April 1, 2020
“Don’t fuck with me,” Special Agent Niles said into his cellphone. “This some kinda April Fool’s?” His accent was Southern, with a distinct Louisiana drawl. “I mean it, Dixon. Remember, I know where you live.”
“Yeah,” the caller named Dixon replied, “And I know what you wrote in that last email to your sister.”
“I don’t have a sister, and y’all know that, too,” Agent Niles shot back. Both men laughed. These NSA analysts were all the same, Niles thought to himself, always throwing their weight around with their voodoo cyber eavesdropping bullshit.
“Seriously, Frank, I’m up to my ass in alligators here. How about we make it next week,” said Niles, looking at the stack of files open on his desk. “Or at least do a video link. Do I really need to haul my black ass up to Fort Meade?”
“No – no – and yes, you do,” Dixon answered, “A car will pick you up, one o’clock sharp.”
“Should I be bringing Charlie, or anyone else on my team…?” Niles asked.
“Just you,” replied the analyst. The way he said it caught Niles’ attention; so serious.
“This better be good,” said Niles. There was silence on the other end, then the line went dead. That’s odd, thought Niles, Dixon always has a comeback. He filed that thought away and went back to work.
Special Agent Markus Niles knew he wasn’t your typical FBI agent, and he didn’t much care. Sure, in many ways he looked the part: six-one, fit, clean-cut, shaved head, all business. He had a well-deserved reputation as relentless, fearless and one who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was known for his unconventional, even improvisational, approach to solving cases, for coloring outside the lines; at the same time, he made no secret of having a soft spot for victims of terror, especially the children.
But it was his wardrobe and choice of eyewear that really set him apart. His specs, vintage ‘Malcolm X’ browline frames, gave him a bookish, non-threatening appearance; his suit, well, it was downright natty, a shiny blue silk/wool blend, tailored to fit like a glove, an outfit that would be more at home on a jazz musician than a forty year old career G-man.
Since day one at Quantico, his fellow agent trainees had teased Niles about his snappy suits, reminding him that the Bureau frowned on agents who drew attention to themselves. But Niles never let any of their chatter affect how he chose to dress – because in his mind, he was a jazz musician – or at least he had planned to be, once upon a time.
Now, as the black Suburban pulled away from FBI Headquarters and sped past the Washington Monument, Niles settled into the rear seat and thought about that exchange with his NSA counterpart. They had worked together a few years earlier when Niles was Senior Special Agent on a joint terrorism task force investigating Saudi funding of fringe Islamic terrorist groups. Niles hadn’t spoken to Dixon or had any contact since that case had resolved almost two years ago, so he thought it unusual, strange even, for Dixon to call him up now, out of the blue, especially to insist on a sit-down, that very day. Called him on his cell, too, not his office line, even though he was in his office; didn’t send an email either. All of which meant no official record – okay, so this was off the books. That’s fine, Niles thought, but sending a car to pick me up – that was a first. What was so important, so urgent, wondered Niles, that he was expected to drop everything and get chauffeured out to meet with a bunch of snoops? This better be good, he repeated to himself.
The two NSA agents riding up front in the Suburban didn’t say a word as they headed up the B-W Parkway toward Fort Meade. The driver had his foot into it, too; at one point Niles glanced at the instrument panel to check their speed. “Eighty- five…?” he thought out loud. “I’d like to get there in one piece, if y’all don’t mind.” The agents ignored him. Niles sat back and fished out his ear buds. If he was going to die today, he decided, at least he’d go out listening to some straight-up syncopation.
He fired up Miles Davis; ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’, one of his favorites. The up-tempo jazz classic filled his ears with the singular sound of the virtuoso trumpeter at his most masterful. Niles closed his eyes and embraced the music, satisfied that, with Miles riffing in his head for the next half hour, give or take, assuming they didn’t crash, he would be ready for whatever was coming his way out at Snoop Central.
The sprawling U.S. Army installation that is Fort Meade is home to several federal agencies, including the super-secret National Security Agency, so perimeter security was always understandably tight and deliberately intimidating. Which is why Niles was genuinely surprised when the four heavily armed Marines manning the first checkpoint waved the Suburban through, without even stopping the vehicle to check the occupants. The driver had barely slowed down. Same thing at Checkpoints Two and Three; just waved through. Niles couldn’t believe it; that never happens, he thought to himself.
He removed his ear buds and switched off his music as the Suburban pulled up in front of the security building. A Marine Corporal waiting in the driveway snapped to attention and opened the rear door, “Agent Niles, welcome to Fort Meade. Follow me, please.”
The Marine Corporal waited as Niles stepped through the body scanner and his service weapon and smartphone were screened. “Sorry, sir, electronics are not authorized at your meeting. You may collect your phone when you leave.” The Marine strode briskly to a bank of elevators in the lobby of ‘The Fort’, as the towering National Security Agency headquarters was affectionately known in the intel community.
Niles holstered his Glock as he hustled after him; every other NSA meeting he’d been to, they’d always allowed electronics once they’d been screened. “What’s with the no devices?” Niles asked as he caught up to the Marine.
“That’s above my pay-grade, sir,” the Corporal answered. He placed his palm on a scanner and punched in a code on the keypad. The middle elevator’s doors whirred open. The Marine waited until Niles stepped into the car, then snapped to attention, “Thank you, sir.”
The elevator car began to descend, rapidly picking up speed, faster and faster, for a good thirty seconds. “Jesus!” Niles exclaimed as his ears popped. Like everyone in the field, he knew that the more sensitive the meeting at the NSA, the deeper underground it was held. As the elevator continued its high-speed descent, Niles knew one thing for sure: he had never been down this deep before.
Finally, the elevator eased to a stop and the doors whirred open, revealing a long, softly lit subterranean corridor. Two well-armed Marines were waiting for him. “Agent Niles, this way please.”
The Marines escorted Niles at a rapid clip down the hallway to the end, stopping in front of an oversized, reinforced steel door. One Marine placed his palm on a wall scanner and punched in a code on the keypad. The scanner light blinked green.
The Marine gestured to Niles, “Sir, please remove your glasses for the retinal scan.”
The red beam swept across Niles’ eyes. The green light blinked again and the door clicked as the locks were released. The Marine nodded to his fellow soldier, who pulled the eight-inch-thick door open with both hands. He motioned to Niles, “Sir, they’re waiting for you.”
Niles stepped into the room and the door closed behind him, locking with a heavy click. As his eyes adjusted to the low light, he could see it was a relatively small, ordinary-looking conference room. Seven men were seated in high-backed chairs along one side of a long table. Five were in uniform, including the man in the middle, a barrel-chested figure in his fifties with a crew cut and bushy eyebrows, who said in a gruff voice, “Special Agent Niles, I’m General Petrone. Thank you for coming out on such short notice. Please, have a seat.”
Niles stiffened when he heard the name; Arthur Petrone was a three-star general and Director of both Cyber Command and the NSA. Niles had never met the General in person before, but his reputation as a no-bullshit leader who got results was well known.
Niles sat down in the lone chair on the opposite side of the table, facing the group. None of the others introduced themselves or acknowledged Niles’ presence, except for one of the two men in civilian clothes, who nodded to Niles. In the dim light, Niles recognized Frank Dixon’s reed-thin frame and pasty complexion. He nodded back at the analyst who had called him, as if to say, ‘Alright – I’m here.’
General Petrone leaned forward in his chair. “Agent Niles, you’re probably wondering why we had you drop everything and race up here,” he said evenly.
“Well, sir, it had crossed my mind.”
The General cleared his throat, “There’s been a recent development in a file that’s been closed for over a decade.”
“Okay.” Niles was all ears.
“We need a fresh set of eyes to tell us if this development means anything, and more to the point, whether we need to reactivate the file. We need someone with a background in this particular area, but who thinks outside the box.” He pointed to the analyst, Dixon. “One of our senior analysts put your name forward – so if this assignment ruins your career, you have him to thank for it.” Petrone smiled drily at Niles.
Niles didn’t smile back. “Yes, sir.” He glanced at the analyst Dixon, not sure if he should be feeling grateful or pissed at him. “I guess time will tell,” he said under his breath.
The General motioned to the others seated on either side of him. “What we’re about to share with you is known only to the men in this room. It has no official security designation – not classified, not top secret, not even ‘code word’ secret – because, officially, it doesn’t exist. And unless and until I personally direct you otherwise, it remains that way. Are we clear, Agent Niles?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Niles, straightening up in his chair.
The General motioned to the analyst. “Mr. Dixon?”
Dixon stood up and faced Niles. He looked even thinner and paler than Niles remembered him. “We all know what happened on 9/11,” Dixon began, “Or at least, we all think we know. It turns out we all might have missed something that day.”
The analyst clicked a handheld remote and a large video panel on one wall came to life. Grainy closed-circuit security video of a busy airport departures level played with no sound. “This is from Boston Logan,” said Dixon. “Note the time stamp: 9/11/2001 – 08:07 AM – seven minutes before American flight 11 took off for Los Angeles the morning of the attack.” He clicked the remote again and the video shifted to slow-motion.
Niles stared intently at the screen as a young, brown-skinned man in a Red Sox sweatshirt and cap exited the terminal onto the sidewalk. Dixon continued, “This footage, like everything from that day, has been looked at thousands of times over the years.”
Dixon clicked his remote. The clip froze. “Then last week during a training exercise, one of our rookie analysts caught a detail that everybody had missed, that made us all sit up.” He directed a laser pointer to the man’s sweatshirt and moved the red dot to his armpit. “See there? The sweatshirt still has the sales tag attached. The newbie happens to be from Boston, and as he put it, ‘No self-respecting Red Sox fan would be caught dead walking around with a price tag hanging off their team pride gear – you’d get the shit beat out of you.’”
Niles stared at the image on the screen. “Maybe he’s not from Boston –”
“– Or maybe he was distracted and in a hurry,” responded Dixon.
Niles studied the frozen image – it was so grainy that the details of the man’s face were hard to read, not to mention his features were partially obscured by the baseball cap. Niles chose his words carefully. “Please tell me there’s another shoe to drop.”
Dixon half-smiled; he was expecting that from Niles. “I know you know all this, Markus, but let us review: of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attack, only thirteen were ever identified by flesh or bone DNA at the three crash sites. The ringleader, who was handpicked by bin Laden to lead the attack, was a German-trained engineer from Egypt named Mohamed Atta. He was supposedly at the controls of the first plane to hit the Twin Towers; American flight 11. His DNA was one of the six that was never found.”
Niles had read the reports, but it had been many years since he’d given this any thought. He pointed to the image on the screen, “What makes you think this is him?”
Dixon was expecting that too. “The day after the attacks, Atta’s father, a lawyer in Cairo, claimed his son called to tell him he was okay. After that phone call, Atta was never heard from again.”
Niles remembered hearing about that call years ago, not long after the attack, then it had dropped off the radar. He had always assumed that it was just a rumor, or a grieving father trying to preserve his son’s memory. “Was that call ever verified?”
Dixon hesitated and looked over at General Petrone, clearly unsure how he should respond. The General answered for him, “Took us five years, but eventually we were able to authenticate the call.”
Niles stared at the General; this was news to him – that fact had never been made public, or even made known within the Bureau. Niles digested this, then asked, “Where did that call originate…?”
General Petrone paused, deliberating his response, “617 area code – metro Boston.” He added drily, “Your bureau ran it down for six years, but in the end, they came up empty, and the investigation was closed. The FBI didn’t get its man. The consensus around here was it was probably a decoy. But I guess you wouldn’t know any of this because it was a dark file.”
Niles considered the General’s last statement. So-called ‘dark files’ were clandestine FBI investigations that were closely held, typically limited to only the Director and a handful of the bureau’s most senior supervisors.
Niles turned his attention back to the screen. “What does facial recognition say?”
“We just got the results back this morning,” Dixon responded. “Had our best people doing the enhancement, but the source quality was so poor – keep in mind this is 2001 technology – they could not confirm this pretend fan is Atta. That said, based on incomplete facial imaging, plus body geometry, pants and shoe comparison, and gait recognition, the probability did come back in the mid-sixties – high enough to make us wonder: what if it really is him?”
Niles’ investigator wheels were turning now. “What about the gift shop camera?”
Dixon shook his head, “Yeah… no. Out of service that day.”
“And the Departures concourse? There must be half a dozen cameras between the gift shop and that exit.” Niles’ questions were coming faster now.
Dixon nodded, “We’re running that down as we speak – but any footage will have the same resolution issue. And the way he’s wearing his cap, part or all of his face is always obscured from the overhead cameras.”
Niles sat back and crossed his arms, “So bottom line: you’re saying Atta never got on the plane.”
General Petrone spoke up. “We aren’t saying anything, Agent Niles – you’ve studied these people for most of your career… we want to hear what you say.”
Niles stood up and began to pace. He always thought better when he was in motion. “Okay, let’s assume that is him,” he said as his initial thoughts poured out. “Why didn’t he get on the plane? Because he lost his nerve? Bin Laden selected him personally to command the operation, a real honor for a martyr. He’s intimately involved in two years of planning. Takes eight weeks of flying lessons. Coordinates eighteen confederates. Even makes a rehearsal flight – And then on the big day, he gets cold feet at the boarding gate? I don’t buy it.”
The General and the others were hanging on Niles’ every word, their eyes glued to him as he continued pacing in front of them. They looked at each other, unsure if he was finished speaking or still thinking; none wanted to interrupt him to find out.
Suddenly Niles stopped pacing, “Unless –” He didn’t finish his thought, just stared at the frozen image of the man in the Red Sox sweatshirt.
General Petrone cleared his throat. “Unless what, Agent Niles?”
“…Unless that was the plan all along,” Niles answered finally.
General Petrone stared at Niles, not following. “Explain.”
Niles resumed pacing. “Don’t know yet,” he said. “Maybe the plan was never for him to be on that plane at all – just to make us think he was on the plane, at the controls.”
“Why?” asked Petrone. “Why would he do that? To what end?”
Again, Niles stopped pacing and turned to the General, “So he could stay behind, in-country, off the grid.”
“Why?” the General asked again.
Niles resumed pacing, his mind fully engaged, “Let’s assume it is him. He makes that phone call to his father, then drops off the radar, vanishes into thin air, disappears off the face of the Earth. Where did he go? What has he been doing all these years? Is he still in the U.S., hiding in plain sight? How is that possible? How did he manage to avoid detection all these years, given everyone knows his butt-ugly face?” Niles’ questions spilled out rat-a-tat-tat fast.
General Petrone nodded to the analyst Dixon, impressed, then turned his attention back to Niles.
“All good questions, Agent Niles.”
Niles was still pacing. Then it hit him. “That’s why he never got on that plane!” He stopped pacing and turned to the General, “He had another plan. A different plan. A bigger plan!”
General Petrone scoffed, “You mean, bigger than hijacking four airliners packed with innocent people and flying them into two of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, plus the Pentagon, all of which were full of more innocent people? You mean, bigger than that?”
His questions hung in the air.