Chapter 5

 

Ayda Khoury

Fort Marcy Park

McLean, Virginia

 

Jack Kolda is lighter on his feet than I am, making me almost jog to keep up along the trail through Fort Marcy Park until we come to a stop on a little footbridge. I don't know what I expected from the reputation, but he doesn't look like a spy. He's this middle-aged white guy with a belly that laps gently over his belt, living a serious paramilitary fantasy from the haircut to the boots. He's got one of the famous blue badges with a number and no name stuffed in his pocket where he knows I can see it.

There's almost no one in the park. It's still too early for the workday commuters to have made it here, but I don't feel unsafe with him. I lean on the handrail and look into the little dry creek and feel like a Cold War spy in Berlin or Vienna, on a walk in the park with my case officer from the embassy.

"You and Farah used to come here and make out or something?" There's no plaque on this bridge, and there's plenty like it in the park.

"No." He gives me a tiny morning-after smile that's supposed to mean yes, but it's too easy an answer, tries too hard to confirm my story rather than tell the truth. I break out the GPS app and the Washington tour guide sites, trying to find this place on the map. I won't be able to do this when the Blackphone I ordered finally comes in, but I couldn't resist the crypto on that thing, even if I had to trade a few convenient apps.

"Why is she okay with telling me?" I ask, zooming in and finding nothing.

"She thinks she owes you for the identifiers."

"Not good enough for sharing classified information."

"Let her tell you."

This place is nowhere. It's not in the visitor center website or any of the trolley tour guides.

A woman breezes into view along the trail, about Kolda's age, a darker bronze than me, with ash-brown hair that spills in crimped waves over her shoulders, chemically lightened and highlighted like an ad for Real Housewives. He lights up when he sees her. She lowers her head and lifts her eyes to look up at him with this megawatt smile, and for a minute it's like I'm not even there.

He breaks it off first and she offers me a hand. "Hi, I'm Farah."

"Ayda." Her hand is cool and rough, calloused from whatever she did for CIA before North Ridge. "Jasper said you were going to tell me what you found."

"Good try. Jasper doesn't want to send you on an operation."

"She's suspended," says Kolda.

"It's my operation!" I protest.

"He doesn't want you to be bait," says Farah. "We have history with these people, they execute American hostages."

That's a long list. "Bait? Like join one of those jihadi recruitment forums?"

"Not exactly."

"Why not you?"

"They know me."

The kidnappers could still be anyone. I don't know her and I don't know where she's compromised. "And I don't have a reason to defect," she says. "You have an obvious reason to be angry with the Agency, and the Resistance credentials to make it look good. We can easily make it loud and public."

The hearing. She wants to use me as bait for their enemies because of the hearing. "Defect. You want me to go to Ankara?"

"That claim she was in Operation Intifada is all Laurent," Kolda tells her. Kolda knows I was an Operation Intifada hacker? Laurent knows? They're going to slaughter me at the hearing.

"Nobody's going to Ankara." Kolda's voice is taut. Something's wrong here. He's not mad enough at her. "You'll never get permission for it," he tells her. "The Agency will never approve that."

"The Agency," she says, "Would leave Alex to die like Afridi."

I almost miss it, the little double-tap gesture, his fingers tightening on the bridge railing. "Sending her to get killed in Ankara would not stop it."

Her eyes snap to his. She bites her lip, but her narrowed eyes make it look aggressive rather than insecure. "She would be well-protected; we'd be with her the whole way—"

"Which we is that?" he challenges.

She draws one foot around the other in her kitten-heeled pumps. Is she flirting with him? Are they negotiating with each other? "North Ridge Consulting."

Whose side am I supposed to be on? Kolda would help me with the hearing, but if I'm going to be Washington poison, I want to go down a hero. It might even help my case in front of Congress.

"What about the hearing?"

Kolda leans back against the bridge railing, crosses one foot over the other.

Farah relents. "Alright, you need to know that nobody goes to jail for this kind of thing. Ask Jasper. You can go to your hearing and take what they give you, and go back to your desk like it didn't happen."

More money than our parents, government job security, all the best tech toys. This year's DEF CON. Like NSA didn't blame me for the orders they gave me.

Or I could be the good guy again.

"Ollie North was convicted," I point out. Just let them tell me my odds of acquittal are better with them than without them.

Farah snorts. "Oliver's sentence was suspended to community service; he was in more danger from Hezbollah than the Intelligence Committee."

Kolda stares at her hard until she glances back at him.

"Do you still talk to—" she asks him.

"No."

I feel like I need my semiotics dictionary to parse their conversation. I like their private language though, their shared history. My parents never do that except to accuse each other. Samir and I used to know how to do this. When we could still read each other, before he took Dad's side all the time and I realized both sides were lying.

If we could still talk about anything long enough to build signals, maybe he and I could have de-escalated. I could have shown him when I was drawing fire on purpose and he could have shown me when he was just playing along to not get hit. Or maybe I have a martyr complex and he's a sadist. One of those.

"I could help Hart?" I ask. "If you told me? If I went to Ankara?"

"Yes," she says. "But you'll also be compromised, understand? You'll be guilty of receiving classified information, and if you double-cross me, we'll go down together."

She's willing to take a chance on me while the rest of the industry is going to pretend not to know me.

My phone lights up in my hand. I swipe fast, hoping it's Samir or the lawyer. It's neither. It's some friend of Samir's who says he got my number from him and is supposed to tell me Caught. He probably won’t let me go to school tomorrow. Tell court he kept me out of school. I can get my passport away from him. Failure mode = Let's run away to Grandma's.

Samir clearly doesn't know what failure mode means, and Grandma's house is in Beirut. We're not going to Beirut. Mom always said she would take us there to visit, but Dad would never let us, and we knew we'd never have the money.

The friend texts again. Don't actually leave the country. Do something.

I want to go far away to Ankara and miss the hearing and let CIA handle it however they will. I want to not have to testify at a custody hearing and decide whether to lie and say he hit me too, because if I don't they'll say see, he's no danger to children, it's just her, she makes him do that, and Samir will keep growing up just like him and he'll hit someone else, and hurt them worse next time.

"I'm not him."

I’m not Ed Snowden with his media-ready data cache and the aftermath hearings taking us all to task. I could've been. If I'd been braver, if I hadn't had Mom and Samir to fight for, if I could just do one good thing instead of worrying about whether it's the absolute optimal thing. Of course, a freedom-of-information activist trapped in police state exile is living in some kind of hell, so sub-optimal might not begin to cover it.

Farah scoots between me and Kolda, leans her back against the railing beside me to make me look at her. "Work for me," says Farah. "Jump off the sinking ship. Resign in anger from NSA and take a cache of—prepared—information with you. Run an approach. You're irresistible."

I lean my elbows over the railing and cycle through browser windows on my phone, the remnants of my search for what was special about this place. A motorcycle rally scavenger hunt website tells me this bridge was a dead drop. Kim Philby used the lee of this footbridge as a dead drop site to sell CIA secrets to the Soviets during the Cold War.

"Irresistible to who?"

My phone vibrates again. Omar from DEF CON, using Blackphone messaging at international rates, because he read the TOS for a Google Voice or Skype relay and refused. He's in my address book as R/C for rootcrysis.

R/C: Come defend!!

Working, I text back. Our guild might lose hundreds of man-hours of Black Desert farming, but at least I might have nothing better to do tonight than replace everything.

"Hezbollah," says Farah. "El-Shafei."

That's one way to die.

When I was a kid in Sunday school, the sister who was the instructor told us that martyrs went to Heaven. She told us about Justin Martyr the philosopher and Ignatius Martyr who was fed to the lions, and St. Peter the Apostle who denied Jesus on the night of His trial and finally faced his own trial and did not deny Him. He was crucified upside down.

We tried to imagine what it would be like to be asked to deny our faith or die, here in a brick and concrete school in the first world, two years after towers had fallen in New York and Branden Dimmic had pushed me down the stairs at school and called me a terrorist and the world had failed to end.

Masked terrorists in balaclavas with their Kalashnikovs, bursting through the door and telling us to renounce our Christ or die.

It sounded easy. It sounded painless. It didn't carry the difficulty or the threat of hell of more elaborate methods of suicide.

But Hezbollah tortures people to death.

I can't be El-Shafei's fake Snowden. I have difficulty having a phone conversation I can't map out in my head; this is so far off-script it's like the Upright Citizens Brigade doing a sketch in Lebanese.

Let’s run away to Grandma’s.

He's on my side. Maybe Samir won't just get on a train and go home to Mom, or we'd all pay for it, but he's on my side.

"I don't think I could—go to Turkey, ditch the hearing, do—whatever you want me to do with El-Shafei." rootcrysis has friends in State Security who spy on Hezbollah. He'll help me find another way to get to him.

"North Ridge isn't sending her anywhere against her will," Kolda tells her. "It would endanger her and it would endanger him." He holds his body taut, like Samir does when he's trying to get hold of himself. I wonder if he thinks I would run, if I would defect for real if they sent me where I don't want to go.

Kolda fishes his car keys from his pocket, and that gesture must have been for her. I'm supposed to see all their signals, I realize. They've been putting it on for me. They've been doing the show for the rube.

"He's right." Farah's voice is emotionless. She addresses me even though she's talking to him.

"That's it?"

Dad always said hacking was a confidence game. That the weakest link in anyone's security is always the people who manage it. That's all they've been doing here. Hacking me.

"That's it," says Farah. "I don't recruit by force." Her voice is hard, like she expected him to fight harder for her, but she's not Samir and her anger is as performed as their cooperation.

"It's a military operation now," says Kolda.

"Turkey is a friendly country," Farah points out.

We'd have to get permission for a military operation on their soil, a diplomatic dance that could take weeks. Hart could be dead.

"It's a Turkish military operation," he amends.

"Maybe. The Turks would love to save an American from Hezbollah while the U.S. sells them out to Iran, right?"

Kolda's lips flatten into a thin line. That one stung him.

"You want a ride home?" she asks me.

I would have thought she'd be on his side. I don't want to see them turn on each other or pretend to turn on each other or whatever they're doing and I do not want a ride home. I don't want to ride in the car while she works on me like Dad always did, trapping me for the long ride so he could tell me everything I felt was false.

But it's a long train and bus chain home, and rootcrysis is more likely to help if he hasn't lost all his gold to death penalties and our guild hasn't lost the castle and our tribute tax to siege when I ask him. "I'll go with you if we can get to Maryland City quickly."

She glances at Kolda. "Can I borrow your badge?"

He hands her the numbered blue badge, holds onto it a beat too long to make her look at him. When he speaks again his voice is soft. "I'll come by and get it later?"

"We'll open a bottle of arak before you leave for Vienna."

Farah leads me through the remains of Civil War fortifications to the mostly deserted parking lot in front of the park headquarters and remote-starts her car. It's this cream-colored soccer-mom Rogue SUV with new paper temporary plates and a bumper sticker that says "God bless our troops—especially our snipers." It's like somebody's caricature of the conservative spy, though maybe they're really like that at North Ridge Consulting.

I climb in and fasten the seatbelt. "You have seven kids or something?" She couldn't. This car is spotless.

"It's the suspension. It's a non-threatening car with the smoothest suspension this side of the S Class Mercedes."

Great. Cars are a type of hardware I know nothing about, and now I've killed my chances at making conversation.

"Why'd you join the NSA?" Farah asks as she backs out of the parking space. She's still running her con.

Because I went to school on Homeland Security grant money and I owed them something. Because my mother always said if God gives you a gift like being a great crypto cracker, you have a responsibility to use it to do some good for people.

I know the answer Farah wants, and it's not, "Because who doesn't want permission to play with the best toys and hack the biggest, hardest targets there are?"

"Tell me you're not angry with the Agency."

I've already had enough of being interrogated. In a couple of days I'm going to have to listen to House Representatives who couldn't hack a Raspberry Pi accuse me of betraying the American people and wonder how I ended up on the wrong side.

I look straight at her and steal Kolda's double-tap, making sure she can hear it rap on the console between us.

She grants me a tight smile. "Fair enough."

She plugs in an iPhone to the USB port for the radio and turns up the volume on Florence + The Machine with a driving, pulsing beat.

"Why would you buy a phone with a captive battery?" And probably a contract.

"It's new. I'm on the grid for a change. I'm going to unpack the new place, decorate, and live like somebody with nothing to hide."

She loops the badge lanyard over multiple times and hangs it from the rearview mirror. "License to drive like we're under fire."