Countdown: Three Days
by Peter Cawdron
|part 3 of 5|
“We haven’t seen this since the close of the Cold War, but I think he’s a sleeper and she’s his handler. He’s a mole. A deep, undercover operative. And she’s the link. She’s his lover, his mentor, probably his recruiter.”
“Are you serious?” asked O’Malley.
“It wouldn’t be the first time it has happened.” Cohen laughed as the realisation struck. “It’s actually quite clever. Think about it for a moment. Put yourself in their shoes. You’re an idealist, an extremist. You’re consumed by your cause. You feel indignant toward the United States, your mortal enemy. But how can you compete? How can you monitor the world’s largest surveillance organisation? How do you compete with three trillion dollars per annum split among manpower, hardware, advanced technological research and the raw military might of the US?”
“I don’t know,” replied O’Malley. He’d never thought about it in those terms before.
“You don’t. You can’t. But what you can do is this. You can watch yourself.”
“Watch yourself?” cried O’Malley, not following the logic.
“It’s bold. It’s audacious. It’s brilliant, really. The cell deliberately threw Mathers into the mix, throwing him right in among us, right in with our families, with our kids. For them, he’s a thermostat. They don’t need to watch us. All they need to do is to watch him. So long as there’s no one else watching him, they know they’re safe, they know their plans haven’t been compromised. He’s like a canary in a coal mine.”
“Oh hell,” said O’Malley as the concept dawned on him. “And we gave it away. As soon as we saw him in the time-cycle we initiated covert surveillance and that was all they needed to pull him out. We forced them to go to ground.”
“Exactly,” replied Cohen. “As long as you ignored him, the rest of the terror cell knew their activities were secure. Forget about satellites and wire-taps, this is good old fashioned gumshoe detective work. Raw human intelligence. You’ll probably find he followed a strict schedule, rarely ever deviated.
“They would have had his work, his home, the local mall and the soccer grounds all staked out at various prearranged times just watching, waiting to see if any surveillance activities focused on him. They would have completely ignored him. Never risked any contact.
“And he simply blended in with society, with our kids’ soccer club, with the local gym, whatever. So long as he was accepted, they knew their activities were safe.”
“So it’s no coincidence.”
“None at all,” said Cohen. “And the really brilliant part is that Mathers focused on a local soccer team in which there were children with parents in the NSA. If he could fool us, he could fool anyone. No wonder the bastard enjoyed coaching so much. But how did you link me to him? How did you know about the soccer club?”
“We didn’t. Once we’d identified him from the boat we traced his activities back to D.C. and stumbled across the connection. We scanned all the images dumped down from the time-cycle in the twenty four hours leading up to the attack, some 250 terabytes of information, and came up with only one other fragment involving Mathers. It’s a still shot of the two of you talking somewhere near the Washington Beltway at roughly 7:20 tonight. From there, we picked up your future trail and found out from future records that you were murdered later this evening.”
“So you called me in,” said Cohen with stunned disbelief.
“And tormented me, showing me my own funeral.”
“Yes,” replied O’Malley coldly.
“We had to be sure. We had to know whether or not you were involved, whether you were telling the truth.”
“And?” asked Cohen.
“And,” Davies replied, stepping in for O’Malley, “we’ve been monitoring your body temperature, heart rate and perspiration remotely since you walked in here. You’re telling the truth.”
“You’ve got to understand,” O’Malley added, “this is too big for us to be worried about offending someone’s sensibilities or civil liberties. Millions of American lives are at stake. When it looked like an analyst from the NSA may have had prior knowledge of a terrorist act, well, you can imagine the President’s reaction.”
“And now?” asked Cohen.
“Now, we want to keep you alive. If we can keep you alive, if we can stop you from dying, we can stop this from happening.”
“Or, at least,” Davies added, “that’s the theory.”
Cohen thought about it for a second before asking, “But why? Why would he want to kill me?”
“I don’t know,” said O’Malley.
Cohen glanced up at the ceiling, his mind deep in thought as he spoke.
“Think about it. He’s going to go up with the nuke. He knows that. So why kill me? What threat am I to him once he’s a martyr?”
“Maybe you know something, some piece of the puzzle you’re not even aware of,” added Davies.
O’Malley opened a desk drawer and pulled out a black vest. “Take your jacket off and put this on underneath. It’s a Kevlar vest that will damn near stop anything short of a harpoon from getting through to that heart of yours.”
Cohen unbuttoned his shirt and tried the vest on as O’Malley continued.
“There’s a NEST group searching for the bomb up and down the East Coast, checking every port with radiation detectors but nothing’s turned up yet. While the nuke is in the open it is important you stick to your schedule.
“You must do everything just as if we hadn’t had this conversation. You must follow your normal routine precisely. Although we’ve got footage of you meeting Mathers tonight, we don’t know if that’s the only time you meet him or if he’s the one that tries to kill you.”
“A team of snipers have been positioned along the route you’ll be driving home from your office. There is not one section of road that isn’t covered by someone, somewhere, either a operational specialist or a state trooper in an unmarked car. And you’ll have covert air surveillance overhead at all times.”
Cohen nodded in acknowledgement as he buttoned his shirt over the bullet-proof vest. The vest was slim, but still looked awkward under his clothes.
“There is no way they can get to you without coming through us first,” said O’Malley, punching him playfully. Cohen rocked backwards as O’Malley’s fist struck against the vest. It felt rigid, solid. With the vest on, he felt safe. O’Malley seemed so confident. Cohen was subdued. He’d known a knock-out punch was coming but he hadn’t expected anything quite like this. A wave of emotion washed over him.
O’Malley patted him on the shoulder, reassuring him again that everything was going to be OK. He repeated the plan to him and then escorted him back upstairs, through security and out to the parking lot.
The drive back to Washington D.C. was surreal. The car seemed to drive itself. Cohen felt like he was in a dream, watching someone else drive through the familiar streets. To him, the twenty minute drive seemed to stretch on endlessly for hours.
Back in his office, Cohen was quiet. His secretary knew something was up but she assumed it was just the pressure of the upcoming armaments committee meeting. She brought him some coffee and was surprised to see that his computer was still turned off and that the briefing notes she’d so meticulously prepared for analysis remained sealed. Cohen assured her he was fine, just a little under the weather. She suggested he call it a day and go home early but he quickly refused, saying he just needed some time to think and prepare for tomorrow’s meeting.
The rest of the afternoon dragged by. Cohen found himself watching the clock on the wall slowly count out the seconds. The minutes seemed to stretch on into eternity. His last appointment for the day drew to a close a little after 6:30 in the evening. The other analysts barely seemed to notice that he was unusually quiet. To them, he seemed distracted.
O’Malley called, reminding him to stick to his schedule and not to do anything out of the ordinary. Cohen nodded in response, which was an odd thing to do on a phone call but he was deeply disturbed, distracted. Even though O’Malley couldn’t see the gesture, he seemed to acknowledge it. He tried to encourage Cohen, reminding him that he wasn’t alone. For the next half an hour, Cohen sat there with the armaments brief open before him, staring at the pages. They might as well have been sheets of blank white paper for all he cared.
His wife, Kathy, knew he was working late on the armaments report but he felt as though that conversation had happened in another lifetime. He wanted to call her. It wasn’t that he wanted to tell her he loved her or anything like that, he just wanted to hear her voice. But O’Malley was right. He had to stay focused. He had to keep it together. That was the only way he was going to survive and he knew it. If he called her, he’d lose it.
His coffee was cold. A thin film of milk sat on the surface. It had been cold for hours but he sipped it anyway. The bitter taste brought him back to reality. The digital clock on the wall finally read 6:58pm. It was time to go.
The lobby was empty but that wasn’t so unusual for this time of night. His footsteps echoed on the marble floor. Funny, he’d never noticed that before. Now that life was precious, something to be measured in terms of hours or perhaps even minutes, he found his senses heightened.
Cohen took the elevator down to the car park. The cold empty basement sent a chill through him. Everything around him seemed so loud; the chirp of his car unlocking, the opening of the door, the seat belt snapping into place and the engine roaring to life. Noises reverberated around him as he drove quickly from the building.
O’Malley had assured Cohen he was under constant surveillance, but he felt alone. Turning on to the Beltway, his GPS unit chimed in warning. The satellite feed detected heavy congestion and automatically calculated an alternative route, one that led him out into the countryside. Cohen flicked on the audio and a woman’s voice informed him that an overturned truck had caused significant delays southbound. This is it, he thought, this is the deviation, this is the out-of-the-ordinary event that prevents me from reaching home.
Cohen looked at the cell phone lying on the seat next to him. At first he was surprised O’Malley hadn’t called. Surely, he was thinking the same thing. But O’Malley couldn’t call, he knew that. They had no idea if someone else in the terror cell was watching him, waiting for Mathers to make contact.
Cohen checked his rear-view mirror, looking to see if he was being followed. He thought he was. Then he thought he wasn’t. Then he was sure he was. Then he realised it was just his mind playing tricks on him.
He turned off the freeway trusting that he wasn’t alone, trusting that somewhere out there people were scrambling to take into account this unforeseen detour. Somewhere in the dark skies above he hoped there really was a helicopter watching his every turn, coordinating efforts and keeping him in sight.
Ten minutes later, as he drove down an unlit country road, the rear of the car began to shake. A slight shimmer reverberated through the steering wheel and Cohen pulled over, realising he had a flat tire.
The night air was cool. The stars up above were crisp and clear. There was no moon so the night was unusually dark. The farmland around him stretched on for miles. There were no streetlights, no houses and no other cars around. Great, just bloody great, he thought as he stepped out of the vehicle.
As Cohen began pulling the spare tire out of the trunk, he heard the sound of crunching gravel behind him. He turned and saw a pick-up truck pull up without any lights on and his blood ran cold.
Cohen reached behind him and felt his fingers tighten around the tire iron. If he was going to die, he’d go down fighting. His heart pounded in his chest as adrenalin surged through his veins.
Mathers stepped out of the pick-up. Even in the dark, Cohen recognised him. He must have been following along since he turned off the beltway.
“Why are you doing this?” Cohen yelled, pushing back against the car and bracing himself for what was to come.
“Loose ends,” Mathers replied coldly, pulling out a handgun and pointing it at him.
A brilliant blue-white light exploded around them, saturating the night, blinding the two men momentarily. Within seconds, the downdraught of a helicopter pounded them as dark shadows appeared beside them. Soldiers abseiled down around them, descending from thick dark rappel ropes. There was shouting, screaming.
Mathers fired in vain at the helicopter and then at the shadows. One of the soldiers charged up from behind the pick-up and slammed into Mathers, knocking him to the ground. The handgun clattered across the gravel.
Mathers reached for the gun as the soldier grabbed his hand and twisted it around and up behind his back. A second soldier fastened a pair of plastic cuffs on Mathers, wrenching them tight as Mathers screamed in agony.
Cohen was stunned. It was over before he’d realised what had happened. There was more shouting and sirens blaring. Soldiers seemed to be everywhere. Cars screamed in from both directions as more helicopters circled above, pasting the area in white with their searchlights.
One of the soldiers politely but firmly manhandled Cohen, pushing him away from Mathers and over into a waiting SUV. The vehicle tore off down the road almost before the door was shut behind the dazed analyst. Cohen turned to see O’Malley seated beside him.
“Are you OK?”
“Ah, yeah, I guess so. Everything happened so fast.”
“Well, we got him,” replied O’Malley. “And you’re alive. He wasn’t able to kill you. You know what that means, right? It means we’ve done it. We’ve changed the future. There’s no way he can detonate that bomb now.”
“Have you found it?” Cohen asked. “Have you found the bomb?”
“Not yet, but we’ve still got time. And now that we’ve got Mathers, we’ll find the nuke. He’ll talk. Believe me, everybody talks.”
Copyright © 2009 by Peter Cawdron