Red Mist, Chapter 16
Updated: Apr 27, 2020
The trip from Santa Monica to San Diego International Airport in Argon’s Bell 206B Jet Ranger took less than an hour, about a quarter of the time it would have taken by car. And it was much more scenic, with a bird's-eye view of the coastline from Los Angeles to Camp Pendleton under the early morning sun.
From the airport, the FBI’s state-of-the-art San Diego field office was a twenty-minute Lyft ride away, located near the ritzy Torrey Pines community, home to the famous golf course with the same name. Max Koga had visited the office previously, during his DEA days, when he was part of a joint task force that weeded out suspected smugglers in the area.
After entering the building, he passed through a metal detector before an escort led him to an elevator that took him to the highly restricted eighth floor. Once there, he walked up to the reception counter, which was staffed by two women in dark business suits, one of whom he recognized from his last visit.
“Hi Sabina, I’m here to see the director,” Koga said.
“Well, if it isn’t Maximilian Koga. They’re waiting for you in the conference room,” Sabina said, buzzing him through the side door.
Pleasantly surprised that she remembered his name, Koga flashed her an awkward smile and made his way down a short hallway that ended with double doors. After a light knock, he entered the conference room, where he saw FBI Director Edward Womack sitting at the head of a rectangular table with his head propped up on one arm and a pair of reading glasses hanging off his nose. A businessman by trade, he was appointed to the FBI’s top spot by the new President, without any national security experience whatsoever. The press had discovered afterward that he had received his posting after donating three million dollars to the president’s inauguration.
"Sit down please,” Womack said, extending his arm to an empty chair.
Already seated in one of the chairs was Paul Verdy, dressed in his signature black leather jacket, zipped halfway up over a white dress shirt. Chief Operating Officer of the CIA, Andrew Roberts, occupied the seat next to him, his disheveled red hair and wrinkled clothes made it seem like he had spent the previous night on a park bench.
“Glad you could make it,” Verdy said with a grunt.
“Nice to finally meet you, Max,” Roberts greeted.
Koga gave Roberts a slight nod. “Likewise, sir.”
Ed Womack cleared his throat and looked up for the first time since Koga stepped into the room. “We’ll skip with the pleasantries. What’s your take on what happened last night?”
“Our source was good, sir. I feel someone must have tipped him off,” Max answered.
Womack sifted through a stack of paper on the table and shook his head. “We don’t even know if the target was there at all. By every account, it looks like your Arab friend played you like a fiddle. I wasted a lot of time and men on this wild goose chase you put us on.”
Koga looked at Verdy and then back at Womack. “Is this some sort of a hearing or official inquiry?”
“Not official, at least not yet,” Womack said, removing his reading glasses and holding them lightly. “But we do have our concerns with Argon.”
“Come on, Ed,” Roberts broke in. “They’ve been an extraordinary benefit to the CIA. Honest and effective companies like Argon aren’t common. Give them more time. I don’t know if you’re aware, but General Verdy is a national hero.”
“I have the greatest respect for the general, but so far, I’m not impressed with his organization,” Womack said. “We apprehended only five cell members at the South Carolina location, when we were told there would be a dozen.”
“We never said there would be a dozen,” Koga rebuked.
“That really doesn’t matter now, does it? Who’s to say Nasim al-Ahmed wasn’t setting you up from the start. Didn’t it occur to you that maybe your source is a dangle?” Womack asked.
Impressed that the new FBI boss knew the term, Koga replied: “Of course I considered the possibility of a dangle, but I deemed it highly improbable that he was sent solely to provide misinformation because I sincerely believe he wants out of the organization. And he’s after that reward money. My opinion is that al-Ahmed got a tip that the San Diego cell was about to be compromised, so he hightailed it out of there, probably a few hours before you guys showed up. Check the electrical records, and I’ll bet someone was using the power at the house until the very last minute.”
"It sounds like you're suggesting that there's a leak somewhere," Womack commented.
"Yes sir, I am," Koga replied matter-of-factly.
Womack leaned forward and rested his elbows on the dark mahogany tabletop. “Do you have proof of this, or a name?”
Verdy jumped in before Koga could answer. “We’re working on that now, but we do have a new lead. We strongly believe that Nasim al-Ahmed is working with a Chinese car company called Song Motors, but for what reason, we have yet to find out.”
Roberts twisted in his seat and looked at Verdy. “When did this come about, general?”
“Max here found Al-Aqarib operatives aboard a ship that transported a Song Motors show car to California.”
Womack scoffed. “That doesn’t mean anything. Cargo ships take on many different clients at one time.”
“True, but we also have a photograph of al-Ahmed in that very same show car,” Verdy said. “And just before our meeting here, our computer guy, Raja, discovered that the other person in the photograph is a man named Xavier Qiu, the president of Song Motors.”
This was news to Koga. How Singh managed to ID Qiu from a blurry image of the side of his face was nothing short of witchcraft.
“And who exactly is Xavier Qiu?” Womack asked.
“He keeps under the radar, but he’s a bad egg,” Verdy replied. “What we know for sure is that he rose in the financial sector through ties with the Chinese mafia, and he’s been known to broker secret arms deals and drugs, mostly heroin.”
“Now why would a Chinese drug dealer be sympathetic to the causes of an Islamic terror group?” Womack asked. “What does he get out of sleeping with the Aqarib.”
“That would be the billion-dollar question,” Koga said in a low voice.
“If there’s any semblance of truth in this, I need to run this up to my boss immediately,” Roberts said.
Womack turned to Verdy. “I’ll give you guys another chance, but you’d better keep me updated. Make sure I am in the loop on everything. Any funny stuff from either of you, and I will recommend to the President that your services be terminated immediately.”
“Wait a minute, Ed,” Roberts protested. “Their contract is with us, the CIA. You have no right or power to do such a thing.”
“In addition to the President, I also have CIA Director Nigel McKeen’s ear, who I believe is your boss. Don’t ever forget that Andy,” Womack cautioned.
Roberts returned the comment with a cold, hard stare. “I’ll try not to,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Good day to you, general,” Womack said. “And you, chief Roberts.” Without addressing Koga, he placed his reading glasses onto his nose and directed his attention to the paperwork in front of him, suggesting to his guests that they see themselves out the door.
When the three men stepped into the hallway, Koga turned to his boss, “That was certainly enlightening. Since when have we been on the chopping block?”
“Ever since Womack got the director’s job,” Verdy answered.
Roberts stepped forward. “You guys see to it that that son of bitch eats his words. The whole U.S. intelligence community has become a circus, starting with that clown. But I’m on your side; we’ll do all we can to keep them off your backs.”
“Perhaps this Qiu fellow can lead us to Cyclops,” Koga remarked.
Verdy nodded. “I’m betting it on it. Which reminds me, our friend Stockton Clay said he received an invitation to some fancy dinner party by Song Motors. He asked if one of us wanted to attend with him.”
“I’d be very interested in going,” Koga said.
“I’d thought as much, so I already told him that you’re in. Get in touch with him for the details. They’re even putting you guys up in some swanky hotel nearby.”
“Did you just say Stockton Clay of Automobile Digest?” Roberts asked. “Now there’s a name from the past. Tell him I said ‘hi.’ We worked together once in Tokyo a few years back. A bit of a nerd, but a solid guy all the same. Real solid.”