A hushed commotion fluttered outside Vice President Mark Dehart's ceremonial office-like birds escaping the path of an oncoming truck. Dehart glanced toward the door, smiling broadly to show the young reporter who was sitting on the other side of the Roosevelt desk that he was still paying attention to her questions. Fresh out of Penn State journalism school with a new job at the Philadelphia Inquirer
, she was still unjaded enough to be a little starry-eyed about Washington politics.
Cub reporter or not, she'd had enough moxie to ask her editor if she could try for an interview with the vice president. That alone was enough to earn her points with Dehart.
He was tall and trim with just enough silver at the temples of his dark hair to make him look like that favorite uncle who showed up with interesting stories at Thanksgiving. His deep farmer's tan must have been hereditary because he hadn't had more than a few moments on his old John Deere for over a decade. Dehart wasn't crazy about it, but being the kind of politician that journalists loved to photograph worked well for the man who held the office that was often described as the "spare tire" of the United States government.
Still smiling at the reporter, he cocked an ear toward the sounds outside-sotto voce whispers that virtually screamed to be heard, the telltale squeak of his secretary's chair as she got to her feet to race whomever it was to the door.
The Eisenhower Executive Office Building was normally a sleepy place compared to the frenetic atmosphere of the West Wing just a short walk away across the White House campus. The wide tiled halls had a way of swallowing up the building's inhabitants, where the White House felt as if it were about to burst at the seams.
Dehart pushed away from the Roosevelt desk. He'd signed his name inside the lap drawer like every vice president since Lyndon Johnson. And like every VPOTUS since the 1940s, he used his ceremonial digs in the EEOB when he needed a more picturesque backdrop than his utilitarian office in the West Wing for photo ops, greeting foreign officials, interviews with journalists, etc. As far as he could tell, this was going to be a complimentary piece from his home-state paper, easy, but devoid of much substance. Unlike most politicians, Dehart despised talking about himself and, frankly, would welcome the interruption.
He'd never wanted the job of vice president-or the one he'd had before it, for that matter. He and his wife, Dee, had lived in blissful happiness when he served as the senior United States senator from Pennsylvania, that is until Jack Ryan swooped in and asked him to be the secretary of homeland security.
Dehart liked to be ahead of the curve, so he stood abruptly as the noise at the door grew louder.
Startled, the reporter dropped her pen. "Is everything-"
Keenan Mulvaney, the special agent in charge of Dehart's Secret Service detail, cut her off midsentence, bursting in with three other agents hot on his heels.
Dehart groaned. The Secret Service whisked him away to a secure location more frequently than he would have imagined before he got the job. Drones, inbound unidentified aircraft, crazy people with guns on Seventeenth Street-any number of "trip wires" triggered the arrival of a cadre of armed agents.
This time, they brought someone with them.
Arnie van Damm, President Ryan's ever-rumpled chief of staff, trooped in with the agents.
Dehart offered the reporter an apologetic smile. "Please excuse me. I'm afraid I have to go." He started around the desk, but Mulvaney raised a hand.
"I apologize, Mr. Vice President, but she'll have to go. I'd ask you to stay put, sir."
Van Damm said nothing, instead pacing back and forth in a tiny piece of real estate by the door. Eyes flashing, his jaw clenched like a trapped animal about to gnaw his own leg off.
Dehart's secretary ushered the reporter out, promising to reschedule as soon as possible.
"The PEA-YOC?" Dehart asked as soon as they were gone, meaning, Are you taking me to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center?
The PEOC was an underground bunker that served as a secure if starkly utilitarian situation room during a threat. Any visit there was a shock to the system, but some were worse than others. The look on van Damm's face said this was going to be one of the latter.
Mulvaney nodded grimly. "We'll go via the underground, Mr. Vice President."
The area beneath the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building had enough tunnels to stoke more than a few conspiracy theories, many of them Dehart had yet to explore.
Van Damm finished with the hangnail he'd been chewing on and flicked a hand toward the door. "We'll take a breath here while your secretary clears the outer office."
"Okay..." Dehart gave a shrug. "You want to fill me in, Arnie?"
"Panama is turning to shit as we speak," van Damm said. "And at this moment, President Ryan is unaccounted for. The principals are coming in now."
The "principals" were the principal members of the NSC, the National Security Council.
Mulvaney raised a hand, signaling that he was getting a message on his earpiece from an agent posted outside.
"We're clear to move, sir," he said.
Dehart stood fast, staring down the chief of staff.
"What does that mean exactly, 'unaccounted for'?"
"It means what it means," van Damm snapped. A pained look creased his face, like he was nursing a bad tooth. "The Secret Service can't find the President. Incommunicado? Injured? Kidnapped . . ." He waved off the next logical thought. That was unimaginable. "It means that you are acting POTUS until we find Jack Ryan."Chapter 2
VenezuelaFour Days Earlier
The Ground Branch operators tasked with hunting down and killing Joaquín Fernando Gorshkov were known as WINDWARD STATION.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence at Liberty Crossing called this operation SUDDEN SQUALL. Whomever came up with the code names was apparently a weather buff. Maybe a sailor, CIA operations officer Adam Yao thought as he looked out the grimy bus window at the Venezuelan jungle and mulled over how he and his team had gotten to this spot.
Barely forty, Yao was clean-shaven with a thick head of black hair that looked forever windblown unless he gooped it up with pomade-which he did not do. As well as English, he spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish like a native, but he listened more than he spoke. Tall, but not overly so, he had the body of a decathlete-well muscled like a sprinter, but a shade on the lean side for endurance work. Had he worn a tank top or gone shirtless like half the men crammed on the creaking bus, his defined physique would have been apparent, but an Asian man dressed in chinos, desert boots, and a loose gray linen shirt was unremarkable-and, more important to him surviving the night, forgettable. As the saying went, if you were one in a million in China, there were three thousand more just like you. Yao didn't exactly blend in with the local population, but Chinese, Japanese, and Middle Eastern surnames were not at all uncommon across South America. Yao wasn't Latin, but he didn't look like a yanqui, and in the broken nation of Venezuela, that was what mattered.
When boiled down to the basics, he and his team only had two objectives: Kill Joaquín Gorshkov and stay alive while they were doing it.
Having someone killed, Yao had learned over his fifteen years in the Agency, was a surprisingly complex endeavor. The same U.S. Code Title 50 that made his team covert and deniable gave the President and the National Security Council the authority to act as a sort of "star chamber," deeming certain people a clear and present danger to the well-being of the United States and its citizens. At least that's the way the lawyers interpreted it.
For the time being.
Contrary to spy novels and Hollywood action flicks, CIA officers didn't make a habit of going around whacking their enemies. Intelligence work was, for the most part, mundane and plodding, playing the long game of winning hearts and minds by convincing people that your dogma was better than their dogma-or at the very least your dogma paid better. If anyone died on either side, something had gone terribly wrong. That said, such "active measures" weren't unheard of, either, especially not lately. The threat board was chock-full of hostiles who wanted nothing more than to make Americans bleed. They had to be stopped.
Targeted killings made the news, but in reality, they were rarer than honest politicians. Such action required lengthy investigations, days of back-and-forth debate by the principals of the National Security Council, meticulously researched legal "spins" from White House lawyers-and a nod from the Commander in Chief.
After all that, the bureaucratic machine spat out a death warrant-though Yao had never heard it called that. Lawyers used all manner of obfuscation. Past administrations had called it by all sorts of different names-the A List, Remedies, Disposition Matrix, or even Kill List (though the last was only spoken and rarely written down). Everyone steered well away from anything remotely close to assassination
-which remained illegal under U.S. law, no matter the spins.
In the psyche of American jurisprudence there was a bright line between assassination and targeted killing. But in the field, each required the one pulling the trigger to do things that normal, well-adjusted members of society found abhorrent-backstabbing, poisoning, or, as the Russians seemed to prefer, defenestration-throwing someone out a high window. An instructor at the Farm had told Adam Yao's class that the Russians had learned through trial and error that six stories was the absolute minimum to get the job done. Yao had never pushed anyone out a window, but six stories sounded about right.
This would be his third tasking with a capture or kill order. Operations officers didn't routinely get emails from the lofty realms of the director of national intelligence-essentially his boss's boss's boss-so when Mary Pat Foley put him on a secure video conference call with the President of the United States, Yao wasn't about to say no. He was trusted, and in an agency where layers of lies and subterfuge obscured the truth, trust was a pearl to be guarded with great care. He had accepted the assignment to lead WINDWARD STATION on the spot-every bloody aspect of it.
And this guy was one of the bloodiest Adam Yao had ever heard of.
Yao and his team referred to their target as FRIAR, a nod to Gorshkov's self-styled nickname, "Torquemada." A Spanish priest, Tomás de Torquemada was a Dominican friar and the first grand inquisitor who oversaw the brutal torture and murder of thousands in both the Old and New Worlds. Few people realized it, but when they thought of the fifteenth-century Spanish Inquisition-iron maidens, breast rippers, joint-destroying racks-they were imagining the work of Tomás de Torquemada. Yao considered "FRIAR" too polite a code name, but they needed to call the bastard something when they referred to him on the radio. Whispering "murdering son of a bitch" out among the public would draw too much attention.
Yao's handpicked team was comprised mainly of former military from Ground Branch-the pipe hitters of the Agency. WINDWARD STATION wasn't made of the "pale and Yale" personnel stereotypical of the CIA. Almost all of them were from Latin-American families.
At this point, WINDWARD STATION had been in operation for eleven slogging months, two weeks, and six days. Before them, FBI, CIA, USSOCOM, and a half-dozen foreign intelligence services had been on the hunt for the elusive fugitive for over two years. Their target slinked back and forth between secret hidey-holes, eluding so much as a sighting, much less capture.
Three and a half years earlier, a liquid explosive bomb had detonated in the cafeteria of a Department of Defense elementary school on Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy. The death toll would have been much worse but for an alert elementary school teacher who spotted a telltale wire protruding from under one of the tables. The twenty-six-year-old mother of two had time to usher most of her students to safety, but died along with a teacher's aide and three second graders when the device detonated during the evacuation.
An unidentified subject known as Torquemada-a faceless "UNSUB" black silhouette in official reports up to this point-was already a person of interest to the FBI for the firebrand manifestos he posted online. His white-hot hatred for the United States boiled over in every vehement diatribe. Torquemada's words carried the fervor of a religious zealot-his religion based on little but a burning hatred for capitalism, the hottest part of that reserved for the United States.
Analysts pointed out that phrases like "we reject and condemn human rights as Yankee imperialist bourgeois" and "we annihilate to create a vacuum" evoked the wording of similarly brutal manifestos written by leaders of the Shining Path two decades before-or a Guns N' Roses song.
FBI agents traveled to Peru and conducted dozens of interviews. They opened old investigations into the militant movement and put together photo boards of every known member of the violent organization, including a thin stack of stapled papers from a Catholic orphanage that was supposed to have been a favorite cause of certain vocal Shining Path guerrillas. A yearbook of sorts, the papers contained given names and photographs of nineteen children, both girls and boys, from toddlers to their early teens. No particulars beyond their names were provided. Investigators found nothing noteworthy about any of the names.
Then Torquemada posted another rant in which he fervently justified the Aviano school bombing. Like before, the IP address was spoofed and bounced all over the world, leaving it untraceable. But the contents provided a lead. He posted details, like where the device had been placed, that had never been released by law enforcement. He was clearly involved.
Authorities felt reasonably certain they had their man-they just had no idea who he was or how to find him.
Security video from the Aviano bombing showed a dark male leaving the base behind the wheel of a maintenance van five minutes before the bomb went off. The van had been stolen and the photo was so grainy, facial recognition was a bust.
Then a new FBI analyst decided to feed the nineteen photos from the Peruvian orphanage book into his computer and ask an AI program to "age" them and see what they would look like in present day. The idea got traction with the analyst's supervisors. Rather than relying on just their own program, they asked the CIA to have a go at it, independent of the Bureau. Both agencies came up with remarkably similar renderings.
One of the photos showed a handsome boy with a bright smileand wide eyes as if startled by the flash of the camera. Hiscomputer-agedphoto bore a striking resemblance to the UNSUBin the van leaving the Aviano school bombing.According to the orphanage book, his name was Joaquín.
It took almost a year of records searches and plodding interviewsto piece together the evidence that the smiling young manin the photograph was a Venezuelan-Russiancitizen namedJoaquín Fernando Gorshkov and that he and the writer whocalled himself Torquemada could be one and the same person.
Eight months after the school bombing, a seven-membermedicalteam from a U.S. NGO were brutally murdered outside themountainous Bolivian village of Camargo. Eleven women andchildren who were waiting to receive care met the same fate. Thebrutality of the killings led Bolivian authorities to first believe the medical team had had a run in with local narcos, until Torquemada,not knowing that he’d been identified, boasted of the attackin an online manifesto. Two months later, he attacked againat a Peruvian clinic funded by American missionaries, murderingeveryone and then burning the building to the ground.
Nothing of value was stolen, no political target had been present.The thread that tied the incidents together was that allthe victims were American or had received assistance fromthe United States. For that, volunteers, women, and children inboth Bolivia and Peru had been killed with hatchets and clawhammers.
Torquemada struck and then melted into the ether, his manifestosrolling out like news releases, shortly after each bloody act.Russia and Venezuela provided the perfect briar patches for himto hide in and remain anonymous. One of Yao’s in‑placeassets,an officer in the SVR (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki) Russia’scounterpart to the CIA, believed Gorshkov acted from time totime as a contracted thug for the Kremlin. The asset’s code namewas VICAR. The Russians had a file complete with contact informationto be sure, but VICAR was unable to get his hands on it.As long as Gorshkov proved to be a useful thug, the people employinghim kept it tucked away. Venezuela’s Bolivarian NationalIntelligence Service would rather see every WINDWARD STATIONoperative rotting in prison than catch a man who was essentiallya serial killer hiding behind a political agenda. Yao’steam ran up against little but roadblocks and dead ends.
Copyright © 2023 by Marc Cameron. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.