Agent Richard Grace had only been in Washington for two days and was already sick of the bullshit. While the bulk of National Security Agency operations were stationed in Fort Meade, Maryland, some administrative functions resided here in Washington, which occasionally necessitated a visit. The Agency employees in the Beltway had a certain air of superiority about them compared to the staff in Fort Meade, and so far this week, the two high and mighty political movers who had demanded face time with him had been suddenly invisible. Typical of the D.C. elite, demanding he come back from Boston immediately, but being unwilling to spare a few minutes to greet him. Finally, here on the third day, he was scheduled to meet with Tristan Davies, a regional director for the same NSA for whom he worked.
In his own way, Grace knew this was a well-designed and executed ‘Fuck you’ by someone who thought perhaps he had gotten too big for his britches and who wanted to show him who the boss really was. Grace’s ambitions were well known in the political circles in which he travelled, and equally well known was that if you wanted to move up, someone had to either move down or move out of the way. As Grace had discovered, this could ruffle some feathers higher up the food chain. The NSA agent didn’t think they would sacrifice mission integrity to screw with him, but once again, he’d underestimated the sheer stupidity of American politics at work.
Amazingly enough, Grace had very little interaction with the political machine in Washington, considering his place of relative prominence. It had been just a few months since his promotion to Director of Special Projects, one of those vague and unclear positions that provided him far more power and far less free time than he had only five months before.
The free time thing didn’t bother Grace a whole lot, after all, he was currently on his third marriage, and while his first two wives had issue with the amount of hours he spent at work, his current spouse embraced it. If you could call the National Security Agency a “spouse”. Yes, he was one of those stereotypical 21st century married to your job men who lived, ate, and breathed work. In truth, he coasted through relationships as if covered by oil, each other party desperately trying to cling and grab, while he kept chugging forward, barely looking back when they slipped away and were gone. The more surprising thing was that he had found two women willing to marry him in the first place, though they had both had their own issues to deal with.
He was one of those men who was easy to approach, yet difficult to be around. His charisma, chiseled chin, and $600 suits drew many looks and glares throughout his normal working day, and he even connected with some of those folks behind the glares. But Grace was like a Venus flytrap, a creature that looked warm and inviting, but if you got too close, the teeth and snap were fast, sharp, and devastating. As such, after a considerably drawn out and painful second divorce, he had committed himself to nothing but the job, which suited his superiors fine, but had a knack for riling up his peers. Singular motivation and drive causes competitive juices to boil, and to his credit, Grace always seemed able to turn down that heat before it boiled over. Not always, though, and in those rare times where his desire for upward mobility was evident, people like Tristan Davies tended to get their panties in a bunch. He’d dealt with it since his Ivy League college days and supposed that by now he ought to be used to it. Actually he was. It was everyone else who needed to get their shit straight.
While the mainstays of the Washington, D.C. scene were housed in the same general area down Pennsylvania Avenue, there were plenty of office locations and quiet places to sit and talk in the surrounding city area. At about 10:30 a.m. that cool, sunny day, Grace’s car slid to a stop outside one of those office buildings. Short, squat, and square, this unmarked building with steel and reflective glass showed no signs of what was happening inside. It was unmarked and unremarkable just how certain corners of the United States government wanted it. With distinct purpose, Agent Grace strode from the back of the stopped car, across the walkway, and into the building, just underneath an arched metal detector. This pale metallic gate was now standard within the Capital region, and although it clashed aesthetically with the shiny tile floors and immaculate paneled walls inside, it was a look with which everyone within a 200-mile radius was intimately familiar. Flanking the detector, two tall, broad shouldered, humorless looking men glared at him as if he waltzed into the building flashing a rifle. Grace snapped open his credentials to the two armed guards, who scanned them, studied his face, and ushered him forward into the building. Following a sign on the wall, the agent made it towards the conference room, taking a left down a narrow hallway, then a right, past one of those reflective windows that kept all the secrets spoken within this building concealed. A few moments later, he spotted the simple plaque labeling the correct room and walked inside, surprised to see that Director Davies was already there, seated at the small conference table in the center of the room. Grace remained standing, easing the door shut behind him with one hand, but didn’t move, attempting to be polite while Davies’ attention was clearly diverted. Tristan Davies was a tall, thick man, not that you could tell from his current posture, sitting at the table, shoulders hunched and eyes directed downwards at his handheld smart phone. The regional director made no indication that he had even heard him enter. As a member of the NSA’s internal investigative branch, Davies wasn’t often greeted with much enthusiasm in these particular situations.
“Sit, Agent,” Davies said, nodding to a chair across the table from him, but not lifting his eyes from the phone.
“Sir,” Grace nodded and did as he was told.
The two sat in relative silence while Grace shifted in his chair and Davies continued to study his phone. “Director? Can I ask why–?”
“Why? You really need to ask why, Agent Grace?” Davies finally looked over the screen of his phone, and Grace wished that he hadn’t. The senior NSA member stuffed the device smoothly in the pocket of his dress shirt and leaned forward on his elbows, lacing his fingers.
“Have I done something wrong, sir?”
“I think you know. Tell me about this wild animal attack stuff, son.” Davies propped up his fingers and twitched them into sarcastic air quotes as he spoke the words wild animal attack.
“Sir, I think you know that I cannot comment on operations in progress, unless directly instructed by—“
“Cut it out, Grace. You and I both know what this op is about. I thought this was under control?”
Grace struggled to keep his composure. Tristan Davies was a senior member of NSA staff, but he was not Grace’s direct supervisor, and he was not the lead agent on this operation, so he had no leg to stand on. However, if Agent Grace were going to make a play for a vertical move upwards in the NSA, Tristan Davies’ seat would be the likely landing place. Understandably, the man felt a bit under fire.
As he should, thought Grace.
He was a self-entitled prick who deserved to be on the short list.
“Director Davies, this operation is under control. This was an unfortunate event, but…”
“Unfortunate event?” Davies asked with a scoff. “An unfortunate event? That’s what you’re telling me?” His voice was dangerously calm and composed.
“I can tell you’re upset, sir. If you’d like me to call down Senior Director McKie, I will do so, and we can all discuss this. I’m uncomfortable going around the chain of command.”
Davies pushed himself into a standing position and turned his back towards the other agent. Windows were layered upon the far wall, but dark blinds were pulled down over them, and Grace knew the entire room was soundproofed. “I’ll give you chain of fucking command. I know what’s going on here, son, and it’s not going to happen on my watch!” Davies turned and looked back over his shoulder.
Grace nodded peacefully, but did not lose his cool. Davies was baiting him. Trying to get him to fly off the handle and either blow this op, or blow his whole career. Grace’s superior was threatened and had been incensed that he had been overlooked as the lead agent in charge of this operation. He wasn’t stupid, and he could tell that Grace was moving while he sat dangerously still.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Director Davies. I’ve got my phone, I can call Director McKie right now and we can all discuss this together. We’re at a very sensitive juncture…”
“No shit. Two of our contractors just got eaten fucking alive. I’d call that sensitive.”
A palpable stillness filled the air as the words hung like softly swinging piñatas. Davies eased himself back down into his chair, glaring at his indirect subordinate.
“Again, sir, that was unfortunate. We are taking all precautions to make sure that does not happen again.”
“Wild animal, my ass.”
Grace ignored the snide comment. “Director Davies, I understand your feelings. But I can ill afford to be stuck down here in Washington for a week while you settle your scores. Please let me do my job.”
“I think that’s what we all want.” Completely unseen, Director McKie had slid in the door behind Agent Grace. Out of the corner of his eye, Grace noticed Davies straightening his tie just slightly, and sitting up just a bit straighter in his leather chair. While Davies was a regional director of northeast operations, McKie was the Senior Director of Operations, and Davies’ direct supervisor.
Grace stood, extending his hand. “Senior Director.”
“Thanks for coming. I know you’ve been in limbo for a few days.” Director McKie shook Grace’s hand and produced a slender disc from inside his jacket pocket.
“You’ve got the video feed already?” the agent asked, slipping the disc from McKie’s extended fingers. For the first time, Grace noticed that a slim form factor black laptop and matching color projector stood on the reflective surface of the dark wood conference table. He motioned to the equipment and McKie nodded curtly in approval. Grace leaned over and ejected the drive on the laptop, then slid the silver disc into the drive. With a low whirl and a flash of light, the projector groaned to life and a picture slowly emerged on the screen just behind Director McKie. Frozen on a title screen, it simply read “Strickland – Phase Two.”
“How thorough is the surveillance?” McKie asked.
“Very,” Grace replied. “Concealed cameras wired throughout the house and synchronized to our secure servers. Our A/V crew then trims and cuts the video for presentation. They apparently work a lot more quickly than I anticipated.”
On the screen, the pictures slowly morphed into motion, and the scene changed to a medium-sized bedroom, where a decidedly not medium-sized man lay under the covers; the only thing visible was his smooth bald head.
Agent Grace lifted the remote. “This is where our story begins.”
The bald-headed man in the bed was not sleeping that of the innocent. Spasmodic twitches sent his large-framed body into small jerks and jolts, until he finally rolled over one last time and sat up, casting his blanket aside. His head moved on the screen, as his eyes scanned the room quickly and efficiently, though his body language told the watchers that he didn’t quite know where he was.
Grace interrupted the quiet scene with some commentary. “Subject awoke at 0700 about ten days ago, in his own bedroom. He has been effectively quarantined, but kept in relatively familiar surroundings to avoid an even larger chemical imbalance.”
Meanwhile on the screen, the man stumbled from bed and wandered over to the dresser, running a hand over his confused eyes. His head roamed slowly and attentively, seemingly trying to absorb all of his unfamiliar surroundings. He methodically pulled on jeans and a t-shirt and made his way towards the door.
The camera shifted with a flicker to the hallway outside his bedroom, looking down at an obscure angle towards him from above as he walked, continuing to look around. Both of the NSA directors could now see photographs lining the hallway walls, all neatly clamped inside small dark frames, and they captured a good look at the man’s face. His eyes were drawn tight, his face not wrinkled, but certainly worn, and his mouth a thin grimace underneath the scraggly brown goatee that surrounded it. The t-shirt he had chosen clung to his muscular frame and hung loose around his stomach as he regarded the pictures on the wall. It was the third picture that made him stop walking.
“This is our first hint of recognition,” Agent Grace said calmly as the man plucked the photo from the wall and looked hard into it. “It’s a picture of his family, his wife, and two young daughters.”
Director Davies looked curiously at the screen. “So, we’re isolating him, but we’re keeping those connections open? Why?”
Grace was still watching the screen as the man hung his head low, almost as if he couldn’t bear to look the encased family in the eye. “That’s a question best answered by our medical lead, Doctor Worthy.”
Davies’ mouth twitched as if he might make further commentary, but he caught McKie’s eye and decided to keep quiet.
“I think Worthy would tell you it’s an attempt to mitigate some of the shock to their system,” Grace decided to offer, hoping to look a little more forthcoming. “The chemical and genetic cocktail these subjects undergo is significant, and there were concerns that cutting them off from their world too much might cause a nervous break.” Grace looked back at Davies, and he seemed content with this answer. At least for the moment.
Back onscreen, the man, closer to the camera than he had been, pressed his index finger against the man in the photograph, seeming to realize that he had a place in this family, but his questioning gaze revealed that he wasn’t quite sure what that place was. The man onscreen carefully placed the picture back on its hook, then turned and walked down the hall, his eyes a strange, vacant stare. Davies felt a cold shiver of goose flesh roll up his arms when the man’s eyes were briefly caught in the camera’s frame. Grace seemed to sense this.
“Look carefully, gentlemen. That’s William Strickland, the most dangerous man in the world.”
“You would have thought we learned our lesson by now,” replied Director McKie softly. Grace turned towards him.
“How do you mean, sir?”
“We continue to make these weapons that grow increasingly out of our own control,” McKie looked closely at the screen as the camera view shifted down to the large living room, where a bay window was seen looking over the front yard. The bald man walked down the stairs into the room and scanned it with a cold, calculating stare.
Grace spoke. “We walk a careful line. There are safe guards in place—“
“Two of which were devoured a week ago.”
Grace had no response. He knew he was going to catch heat for what happened to the two contracted surveillance operators, but he was determined to push through it.
“It goes beyond just bodies,” he finally replied after sorting out his thoughts. “There are technical and chemical fail safes as well.”
Behind the stoic figure of Richard Grace, projected on the screen, the man had finished casing out the kitchen and living room, walking determinedly through his own home, and finally continuing his stride towards a single door that led to the basement stairs. Camera angles shifted again and a few seconds later, Strickland emerged down a narrow encased stairwell, onto the smooth concrete floor of the unfinished basement. Scattered throughout the large vacant underground room was assorted exercise equipment. There was a weight bench, a number of free weights, and even a heavy canvas bag that hung from the ceiling on a chain. Attached to this large room was a smaller one just visible from an open doorway that contained a desk and laptop computer, which appeared to be serving as Strickland’s office. The bald man walked throughout his large basement, checking out all of the workout gear, his head tilting just slightly in a questioning gaze.
Davies sat back in his chair and rested his hands in his lap, fascinated by the scene in front of him. This man… this William Strickland was walking through his own home, completely oblivious to the world around him and to the fact that every move was being recorded. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the entire experiment unfolding before these three men was that not one single minute was being spent thinking about Strickland as a person. He was ‘the subject’ or ‘the experiment’ and nothing more.
With a flickering snap, the film screen shifted again, this time to a view of the man’s office, looking down from a separate corner over a small wooden desk, a computer monitor, a few filing cabinets and shelves across a couple of walls. It was a typical office, except for a strange blank slab of wall in the left hand corner.
“What’s with the wall?” Davies asked.
Grace already braced himself for the inevitable question. “You’ll see.”
In a haze of white light ahead, Strickland rifled through filing cabinets, pulling out folders, combing through them, and tossing them aside nonchalantly. What amazed Grace was the calmness and focus about the whole process. No panic, just a simple grim determination of what he was there to do and how to do it.
Flip. Flip. Flip.
If there had been audio, the folders would have made the familiar noise slipping from their place on the filing cabinet, but in the absence of sound, Grace could only picture the noise in his head. Precisely when the NSA agent expected him to, William Strickland cast a sideways glance towards the blank slice of white wall and cocked his head like a cocker spaniel wondering if that unexpected sound was their master or a dangerous intruder. A small pile of folders cascaded from his hands and fluttered to the floor as he calmly approached this blank space of wall in the office. No shelves were mounted here, no pictures, nothing. It was totally void of memorabilia or storage. He stood there, stock-still. Staring at this strange piece of blank sheet rock, his mind appeared to calculate his next possible steps. Slowly and cautiously, he took a few strides forward, reaching the wall. Strickland ran his hands over the space calmly, as if searching for some hidden switch or catch. Grace wasn’t sure if it was instinct, paranoia, or some lingering genetic tingle at the back of his head that sparked a memory, but for whatever reason, it took only a few seconds for Strickland to reach this unusual conclusion. It took even less time for him to find the recessed catch that was ever so slightly encased in the sheetrock. On the screen in front of them, he pressed slightly and the four-foot block of white plaster simply fell forward into his expecting hands.
McKie’s chin was firmly placed in his closed fist as he watched this all happen intently. “What is this, some kind of psychological test?”
Grace turned, smiling. “Partly, yes. Dr. Worthy designed all of the parameters of this experiment with multiple purposes in mind. Testing and developing instincts and problem-solving skills was a big part of it.”
As the camera continued to stay on Strickland’s back, he lifted the sheetrock slab and rested it on a row of cabinets to his left. This provided the people watching the video their first unobstructed view of the small room and what was contained within it. Both directors’ sets of eyes broadened as if slowly pulled apart by invisible fingers.
Director Davies gasped. “Are you kidding me!?” he asked sharply, barely keeping himself from adding an expletive, mostly out of respect to the senior officer in the room.
McKie didn’t look especially impressed either. “Is this some kind of joke, Grace?”
“No joke,” the NSA agent replied evenly. “All part of the experiment.”
McKie shook his head softly as the camera zoomed in over Strickland’s shoulder as the new angle revealed the room for what it was.
It was, quite simply, a room of death.
From ceiling to floor in this small hidden room, strong gray metal shelves, two inches thick, were mounted to the walls. They contained weapons of every sort and size. Pistols, submachine guns, shotguns, and even three assault rifles all hung from mounted shelves with an alarming grace and precision. In some places, it was shelves; in others, it was professionally mounted pegboard, grasping the weapons by trigger guard and barrel. Impeccably cleaned, relentlessly maintained, and aggressively organized, this small room had enough firepower to equip a small squad. Not just guns, but tactical vests, night vision goggles, and various types of military equipment his untrained mind didn’t even yet recognize.
Davies looked hard into Grace’s eyes. “So you’re training this man to be the ultimate killing machine, and providing him the equipment to do the killing? Right at his fingertips? This isn’t an experiment; this is an instrument in government-funded mass homicide!” Davies stood, placing both hands palm down on the thick wood table. His cheeks flushed with pink.
Grace was ready for this retort. “Again, Dr. Worthy came up with the parameters, sir. Each element of this experiment is designed to make the subject comfortable with taking orders and executing on those orders. Each weapon has been identified, tagged, and geo-located.”
The screen was frozen, and with each word spoken, Grace gestured with his hand for emphasis. He stopped speaking for a moment, pulling his fingers through his thick wave of blonde hair, clearing it from his cold, blue eyes. Then he focused those eyes squarely on the tall, wide man in front of him.
“Director Davies, we’re not playing softball with this one. We fully intend to take the kid gloves off, and those who fall under the right line of command are all onboard. We have executive authorization.”
Davies’ cheeks flushed even deeper at the not-so-subtle dig, but he kept his mouth shut. Grace thought from now on perhaps he should have McKie present for all of his meetings with NSA officials.
McKie looked back at his two subordinates. “Grace is right. We did sign off on this, but rest assured only after we were fully convinced by Dr. Worthy of the value of this piece of the experiment. This first 24-hour period represents the ‘birth’ of this new generation of operators. It is critical to enforce a familiarity with weapons and military tactics right from the start.”
Davies didn’t look convinced.
On the screen, Strickland had walked the perimeter of this small room, looking at every weapon, every vest, and every piece of tactical gear that had been stored and organized inside. If one can truly caress a weapon made from hard steel and iron, then Strickland did so several times over. As the three men watched, he turned and exited the room, facing the camera for the first time since seeing the weapons.
His face split into a cold, comfortable smile. The smile was only comfortable to him; however, two out of the three men in the room watching the tape didn’t feel so comforted.
McKie slid a pile of manila folders out into the center of the table and Davies scooped one up, unfolded it, and began reading. Both McKie and Grace had already reviewed the material a few dozen times, so they sat still while the newcomer acquired an education.
“So this guy is an NSA contractor?” Davies asked as he flipped a page.
“Yes. Former Army Ranger went straight from high school to Benning, then Special Forces. Been working off the books for us for the past three years or so.” McKie took over answering the questions to save Grace from any potential backlash.
Davies eased the folder shut and regarded the two men. “Says in here he’s got a wife and two kids. Do I even want to ask?”
Grace tried to hide the sideways glance he shot over to McKie, but as obnoxious as he was, Director Davies was still a well-trained and capable spook with many years of experience reading and analyzing people. Davies was visibly taken aback by the non-answer.
“As you are both well aware, I’ve been directed by the executive office to investigate this little experiment. I must admit, I’m not liking what I’m hearing, gentlemen.”
Grace acquiesced. “I understand, sir. And I appreciate being given the chance to explain. So, if you don’t mind, I would like to do so. There is still plenty to talk about.”
“Fair enough, Agent. I’m listening.”
Agent Grace took a breath and began speaking.