To call the NRO director a plain man was in itself an overstatement. NRO Director William Pickering was diminutive, with pale skin, a forgettable face, a bald head, and hazel eyes, which despite having gazed upon the countrys deepest secrets, appeared as two shallow pools. Nonetheless, to those who worked under him, Pickering towered. His subdued personality and unadorned philosophies were legendary at the NRO. The mans quiet diligence, combined with his wardrobe of plain black suits, had earned him the nickname the Quaker. A brilliant strategist and the model of efficiency, the Quaker ran his world with an unrivaled clarity. His mantra: Find the truth. Act on it.
When Rachel arrived in the directors office, he was on the phone. Rachel was always surprised by the sight of him: William Pickering looked nothing like a man who wielded enough power to wake the President at any hour.
Pickering hung up and waved her in. Agent Sexton, have a seat. His voice had a lucid rawness to it.
Thank you, sir. Rachel sat.
Despite most peoples discomfort around William Pickerings blunt demeanor, Rachel had always liked the man. He was the exact antithesis of her father . . . physically unimposing, anything but charismatic, and he did his duty with a selfless patriotism, shunning the spotlight her father loved so much.
Pickering removed his glasses and gazed at her. Agent Sexton, the President called me about a half hour ago. In direct reference to you.
Rachel shifted in her seat. Pickering was known for getting to the point. One hell of an opening, she thought. Not a problem with one of my gists, I hope.
On the contrary. He says the White House is impressed with your work.
Rachel exhaled silently. So what did he want?
A meeting with you. In person. Immediately.
Rachels unease sharpened. A personal meeting? About what?
Damn good question. He wouldnt tell me.
Now Rachel was lost. Keeping information from the director of the NRO was like keeping Vatican secrets from the Pope. The standing joke in the intelligence community was that if William Pickering didnt know about it, it hadnt happened.
Pickering stood, pacing now in front of his window. He asked that I contact you immediately and send you to meet with him.
He sent transportation. Its waiting outside.
Rachel frowned. The Presidents request was unnerving on its own account, but it was the look of concern on Pickerings face that really worried her. You obviously have reservations.
I sure as hell do! Pickering showed a rare flash of emotion. The Presidents timing seems almost callow in its transparency. You are the daughter of the man who is currently challenging him in the polls, and he demands a private meeting with you? I find this highly inappropriate. Your father no doubt would agree.
Rachel knew Pickering was rightnot that she gave a damn what her father thought. Do you not trust the Presidents motives?
My oath is to provide intel support to the current White House administration, not pass judgment on their politics.
Typical Pickering response, Rachel realized. William Pickering made no bones about his view of politicians as transitory figureheads who passed fleetingly across a chessboard whose real players were men like Pickering himselfseasoned lifers who had been around long enough to understand the game with some perspective. Two full terms in the White House, Pickering often said, was not nearly enough to comprehend the true complexities of the global political landscape.
Maybe its an innocent request, Rachel offered, hoping the President was above trying some sort of cheap campaign stunt. Maybe he needs a reduction of some sensitive data.
Not to sound belittling, Agent Sexton, but the White House has access to plenty of qualified gisting personnel if they need it. If its an internal White House job, the President should know better than to contact you. And if not, then he sure as hell should know better than to request an NRO asset and then refuse to tell me what he wants it for.
Pickering always referred to his employees as assets, a manner of speech many found disconcertingly cold.
Your father is gaining political momentum, Pickering said. A lot of it. The White House has got to be getting nervous. He sighed. Politics is a desperate business. When the President calls a secret meeting with his challengers daughter, Id guess theres more on his mind than intelligence gists.
Rachel felt a distant chill. Pickerings hunches had an uncanny tendency to be dead on. And youre afraid the White House feels desperate enough to introduce me into the political mix?
Pickering paused a moment. You are not exactly silent about your feelings for your father, and I have little doubt the Presidents campaign staff is aware of the rift. It occurs to me that they may want to use you against him somehow.
Where do I sign up? Rachel said, only half‑joking.
Pickering looked unimpressed. He gave her a stern stare. A word of warning, Agent Sexton. If you feel that your personal issues with your father are going to cloud your judgment in dealing with the President, I strongly advise that you decline the Presidents request for a meeting.
Decline? Rachel gave a nervous chuckle. I obviously cant refuse the President.
No, the director said, but I can.
His words rumbled a bit, reminding Rachel of the other reason Pickering was called the Quaker. Despite being a small man, William Pickering could cause political earthquakes if he were crossed.
My concerns here are simple, Pickering said. I have a responsibility to protect the people who work for me, and I dont appreciate even the vague implication that one of them might be used as a pawn in a political game.
What do you recommend I do?
Pickering sighed. My suggestion is that you meet with him. Commit to nothing. Once the President tells you what the hell is on his mind, call me. If I think hes playing political hardball with you, trust me, Ill pull you out so fast the man wont know what hit him.
Thank you, sir. Rachel sensed a protective aura from the director that she often longed for in her own father. And you said the President already sent a car?
Not exactly. Pickering frowned and pointed out the window.
Uncertain, Rachel went over and gazed out in the direction of Pickerings outstretched finger.
A snub‑nosed MH‑60G PaveHawk helicopter sat idling on the lawn. One of the fastest choppers ever made, this PaveHawk was emblazoned with the White House insignia. The pilot stood nearby, checking his watch.
Rachel turned to Pickering in disbelief. The White House sent a PaveHawk to take me fifteen miles into D.C. ?
Apparently the President hopes you are either impressed or intimidated. Pickering eyed her. I suggest you are neither.
Rachel nodded. She was both.
Four minutes later, Rachel Sexton exited the NRO and climbed into the waiting helicopter. Before she had even buckled herself in, the craft was airborne, banking hard across the Virginia woods. Rachel gazed out at the blur of trees beneath her and felt her pulse rising. It would have risen faster had she known this chopper would never reach the White House.