This posting features Chapter 36 of my ongoing action novel, The Day of the Gun.
He was edging ever closer to panic. In all his years of law enforcement, he had never seen a case go so wrong so quickly. Now, with Steve Harris’s face plastered all over the news, WITSEC had been irreparably damaged. To make matters worse, he had learned that the assistant attorney general insisted on seeing him in D.C. first thing on Thursday morning. It could get ugly. He would not be surprised if he lost his job over this debacle. What had started out as a tragic breach of security has escalated into a major scandal of catastrophic proportions.
He cradled his head in his hands and mulled over his limited options. God, I need an ibuprofen. Or a stiff drink.
Losing his job was bad, but that wasn’t the worst part. Now he had Steve Harris angry with him. I know about you, McLean, the man had said. Sure, he was in the hospital with debilitating wounds and he had plenty to answer for with law enforcement officials, but it was small comfort. Mac McLean knew a great deal about Steve Harris and his capabilities. Harris was not a man who gave up easily. As long as he lived and viewed McLean and WITSEC as enemies, a serious threat existed.
I know about you, McLean. What, exactly, did Harris know and how did he know it? Perhaps it was a bluff, a statement uttered in despair following a horrific attack. Perhaps the man assumed that McLean was the only logical source of the leak. The whole thing was mystifying.
The only clear path forward was McLean’s conviction that, somehow, he had to find the mole inside WITSEC. He had put his best man, the Davemeister, on it, but the task was not easy. Although the Department of Justice went to extraordinary links to maintain secrecy, a program was only as good as its people. If someone had sold out to Tony the Knife, McLean would be hard-pressed to find out who it was. More than a dozen people knew about the program, but who had access to confidential DOJ files?
Staring at a yellow legal pad, he jotted down names, including his and Dave’s, branching out to secretaries, assistants, and U.S. Attorneys. Off the top of his head, he identified 18 people. Eighteen! That number should have been lower, but at least it was a manageable number. It was finite.
Staring out the window of his office, he ran through a list of possible outcomes, and nothing looked appealing. Whatever happened, the Witness Security Program would be damaged. He was so engrossed he didn’t see Dave standing in the doorway licking an ice cream cone.
“You want a cone, Mac? It’s good for what ails ya. Shirley got someone to fix the machine over the weekend, if you can believe it.”
He shook his head and patted his stomach. “No thanks. I’m trying to watch my girlish figure. I need to be slim and trim for job interviews.”
The big man laughed. “You think it will come to that — honestly?”
McLean sighed. “Honestly? I don’t know. They want to see me in DC on Thursday. I think it’s a distinct possibility. Sooner or later, the brass will want heads to roll for the snafu.”
Dave looked at the floor. “It’d be a damn shame if it did. You’ve got — what? Thirty years on the job?”
“Twenty-nine years at the end of next month.”
Dave nodded. “Shit. It’d be nice to have another before you retire.”
“It would be nice not to retire at all — at least not under a cloud.”
“As for me, I wanna go out in a blaze of glory.” It was a mildly amusing comment coming from a man sucking on an ice cream cone.
McLean felt a wave of sadness sweep over him as if he had been dragged into the surf. He had worked at the DOJ straight out of law school; it was the only job he knew. It was his whole life. Yes, he loved his family, but he had sacrificed a great deal — they had sacrificed a great deal — for him to be on call 24/7. This would be an ignominious end to an otherwise stellar career. “Who would have thought that this case would go south so quickly,” he muttered.
“This doesn’t have to be a tragedy, you know.”
He turned to look at his sidekick. One thing about Dave Tremblor — the man was a poster boy for sangfroid federal agents. Once upon a time, Mac McLean had felt that way about himself, but not now. Now, he felt tired, defeated. Life, all the long years of living, had beaten him down.
Rubbing his eyes, he leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on the desk. “I know. Maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe I need a kick in the pants. I still have my law degree, and I’m a member of the bar, although God knows it’s been a long time since I practiced law. It’s hard to imagine writing out interrogatories. I suppose I can scratch out some kind of living, though, at least ‘til Ariana finishes Georgia Southern.” He paused and tried to smile. “I need to stop feeling sorry for myself. Harris is the victim here.”
Dave stepped into the room as he bit into the waffle cone. “That’s not what I meant.”
McLean stopped rubbing his eyes and focused. “What are you saying to me, Dave? You want me to stop whining, is that it? A little tough love?”
Dave collapsed into an armchair and leaned forward as he chewed on the cone. “We’re not the fall guy here. We don’t have to be.”
“We? You’ll survive this just fine, Dave. I’m the fall guy. Yeah, you’re my assistant, but you act under my authority. You can distance yourself from me as soon as I get up to D.C. for the woodshedding.”
“Mac, c’mon — you can survive this. You will survive it.”
“Dave, Dave, Dave. I appreciate the vote of confidence. Really, I do. You’ve been a terrific supporter through everything. But someone breached our security. They penetrated the impenetrable — and they did it on my watch. Rightly or wrongly, I’m the fall guy. That much is obvious. If I’m lucky, I’ll keep my pension and avoid prosecution.”
Dave smiled. “You know, my dad taught high school history for a while. He used to tell his classes that the definition of ‘genius’ is someone who, when faced with two equally unattractive alternatives, creates a third, far more attractive, alternative.”
McLean smiled. “That’s a nice way to put it.”
Still licking his ice cream cone, Dave grinned. “I thought so, too. Now, I’m not saying I’m a genius — not by any stretch of the imagination — but I do think there’s an alternative scenario you haven’t considered.”
The boss perked up. “Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah. Look, we can correct this PR snafu, save the program, and identify the source of the leak. It’s not impossible, even now.”
“Yeah? And how are we gonna do these things?”
Dave smiled as he finished the cone and wiped his hands on a napkin. “Let’s take it a step at a time. We know that someone inside the Department accessed the ID107 files’’ — the computer database matching program participants with their former identities — “and apparently informed Marciano, or someone in his circle, of the contents.”
McLean nodded. The point was obvious.
“So why don’t we use this information to our advantage?”
“I don’t follow you.”
“How many people would you say know about the ID107s and can gain entry?”
McLean rubbed his chin. “I don’t know. I calculated 18, but there’s probably more.”
“A lot more — try thirty-seven. That’s it — 37. I checked the database this morning.”
“Thirty-seven! Geez. I had no idea the number was so high.”
“Yep. I checked and double-checked. There’s no mistake.”
McLean rubbed his chin. He felt the outlines of a plan forming in his mind even as Dave spoke. “I see; I see.”
“We’ve handled a lot more than 37 sources before.”
The boss was beginning to see the light. “That’s true,” he muttered.
“A very manageable number,” Dave agreed, wiping his mouth. “So, then, we manage it. We send a different flow of information — 37 in all — to everyone who had access to the files or might have acquired it. We open a pipeline to Marciano, if you see what I mean.”
“And we see what flows out on the other end.”
McLean pulled his feet from the desk and sat forward in his chair. “Depending on what information surfaces, the unique nature of the data will identify the particular culprit.”
“That’s right.” Dave rubbed his chin. “Do I have anything on my face?”
“No. You’re good.”
“In the meantime, you can tell the AG you’ve been arguing for restricted access to ID107s for years. That point is well-known and documented out the ying-yang. This shit-storm only proves your point.”
McLean smiled. “You’re good, Dave. You do know how to work with lemons.”
Dave got to his feet and tossed the napkin into a nearby trashcan. “Like I said — it doesn’t have to be a tragedy.”
For the first time since he learned of the initial attack on Harris, Mac McLean felt a ray of hope. It wasn’t much — a slender reed upon which to base his life and career — but a slender reed is better than no reed at all. “You know what, Dave, maybe I will have one of those cones now that I think about it. Maybe I won’t have to stay trim for interviewing after all.”
“You want chocolate or vanilla?”
“Chocolate, but I’ll ask Shirley to get it. Thanks, though.” As McLean reached for the intercom, the box squawked into life.
“You must be a mind reader, Shirley. I was just gonna ring you.”
“Mr. Roth is on line one. He says it’s urgent.”
The two men exchanged worried glances that said, what now?
“Thank you, Shirley,” McLean said as he pressed a button.
“Put him on speakerphone,” Dave suggested.
Nodding, the agent pushed another button. “This is Mac McLean,” he said.
“McLean, this is Robert Roth.”
“Yes, Mr. Roth, I know. To what do I owe the honor?” McLean tried to sound light and frivolous, but he failed.
Dave stepped behind his boss’s chair and leaned closer to the speakerphone. His face looked grim and determined, as did McLean’s.
“I’m calling from Sing Sing Prison regarding a matter of some urgency.”
“Sing Sing?” McLean sounded perplexed. “What are you doing at Sing Sing? Is it Marciano?”
Now it was Roth’s turn to sound perplexed. “McLean — you sound muffled. Am I on speakerphone? Are you alone?”
“He’s been interviewing Marciano,” Dave muttered in a soft voice. “He has news to share.”
“Yeah, you’re on speakerphone, and no, I’m not alone. I’ve got you on so my assistant, Dave Tremblor, can listen in. I assume that’s okay.”
“Hello, Mr. Roth,” Dave said matter-of-factly.
Roth paused. When at last he spoke, his voice was quiet, noticeably different. “Ah. I see. Hello Mr. Tremblor.”
“Been talking to Tony the Knife, Mr. Roth?” Dave asked in a flat, toneless voice.
Roth ignored the question. “Listen, McLean, I’ll call you back in five minutes on a secure line — but you need to take the call alone. No speakerphone, no assistants — for your ears only.” He paused. “Sorry, Tremblor. Standard procedure for these types of cases,” he added in a weak voice. “I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course, counselor. I understand SOP.”
McLean frowned. This conversation grew curioser and curioser. “Why all the secrecy, Mr. Roth? I assure you that the line is secure, probably much more so than anything at Sing Sing. That much I know.”
Roth did not miss a beat. “Be that as it may, it’s the protocol. That’s all I can say right now. I’m not at liberty to disclose any more information at this moment.”