Cloud of Lies – Read Chapter One

CoL.cover

Chapter One

To penetrate and dissipate these clouds of darkness, the general mind must be strengthened by education. – Thomas Jefferson

An ashen haze rose from the rain-soaked street on the edge of Covent Garden just north of the Thames in London.  The shimmering street lamps cast an eerie glow in the dusk.  Commuters hurried along the thoroughfare huddled under umbrellas.  In the anonymity of central London, Lieutenant Paul Tanner had come to meet an undercover operative from the United States Defense Intelligence Agency, a secretive combat support agency that operates out of the dark corners of the Pentagon.

Standing in an alcove on Oxford Street, the American military officer took a long drag on his cigarette.  His strong jaw was marred by a curved scar on his chin, which was almost hidden by his three-day-old stubble.  A light trench coat covered his civilian clothes.  Only his tightly cropped haircut suggested his military affiliation.  He was in London as an informant, however, not to represent the U.S. armed forces.

Paul finished his smoke and dropped the glowing butt to the wet pavement.  It sizzled out and sent a thin trail of smoke into the air.  According to the coded message he received, he had ten minutes to get to the corner of Noel and Ramillies, across the street from the Photographers Gallery – a rather ironic place for a clandestine meeting, he mused.

He had been assigned to work deep cover on a classified project run by the DIA in New Delhi, India.  He discovered that someone was misusing confidential data from the project so, upon his return to the United States from New Delhi, he arranged a layover in London to disclose this information to a DIA officer.  He was acting well outside the scope of his orders, but he felt a duty to report what he had found.

He pulled a cell phone from his coat pocket and quickly dialed a familiar number.  He waited through a long series of tones and clicks.

Namastē,” answered a woman’s soft voice.

“It’s me.  I’m just about to go to the meeting.”

There was a momentary silence at the other end.

“You don’t have to do this Paul.  Whatever is going on at Cirrus is not your responsibility.”

He watched the shrouded faces pass by as a cool breeze rushed them along.  He ached to be back with her, and he could hear the trembling in her voice.

“It’ll be alright,” he promised.  “I’ll call you as soon as it’s over.  I’ll be back before you know it.  Everything will be okay.”

“What if it’s not okay?” she asked.  “What if they don’t let you come back?”

“They don’t have a choice.  My transfer papers have already been approved.  I’ll report what I know, and then it will all be over.  I promise.”

“Be careful.”  She paused.  “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

He buried the phone in his pocket and pulled up the collar of his coat.  Glancing both ways, he stepped out of the alcove and merged into the flow of people on the sidewalk.

After a few minutes, he reached the intersection of Great Marlborough and Ramillies and he saw the rust-colored Photographers Gallery on the far corner.  The building was draped with scaffolding from ongoing renovations.  Paul took a step back from the road as a red double-decker bus sped by, spraying water over the curb.  He took a long breath and turned down Ramillies.  The sound of traffic fell away as he walked through a narrow alleyway between two rows of unremarkable office buildings.

A taxicab was parked at the end of the street.  The small black cab had license plate number P151 PLX, just as the coded message had promised.  Paul took another deep breath and headed towards the cab.

The side door of the cab opened as he approached.  Paul stopped for a moment and looked around in each direction.  Then he ducked into the cab and sat down next to a middle-aged man in a plain dark coat.  As soon as the door closed, the cab pulled away.

“Lieutenant Tanner?”

Paul nodded.  “Yes sir.”

“You can call me Martin,” he said with a decidedly American accent.  Both of them knew that Paul would never know his real name, or who he really was.

The man was balding and had unusually bushy grey eyebrows.

“I appreciate you meeting me in London,” he said, “although this damn weather is terrible on my sinuses.  I don’t know how the Brits live in this soup day in and day out.”  The man blew his nose into a handkerchief and stuffed it into his coat pocket.

“No problem, sir,” Paul said.  “It was on my way back to the States anyway.”

The light was fading outside, and ominous shadows passed over Martin’s face as the men rode under the streetlights.  The taxi was uncomfortably quiet for a few minutes.  Paul could hear the muted sounds of traffic.

“So Paul.  Can I call you Paul?”

“Yes sir, Paul is fine.”

“We received your communication and understand there are some things that you want to talk about.  Why don’t you tell me what’s going on at Cirrus Corporation?”

“With all due respect, sir, before I do that, how do I know that I will be protected?” Paul asked.  “I mean, if it gets out that I’m having this conversation with you, it could ruin my military career.”

“Good question and one that you deserve to know the answer to.”

Martin paused to cough lightly to the side.

“You will be referred to anonymously in any reports that I give, which will be oral and not in writing.  Only myself and one other agent will know your identity.  If a Grand Jury is convened and indictments are sought based on the information you provide, then you will be able to testify under seal and in secret.  If you qualify for protection,” he glared hard at Paul, “your job, rank, and pension will be safe.”

Paul gazed out the window.  He watched a mother tug her three young boys across the street.  The children were pulling in different directions, and she was trying to herd them together to follow one path across the slippery intersection.  The most effective way for them to proceed, he thought, is to obey their mother and cross in a single line, regardless of their individual desires.  That was how he was trained, indoctrinated with military discipline and conformity.  He was taught not to speak out, but instead to sing in unison.  Now, sitting in that cramped cab watching those boys struggle to be free, he fought his instinct to remain silent.

“I was assigned to monitor Project Ferret, which was being implemented at Cirrus Corporation,” Paul said.  He watched through the window at the mother and children who made it safely to the other side of the road.

Then he turned towards Martin.  “Are you familiar with the project?”

“Yes, I’ve been briefed by the Deputy Director.  He informed me that you needed to speak with someone about a matter of great importance relating to the project.  Something you had to report in person.”

Paul turned back towards the window and stared at the gray streets of London rushing by.  He knew that he was doing the right thing, even as shouts of “treason” resonated in his head. Twelve years in the U.S. Marines had hardened his resolve to protect his country under any circumstance, regardless of personal risk.

He looked down and gently squeezed his left hand around his right forearm.  Under his sleeve, the words Semper Fidelis were tattooed in scrolling cursive letters on his arm.  “Always Faithful.”  Those words are not just the motto of the Marines, they were ingrained in his heart like a patriotic religion.

Then he thought about Project Ferret, the top secret DIA operation created to hunt down and ferret out Islamic extremists.  When he was assigned to the project, Paul learned that an advanced computer platform was housed at a company named Cirrus Corporation with backing from the DIA.   It was one of the most highly advanced cloud computing facilities in the world, with thousands of data analytic algorithms continually searching through billions of bits of data.  Although other data storage companies had comparable capabilities, Cirrus had a distinct advantage: its cloud server facility was buried three stories underneath the simmering hot streets of New Delhi, India.  Covert data collection and analysis was not new for U.S. intelligence operations, but the operational targets were unprecedented – United States citizens.

“My assignment was to manage Project Ferret and to make sure that data security was not compromised.  Only three people at Cirrus knew about the project.  Myself, the president of the division overseeing the project, and a computer technician named Dakshi Sarin.”

Paul paused slightly.  He had intentionally omitted one other person.

“Every day, we got a direct feed of data that was streamed to India.  Dakshi decrypted the data, imported it to a secured server, ran the analytics on the data, and sent the hit reports to me.  I reviewed the output and then he imbedded the report into an electronic file using digital steganography.”

“Digital what?”

“Steganography.  It’s a way of hiding data inside of other data.  The data is integrated on the metadata level into a source file, like a photo, an e-mail, a spreadsheet, whatever.  The data inside is invisible even to decryption programs.  Once Dakshi embedded the report, I would send it directly to the Project leader in D.C.”

Martin sneezed.  “Sorry, please continue.”

“One night about a week ago, Dakshi said that he needed to tell me something.  He has worked for me for the past year, so I know him pretty well and he is reliable.  He told me that he was being coerced into running some specific targets through the platform.  That’s outside the scope of my orders.  We’re not supposed to target individuals – our orders are to run the algorithms on the entire data set and report on the hits.”

 “How was this technician . . . Dakshi, how was he being coerced?” Martin asked.

“His daughter is in college in the U.S. on a student visa.  Her visa would be pulled if he didn’t comply, and even more severe consequences to her if he told anyone.”

“So why did he tell you?”

“Because he figured out who the targets were.”

 Paul hesitated.

“Who were the targets?” Martin asked.

Again Paul paused and looked towards the window.  A light rain was now drizzling on the London streets, and he heard the sound of tires slicing through sheets of water.  The seconds seemed to stretch.

Finally, Martin broke the quiet.  “Lieutenant?”

Paul turned and looked hard into Martin’s eyes, trying to detect any sign of duplicity.  The DIA agent returned his stare.  Slowly, Paul reached into his overcoat pocket and removed a folded sheet of paper.  He held it for a moment, thinking about the implications of what he was about to do.  By handing over the list of names, he would set into motion a process that was out of his control.  He didn’t know how high it might lead, or who might come crashing down.  But someone was manipulating Project Ferret to advance an unknown agenda.  And now, sitting in the back of the cramped cab next to a shadowy operative, Paul had the power to expose an unparalleled corruption.

He cautiously handed the list to Martin, who opened it slowly.  Martin’s expression remained blank as his eyes scanned down the list.  He then folded the paper and buried it in his coat pocket.

“Where is Dakshi?”

“I don’t know.  I haven’t seen or spoken to him since.”

“Have you told anyone else about this?” Martin asked.  He reached into another pocket to pull out his handkerchief.

“No,” Paul lied.  He turned quickly to look out of the window so that Martin could not detect any sign of deception on his face.  He had confided in the one person who he wanted to protect from the fallout more than anyone.  The DIA didn’t need to know about her.  Whatever happened to him, she would be safe.

He watched a small raindrop inch down the window, collecting speed and size as it combined with others.  Even a tidal wave starts with just one drop.

Martin sneezed again into his handkerchief.

“Bless you,” Paul turned and said.

“Thanks, I just need to get my inhaler,” which he removed from his coat.

Suddenly, Martin aimed the inhaler directly at Paul.  Before he could react, Martin grabbed him tightly under his chin and shot a burst of compressed concentrated hydrogen cyanide squarely in his face.  Paul instinctively turned away, but the powerful toxin had already taken effect.  Martin quickly lifted the handkerchief to his face as Paul collapsed in the corner of the cab, his face pressed against the window as the raindrops continued their dance on the other side of the glass.

The driver calmly eased the cab onto Southwark Bridge Road and crossed over the Thames.  Martin lowered the window, letting the nippy London air chase away the noxious fumes from the cab.

A few moments later, Martin closed the window and slowly lowered the handkerchief.  Paul was slumped over awkwardly in the seat.  He lifted Paul’s wrist to check for a pulse as he watched a long riverboat filled with tourists pass under the bridge.  After a moment, he let go and Paul’s arm fell lifelessly to his side.

Martin coughed hoarsely and wiped his mouth.  “Damn, I hate the weather in London.”