The answers he got were hard to swallow.
Apparently the CIA had been prepared to move on this cell months before and was simply waiting for the high-res satellite photos so that they could plan a pinpoint attack on the terrorists' mountain hideout in Afghanistan. Those photos were scheduled to be taken by the $1.2 billion NRO satellite code-named Vortex 2, the same satellite that had been blown up on the launchpad by its NASA launch vehicle. Because of the NASA accident, the CIA strike had been postponed, and now Diana Pickering had died.
Pickering's mind told him that NASA had not been directly responsible, but his heart found it hard to forgive. The investigation of the rocket explosion revealed that the NASA engineers responsible for the fuel injections system had been forced to use second-rate materials in an effort to stay on budget.
"For nonmanned flights," Lawrence Ekstrom explained in a press conference, "NASA strives for cost-effectiveness above all. In this case, the results were admittedly not optimal. We will be looking into it."
Not optimal. Diana Pickering was dead.
Furthermore, because the spy satellite was classified, the public never learned that NASA had disintegrated a $1.2 billion NRO project, and along with it, indirectly, numerous American lives.
"Sir?" Pickering's secretary's voice came over his intercom, startling him. "Line one. It's Marjorie Tench."
Pickering shook himself out of his daze and looked at his telephone. Again? The blinking light on line one seemed to pulse with an irate urgency. Pickering frowned and took the call.
Tench's voice was seething mad. "What did she tell you?"
"Rachel Sexton contacted you. What did she tell you? She was on a submarine, for God's sake! Explain that!"
Pickering could tell immediately that denying the fact was not an option; Tench had been doing her homework. Pickering was surprised she'd found out about the Charlotte, but she'd apparently thrown her weight around until she got some answers. "Ms. Sexton contacted me, yes."
"You arranged a pickup. And you didn't contact me?"
"I arranged transport. That is correct." Two hours remained until Rachel Sexton, Michael Tolland, and Corky Marlinson were scheduled to arrive at the nearby Bollings Air Force Base.
"And yet you chose not to inform me?"
"Rachel Sexton has made some very disturbing accusations."
"Regarding the authenticity of the meteorite... and some kind of attack on her life?"
"Among other things."
"Obviously, she is lying."
"You are aware she is with two others who corroborate her story?"
Tench paused. "Yes. Most disturbing. The White House is very concerned by their claims."
"The White House? Or you personally?"
Her tone turned razor sharp. "As far as you are concerned, director, there is no difference tonight."
Pickering was unimpressed. He was no stranger to blustering politicians and support staff trying to establish footholds over the intel community. Few put up as strong a front as Marjorie Tench. "Does the President know you're calling me?"
"Frankly, director, I'm shocked that you would even entertain these lunatic ravings."
You didn't answer my question. "I see no logical reason for these people to lie. I have to assume they are either telling the truth, or they have made an honest mistake."
"Mistake? Claims of attacks? Flaws in the meteorite data that NASA never saw? Please! This is an obvious political ploy."
"If so, the motives escape me."
Tench sighed heavily and lowered her voice. "Director, there are forces at work here of which you might not be aware. We can speak about that at length later, but at the moment I need to know where Ms. Sexton and the others are. I need to get to the bottom of this before they do any lasting damage. Where are they?"
"That is not information I am comfortable sharing. I will contact you after they arrive."
"Wrong. I will be there to greet them when they arrive."
You and how many Secret Service agents? Pickering wondered. "If I inform you of their arrival time and location, will we all have a chance to chat like friends, or do you intend to have a private army take them into custody?"
"These people pose a direct threat to the President. The White House has every right to detain and question them."
Pickering knew she was right. Under Title 18, Section 3056 of the United States Code, agents of the U.S. Secret Service can carry firearms, use deadly force, and make "un-warranted" arrests simply on suspicion that a person has committed or is intending to commit a felony or any act of aggression against the president. The service possessed carte blanche. Regular detainees included unsavory loiterers outside the White House and school kids who sent threatening e-mail pranks.
Pickering had no doubt the service could justify dragging Rachel Sexton and the others into the basement of the White House and keeping them there indefinitely. It would be a dangerous play, but Tench clearly realized the stakes were huge. The question was what would happen next if Pickering allowed Tench to take control. He had no intention of finding out.
"I will do whatever is necessary," Tench declared, "to protect the President from false accusations. The mere implication of foul play will cast a heavy shadow on the White House and NASA. Rachel Sexton has abused the trust the President gave her, and I have no intention of seeing the President pay the price."
"And if I request that Ms. Sexton be permitted to present her case to an official panel of inquiry?"
"Then you would be disregarding a direct presidential order and giving her a platform from which to make a goddamn political mess! I will ask you one more time, director. Where are you flying them?"
Pickering exhaled a long breath. Whether or not he told Marjorie Tench that the plane was coming into Bollings Air Force Base, he knew she had the means to find out. The question was whether or not she would do it. He sensed from the determination in her voice that she would not rest. Marjorie Tench was scared.
"Marjorie," Pickering said, with unmistakable clarity of tone. "Someone is lying to me. Of this I am certain. Either it is Rachel Sexton and two civilian scientists-or it is you. I believe it is you."
Tench exploded. "How dare-"
"Your indignity has no resonance with me, so save it. You would be wise to know that I have absolute proof NASA and the White House broadcast untruths tonight."
Tench fell suddenly silent.
Pickering let her reel a moment. "I'm not looking for a political meltdown any more than you are. But there have been lies. Lies that cannot stand. If you want me to help you, you've got to start by being honest with me."
Tench sounded tempted but wary. "If you're so certain there were lies, why haven't you stepped forward?"
"I don't interfere in political matters."
Tench muttered something that sounded a lot like "bullshit."
"Are you trying to tell me, Marjorie, that the President's announcement tonight was entirely accurate?"
There was a long silence on the line.
Pickering knew he had her. "Listen, we both know this is a time bomb waiting to explode. But it's not too late. There are compromises we can make."
Tench said nothing for several seconds. Finally she sighed. "We should meet."
Touchdown, Pickering thought.
"I have something to show you," Tench said. "And I believe it will shed some light on this matter."