Chapter Twenty-Nine

The Warehouse

Baltimore, Maryland

June 15, 1:05 a.m. EST

“Why is it bullshit?” demanded Aunt Sallie.

“Let’s conference in Bug,” said Circe, and a moment later the bespectacled young man was peering at them from a screen next to the one showing Aunt Sallie.

“Here’s the problem,” began Circe. “I’ve done extensive work on damaged and partial documents. If you look at the history of recovered writings, from cartouches on Egyptian stelae, the Dead Sea scrolls, to things like this flash drive, the information gaps are random. They’re determined by chance, by exposure to elements, and other factors.”

Bug nodded agreement, and Rudy could tell that he was already on the same page as Circe.

Auntie peered over her glasses. “That’s not what you’re seeing here? So what am I missing?”

“It’s the inventory,” answered Circe. “We have two clear JPEGS of nuclear devices and several other ‘damaged’ image files. That gives us the type of device and establishes that they are already in place. We have field notes from an operative with a Geiger counter. Not a tape or digital recording of the counter, but personal observation notes that look like they were transferred from a phone text message. We have a list of targets, which is naturally compelling but also weirdly precise, considering that Rasouli has no verifiable ‘source’ for any of this. There’s more, but that’s my first impression.”

“Wow,” said Rudy. “You got all that by looking at this for twenty minutes? You always impress me, my dear.”

“No,” interrupted Circe, “that’s just it, this is too fast. Too easy. It’s like we’re being handed too much too soon.” Again, Bug was nodding along with everything she said.

Rudy frowned. “Isn’t that was Rasouli was trying to do?”

“Yes,” conceded Circe, “and I might have been less suspicious if the drive was intact. What troubles me is the fact that the drive was damaged and yet there are a lot of very key pieces here.”

“Exactamundo,” agreed Bug.

“It doesn’t make sense, though” Circe said, then quickly corrected herself. “No-it does make sense, but only if the person placing those files on the drive knew that the drive would be damaged.”

“Yup.”

“No, that’s wrong, too,” murmured Aunt Sallie. “Damage from moisture is random. Does this mean that the files were added after the flash drive was removed during the autopsy?”

“I don’t think so,” said Bug. “In fact I’m pretty sure that’s not the case.”

Rudy asked, “Admittedly I don’t know what I’m talking about, so forgive me if this is a foolish question, but… we can’t actually be certain that the drive was really swallowed by Rasouli’s agent, can we? So, could the moisture damage have been deliberate?”

Bug grinned so hard his face looked ready to explode. “Bingo!”

“Okay, boy genius,” said Aunt Sallie, “tell us.”

“I could do it,” said Bug. “In fact I’m really, really, really sure that someone else who is almost as smart as me did exactly that.”

“Almost as smart?”

Bug sniffed. “If I did it, no one would ever have figured it out.”

“Arrogance is a serious personality flaw,” said Rudy, but he was smiling.

“The whole package here is a little too cute,” said Bug. “Either Rasouli thinks we’re pretty dumb, which isn’t likely; or he thinks we’re really smart. I’m going with that, because layer after layer he’s giving us useful stuff, but stuff only we’d figure out. I mean, I’d buy the whole ‘this was damaged’ business if there were more bits of useless junk, but there’s hardly any of that. Almost everything we have is useful in some way.”

“Which is statistically improbable,” added Circe.

“Why the subterfuge?” mused Rudy. “If the drive was deliberately damaged, should we infer that Rasouli is double-crossing us in some way?”

“Possibly,” said Bug. “At the same time, I don’t think he knows enough. By fragmenting the data he has, it tells us a lot while at the same time possibly disguising all that he doesn’t know.”

“Why go to such lengths?” asked Rudy. “He reached out to us for our help.”

“Politics,” suggested Aunt Sallie. “He’s an ambitious little bastard. Maybe he found a way of strengthening his position within Iran, or maybe within Islam, while still removing a possible threat to his country. The less specific he is with us, the easier it could be to spin the actual outcome in his favor.”

“That’s cynical,” Rudy said.

“Hell, we do it all the time. Spin control is the second most important tool of statecraft, and probably the third most important weapon of war after big guns and strong allies.”

“It’s also devious,” added Rudy. “Very much the Hugo Vox model.”

Circe sighed. “Yes.”

“Do we trust the information?” asked Auntie. “ Can we trust it?”

“Do we have a choice?” muttered Circe.

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