennis felt strange watching two people talk about him as if he were not in the room. And he was getting angry, which he knew from experience often led to trouble — mostly for him.
“Yes, well, this is what’s going on,” Richardson said. “Representative Daniel Barkley, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has requested that we investigate the disappearance of the deputy chief of station in London.”
“That was already investigated several times by operations,” Louise said.
“Yes, and Barkley and his staff are not satisfied, for some reason,” Richardson said.
“But he has no purview over the agency’s investigations,” Louise said.
“Of course he doesn’t have direct authority, Louise. But you know how this works. He is extremely influential in our budgeting process, and it’s good to have him on our side. When he makes an informal request through the director, and the director turns to me, well, we’d like to reduce any friction by just acceding to his request. Assuming, of course, that it’s not harmful or illegal.”
“Excuse me,” Dennis said. “Did Representative Barkley request me specifically to work on a project? Is that what I’m hearing?”
“Actually, yes,” Richardson said.
“By name?” Dennis said.
“Of course,” Richardson said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
“Cunningham,” Louise said, “we know you are familiar with Barkley because he was involved in the Australia incident. You met with him during that case and apparently made an impression.”
“I wasn’t particularly fond of the congressman,” Dennis said. “Thought he was a pompous son of a bitch.”
As soon as the words tumbled out, he was sorry. When he was angry, his worst affronts came at the end of several sentences; the longer he talked, the more likely he was to offend. It was a problem of mathematics, he believed. When he was angry, uttering one less sentence was much better; it was always the last sentence that caused him grief.
Richardson winced, and Louise gave Dennis a surprisingly fierce stare.
“I’m sorry if that was too blunt,” Dennis said.
“We’re all entitled to our opinions,” Richardson said. “We just need to remember who we’re with when we express them. I think your opinion of the congressman might be shared by several people here. But there is the politics, as I pointed out. And we’re in Washington, where politics reigns.”
“Of course,” Dennis said.
“So, do you mind if I just ask a few more questions, Bill?” Louise said. “I know this is delicate, but Cunningham is only just back in the office, and given his most recent episode, I was hoping we wouldn’t expose him to any wasteful and unproductive case work. He’s a valuable member of a very small investigative team.”
“I understand fully,” Richardson said. “But as I stated, Dennis here has been requested to do a final wrap-up of a controversial disappearance in London. I think we all know that Dennis not only has a reputation for being prickly at times—” he smiled wanly “—but has an extraordinary knack for finding people.”
The sadness had evolved slowly, picking up momentum as the days dragged by. She would find herself staring idly out the window of her car at a stoplight until someone hit their horn. Or at home she would lose interest in a book or TV show and find herself staring at the floor.
Her best friend Cilla finally confronted her. “You’re depressed, Judy. And lonely. Let’s just call it what it is,” Cilla said as they ate dinner at a small Italian restaurant in Fremantle, Western Australia.
“No, I’m not,” Judy said.
“Stop it,” Cilla said. “You’re depressed. And it’s that Yank’s fault. He lured you into a relationship; you flew to the US, saved his bloody life in that sordid CIA disaster. Afterwards you both thought you could carry on a relationship eleven thousand miles apart. Neither was prepared to move to the other’s country. And now you’re alone and depressed.”
“I’m just lonely,” Judy said, weakly swirling her wine glass. “I’m not depressed.”
Cilla said nothing and stabbed at her pasta.
“All right, maybe I am depressed. A little. Perhaps.”
“As your friend,” Cilla said, “I’m not sure what to suggest. I feel as depressed as you about it. I know you want him. I thought he needed and wanted you enough to move here. With your son still in school for one more year, it’s really up to him to move.”
“Dennis says that he wants to move here,” Judy said. “But he’s just started back to work, and I’m afraid he’ll get caught up in another one of those investigations.”
Cilla held up her wine glass. “Here’s to bloody men who promise one thing and do another.”
“I know, I know,” Dennis said, dropping his right arm onto the soft fabric of the armrest. “I have to make a decision. I’ve tried, but I just freeze when I think about it.”
“Well, it’s not fair to her,” Dr. Jane Forrester said. “And not fair to you either.”
“Oh, please don’t start the ‘self-destructive behavior’ thing,” Dennis said. “Can’t a guy just be stuck?”
“I thought you were madly in love with her?” Forrester said. “She risked a lot emotionally visiting you in the US, and without rehashing everything, she also risked her life in coming to your aid in that shooting.”
Dennis slumped in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.
“So?” he said.
“So what are you going to do about her?” she said. “If the relationship is over, then it’s over and you should tell her. If it’s not over, perhaps you should take some steps to improve the relationship.”
“Like move to Australia?” he said. “I don’t have a job there. I just started back to work here. I like what I do. What am I going to do there, play golf every day? I don’t play golf. Take photos of kangaroos?”
“Dennis, as you well know, you are not the first adult on this planet that has to deal with a difficult choice about a relationship. But right now you’re not dealing with anything. You’re letting the situation deal with you. And it’s sapping your energy and making you feel guilty. You mustn’t hide from your responsibility. This woman needs to be treated fairly, and you need to get on with your life. And I hate to say this, Dennis, but our time is up today.”
He surrendered his mobile phone, his wristwatch, wallet and a ballpoint pen and then walked through a large scanning device that resembled an MRI, was wanded with a hand-held scanner by a taciturn security official, and went through the retinal scanner outside the room. After being buzzed in, Dennis entered a large room that encased a smaller, glass-enclosed room in the center. Inside he could see Louise and two men talking at a table. The soundproofing of the glass room gave the scene a surreal quality, as if Dennis was watching a TV show with the sound turned down.
Louise waved at him and pointed to a door on the side.
“Great to see you, Cunningham,” she said formally. “I’d like you to meet David Simpson, senior operations manager at the National Security Agency, and Tim Felton, chief of European signals intelligence at NSA.”
Both men stood and shook Dennis’s hand, and then they sat.
Dennis had been to Fort Meade in Maryland once before, a short visit to one of the outlying buildings. He had never been this far into the labyrinth office complex at the NSA’s headquarters northeast of Washington, D.C.
“Well,” Louise said. “Let’s just dig in, shall we?”
“Of course,” Simpson said.
“I’ll summarize for everyone, if that’s all right?” Louise said.
“In April, the deputy chief of station in London, Richard Arnold, disappeared,” she said, glancing at an open folder on the desk. “He is a twenty-two-year veteran of the agency and has spent his entire career in operations. As we all know, the London station is one of the most important sites for the agency, given the newly resurgent Russian aggressiveness. Arnold is only the second senior agency employee to go missing in the last twenty years. It is highly unusual for a person of his stature to simply vanish. Usually, a man of his rank would be protected from foreign intelligence actions, since it could start a tit-for-tat cascade of disappearances. Britain’s MI5 and MI6 have not been very helpful in the investigation of this case.
“Given the knowledge base that Arnold had of agency operations in Europe, there have been two separate, extremely in-depth investigations of his disappearance by the agency. The general consensus now is that Arnold’s disappearance was carried out by a non-European foreign group, most likely an Islamic terrorist team.
“Recently, a request was made by a high-ranking member of Congress to reinvestigate Arnold’s disappearance. The request specifically identified Dennis Cunningham, from the agency’s OIG, to spearhead the effort. So here we are.”
Simpson, Felton and Louise all looked at Dennis, who gazed down at the high-gloss tabletop. He looked up at her and said, “So why are we here?”
She looked blank. “I just stated why we’re here. You’ve been requested to review the investigation of Arnold’s disappearance.”
“No, I got that part, Louise,” Dennis said. “But what are doing here? At Fort Meade in Maryland, at NSA headquarters. Sitting in a high-security room with these two guys?”
“Oh, that,” she said, turning to Simpson.
Simpson gave Dennis a brief, patronizing smile. “Arnold was the agency’s primary contact with the NSA in the UK,” he said. “Arnold had almost full access at the NSA’s Menwith Hill Station in North Yorkshire. I’m sure you’ve heard of the facility?”
“Does that mean you are or are not familiar with the facility?” Simpson asked.
Louise shot Dennis a sharp glance.
“I’ve heard of it,” Dennis said. “Part of the NSA’s vast network of digital vacuum cleaners, sucking in electronic communications everywhere to store in vast databases that no one will ever use. You mean that Menwith Hill?”
“Mmm,” Simpson said.
Louise’s mouth twisted sharply.
“Cunningham,” she said, “it appears that Arnold visited Menwith Hill twice right before he disappeared. The last time was three days prior to going missing. The last visit was very unusual, and the NSA is rightly concerned. They’ve had their own investigation as well.”
To Judy, the yellow tape marked the limits of a demilitarized zone: the world outside the yellow tape was the normal, ordinary planet, replete with human beings who were nice to each other, waved at their neighbors, petted dogs and said “gidday” on the street, while inside the yellow tape was the other world of evil, hostility and death.
Judy lifted the police tape and slid under it, walking with her partner Clive down the driveway toward the back of the house. She nodded to a uniformed policeman as she rounded the house and took four steps up into the kitchen, where she stopped immediately.
The bodies of two young men lay face down on the floor. One body was in front of the stove, and the other was awkwardly wedged under the kitchen table. Blood covered nearly half the kitchen floor.
A man wearing slip-on protective paper foot covers had walked around to the far side of the kitchen and was taking photographs.
“Neighbors heard nothing, except for the barking of the dog, a great Alsatian that wouldn’t let up,” Clive said. “At around 2:00 a.m. someone called the police about the dog keeping the neighborhood awake. This is what they found when they found the front door ajar.”
“No one heard gunshots?” Judy asked.
Clive shook his head. “Silencer.”
At one time Judy might have been sickened by the site of two dead bodies that had bled out on the kitchen floor of a suburban house, but drug violence in Western Australia was now a common occurrence. Cheap heroin from Asia mixed with Chinese-manufactured fentanyl was devastating a segment of society here, and she was inured to it.
Now, it was just an unpleasant feature of her job in the Australian Federal Police. The AFP was partnering with an alphabet soup of government agencies, including the Western Australia Police Force, Australian Border Force and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission in order to beat back the scourge of drug smuggling.
“They leave anything behind?” she said.
“Not really,” Clive said. “These fellows were tortured. The one under the table appears to have been stabbed through his hand several times. These two must have told them where the drugs and money were kept: a hiding place behind the wall in the upstairs closet. It’s cleaned out.”
“Mmm,” Judy said. “Fun, fun and more fun.”
“Indeed,” Clive said, chuckling in the manner of all homicide detectives, coroners and funeral home operators.
There was nothing to like about the NSA, Dennis believed; it had too much money, too little adult supervision, and was run by nerds: engineers, programmers and data analysts.
The American intelligence community once had two main tools: human intelligence, or humint, and signals intelligence, or sigint. Lately he was aware of new toolset called imint, or image intelligence, which combined satellite information with aerial photography. Dennis believed most assuredly in the old-fashioned humint side of the business: men and women, boots on the ground, using intuition, training and sometimes violence to get at the truth of a situation. While he was employed by the Office of the Inspector General for the CIA and often worked to dig out deception, graft and illegal behavior by agency employees, he nonetheless was partial to working with human beings. He could accost them, verbally harangue them and even threaten them to get information he needed. It was a visceral exercise that fit perfectly with his naturalistic view of the world.
The NSA, on the other hand, spent most of its resources capturing data and analyzing it. Employees were often former military people whose job it was to manage the nerds. Dennis found these individuals idiosyncratic, self-absorbed and irritating. Their work was more like playing chess or solving a mathematical problem than helping keep the world safe from bad people.
Or that was his bias, anyway. He knew bad people communicated by text messages, social media and cell phones and that they could be tracked and surreptitiously listened to in order to keep the world safe. He just thought there was too much emphasis on sigint and that it drained dollars and good people from the humint side of the business.
So he was not happy to be sitting across the table from a short, paunchy, prematurely balding man in his early forties named Fred Kaczka.
Simpson, the NSA official that Dennis did not like, had called Kaczka into the glass-walled office using a very odd-looking small desk telephone.
“Fred is a member of the NSA’s Inspector General’s Office,” Simpson said. “He has been in the department for twelve years. He is a graduate of Georgetown undergrad and the law school and is one of the most valued members of the department. He will be the NSA’s representative on the team to do this final review of Arnold’s disappearance.”
“What team?” Dennis said.
“The OIGs from all the intelligence groups commonly work together,” Louise said.
“But I thought Representative Barkley requested me to do the final wrap-up?” Dennis said. “Did Barkley say anything about a team?”
“Not that we’re aware of,” Simpson said, flashing that condescending smile that Dennis was already worked up about. “But nevertheless, this is how the ‘wrap-up,’ as you call it, will proceed. It can’t happen any other way.”
Dennis looked at Louise for help, but the corners of her lips were pinched in what he took to be an attempt to control herself. His natural instinct was to strike out at their insistence that he work with another investigator. It was well known within his department that he was a solo practitioner who bristled at collaborating. They allowed him to work alone because he was so good at it. He knew Louise knew this as well. It suddenly occurred to Dennis that she either knew what was going to happen but didn’t care how Dennis reacted, or that she had absolutely no control over the situation and was praying Dennis would not explode.
He cleared his throat in an attempt to gain a second or two of time to decide what to do. “I see,” he said. “This must have come from high up. Okay, I see that.” While Dennis and Louise had just started to work together, and they had already had their differences, he decided not to embarrass her. It was not something he would have considered a year ago, but things had changed. A bullet one-eighth of an inch away from ending his life makes a man pause. Besides, his therapist said he needed to build relationships, not destroy them.
“You are correct, Dennis,” Louise said.
“Of course I miss you,” Dennis said, crushing the mobile phone between his left shoulder and ear. He was walking to his car from the mall with both hands carrying a heavy box. “You know I miss you. I can’t believe you think I don’t.”
“I’ve heard you say it many times over the phone,” Judy said, “but you have yet to visit me here. You know I can’t just leave my son Trevor, with his father in prison and all that.”
“I just started back to work, and I’ve got another case they’ve thrown at me,” he said, awkwardly scanning the huge mall parking lot with his head tilted, still holding the phone against his ear. “I was wondering if we could meet maybe halfway for a short trip?”
The silence unnerved him, and he said quickly, “It was just an idea. I was hoping to make a work trip to London in the next couple of weeks. Is there any chance you could perhaps squeeze in a trip to the UK? I looked at the flights from Perth to London, and you have some options. Though it’s not really halfway, it’s longer for you. I’ll buy the ticket. What do you think?”
“Is a trip to London going to resolve anything long-term for us?” Judy said.
Dennis found his car and placed the box on the hood, regaining his breath and his composure as he squeezed the phone against his ear. “I’m not good at this stuff. I, I,” he stuttered, “don’t know how to proceed. But I know I think about you a lot. Probably way too much. But I guess I need some time to plan things.”
“How can you think of me too much?”
“Well, I mean—”
“Dennis, that was a joke,” she said. “I might be able to manage a trip to London. You don’t have to pay for my flight.”
“No, I insist. I want to see you.”
Judy sighed. “When will you know your travel plans? My work life is very complicated these days. Western Australia is not the placid little backwater it once was.”
“Which reminds me,” Dennis said. “What’s the latest on that bastard Voorster? Have they found him yet?”
Judy felt a chill whenever she heard that man’s name. “No, nothing yet. We don’t know how he got out of the country or where he went. I’m trying not to think of him.”
“I’m sure he’ll show up in a prison somewhere,” Dennis said. “Just wish you knew so you could stop worrying.”
Silence fell on the conversation, and Dennis squirmed.
“I can’t stand being away from you.” Judy blurted. “I know you don’t like these emotional outbursts, Dennis. But I do miss you, and I wish I didn’t feel it so strongly. I’m trying to figure out where our relationship is going, and I think we’re running out of time.”
Another moment of silence stretched between them.
“I wish you were here,” Dennis said as he dodged a car backing out of the parking space next to him. “It’s a gloomy, cloudy day in the Washington suburbs. I just bought a small hi-fi system to listen to music. I think I told you I moved into a condo. It’s barren inside, and I realized that a TV set is the only form of entertainment I have. Shows what an exciting lifestyle I lead.”
“Are you serious about London?” she said.
“I told you, I already checked the flight schedules.”
“A man who plans must be serious,” she said. “Men don’t plan.”
“You know, it would have been helpful if you had told me about the request from Barkley,” Dennis said. “If we’re going to work together, you can’t be holding shit like that from me and then let me go into a meeting where I’m completely unprepared.”
Louise tapped the eraser end of an unsharpened school-bus-yellow no. 2 pencil on the top of her desk. She made little tap-tap-tap sounds, punctuated by pauses. Dennis found it irritating and stared at the makeshift drumstick to emphasize the point. But Louise continued to tap.
“Well?” Dennis said.
“I didn’t mention it to you because I’d been warned that you can get pretty worked up over the smallest things. So I decided the best way to advance this effort was to keep you in the dark until the last moment.” She shrugged, tapping the pencil in an on-off pattern.
“Warned?” Dennis said. “What does that mean?”
“Please don’t pretend that the OIG is clueless about its long-time employees,” she said, frowning. “Your reputation precedes me and will post-date your retirement, I’m sure. Your surliness and difficult behavior have long been a subject here. As you can imagine, they’ve tended to look the other way because of your successes. Your former boss was quite hands-off with you.”
“Marty,” Dennis said. “Good old Marty. He’s in prison now, or that’s what I’ve been told. But he knew how to point me in the right direction and was good at keeping the brass off my tail. So we got along great.”
“Is that why he tried to kill you?” she said, giving the pencil a hard rap and then tossing it onto the table.
“Oh, God, we’re not going there, are we?” Dennis said. “You swore you weren’t going to bring that Australia thing up again.”
“I lied,” she said.
Dennis squinted at her. “Mmm,” he said. “I think I like your sense of humor. But I’m not sure I like you.”
“It’s not necessary that you like me, Cunningham, but you have to respect my actions as your boss. Otherwise, this isn’t going to work.”