The Department (Prologue)
The man sat down on the stool to my left at the Old Ebbitt Grill. It was Friday afternoon in Washington, the second official day of summer, and yet it felt like the days of 90-degree highs and 100-percent humidity had arrived a month ago. As was my habit, ingrained somehow by all my years of military service and performed involuntarily, I glanced over as surreptitiously as I could out of the corner of my eye and took his measure; a bit older than me, well-dressed, but not ridiculously so like 98 percent of the “white collar” people do in the Capitol — no obligatory jewelry, lapel pin, or cuff links — and apparently by himself. He looked like the older guy in the Brooks Brothers’ ads.
After a few minutes we finally exchanged pleasantries. I told him about my background; undergrad and law school, then over 22 years of active-duty service in the Marine Corps with travel to some far-flung places, deployment, the usual. Then DOJ for a few years, then essentially becoming a hired gun, now for the government, again.
“I’m with the State Department. We’d like to show you something,” he said. “We need your help,” he said.
“We’d like to show you something?” “We need your help?” What the hell was this guy talking about? They wanted to show me something? Who was he? Who were they?There are a lot of posers around here so I knew how to get to the truth.
“Can I see some credentials?” I asked. He reached into his jacket pocket and removed a navy blue bi-fold identification case, the same kind I used back in my initial government employment days. He handed it over. It was emblazoned in gold writing with the State Department seal.
I opened it, rotated it 90 degrees clockwise, and inspected the official United States government identification, complete with raised seal. It was authentic. He was the real deal. “Richard A. Wilson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security.”
“Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security?” I observed, looking at him. “That’s a mouthful.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I just tell people I work at State,” he said with a wry smile.
“What is this? Are you putting me on?” I finally asked, now smiling myself and shaking my head in disbelief.
“Well, why don’t you come with me and I’ll show you?”
Why not, I asked myself. What was there to lose? After all, he looked pretty fit for a guy in his mid-50s wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, but I figured I could take him if I had to. Something about the entire situation had me intrigued, though. Whatever it was we were doing, I was interested.
And in that instant, it finally dawned on me that it was no accident this man named Richard Wilson had sat down next to me. But I needed to know more before I obliged him his request.
“Why me?” I queried.
“Well why don’t we start walking, and I’ll answer your questions?” He looked around. “You never know who might be listening around here. If you don’t like the answers, we can just part ways. And if you change your mind later, you can always contact me,” he said as he pulled out a white business card carrying the same information as his credentials and handed it over. I put it in my coat pocket.
“Fair enough,” I said, as we stood.
We paid our tabs and started walking.
We exited the Old Ebbitt, and I followed his lead north. We crossed 15th Street NW, and turned west along Pennsylvania Avenue, long ago blocked off from motor vehicle traffic after a gunman fired an AK-47 at the White House and Timothy McVeigh perpetrated the Oklahoma City bombing a year later. It was a shame it had come to this; the area was now home to flocks of tourists and protesters. I never minded the tourists, but the protesters — regardless their ilk — were an equal opportunity nuisance, and they interfered with everyone else’s quiet enjoyment of the hallowed American landmark.
After saying nothing for a few minutes, Wilson interrupted my musings. “You’re the perfect candidate, actually,” he said without looking in my direction.
“ Really? How so?”
“We look for people who defy the conventional stereotypes. In your case, you just turned 50. The common stereotype is the people who do our kind of work are in their 20s or 30s; you know, it’s a young man’s game, right? Well, they’re wrong. People in their 20s and 30s have just enough life experience to think that they have some street smarts. But they don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t have any wisdom. We, on the other hand, have greater life perspective. You and I have traveled more than they have, seen more than they have, experienced more than they have, had more relationships than they have.”
“They’ve never been to the places you’ve been, never walked into an ambush and had to fight their way out, never driven over an IED, never been fired at in a helo or had to return fire, never had to hump in on foot to recover a downed pilot or a hostage and then extract from some place like the Wakhan Corridor,” he said, now looking me straight in the eye for emphasis.
An eery feeling came over me. Whoever this guy was, he knew things that nobody else knew, not even my wife. Which meant he was cleared to the highest levels that existed.
He went on. “You’re better equipped at this point in life to do this kind of work than they are. You’re established. And yet you’re still able to do things physically at your age that most people in their 20s and 30s can’t do. These things are all extremely important to our mission.”
He paused for a few seconds, and continued. “Another factor is you already have a resume; you have a public identity that would explain why you would be traveling to certain places. It’s sort of another version of hide in plain sight, you know? No one’s going to suspect that an author on a book tour, for instance, is performing clandestine missions for his government,” he observed.
“This is not the Bourne Identity; you travel under your own name, you register in hotels under your own name, you fly under your own name. You operate in plain sight. You don’t use a fake identity because you already have a real identity; everybody knows who you are. That’s the brilliance of this program. And it’s the way we actually used to do it in the old days, if you recall the Office of Strategic Services.”
I did recall it, because I had majored in Political Science and History way back in my undergrad programs. Something told me Wilson already knew this. Something told me he already knew a lot of things about me.
It was time to get to the bottom of this. “So what are you guys?”
“I’m sorry; what are we?” he said with a narrowed expression.
“Yeah, what agency are you?”
“We call ourselves the Department.”
“The Department of what?”
“Just the Department.”
“I thought you said you worked at State,” I said.
“I do. We all do,” Wilson explained. “We work for State, and Justice, and Defense, and Homeland Security, and pretty much any other agency that needs our assistance.”
“But what organization do you fall under? Look, I’ve worked in government off and on long enough to know you have to be a part of something. Nothing exists off the books. As you said, there’s no such thing as Treadstone; that only happens in books and movies.”
Wilson nodded and smiled. He leaned in closer, looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Well, to use your phraseology, we fall directly under the Office of the President, and we report directly to him.” He let it sink in.
He stopped. “He we are,” he said, and looked up at the building we now stood just to the north of. I knew it immediately: The Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just west of the White House. We continued on between the concrete barriers and up the marbled stairs until we came to an entrance.
We stood at a heavy, wooden door. “Just place your entire hand on the door, palm down. Make sure all of your fingertips are touching. The door will automatically unlatch,” he said.
“How?” I asked incredulously.
“You’ve forgotten,” he said. “They took all of your prints. and your DNA at Quantico back in 1997. You’re in all of the systems.”
I looked him steadily in the eye, placed my right hand flat against the door, and after a couple of seconds, heard the unmistakable sound of metal machinery clicking somewhere. The door opened.
“After you,” he said.
To be continued.
Copyright©, 2018. All rights reserved.
Glen Hines is the author of two books, Document and Cloudbreak, available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is presently at work on his third book, to be published later this year. His writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.