PROLOGUE:   The Fountainhead Regional Park    

Brian Hunt was fired up, an explosion of energy, as he tore up the Bear Claw Run, the most grueling mountain bike course in Northern Virginia. The young CIA agent powered through it every Saturday morning. He had no way of knowing this morning would be his last.  Pumping and slithering around the switchbacks and boulders, he pounded away with sinewy legs and core muscles of iron. The image of a pouncing tiger leapt across the front of his crimson crash helmet.

 

He leaned back in his seat and let out a primal scream of rage, venting the fury and frustration he’d been accumulating over the past few months. Who wouldn’t be outraged? After half a year of investigation, the team led by the CIA had nailed it. They’d uncovered chapter and verse on Russian hacking of the U.S. elections. They’d briefed the Oval Office, the top people in the administration, the heads of the intelligence community, the leaders in congress. And, as the story leaked—as it was bound to—they’d generated headlines across the country, and around the world

And what had happened? Nothing. Their findings were ignored by congressional leaders, played down by the wimp in the White House, derided during the campaign by the Republican candidate, Walter Stokes, who—incredibly---was now the new president. It was scandalous. Who knew what Stokes owed to the Russians? Who knew what deals had been made by those around him?

Yet no one was willing to act—not congress of course, controlled by the Republicans; not even the members of his own CIA team---yellow-bellied chicken shits. It was nauseating.  Instead of reacting to the outrage, they’d crawled into their offices to lick their wounds. And he’d been a fool, dedicating his life, sacrificing his family—Joanne and the kids—supposedly for the national good. Such crap. He’d make it up to them.

The muscles in his thighs and gut were burning, his heart pounded in his chest, another switchback, and suddenly he was at the summit, looking out over the Occoguqna Reservoir far below. But no time to savor the view. A sharp right and the course dropped away. He was picking up speed, skidding and swerving, the wind whistling by his body. He let loose another wild howl that echoed off the mountain side. Faster and faster now--the wild temptation to let everything out balanced against the need to brake and buck around the boulders and switchbacks he knew lay just ahead.

He skidded through a corrugated patch of mud and leaves, then shifted his weight to handle the most treacherous switchback of the run. He could manage it easily, knowing it was there. He slithered around a sharp turn to the left, a rattled along a narrow rock ledge. There was a clearing in the woods on one side, on the other an ancient wooden barrier—the only thing that stood between him and the cliff that dropped precipitously to the ravine far below. 

Suddenly, a masked figure dressed in khaki and wielding a rifle, rose from the clearing on the left and lunged towards him. “What the fuck!” screamed Brian, instinctively swerving around his assailant? He felt a huge blow on the back of his head and heard his helmet crack as he went sprawling in the deep grass of the clearing. He was on his back, trying to gather his senses, when another masked face loomed into his vision. All he could see were the emerald green eyes. He felt a cloth cover his nose and just managed to recognize the faint ether-like smell before he passed out.

When he regained consciousness there was a pounding in his head, a blindfold covering his eyes “Where am I?” he groaned. He tried to move, but couldn’t. His arms and legs were bound. He could hear the gurgle of water filling some kind of basin, and two or three murmuring voices. One of them seemed to be a woman’s. The emerald green eyes?

“Okay, let’s go,” he heard her say. 

“Why the fuck is going on? ” he rasped, fighting the pain in his skull.

“We want to know what you are up to.” She seemed to be standing over him. “What you and your friends are planning.”

“Up to---about what? Who the hell are you?”

She spoke with a southern drawl, but her voice had a metallic edge to it--military.

“We know you’re trying to organize something.”

“Organize—to do what?”  

“Overthrow the president.”

“Stokes? You’re crazy!” he yelled.

“We heard you plotting.”

“Heard me what?” What seemed like a nightmare was actually happening.

“Trying to get your agency friends to commit treason.”

“That’s bullshit. We were arguing over drinks. I was upset, angry. But no one’s doing anything. Nothing! Who the hell are you, anyway?” he repeated

“Okay--let’s do it,” she said.

Whatever he was tied to was picked up, carried towards the sound of flowing water.

“You’ve seen water boarding,” she said. “So I don’t have to tell you what to expect.”

Of course, he’d seen water boarding—at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan. He’d never done it himself, but he’d watched on several occasions when he was stationed there. It was a technique used by other groups, very rarely by the CIA itself. He knew some Special Forces guys who underwent water boarding as part of their training. They lasted an average of 14 seconds before they panicked. To a man, they testified to its horrors.

 

He was in the air now, above a basin of water or bathtub he supposed. His body was tilted, his feet a few inches higher than his head. Terror filled his being. “This is crazy!” he screamed.

One part of him, knew they wouldn’t want to completely fill his lungs with water--to asphyxiate him. He knew their purpose was to trigger an instinctive reflex in the body—a terror of drowning, of death. So that he would plea for the torture to end, would tell his captors anything they wanted. But there was nothing to tell them. His heart pounded wildly.

A rag stinking of grease was placed over his face. His mouth was forced open, and water poured in and over the rag into his nose. It would keep the water clinging to his face, filling his throat, mouth, and sinuses. His inclined head kept his throat open; made it easier to pour water into his nostrils.

“No! Don’t!” his scream was smothered by the putrid rag. It would act as a one-way valve, opening to let more air out then closing again to prevent inhalation. He gasped then gasped again as water poured through the cloth.

He knew that trained CIA officers tried to outlast the torment by exhaling slowly through the upturned nose. That would keep water out, but only for a few seconds. He felt the water surging through his sinuses and larynx, and fought desperately for breath. He could feel his lungs collapsing. There was no breath left in his body. No way to get the water out. He was drowning. No one could hear his screams. He could feel himself defecating.

Then suddenly they lifted him up and removed the cloth over his face. He fought for air and vomited. Water spewed from his throat and sinuses. He couldn’t stop retching and gasping.

“Horrible, isn’t it.” said the woman. “You know you can’t fight it. So why keep trying? Why not talk?”

“About what?” Brian wheezed. He was shivering uncontrollably. Still filled with panic.

“Don’t play stupid. You’ve nothing to gain. What are you up to---you and your friends in the agency?”

“What friends?” Brian rasped.

“The ones who worked with you on the hacking investigation?”

“We’re doing nothing! Nothing!” He was still trembling, on the point of tears. “You have to stop. I’ve got nothing to tell you.”

“But you will.” she said. “Everyone does.”

Again, the filthy rag was placed over his face, his mouth forced open, the water cascaded into his throat and nostrils; again the frantic gasping for breath---the panic and terror.

He lost track of how many times they repeated the hellish procedure. He was hallucinating now, delirious, in and out of consciousness. Between each session, he could feel her hand on his throat, checking the pulse, ensuring he had enough oxygen in his blood to remain conscious.

“The prick’s not going to talk,” he heard her say when they removed the rags again.

“End it.” She ordered. If he could talk, he would have blessed her.

The board was lowered into the water until he was completely covered. This time there was no rag on his face. This time the water flooded into his lungs. For the last time, the terrifying reflex of drowning kicked in. He alone heard his scream.

They pulled him up again after five minutes. The woman leaned forward and again put her thumb on his neck. No pulse. She took off her mask. She was wearing khaki dungarees and black boots. The left side of her face was very attractive--high cheek bones, up tipped nose, lustrous green eyes.

It was the right side that was straight out of horror film: from her eyes to her chin the skin was fiery red latticed with white scars and scales almost like the skin of a snake, her scabrous right ear looked as if it had been torn off and partly replaced. 

Her name was Captain Jeanne Swanson. She’d served three tours of duty in Special Forces in Afghanistan, one in Iraq, as an intelligence officer. She’d been severely injured and burned in an attack on a firebase near Kabul. The medics at first through she’d never recover, After two years and 18 different surgical procedures she returned to active duty.