Tel Aviv, Israel
November 13, 2015
“I would have never believed President Taylor would sell us out.” Prime Minister David Feldman was angry––and desperate.
Yossi Winer, the National Security Adviser, lowered his head. “The Americans are an ocean away. President Taylor has no idea what it is like to be truly threatened, to live surrounded by enemies.”
Also present in Feldman’s office was his Intelligence Adviser, Benjamin Roshal. “Our agents report that the Iranians will renege on the agreement once international trade is normalized. The primary objective for the Iranians was to regain access to the billions of dollars in currency and assets frozen offshore, and the freedom to sell oil openly on international markets. Once their coffers are full again, their nuclear program will be resumed—almost certainly with the aid of Russia.”
“Russia?” The question came from David.
“Yes. As you know, most of the enriched uranium that was manufactured by Iranian scientists was shipped to Russia.”
“Thousands of tons,” Yossi added. “It is no secret that Russia and Iran have been forging a closer relationship.”
David shifted his eyes to Benjamin. “How long?”
“Until they have an atomic bomb?” He shrugged, calculating the numerous variables. “Within 5 years if they have to rebuild their key reactors and resume processing fuel. However, if the Russians or Pakistanis help, it could be much sooner.”
“With enough money, anything is for sale,” Yossi added glumly. “Once the sanctions are lifted, the Iranians will have plenty of money.”
“What are the most likely scenarios?” David asked from behind his desk, leaving his advisers standing.
“Benjamin and I have studied this risk in great detail. When the sanctions are lifted—”
“You think there is no hope that we can convince the West to stall?”
“No, sir,” Benjamin answered. Months ago he had resigned himself to the new reality for Israel—the reality of a nuclear-armed Iran.
David raised a finger and swirled it in a circle aimed at Yossi, his signal to continue. “With a few hundred million dollars, Iran can buy a weapon from many sources. Most likely, from a disgruntled former Russian officer. Possibly from the Ukraine. Or, maybe from the Pakistanis.”
Benjamin nodded, his expression dour. “Our agents believe that Hezbollah might be the eager recipient of such a weapon. Iran would be able to deny they had any role in the deal, and Hezbollah has hundreds of loyal soldiers who could smuggle a bomb into Israel.”
“We need to increase the number of radiation scanners at the border crossings,” David said to neither man in particular, but Yossi took it as an action item.
“You cannot guarantee the survival of Israel with radiation scanners,” Benjamin said.
David cast a piercing gaze upon his trusted advisor. “And what would you have me do? Iran outnumbers our military four to one. They have a capable navy, as well as sophisticated missile systems. Our nuclear arsenal has been the only deterrent we enjoy. And, if your predictions are accurate, that will soon be nullified.”
“If Iran attacks the homeland, the U.S. and NATO allies will rush to our side,” Yossi observed. Israel had always been a very close ally of the U.S. and most European countries. Ironically, Germany had evolved to be one of Israel’s strongest benefactors, second only to the United States. It seemed that modern German governments were still repenting for the horrors wrought by the Nazis.
“And what good will that be if Tel Aviv is a smoking ruin?”
“Perhaps,” Benjamin offered, pressing a finger to his lips, sensing the time was right, “perhaps, we should think proactively rather than reactively.”
David and Yossi both looked at the Intelligence Adviser. Benjamin allowed a moment to pass, ensuring he had their full attention. “The fathers of Israel would never have allowed such a threat to exist. They would have dispatched it before the threat was material.”
The Prime Minister narrowed his eyes. “Are you suggesting a pre-emptive strike?”
“We’ve done it before,” Yossi said. “Air strikes, sabotage. We’ve even destroyed key reactor parts and uranium fuel being readied to ship from ports in France.”
“I’m quite familiar with the Begin Doctrine,” David answered, referring to a fundamental tenet of Israeli foreign policy to use pre-emptive force in self-defense.
Yossi deferred to Benjamin. “David, one simply needs to read the newspaper to understand that Jews are constantly under threat. Persecution of our brothers and sisters is becoming more common. Last week a teenager was knifed to death in Lyon, France, by two immigrants simply because he was Jewish. In London, the Faithful have been advised not to appear in public wearing the kippah for fear of retribution by Muslims. Hezbollah continues to harass our northern border, and Fatah is constantly planning and launching raids across our southern border. And it has only been three weeks since the terrorist attack in Eilat. We know that attack was orchestrated by Hezbollah and financed by Iranian agents.”
The Prime Minister’s shoulders slumped under the great weight of it all. The deadly terrorist attack at the gorgeous Hilton Queen of Sheba hotel in the port city of Eilat was still a fresh wound in Israel. Known for the gorgeous snorkeling and scuba diving nearby in the Red Sea, the Queen of Sheba hotel was packed with tourists, mostly Israelis, on holiday. Six Hezbollah terrorists—three men and three women, posing as couples on vacation—went on a killing rampage. They wandered the halls and lobby of the hotel for over an hour, firing automatic weapons and tossing grenades into the terrified crowds using tactics copied from the Pakistani terrorists who had nearly destroyed the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai in 2008.
Eventually, all six terrorists were shot dead by security troops, but not before 137 civilians—including children as young as two years old—were murdered. The nation was still mourning the loss.
“The Middle East has changed much since the 60s and 70s,” David objected. “The Arab Coalition we faced in those days no longer exists. It has been replaced with new alliances––ones that are much stronger. You said yourself that Russia and Iran are developing ties. And what of China?” He shook his head. “China does not have the energy resources she needs to fully modernize. Do you think China will miss an opportunity to ally with our oil-rich enemies?”
Yossi held his hands out at his sides, imploring the Prime Minister to keep an open mind. “David, please. Listen to Benjamin. Hear him out before you make a decision.”
Feldman turned to Benjamin and dipped his chin in a curt nod. “You have a plan?”
“Indeed. We must strike Iran a deathblow before the hard liners acquire even one atomic bomb. We will take advantage of the animosity between the Sunni majority of Saudi Arabia and the Shia clerics who have ruled Iran since 1979.”
For several silent minutes David Feldman considered what his advisers were saying. If Israel did strike first in accord with the Begin Doctrine, there was plenty of precedent for such action. Although the international community as a rule condemned first-strike military actions, the UN seemed to be willing to grant Israel more leeway in dealing with threats to her security.
“For the sake of argument, let’s imagine Israel does attack Iran. What do you suggest is the objective? There are no operational nuclear facilities, are there?” He raised an eyebrow with this last question as he locked eyes with Yossi.
Benjamin cleared his throat. “No. For the moment at least, there are no nuclear programs of any significance underway in Iran. And we must ensure they are never able to develop or purchase such weapons.”
“So you have said. What is it exactly that you suggest I do?”
Benjamin straightened his back and squared his shoulders. “For the sake of God, we must change the map of the Middle East forever. Our enemies must be defeated once and for all.”
Slowly, David Feldman rose from his chair. In silent contemplation he rounded his desk and stood toe to toe with his National Security and Intelligence advisers. “We can do this?”
Yossi and Benjamin both nodded.
“You have a plan?” David asked.
“We do,” Yossi answered. “I suggest we brief you fully, including the general staff.”
“It would be a historic achievement for Israel.” David rubbed his chin as he turned to pace across his office. “It would ensure our security for generations.”
“You would be a national hero,” Benjamin offered.
Feldman stopped, a disturbing thought suddenly coming to mind. “What if the plan fails? We cannot win a protracted battle with Iran. And what of Russia?”
For the first time since the meeting began, Benjamin Roshal offered a smile. “We have the backing of the American military. Russia will not intervene. And if the plan does not go as well as expected, the American war machine will prove to be an invincible ally as we defeat first Iran, then Syria and Iraq. Libya, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories will be ours for the taking.”
David snorted a disingenuous laugh. “You can’t possibly believe President Taylor will offer military support to Israel in this venture.”
“No,” replied Benjamin, a crafty smirk still plastered across his face. “But the next U.S. President will.”
New York City
Eli moved forward in purposeful strides. Head down, he wore dark glasses, gloves, and a black beret. The collar of his black wool overcoat was turned up to ward off the frigid air. A stiff leather messenger pouch hung at his side, the contents given to him by Benny Goldsmith, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States.
An experienced agent of Mossad, Eli never questioned orders. Questions were a luxury for naïve idealists and dreamers. That was not Eli. He was a warrior fighting for the survival of his people, his homeland. It was not his job to make policy, to decide what course of action should be taken. Rather, he was an implement of action to ensure the desired results were achieved.
Sometimes, that meant exporting the violence, so that others would understand.
Everything Eli did this night, from the way he dressed, to the locations he scouted and ultimately selected, to the timing of his actions—everything—was coldly calculated to send a message.
It was 3:00 am, and the sidewalks were all but deserted. He turned the corner into an alley behind Langan’s Pub, just off West 47th Street and a half block from Times Square. He passed a homeless man pressed tight against the brick wall, burrowed under a filthy blanket and with the remains of a large cardboard box for cover. The rank odor of vomit, stale urine, and rotten food assaulted his senses.
Ahead, the mechanical rumble of heavy machinery announced the approach of a garbage truck a few seconds before its lights appeared at the opposite end of the alley. The truck was just turning off West 46th, right on schedule.
Eli jogged to a commercial refuse bin behind the pub. He only had a minute, maybe two, to complete his task without arousing suspicion from the truck driver. Plunging his hand into the messenger pouch, he retrieved a yellow-green object. It filled his hand as his fingers wrapped around the device, obscuring it from view of the security camera aimed from the far side of the alley toward the steel dumpster. With his free hand, he removed first a safety tie and then a metal ring attached to a pin. Then he carefully stuffed the grenade against a front wheel of the dumpster so that when the bin was pulled forward to be emptied, the lever would pop off and ignite the chemical fuze.
His task completed, Eli turned and swiftly exited on West 47th Street. As he crossed Times Square, the sharp report of the explosion was proof his mission had succeeded. He strode down another alley, placing three more grenades, before vanishing into the night.
* * *
The sanitation department driver was on autopilot. He’d been working this route for close to three years, long enough that the motions were more muscle memory than deliberate thought. With the diesel engine rumbling in idle, he hopped out of the cab and wrestled the dumpster forward about six feet. When the fragmentation grenade detonated, the driver was in the process of climbing back into the cab. The blast slammed the open cab door into his body, knocking him to the pavement. The dumpster cartwheeled into the air, landing with a clang 20 feet away. Dozens of steel fragments pierced the front of the garbage truck, including three that penetrated through the door and lodged in the driver’s thigh and shoulder.
Almost immediately, passersby appeared from nowhere, drawn in the alley by the sound of the explosion. Soon, sirens blared and two police cruisers arrived on scene, their flashing colored lights seeming to add to the chaos. A civilian was applying pressure to the worst of the driver’s leg wounds, stemming the flow of blood.
One of the officers was holding back the onlookers, whose ranks had grown to nearly a dozen, while the other was speaking over his radio to dispatch. “We have one victim, male, he’s conscious with multiple wounds. Request emergency medical help, this guy is bleeding pretty bad.”
“Dispatch. Roger request for med―”
The sharp crack of two nearly-simultaneous explosions drown out the reply from dispatch. Reflexively, the two police officers ducked, but quickly it became apparent they were not in imminent danger. As the officer called in the report, one thought was foremost in his mind—It’s going to be a long night.
* * *
With a 20-block area surrounding Times Square evacuated and sealed off, NYC police along with agents from BATF and the FBI, scoured the area for clues as well as additional explosive devices. The security tape from the video camera by the first bomb had been reviewed, and law enforcement knew their prime suspect was male, with short black hair—possibly Middle Eastern but it was not possible to pull many facial details from the images.
By noon, they had found only one unexploded device, a military hand grenade also placed at the base of a commercial trash bin close to Times Square. Fortunately, there was a surveillance camera nearby, and it showed images of the same suspect as from the first bombing. Declaring the streets safe, the evacuation order was lifted.
Considering the nature of the recovered device, plus evidence that the three exploded devices were fragmentation bombs, possibly hand grenades, the investigative lead was turned over to the FBI. Before the day was over, an explosive ordinance expert from the U.S. Army confirmed the unexploded grenade was of Iranian manufacture.
“You guys are lucky no one was killed,” the expert explained. He was video conferencing with FBI agent in charge, Special Agent Wilhelm. “That’s a fragmentation grenade. Killing radius is 8 meters.”
“We don’t often see military explosives in domestic bombings,” Wilhelm said. “Usually it’s homemade IEDs. You sure it’s Iranian?”
“Absolutely. The markings are distinctive, as is the overall design. It’s a rough copy of the older pineapple-style hand grenade popular during the mid-twentieth century.”
Wilhelm was studying the photograph displayed over the video link. “This is the condition of the grenade when it was found?”
“That’s right. Apparently, a patrol officer found it at the base of a dumpster about a block away from the second explosion. The pin was still in place. It was completely safe.”
“That’s odd. Why would the bomber place three grenades, pulling the pin and setting each to explode when the trash bins were moved, and yet fail to arm the fourth device?”
The Army expert shrugged. “Can’t help you there. Anyway, that’s all I have. Let me know if any other questions come up during your investigation.”
“Yeah, sure. Thank you.” And then a moment later, just before the expert hung up, “Oh one more question.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Any idea how someone in New York would come into possession of Iranian hand grenades?”
“Well, the obvious answer is your suspect is connected to Iranian military, maybe the Revolutionary Guards.”
Wilhelm had already thought of that possibility. “Yes, but how does he get the grenades—let’s say there were four of them—into this country? It wouldn’t be easy to get hand grenades through airport security; I don’t care what country you’re in.”
“Like I said, beats me. Maybe he’s a diplomat?”
“Iran and the U.S. don’t have diplomatic relations.”
“Sorry, I can’t help you with that one. Give me a call if you have questions of a military nature.”
Special Agent Wilhelm eased back in his chair, deep in thought. How would I smuggle grenades from Iran into New York? If the answer involved secure diplomatic pouches, it would have to be through a government friendly—or at least sympathetic—to the Islamic Republic of Iran. I don’t even know how to begin investigating that angle.
He decided to see what forensics came up with. Maybe the facial images captured by the security cameras would return a positive ID after running through the many data bases maintained by U.S. and European agencies.
Wilhelm sighed. He was a realist, and he knew that short of a miracle, if the facial recognition software came up empty, this case would go cold within a week.
The chime from Emma’s phone woke her from a fitful slumber. She glanced at the clock—5:30 am. Hopeful that it was the email she had been expecting, she rolled out of bed, grabbed her laptop, and quietly entered the kitchen so as not to wake Kate. While her PC was booting up she heated a mug of water in the microwave and began steeping a tea bag—black tea infused with orange and spices—and returned to her desk. There it was, an email message from Jon Q with a single large PDF attachment.
The file was titled “Traitors Within.” She thought that odd, but then realized almost everything about this contact was odd. The communication was always email, always using aliases, anonymity being of paramount concern. Emma knew almost nothing of her contact—gender, age, race—all unknown. She didn’t even know if he—she had a mental picture of her contact as a nerdish male, about twenty-fiveish—lived in the United States or abroad.
And then there was this whole dark web thing. Emma wasn’t a computer geek, but she had heard of the dark web—mostly in news reports about arrests of hackers charged with stealing financial and personal data. Emma had surfed several online forums about hacking government sites until she made the connection with Jon Q. That was almost three weeks ago.
When Emma explained her request and how it had irreparably affected her family, Jon Q bragged that he could access the Department of Defense records and get the information she was seeking.
“But how can you be certain?” she wrote. “You don’t even know where this information is. It could be anywhere after all these years—or nowhere. For all we know, it may have been deleted as part of the cover up.”
“Relax Cupcake.” That was Jon Q’s pet name for Emma. She hated it.
“With the exception of 18 minutes of the Nixon tapes, Big Brother never deletes anything. The information is there—always is. Just waiting for me to find it and bring it into the light of day.”
“Why do you do this?”
“It’s my duty as a patriot to expose the corruption and waste that pervades every aspect of government.”
“You’re not a terrorist, are you?”
“Cupcake, you really need to chill. I’m not going to blow up anything. I’m not a terrorist.”
“Then why are you doing this?” she wrote back. “You can’t expect to change anything. People have tried before—you know, exposing government secrets, embarrassing secrets. And nothing changes, not really.”
“I already told you. That and the money.”
Emma sighed when she read that in the email. Of course she knew payment would be required. But it wasn’t the first thing Jon Q demanded, so she allowed herself to believe that maybe he wasn’t going to ask for much.
“Naturally,” she wrote. “For love of country and money. Look, I’m a student. I don’t have much.”
“Already trying to negotiate my rate down, and I haven’t even quoted you a price. Like I said, I’m on a mission—you might call it a crusade—to expose the lies and dirty secrets powerful people in Washington don’t want Joe Citizen to know. Sounds like you might be onto something here, a really juicy secret. So, I’ll cut you a deal. I’d normally get ten grand for this type of job. But for you, this job, I’ll settle for five.”
By the time the negotiation was concluded, Emma had worked the price down to $3,000—all of her savings—payable in bit coins. Harder to trace, Jon Q had explained.
That was two weeks ago.
She was beginning to believe that Jon Q was running a scam; that he had taken her savings and would never actually hack the records that had been buried for close to half a century: records of a violent battle that claimed her grandfather’s life—a battle that should never have occurred.
Emma had not received any messages from Jon Q for close to two weeks, but now she had this email and file. She double clicked on the icon. Several seconds later the file opened and filled her screen.
The PDF document was actually a large collection of official reports and memos. At least they looked official, some with a Department of Navy header and seal, others from the State Department. There were even memos from the Department of Justice and the White House. The font was irregular, as would have been the case for typed documents from the period. They were all dated 1967, as early as June and then moving forward into July, August, and September.
Her hand gripped the teacup, squeezing until her fingertips turned white as she read. And she continued reading, even as the tea cooled to lukewarm.
She never heard Kate approach, and when her roommate gently placed her hand on Emma’s shoulder, she startled.
“You’re up early. Is everything alright?” Kate asked.
“Oh, uh, yeah––just couldn’t sleep.” Emma minimized the PDF file, allowing Kate only a brief glimpse.
“What are you working on?”
“Oh this? Just some research for my history paper. Thought I’d get an early start on it.”
Kate eyed her friend suspiciously. “You sure everything is okay?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?” Emma knew she wasn’t a convincing liar.
Pressed for time, Kate decided to let it go… for now. She chugged down a spinach-blackberry smoothie, a favorite concoction she had blended the previous night and stored in the refrigerator. “Hey, why don’t you text me this afternoon if you want to meet after classes. Tim is tending bar tonight at Brother Jonathan’s.” Kate was smiling with her eyebrows raised as she mentioned this. For weeks she’d been trying to set up Emma with her friend, much to Emma’s dismay.
“Yeah, okay,” Emma said, her tone contradicting her words.
“I know that look. Let me know if you change your mind. Gotta go shower and dress; I’m already late.”
Alone again, Emma returned to reading the Department of Navy memo. It was short, only three sentences, and addressed to the crew of the USS Liberty and their families. The order was simple, direct: Do not talk to the press… to your friends… to anyone. The incident is classified, and violation of this order will result in legal prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.
This information didn’t help Emma. Her mother had already told her of the order to remain silent under threat of imprisonment at Leavenworth, the order still binding on descendants of the sailors who were engaged in the action. What Emma wanted—needed—were answers. She had tried in vain to get answers through official channels, filing four separate requests under the Freedom of Information Act. All were flatly denied.
She sighed and moved on to the next document, and the next—searching for answers as to why an obscure battle that took place so many decades ago was still highly classified.
* * *
Oblivious to the passage of time, Emma was completely absorbed by the documents, page after page. She stopped only long enough to grab a cup of strong coffee, hoping the caffeine would help to keep her mind sharp. As she read, she was taking notes, laying out the chronology of the attack on her grandfather’s ship.
Her mother had told her some of the facts, such as the date of the attack—June 8, 1967. As well as the casualties—34 Americans killed and 171 wounded. Emma knew that the Liberty was heavily damaged and came close to sinking—probably would have had it not been for the heroic leadership of Captain William McGonagle and the desperate, tireless efforts of the crew.
Other information about the attack she had gleaned from several books and Internet sites. All of the public sources retold nearly the same story.
On the morning of June 8, four days into the Six-Day War, the USS Liberty was in international waters in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Egypt. Several Israeli aircraft flew over the Liberty that morning. However, the U.S. officially maintained a neutral position during the Israeli-Arab war, and Captain McGonagle had no reason to suspect his ship and crew were in danger.
The attack commenced suddenly, and without provocation or warning. Israeli jet fighters repeatedly strafed and rocketed the lightly armed intelligence ship. The crew fought back as best they could, but with only .50-caliber machine guns, they could not mount an effective defense.
Another wave of jets came in and dropped napalm on the foredeck of the ship. Ablaze, the crew ducked bullets and rockets to fight the fire, eventually bringing it under control.
The stars-and-stripes flying above the ship was shot down, only to be replaced.
With ordinance expended, the Israeli aircraft broke off, making way for an even deadlier assault. Three torpedo boats motoring at high speed aimed directly for the Liberty. They launched five torpedoes. Miraculously, only one struck the crippled ship, blasting a hole nearly 40-feet across. In that split second, Emma’s grandfather and 23 other servicemen lost their lives.
Emma felt her anger rising as she read the account again, this time directly from the official reports and memos. She closed her eyes and imagined the screams from the wounded. The blackened steel plates, blood-splattered decks and bulkheads, limbs and corpses strewn haphazardly by the rocket explosions and large-caliber machinegun fire.
She knew her grandfather was a radio operator and his desk was in a cabin below the waterline, exactly where the torpedo exploded with devastating effect. Like countless nights before, she envisaged the terror of water flooding into the ebony-black tomb. And like before, she prayed he had perished instantly from the explosion. To suffer through drowning, alone and in black isolation, was certainly hell on Earth.
A myriad of questions swirled in her mind, festering over the years without answers. Now she was on the verge of unravelling the mystery, or so she hoped. Yet despite her optimism, after reading more than half of the documents in the file, she still was no closer to knowing why. Why did Israel conduct a protracted air and sea attack on a U.S. Navy surveillance vessel? Why did the U.S. Naval command recall fighter aircraft that could have helped to defend the Liberty? And why did the Navy, the Congress, and the President cover up the whole affair?
She was beginning to think that this was a fool’s errand, that she had drained her savings and received useless information—likely acquired illegally—in vain. But if Emma was anything, she was determined.
The next memo had been typed on White House letterhead. Across the top read CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET. It was a short memo, and didn’t take long to read.
“Oh my God.” Emma mouthed the words, her voice not even a whisper. Her pulse was racing, her mind swirling in a tangle of thoughts.
She would have to go to the press, naturally. She’d start with the Bend Bulletin and convince them to write an exposé. But any journalist would demand proof that the documents she possessed were genuine.
That was a troubling question, since Emma had received the file from an anonymous hacker. Maybe the file wasn’t genuine? Maybe Jon Q had compiled a fake?
No, she wouldn’t let herself believe that. She would print several of the most damaging memos and use that to garner the reporter’s interest. Maybe she would eventually share the emails and electronic file, too. Then it would be up to the reporter to authenticate the information. After all, that’s what a good investigative reporter does, she reasoned.
The doorbell interrupted Emma’s planning. Through the sidelight she saw a man at the door. He was dressed in a gray suit with tie and wearing dark sunglasses. His black hair was cropped short, military style.
“Hello,” she said as she opened the door.
“Good morning ma’am. I’m with the FBI, Portland office.” He held out his ID next to a metal badge. Emma looked hard at the ID.
“Agent Barnes?” She read his name.
“May I come in? I need to discuss an ongoing investigation concerning cyber security.”
With paranoia gnawing at her gut, she motioned him inside.
The rented house had a small living room. Emma directed Agent Barnes to an armless padded chair, and she sat at one end of the sofa. She hoped her mounting fear wasn’t showing.
“What is this about? Why do you want to talk to me?” she asked, trying to keep her voice even. How would someone normally act, she thought. Curious, I should be curious.
Barnes made a show of looking at his pocket-sized notepad. “Miss Emma Jones, is that correct?” he asked, ignoring her question.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I need to ask you some questions about your email. Is that alright?”
Emma’s pulse quickened. Stay calm, she thought. He can’t possibly know about the messages from John Q. And so what if he does; I haven’t hacked into any restricted servers.
“Do you receive a lot of junk mail or spam?”
“Sure, I suppose. What’s a lot?”
Barnes seemed to be looking right through her, trying to interpret her body language. It was normal for people to be anxious and uncomfortable when questioned about a case. Often perspiring, sometimes stumbling over words to construct a coherent sentence. In fact, it was the criminals who were most likely to be casual, uncaring in their response, thinking that was the normal reaction.
“Over the last few days, have you received any suspicious or odd emails from anyone you don’t personally know?”
“Well,” Emma said, “you mean other than the spam?”
“Yes. Other than the usual junk messages and advertising.”
Emma felt the weight of his stare as she thought how to answer his question. Surely he knows. Maybe I should just tell him the truth.
“Miss Jones. Please answer my question.”
As Emma rubbed her hands, they felt clammy. “Well, let me think…”
Barnes held his pen, ready to scribe her answer in his notepad.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “No, I don’t think so.”
Agent Barnes leaned back in the chair and laid his pen down.
“Miss Jones.” He spoke in an even tone, his words measured, carefully chosen. “I don’t believe you are being completely honest with me. You are pretending to be ignorant. Now, why would you do that?”
She stared back, chewing her lip.
“I know that a file was emailed to you last night. It came from an individual who likes to call himself John Q. And I also know he sent several other email messages to you over the past three weeks. It seems that you and Mr. Jon Q had a rather extensive correspondence.”
Emma felt her heart pounding, beads of perspiration threatened to slide down her forehead. She was squeezing her hands so tightly the knuckles were white.
Under the FBI agent’s withering gaze, she slowly nodded.
Barnes sighed and then placed the notepad in the breast pocket of his suit jacket.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Emma said. “Honest! You can read the emails yourself.”
Barnes had heard it all before. He sighed again, this time louder, and placed both hands on his knees. “Okay. I believe you. But you will have to cooperate with the investigation. You will have to truthfully answer all my questions.”
“Okay,” she nodded.
“Let’s begin with the emails. Let’s look at your computer.”
“It’s in the dining room, I was reading his last message when you rang the doorbell.” She rose and walked toward the table next to the kitchen, Barnes following closely.
“Here,” she pointed at the laptop, the screen still displaying the White House memo. “This file was attached to his last email. I really think this is important. It should be made available to the public. My grandfather was on the Liberty. He was one of the sailors who was killed.”
Barnes leaned in and inserted a thumb drive into a USB slot. Then he took a step back.
“I’m sorry for your loss Miss Jones, but it was a necessary sacrifice. Now, please save that PDF file to the thumb drive.”
She entered a few keystrokes to transfer the data, then ejected the portable drive.
“Thank you,” he said, and pocketed the thumb drive. “I just have a couple more questions—” Barnes coughed. “Do you have some juice, or a soda?”
“Sure.” Emma wanted to be helpful. She believed that if she fully cooperated, the FBI would treat her as a witness rather than someone who helped in the crime.
She turned her back to Agent Barnes and walked to the kitchen, opening the refrigerator.
“That’s fine,” he said.
Emma looked over her shoulder into the barrel of a gun. She still had one hand holding the refrigerator door, her eyes wide in fear.
“Who are you?” Emma asked.
Her question was met with a silent glare.
“Please, just let me go.”
“I can’t do that.” He held the gun steady.
Tears welled up in Emma’s eyes. “Please…”
That was the last sound she heard.
A small red circle formed instantly between her eyebrows, and Emma collapsed to the floor.
Barnes holstered the weapon, slipped on gloves, and then proceeded to ransack the house. He entered the bedrooms and dumped the drawers onto the floor. In the dining room there was a small desk, and he again tossed the contents on the floor, pocketing a ten-dollar bill he found in the pencil drawer.
Satisfied, he turned his attention to the laptop. Reinserting the thumb drive, he opened an executable file. Soon, he was prompted to type in and confirm a new password. His job nearly completed, he gathered the laptop.
As he closed the front door, Barnes glanced around the neighborhood. It was quiet, with older ranch-style homes set well back from the street on large lots. Every house had at least one mature pine tree in the front yard. It was mid-day, and no one was strolling the sidewalk; no cars or delivery trucks were moving on the street.
Agent Barnes walked to his car, place the laptop on the passenger seat, and drove away.
The yellow crime-scene tape spoke volumes. Behind closed doors, the neighbors all asked the same question: What happened? By the time the ambulance arrived, a crowd of about two dozen had gathered on the far side of the street. Some were holding cups of coffee; a few were drinking from beer bottles. The atmosphere was one of morbid curiosity.
The local television station had their van parked nearby and was transmitting live updates. The cameraman was there to film the covered body wheeled out on a gurney late in the evening, footage guaranteed to be played on the 11:00 pm newscast.
The forensics team was still busy collecting evidence, room by room, and documenting the crime scene. It was going to be a late night.
Standing in the living room, Ruth Colson was looking toward the kitchen and dining room. Colson was a handful of years away from retirement, yet her energy and passion for solving crimes had not abated in her 34 years of police work. Her gray hair was short, giving her a masculine appearance. She had been on her feet almost continuously for the past three hours; thankfully, she was wearing her trademark neon-green Oregon Duck sneakers.
With both hands braced on her narrow hips, she said, “No shell casing… we have a small-caliber entry wound, but no exit… and no stippling on the victim’s face, consistent with a lack of observable GSR…”
Standing beside Ruth was her junior colleague, Niki Nakano. “The lab may still find gunshot residue on the victim’s clothing.”
Niki was relatively new to the Detective Unit, and had been mentoring under Ruth for close to a year. A third generation Japanese-American, her parents had instilled in Niki a thirst for excellence and success that drove her from Patrol to Detective by age 32.
“True, but for now all we know is that GSR is apparently lacking, suggesting the shot was fired from a distance.”
Detective Colson stepped toward the kitchen until she had a clear view of the refrigerator. She stretched her left hand out, miming a gun. “If the perp was standing here, the gun would be only five or six feet from the victim. At that distance there should have been extensive blood stippling on her face from the powder and bullet residue.”
Niki walked around the dining room, which was separated from the kitchen by a wall of cabinets with a pass-through counter. Finding the spot where she had an unobstructed angle on the refrigerator, she repeated her mentor’s exercise. “This is as far away as the shooter could have been; and it’s still—what—maybe 12 feet?”
“Plus, the shot would have just missed the wall and cabinets,” Ruth pointed to the wall on either side of the pass through. “Make sure they swab this area for GSR.” She leaned in close, careful not to brush her face against the painted surface, her flashlight on, scrutinizing the white paint for particles that could have come from the discharge of a firearm. She shook her head. “I don’t see anything.”
“None of the neighbors reported hearing a gunshot. Maybe the shooter used a silencer?”
“No, it just isn’t right. In order to account for the evidence, the theory is getting too complicated. We have what appears to be a simple home invasion burglary that went bad because Emma Jones wasn’t supposed to be home. But why?”
“Why this house? It’s a rental. Two students. They don’t own much property of value. And to suggest that a silenced weapon was used… that’s for the pros. It doesn’t fit. This crime screams amateur.”
Niki understood. “Except for the ballistics.”
“Could be subsonic .22 ammunition.”
“Maybe. We’ll know more once the lab results are in.”
“The roommate—Kate—what did she say when asked what was missing?”
Niki referred to her notes before answering. “She didn’t take an inventory, she was pretty distraught. But she said they didn’t have much—no money or jewelry, no guns or expensive electronics. She did mention that Emma’s laptop was gone. She said it was on the table when she left in the morning, that Emma was working on something. We’ll have her go through the house later, probably tomorrow if she can handle it. She was taken to the station for a complete statement.”
“So only a laptop was taken. And we have a most unusual head wound on the victim.”
“I don’t know what to make of it,” Niki said.
Ruth frowned. “Neither do I.”
* * *
Sheltered from North Pacific storms by Vancouver Island, the quaint port city of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is a recreational paradise. Accessed only by boat or plane, getting to and from this sleepy town takes just enough effort to keep the population at a little over 2,000.
When Mitch Kemmel dropped out of college to pursue his computer interests, Friday Harbor suited his needs well. With good civic infrastructure, including an undersea cable providing electricity and high-speed internet, he had all the modern necessities his newfound profession demanded. Yet he was far enough away from Big Brother that the thought of government oversight was almost laughable. Many of the people calling San Juan Island home embraced bartering to avoid taxes and aligned themselves with the most liberal political positions. Mitch had two friends living on acreage outside the city limits who had gone completely off the net—hadn’t filed tax returns in years and, for all intents and purposes, didn’t exist in the eyes of the local or Federal government.
Like most other days, Mitch was working at his office—a study in his modest house on Browne Street. The solitary window was covered with aluminum foil, ensuring no one could spy on his activities. He preferred a more powerful tower PC to a laptop for most of his coding. On the desk were three monitors side-by-side between two art-glass desk lamps.
Mitch lived on the dark web. He had complete confidence in his hacking skills to keep his actions untraceable. Now he was searching a popular bulletin board for the next opportunity.
The project he had just finished on the USS Liberty was sufficiently interesting to compensate for the poor payout. He’d added those files to his growing library, all stored on a server in the corner of his office. He was too paranoid to store information in the cloud—one never knew when the software and search-engine giants would be forced to grant back-door access to Big Brother.
Hell, maybe they already had for all he knew.
It was midafternoon, and he wasn’t expecting any visitors, so when the doorbell rang he ignored it. Then it rang again. Annoyed, Mitch left his study, ready to tell whoever it was to go away.
Through the peep glass in the front door, he recognized a mail carrier’s uniform, complete with a satchel hanging from her shoulder by a wide leather strap. The woman was holding a white box with red and blue markings indicating it was Priority Mail. The annoyance subsided, and he opened the door.
She said, “Mitch Kemmel?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Priority package,” she said as she extended the box forward.
Mitch grasped it with both hands, surprised at how light it was—as if the box were empty. “Thank you,” he said as he looked at the mail carrier.
Rather than a pleasant face, he was looking directly into the barrel of a gun. The carrier pulled the trigger and with a whisper of a metallic clang, Mitch Kemmel was dead.
The shooter glanced around quickly while pulling on latex gloves. Not seeing any passersby, she dragged Mitch inside and closed the door. Moving quickly from room to room, she tossed drawers in the bedroom and then found the study. She stashed a half-dozen memory sticks and about 20 CDs inside the satchel. Then she used a set of screwdrivers to expertly remove the solid-state hard drives from the tower as well as the server, placing everything into the satchel.
In less than 15 minutes, she picked up the empty Priority Mail box and was out the door, driving away in a white minivan with red and blue tape striping and a U.S. Postal Service magnetic placard on the door.