Although the job was difficult and required long hours, the position was a badge of honor for her, a way to assert her independence from her father. Senator Sexton had offered many times to support Rachel if she would quit the post, but Rachel had no intention of becoming financially beholden to a man like Sedgewick Sexton. Her mother was testimony to what could happen when a man like that held too many cards.
The sound of Rachel's pager echoed in the marble hall.
Again? She didn't even bother to check the message.
Wondering what the hell was going on, she boarded the elevator, skipped her own floor, and went straight to the top.
To call the NRO director a plain man was in itself an overstatement. NRO Director William Pickering was diminutive, with pale skin, a forgettable face, a bald head, and hazel eyes, which despite having gazed upon the country's deepest secrets, appeared as two shallow pools. Nonetheless, to those who worked under him, Pickering towered. His subdued personality and unadorned philosophies were legendary at the NRO. The man's quiet diligence, combined with his wardrobe of plain black suits, had earned him the nickname the "Quaker." A brilliant strategist and the model of efficiency, the Quaker ran his world with an unrivaled clarity. His mantra: "Find the truth. Act on it."
When Rachel arrived in the director's office, he was on the phone. Rachel was always surprised by the sight of him: William Pickering looked nothing like a man who wielded enough power to wake the President at any hour.
Pickering hung up and waved her in. "Agent Sexton, have a seat." His voice had a lucid rawness to it.
"Thank you, sir." Rachel sat.
Despite most people's discomfort around William Pickering's blunt demeanor, Rachel had always liked the man. He was the exact antithesis of her father... physically unimposing, anything but charismatic, and he did his duty with a selfless patriotism, shunning the spotlight her father loved so much.
Pickering removed his glasses and gazed at her. "Agent Sexton, the President called me about a half hour ago. In direct reference to you."
Rachel shifted in her seat. Pickering was known for getting to the point. One hell of an opening, she thought. "Not a problem with one of my gists, I hope."
"On the contrary. He says the White House is impressed with your work."
Rachel exhaled silently. "So what did he want?"
"A meeting with you. In person. Immediately."
Rachel's unease sharpened. "A personal meeting? About what?"
"Damn good question. He wouldn't tell me."
Now Rachel was lost. Keeping information from the director of the NRO was like keeping Vatican secrets from the Pope. The standing joke in the intelligence community was that if William Pickering didn't know about it, it hadn't happened.
Pickering stood, pacing now in front of his window. "He asked that I contact you immediately and send you to meet with him."
"He sent transportation. It's waiting outside."
Rachel frowned. The President's request was unnerving on its own account, but it was the look of concern on Pickering's face that really worried her. "You obviously have reservations."
"I sure as hell do!" Pickering showed a rare flash of emotion. "The President's timing seems almost callow in its transparency. You are the daughter of the man who is currently challenging him in the polls, and he demands a private meeting with you? I find this highly inappropriate. Your father no doubt would agree."
Rachel knew Pickering was right - not that she gave a damn what her father thought. "Do you not trust the President's motives?"
"My oath is to provide intel support to the current White House administration, not pass judgment on their politics."
Typical Pickering response, Rachel realized. William Pickering made no bones about his view of politicians as transitory figureheads who passed fleetingly across a chessboard whose real players were men like Pickering himself - seasoned "lifers" who had been around long enough to understand the game with some perspective. Two full terms in the White House, Pickering often said, was not nearly enough to comprehend the true complexities of the global political landscape.
"Maybe it's an innocent request," Rachel offered, hoping the President was above trying some sort of cheap campaign stunt. "Maybe he needs a reduction of some sensitive data."
"Not to sound belittling, Agent Sexton, but the White House has access to plenty of qualified gisting personnel if they need it. If it's an internal White House job, the President should know better than to contact you. And if not, then he sure as hell should know better than to request an NRO asset and then refuse to tell me what he wants it for."
Pickering always referred to his employees as assets, a manner of speech many found disconcertingly cold.
"Your father is gaining political momentum," Pickering said. "A lot of it. The White House has got to be getting nervous." He sighed. "Politics is a desperate business. When the President calls a secret meeting with his challenger's daughter, I'd guess there's more on his mind than intelligence gists."
Rachel felt a distant chill. Pickering's hunches had an uncanny tendency to be dead on. "And you're afraid the White House feels desperate enough to introduce me into the political mix?"
Pickering paused a moment. "You are not exactly silent about your feelings for your father, and I have little doubt the President's campaign staff is aware of the rift. It occurs to me that they may want to use you against him somehow."
"Where do I sign up?" Rachel said, only half-joking.
Pickering looked unimpressed. He gave her a stern stare. "A word of warning, Agent Sexton. If you feel that your personal issues with your father are going to cloud your judgment in dealing with the President, I strongly advise that you decline the President's request for a meeting."
"Decline?" Rachel gave a nervous chuckle. "I obviously can't refuse the President."
"No," the director said, "but I can."
His words rumbled a bit, reminding Rachel of the other reason Pickering was called the "Quaker." Despite being a small man, William Pickering could cause political earthquakes if he were crossed.
"My concerns here are simple," Pickering said. "I have a responsibility to protect the people who work for me, and I don't appreciate even the vague implication that one of them might be used as a pawn in a political game."
"What do you recommend I do?"
Pickering sighed. "My suggestion is that you meet with him. Commit to nothing. Once the President tells you what the hell is on his mind, call me. If I think he's playing political hardball with you, trust me, I'll pull you out so fast the man won't know what hit him."
"Thank you, sir." Rachel sensed a protective aura from the director that she often longed for in her own father. "And you said the President already sent a car?"
"Not exactly." Pickering frowned and pointed out the window.
Uncertain, Rachel went over and gazed out in the direction of Pickering's outstretched finger.
A snub-nosed MH-60G PaveHawk helicopter sat idling on the lawn. One of the fastest choppers ever made, this PaveHawk was emblazoned with the White House insignia. The pilot stood nearby, checking his watch.
Rachel turned to Pickering in disbelief. "The White House sent a PaveHawk to take me fifteen miles into D.C.?"
"Apparently the President hopes you are either impressed or intimidated." Pickering eyed her. "I suggest you are neither."