Langley, Virginia, USA
November 14—0901 Hours GMT–5

When Drake entered, Brandon Gazenga was already there shuffling nervously through the papers on his lap.

“Good morning, sir.”

Drake nodded and sat, breaking the seal on a folder stamped DCI’s Eyes Only and flipping through the contents. “Is it completely done?”

“Yes, sir. I consider that a final draft. It’s just waiting for you and Dave to sign off.”

Gazenga’s parents had come over on the boat from Congo when he was only six, immediately becoming a shining example of the American dream. His father had gone into the restaurant business, starting as a dishwasher and ending up the owner of a caf? chain serving cuisine from his home continent.

Despite their commitment to their new home, Brandon’s parents had never let him forget where he came from. He spoke Kituba fluently and while growing up had spent at least a month a year with his cousins in Kinshasa.

That, combined with a degree in international studies from Yale, had made him an obvious target for recruitment by the CIA. And since that recruitment, he had performed admirably — becoming one of the agency’s top central African analysts despite his relative youth.

Those qualifications alone, though, wouldn’t have been enough for Drake to include him in the off-the-books operation he’d undertaken. In the end, it was Gazenga’s personality profile that made him so perfect.

The young man still had one foot in an extremely hierarchical culture and had spent his life serving a powerful father whose recent death left him adrift. Even better, his time in poverty-stricken Kinshasa had given him a deep gratitude toward America for the opportunities it had provided. All these things combined to make him extremely susceptible to manipulation by authority figures.

“So you’re confident that it’s going to satisfy the president and his people?”

Gazenga made a subtle swipe at the sweat forming along his hairline. “I think I’ve put the best possible arguments forward, sir. Beyond the video, all anyone has regarding Bahame’s raids is legend and unreliable reports from survivors. I covered that in the first few paragraphs, highlighting the level of superstition and the discrepancies in eyewitness reports. The rest is mainly the opinions of psychologists and descriptions of similar phenomena throughout history with a focus on Pol Pot’s ability to brainwash children into perpetrating genocide in Cambodia. I sum up with a description of pertinent rituals known in Africa, including ritualized cutting and the painting of warriors with cow’s blood before going into battle.”

“What about the Iranians?”

“That’s obviously not included in the report we’re going to deliver, but I put the information at the back of your copy in the format of a Q&A. I’ve gone through every piece of information the intelligence community has connecting the Iranians to Bahame and recommended responses in the event the president is aware of the association and asks questions. Frankly, it wasn’t too difficult. The intel is pretty tenuous at this point.”

Drake skimmed the Iranian section for a moment and then tossed the file on his desk. “Another excellent job, Brandon. It’s what I’ve come to expect from you.”

Gazenga’s smile had a slightly queasy edge to it, and he took another swipe at his forehead. “Thank you, sir.”

Drake looked over his reading glasses and scowled, mindful of the importance of maintaining his role as a replacement for the father who had been lost. “Is there a problem?”

Fear flashed briefly in the young man’s eyes. “No, sir. Why would there be?”

“Because this is a tough assignment. About as tough as they get. But that’s the job we’re stuck with. Castilla is a damn fine man, but he’s a politician. I’d already been working in intelligence for fifteen years when he decided to leave his law firm and run for local office. We’re the experts, and to some extent we have to protect the country from the revolving door of Congress and the White House.”

“Yes, sir, I understand.” His voice had a comforting force to it, but there was still something audible in the background. Doubt.

“You’ve seen the same things I have, Brandon: the military and intelligence communities getting more and more politicized and bureaucratic. Constant grandstanding and posturing by the people who are supposed to be leading us. A deficit that’s pushing us into another collapse. This country is on life support, and as much as I hate to admit it, the energy coming out of the Middle East is our blood supply. Without it, this country dies.”

“I completely agree, sir,” Gazenga said, but Drake was unconvinced and decided to press his point home.

“Can you imagine what will happen if we let Iran modernize and go nuclear? There won’t be any way for us to combat their influence in the Middle East — we’ll end up in a groveling contest with the rest of the world to see who gets the opportunity to spend the rest of their lives kissing Persian ass. We have a window of opportunity here, Brandon, and it’s closing fast. We need to make the politicians understand that the American military’s failure as a nation-building organization doesn’t mean that it’s not the greatest instrument of punishment ever created.”

Gazenga nodded, seemingly regaining the resolve he’d let slip. But for how long? Drake was starting to see the limits of his influence over the young man, and it worried the hell out of him.

“All right. That’s all, Brandon. I’ll go through your report in detail tonight and let you know if I find any problems.”

Gazenga seemed relieved to be dismissed and hurried from the office. A moment later a side door opened and Dave Collen strode in.

“Have you had a chance to go through this yet?” Drake said, tapping the folder on his desk.

“Yeah, Brandon sent it to me this morning. His normal thorough job. Hell, he almost had me convinced.”

Drake nodded slowly, fixing his gaze on a blank section of wall across from him.

“This has the potential to put our problems with Castilla to bed,” Collen said. “Why don’t you look happy?”

“It’s Brandon. I’m starting to see cracks.”

“Are they wide enough that you want to do something about it?”

“No. Not yet. But I think we have to start considering the possibility that he’s going to become a liability sooner than we’d planned.”