Monday morning, summer came back. Jack rode the bike lanes up Rio Hill and the bike path on US-29 north of Charlottesville under a cloudless sky. He appreciated not having headwinds, but a breeze would have been welcome. His bicycle kit was soaked by the time he reached the Starbucks at Hollymead Town Center. He stopped there to change into street clothes, glad that he had brought a pack of hospital bathing cloths from Hilda’s stash.
There was a decent shoulder for the last 3 km to Rivanna Station. The complex rose on his right as he coasted to the light. Across the highway, new housing developments rose out of the newly turned earth. It would be a while before enough vegetation grew in to make it look settled. Jack took a right at the light and climbed to the main gate.
The guard checked his ID and directed him to the Pass & ID office just inside the gate. The MP on duty gave him a crisp salute – and a smile. Jack saw the name strip on his desert utilities, “Aspen.”
“Major Monroe is expecting you, sir. We have your badge and vehicle tag right here.”
“Thank you.” He took the badge and clipped it to the flap on his shirt pocket. It was a temporary badge with his name and rank printed on it, but no picture. “Your name is familiar.”
“Yes, sir. Baghdad – I checked in just before the – uh – the IED incident.”
“That was only the day before I left, wasn’t it?” Jack recognized the soldier’s pleasure at seeing him. Ted, Hilda, Joe, and his Army friends had looked at him the same way after his release from Walter Reed Hospital.
“Yes, sir. I thought we’d lost you for sure.”
Jack signed the clipboard for the badge. Someone had already filled in all his information, correctly. Jack held up the vehicle tag.
“Do I need this for my bicycle?”
“Bicycle?” Aspen recovered quickly. “Er, no, sir. You can lock your bike over there while I call someone to get you.” He pointed to a covered bike rack across the driveway.
“Thanks. I’ll be right back.”
When he returned, another sergeant in desert utilities was holding the door by the counter for him. With her black hair tightly coiled in a bun and her diminutive stature, she looked like someone’s kid sister, but Jack knew that she could bring down two men twice her size in close combat. He also knew that her family lived in Mineral, not far away.
“Sergeant Martinez! You, too? Has Major Monroe assembled a whole mafia here?”
She laughed. “No, sir. I went back to Brigade HQ in Germany after our deployment. I was there when I saw Captain – I mean, Major Monroe’s orders. I was able to time my transfer with this opening.” She led him down a hall past the ceremonial lobby and up the stairs to the Administration wing.
“I’ll bet he’s glad.”
“It’s working out all around, sir.” They reached the Provost Marshal’s office. “You still take your coffee black, sir?” Jack grinned and nodded. She smiled as she opened the door and closed it behind him.
The man who came quickly around the desk stood as tall as Jack but outweighed him by twenty pounds – all muscle. He had been a champion boxer at West Point, and the SRT training had only made him tougher. His short-cropped hair was turning grizzled. That and a couple of scars from combat and the ring made him look somewhat older than a man in his thirties.
“Major Rathburn! God, is it good to see you, sir.”
“I don’t work for you, Tony. It’s Jack.” He held out his arms. They gave each other the kind of bear hug that marks men who have been through hell together.
“I’ve already seen Aspen and Martinez. Are you secretly recruiting, Tony?”
“Not on purpose. Martinez got her own transfer, but I would’ve asked for her if I’d known she was due for a transfer. You look great! Is that for real?”
“Pretty much. The first year out of the hospital was a little rocky, but I recovered. I heard about the great work you did with the unit. I knew you could handle it: you’re a natural.”
“I was scared shitless every day after you left, but the troops fell in and made it work. They loved you, Jack, even when you were giving them hell.”
“Well, congratulations, Major – early, but you deserve it! Did I read that you trained up 5,000 Iraqi police before you came back?”
“Something like that.” Tony looked down. If his complexion would have allowed it, he would have blushed.
A knock on the door preceded another MP coming in with a tray of coffee and Turkish delights on a small dish. He set it down on the sideboard. Tony pointed to him.
“Major Rathburn, Specialist Hughes.”
The MP looked almost embarrassed, but he took Jack’s hand and gave it a sturdy squeeze. “It’s an honour to meet you, sir.”
“Anything else, sir?” he asked Tony.
“Just tell Sergeant Martinez that I’ll give the Major a walk around, and I won’t forget the staff meeting at eleven-hundred.”
“Yes, sir.” Hughes took another look at Jack and pulled the door behind him on the way out.
“Did I scare him?” Jack asked.
“Not at all. You’re something of a legend among the MP’s here. The ones who didn’t know you personally followed you in the 18th Brigade or SRT school.”
“It feels weird.” Jack took one of the sweets. “What’s with the delicacies?”
“I learned that in Baghdad and Kabul. I brought the civilized custom home with me.”
“These are good! Not like gummy bears.”
“I have them sent over from a Turkish sweet shop near Grafenwöhr.”
They finished their coffee catching up on personal details. The day that Jack was evacuated, Tony’s wife Beulah was wounded by shrapnel from a terrorist bomb while shopping at the supermarket in Grafenwöhr. The Brigade tried to fly a relief out for Tony, but the relief never left before Beulah came to in the hospital and convinced the CO to let Tony do his job. Tony and Beulah both had to deal with PTSD when the MP unit returned from Iraq. He got the assignment at NGIC partly to put them closer to Beulah’s family in Richmond.
“She must be a remarkable woman,” said Jack. “You’re both OK now?”
“Great. I don’t think we could have come to know each other as well as we do without sharing that dark year in Germany. It was mostly waking up from nightmares – and having someone there who understood.”
Jack nodded gravely. “I know what you mean.” They let the silence linger for a while, each looking beyond the other’s shoulders. Tony came to first.
“Where next? – No. Tell me on the way. I want to give you the tour in time to get back here for the weekly purgatory.” Tony motioned to the door as they got up.
“Staff meetings that bad?”
“Not really, but we like to joke about them. Colonel Richardson runs an efficient meeting. Never more than an hour, no matter how many tweets come down from the White House.”
“That’s the one.” Tony stopped at the next door. “In here.”
“Tony! I was not expecting to meet your CO.” He looked down at his trekking shirt and trousers and his cloth biking shoes.
“Too late now. She told me to bring you in.” He opened the door. The sergeant at the desk rose. “Major Rathburn to meet the CO.”
She turned to the door, opened it and announced the two majors, then held the door open for them. Jack noticed her name-badge, “Walker”.
“You dog,” muttered Jack. “You set this up ahead of time.”
“But of course.” Tony grinned. “I trained under you.”
The woman who came around the desk stood 5 feet and 11 inches, but her presence made her look taller. She was big-boned, but trim, so that her fitness came across as strength instead of slimness. Her expression at rest appeared severe to Jack, until she smiled. Then he noticed that her face had more smile-lines than scowl-lines. The severity of her face came from the position of her eyes and eyebrows, the former deep-set and the latter turning down toward her nose. She could look intimidating without frowning. A convenient trait, he thought.
“Colonel Richardson, Major Rathburn,” said Tony.
“I’m delighted you could visit us, Major.” Her handshake was firm. “I knew that Major Monroe had worked for you, so when I heard that you were coming to Charlottesville, I asked him to have you come by.”
Jack looked at them in surprise. Tony shrugged. “I told you that you were a legend, Jack.”
“Indeed,” said the Colonel, “and I was stationed at DIA with Nate Harper before he went to Aberdeen. He had some fine things to say about you and Major Paisley when I saw him last month in DC, since she was in the news.”
“Sometimes I think we have the smallest army in the world,” said Jack, smiling.
Tony looked surprised at his boss, but he quickly covered it with a grin. “I was going to give him a short tour – in time for the staff meeting.”
“Bring him along,” she said. “I’d like him to see us chez nous, as it were.” She turned to Jack. “We know that you were cleared again at Aberdeen, so you can see just about anything except the code room.” She pointed to Jack’s chest. “That’s why you have a regular ID badge instead of a visitor pass.” She nodded at the door and shook hands again. “See you at eleven.” Tony held the door for Jack.
As they walked down the hall, Jack whispered to Tony, “Why do I feel like I’m being set up?”
“Maybe you are. This is an Intel command, not a regular base, and Richardson is one of the best. She probably already did a full background on you before I knew you were in town! Here’s the Requirements department.” He held another door.
The next hour was more like an orientation tour than a guest visit. Tony introduced him to the people in the various departments and asked them to explain what they did in some detail. Jack knew that NGIC could send battlefield intelligence at the tactical level to the troops in the field, but he was impressed to see the detail that they had on their displays and the in-depth knowledge of the analysts and coordinators. Most had been to the places that they were monitoring. Just before eleven, they walked to the briefing room.
Kathleen Richardson did run a good meeting. As the different department heads gave their reports, she never let any item turn into a discussion, unless it had already been scheduled for discussion in the meeting. Instead, she immediately appointed two or three people to take the subject off-line and report back to her the next day. The items scheduled for “discussion” at the meeting itself had all been carefully staffed by the stakeholders before the meeting, so the report was usually descriptive, with confirmation of consensus by those concerned. When they adjourned, Jack was surprised to see that only 45 minutes had passed.
“She could teach management at a business school,” he told Tony as they walked back to Tony’s office.
“She did – Army War College at Leavenworth.”
“I’d better Google everyone I meet today. There are some impressive people here.”
They walked down to the cafeteria. After lunch, Jack followed Tony on his rounds. His MP’s had the usual guard and inspection duties, but Tony also had people in strategic locations around the building, looking like ordinary employees. Most were able to keep an eye on the perimeter and the undeveloped land around Rivanna Station, as well as the sight lines down the hallways outside their offices.
Tony explained, “the Army gives everyone enough paperwork to keep them busy. They can do that dispersed like this just as easily as in a common office. Their weapons are under the desks in special holders. Protective gear in the desk drawers, of course.”
Jack was impressed. “Like having an SRT deployed before anything happens.”
“Something like that.” Tony smiled.
About three p.m., they were having coffee back in Tony’s office.
“The Personnel Officer, Lieutenant –”
“Robbins. Kirsten Robbins.”
“Right. What was she talking about, having trouble filling the vacancy for an IED and Network Analyst? That sounds weird.”
“It’s actually two jobs. One is an expert on IED’s, either someone from Bomb Disposal or an analyst who has studied them. The other is an analyst who tracks insurgent networks. They‘re civilian positions, but we can’t find the right people. Colonel Richardson has Kirsten scouring the Personnel Command for some active duty types to order in, at least until some veterans from the war decide to leave their high-paying defense contractor jobs to work for Uncle Sam again.” He shook his head. “The CO would be happy to get one person for both jobs. There’s a good flow of intel already built up, so it’s not that tough to keep up with the new info coming in on both subjects.”
“Why is it so hard? I mean, apart from the pay. This looks like a good place to work.”
“I’m glad you noticed. If I were about to retire – or maybe when I do – I’d love to come back here. But the IED/network analyst job requires the highest security clearances and reasonably good health. What kind of shape are most people in, who have become intimately familiar with IED’s and insurgents?”
“I see your point. That’s tough.”
“Yeah, it is. But they’ll keep digging until they find someone – then Richardson will work the WWW.”
“Her Washington Wonder Woman act.”
Jack laughed. “Really?”
“She’s awesome, man. You noticed she doesn’t wear utilities?” Jack nodded. “That’s because she almost always has meetings outside with important people. She knows how to manage a room better than anyone I’ve seen.”
“Does she ever wear utilities?”
“When she does, we know it’s quiet on both sides of the Beltway and in Charlottesville. And that the boss will probably visit every one of us that day.”
Jack finished his coffee. It was 3:30. “I better go. I know you’ve got some kind of paperwork left, and I have been here almost all day.”
“Not so fast. The CO wants me to bring you by before you go. Let me call her, OK?”
Jack could feel where this was going. “Sure. I like interesting women, and she is definitely interesting.”
Tony hit a speed dial button on his desk phone. “Hello, Sergeant. Could you let the Colonel know that Major Rathburn is about done here? Does she still want to see him?… OK. Thanks.” He hung up.
“She happens to have no one in the office now. She’d like you to come down.”
They rose and walked around to the Commander’s office again. Sergeant Walker rose, smiled, knocked on the door, and opened it for them.
Kathleen Richardson was hanging her uniform jacket in the closet. She turned, smiled, and motioned to the chair in front of her desk. “I just got back from a meeting at the JAG School. Give me a second.” She looked at Tony. “You can stay, too, Major Monroe, if you like.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to wrap up a couple of things in my office. I think he can find his way back.” He nodded to Jack and left.
Jack realized that this was not a simple exit call. The Colonel walked behind her desk.
“Just had some, but I could always have another.”
She looked at her sergeant, who nodded and disappeared. Kathleen Richardson sat down and looked intently at Jack.
“May I ask what you noticed about NGIC today, Major?” She smiled, and Jack understood why she had to smile a lot, even when her eyes remained intense.
“I was very impressed with Major Monroe’s operation, especially the idea of deploying his sentries inconspicuously.”
“A couple of things. The detail of the intel coming in and going out. I was the beneficiary in the field, but I never appreciated what it must look like from this end. The people you have working here are amazing.”
She nodded. Sergeant Walker brought in the coffee, which Jack recognized as an Ethiopian single roast from Starbucks. He had grown fond of African coffees on deployment. Kathleen Richardson sipped her coffee and looked at Jack, inviting him to continue. Sergeant Walker stepped out.
“I am getting the distinct impression that you set up my visit here – much as I am delighted to see Tony Monroe again. May I ask why?”
“Let me ask you some things, Major.” She put down her coffee and opened a folder on her desk. “Do you recognize these?”
Jack looked at the 8 x 10 colour photos. Improvised explosive devices in various stages of deployment. “That’s the classic buried bomb, detonated by wire. Most are wireless now, using a cell phone. This is the bomb in a dead animal – in this case it’s the dog and/or the sheep, not the cat. And this is the undercarriage of a Honda sedan with two sticks of dynamite taped to the rear axle.” He looked up at the CO. “That’s getting personal, ma’am. I took that shot.”
She put the photos back in the folder and took out a sheet of paper. “Quiz time. I have a hunch about you. I give you a name, you tell me where you know them from or if you don’t know them.”
Jack into her eyes. They were blue-grey, like steel. “I know you’re looking for the IED/network analyst that Lieutenant Robbins briefed on this morning. If you want me, just ask, ma’am.”
Her smile turned into a tight line, then relaxed.
“Let’s put it this way. I’ve heard more about you than I want to believe. Let me check it out for myself a bit. May I?”
Jack thought for a minute, then smiled. “Why not? Go ahead.”
She looked at the paper.
“Forebears of the Mahdi.”
“Baghdad, Mosul, Chicago – lately Montréal.”
“What’s left of the group is in jail there and in Chicago.”
Richardson’s face went into its severe no-expression.
“Pashtun Liberation Army”
“Kabul, Kandahar, Peshawar – and most towns in between.”
“Anywhere it isn’t called ISIS.”
“Sons of the Prophet”
“Kirkuz and Kuwait”
“Not anymore, but they’ll be back.”
“Kurdistan and bordering areas of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Are you sure they belong on the list?”
“It’s just a correlation quiz. Don’t read anything into it yet.”
“Faithful of the Ayatollah.”
“Herat and Sulaymaniyah.”
“Beirut, Tyre, Bekaa and the valley south to Israel.”
She looked up and paused.
“The Black Amazon.”
“Charlottesville.” He scowled. She smiled.
“I’ve wanted to meet her ever since the Chicago story broke last year. I should not have been surprised when she turned up with you at Aberdeen.”
“You could meet her. She’s taken another job here, so she isn’t leaving right away.”
The colonel closed the folder. “How do you know where all those groups are? You have no recorded background in intelligence or Arabic studies or anything remotely connected with them, as far as I can see. On paper, you don’t fit the job description.”
Jack answered, “انا ضابط شرطة” (I’m a policeman.)
She arched her eyebrows. “So would Major Monroe be as well-versed?”
“Possibly. Give him the quiz some day. A police department has to know where all the gangs are, who’s in them, and what they’re doing – preferably before even they know. Tony probably knows all the fringe groups in Central Virginia by now, also. My people soaked up everything NGIC generated on those groups. Our survival depended on it – and the survival of the Afghan and Iraqi officers we were training.”
“And you sent us great local intel, too. I saw it.” He nodded. She finished her coffee. “I apologize for setting you up like this and for using your friendship with Major Monroe.”
“Tony and I are happy to see each other again, Colonel. Don’t worry about that.”
“Assuming we can make an offer, would you be willing to come aboard here – at least until we can find a civilian who fits the job description?”
Jack paused before answering. “I told Major Monroe that this is a great place to work. I meant that. But I haven’t settled anywhere since retiring last March.”
“You’re not retired, Major.”
“Well, the deal was to work with Major Turner at Aberdeen on the Forebears of the Mahdi. All the suspects are in custody. That we haven’t returned me to retired status is just a matter of my not being anywhere for more than a day or two. General Harper and he may have even forgotten.”
She smiled. “They haven’t, and General Harper likes it this way.” Jack shrugged.
“Who would I be working for? I saw three different departments where this could fit.”
“Two of them to be precise, and that is a problem that I have to solve.”
“While you work on being able to make an offer or order me here – either way – let me think about it. There are some people whose opinion I value.”
She stood. “That’s fair enough. Even if I could order you here, I would not want an unwilling officer or employee. Would you at least let me know if you don’t want to join our team?”
“That fair enough. I will, as soon as I decide.”
She extended her hand and they shook. The smile reached her eyes this time.
Jack walked back to Tony’s office. The PM was packing up his briefcase. He looked up at Jack, and his eyebrows said, How’d it go?
“Well, it wasn’t quite an ambush, since I could see where this visit was going. We agreed that I would think about it while she lines up the ducks in a row to get me here.”
“I don’t know, Tony. You’re the first person I want to ask, since you and Martinez are already here. Can you see anything that could go wrong? I’d hate to lose a friend over this decision.”
“No problem, Jack. You wouldn’t be working for me, and we’re both majors.” He took Jack by the shoulder. “I’d be delighted to see you stick around long enough to meet Beulah and the kids.”
“Thanks, Tony. I needed to know that.”
They walked down to the gate. Jack turned in his badge, even though it was not a visitor’s pass. Tony told the MP to lock it up but keep it handy.
They shook hands outside. Tony walked to the staff parking. Jack unlocked his bike.
He rode past the NGIC rush hour back to Hollymead, where he changed at the Starbucks and rode back to Charlottesville. The sun was low, and the heat of the day had broken. It was a pleasant ride, but Jack hardly noticed the scenery as he made his way back to Hilda’s flat.
A reminder that this serial novel is fiction. I have toured NGIC, and I share Jack’s admiration for the people who work there. However, I made up all the details inside.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,