CIA Headquarters, McLean, Virginia
Rachael Walker stared pensively out of the window of her office. She was deep in thought, and the weather outside matched her mood. Grey and stormy. Her office door was closed, and she had left her light turned off, as she did not want anybody to interrupt her. The gloomy room only added to her sense of frustration.
Six months ago, just after the inauguration of the newly elected president, her boss, special assistant director of the CIA, David Seagull, had promoted her to head of the Financial War Games Department. The role of this department was to construct war games that focused not on bullets and bombs — but on how hostile nations might seek to cripple the US economy. The promotion was unexpected, as she was one of the more junior analysts in the department. And she had only worked for the CIA for five years since graduating at the top of her class from the prestigious Harvard Business School.
The promotion had caused resentment amongst her colleagues, and she could understand their bitterness. Many had years more experience than her, and they all felt that someone more senior should get the promotion. A considerable number of her male colleagues still carried an old-school gender bias, and could not tolerate working for a woman. Especially a woman who not only displayed razor-sharp intelligence but was also stunningly beautiful. Her long black silky hair perfectly complemented her Eurasian features, inherited from her Caucasian father and Vietnamese mother.
In fact, many of her female colleagues, too, resented her beauty and considered that she had only received the promotion by sleeping her way to the top. But this did not bother Rachael that much. She had battled against these sorts of prejudices her entire life, and every slight just stiffened her resolve that she would, eventually, be judged on her merits. Not on her looks or because of her sex. Sometimes, when she was alone with her thoughts, she wondered about David Seagull’s motivation in promoting her. She could not help but feel that somehow she was being set up. The idea kept nagging at her, but she could not work out how or why she was being manipulated. Maybe she was just being paranoid.
However, the assignment that David Seagull had given her last week did perturb her. Seagull had told Rachael that her entire team would meet with the new president, Christian Palatine, in precisely six weeks’ time. And Seagull expected that Rachael would give a comprehensive presentation to the president on the perilous state of the United States budget, and what the Financial War Games Department considered to be the most likely threats to the United States’ economy. Especially from other world powers such as China and Russia. World powers that did not share the same values as the USA and would look to cause harm whenever they could.
The assignment was not that unusual. Her department routinely ran models that tried to predict the actions of countries less than friendly to America, and what impact those actions would have on her country.
What was unusual was David Seagull’s constant interference in the process of compiling the presentation. He regularly barged into her office, displaying press story after press story showing how welfare cheats were milking the system. He also interrupted meetings that she was holding with her team and would take over, always ending in a tirade that the welfare system was leading to the country’s almost certain bankruptcy.
He was rabid in his hatred of welfare claimants and viewed all of them as parasites. He demanded, again and again, that Rachael make this the focus of her presentation to the president.
Rachael was torn. She knew that the welfare system was severely flawed, but other elements were equally defective. Military spending, health expenditure, a bloated bureaucracy: each had as much to do with the sad state of the country’s finances, and each should be tackled.
But, oddly, Seagull had given her clear instructions that he wanted her to only concentrate on the welfare system, with particular emphasis on Social Security.
Rachael had a nagging feeling that somehow her promotion and this presentation were linked. Little did she know that these were but elements of an audacious scheme that David Seagull had been planning for several years.
Five weeks later
Rachael sat waiting outside the office of the David Seagull. She had been summoned more than an hour ago and had been left waiting to serve at her master’s pleasure. This was a ploy that Seagull often used. He deliberately kept people waiting to keep them off-balance. He also believed that staring at a person without blinking, and long lulls in conversation, were effective intimidatory tactics.
Rachael understood that this was just part of his game, and took the time to review what she knew of her boss. She was aware that he was a career agency man and had followed in his father’s footsteps. His father, Richard Seagull, had been one of the first recruits into the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Rachael also knew that he was an only child and that his mother had died when he was very young. He was unmarried and seemed to have no close friends. David Seagull was also xceptionally ugly, with a face that only a mother could love. Nothing seemed to fit correctly. His eyes were protruding, almost as though he had no eyelids. His lips were thin and colourless, and his nose looked like something a three-year-old had moulded out of playdough.
Rachael had seen photos of him when he was much younger, and it was clear that even back then he had had a bad case of male pattern baldness. So he did what most men who were sensitive about their hair loss did. He shaved his head every day and had almost convinced himself that he would have done this even if he had not been losing his hair. He felt that his deliberately shaven head added to his allure.
Rachael gave a snort of exasperation. She did not like David Seagull, but her feeling went beyond mere dislike. There was something about the man that she did not trust. He always seemed to be running a game where only he knew the rules. In years to come, Rachael would often wonder what would have happened had she listened to her instincts.
“Miss Walker, you may go in now. The special assistant director is ready to see you,” said Seagull’s personal assistant, as she buzzed to open the door to his office.
Before entering, Rachael had to undergo a bizarre ritual that every visitor had to endure. First, she had removed her shoes and replaced them with Japanese slippers. Next, she had donned a pair of latex gloves. Nobody knew why they had to follow these weird steps, but it was the only way to get into the inner sanctum.
Rachael walked to the door and softly knocked three times. This was another peculiarity demanded by the office, and you could only enter once you had been granted permission by Seagull himself.
Receiving the assent to enter, Rachael opened the door and stepped in. After closing the door, she had to remain stationary until Seagull raised his eyes from the documents laid out on his desk and motioned for her to come closer. Another tactic designed to intimidate.
After keeping Rachael waiting several awkward minutes, Seagull indicated that she could enter his office. The office was massive and bathed in soft light from the only lamp that was on. The large windows let in natural light, but the overcast weather gave a sense of dimness to the room.
Rachael strode confidently towards the desk where Seagull was seated. I will not let your childish antics get to me, she thought. Arriving at the chairs in front of the large walnut desk, she waited for permission to sit.
Seagull waved her to sit down, and without waiting for her to get comfortable, he started speaking. “So, have you finished the presentation for the president next week?”
“Yes, Special Assistant Director. I have just finished proofreading the final draft of the report that will accompany the presentation. And if you will allow me to comment, I am not happy with the overall direction of the presentation. I feel that it focuses too much on the welfare system and not enough on other elements that are also major parts of our fiscal deficits.” With that, she handed over the draft. He stared at her without speaking, then slowly lowered the document onto his desk and started reading.
As he flipped the pages, Rachael took the opportunity to glance around the room. First, the desk. There was nothing on it except the document that Seagull was currently working on. No phone, no photos, no ornaments. Nothing except the blank expanse that separated Rachael from him. There were no paintings on the wall and no books on the bookshelves. It was almost as though Seagull did not want any personal touches to be displayed in his office. A clear message that he was only here to work, and he would not be distracted by sentimentality or pleasure.
After what seemed an interminable wait, he cleared his throat, and Rachael jerked around guiltily. She felt that somehow she had failed a test by not giving her entire focus to the person on the other side of the table.
“Miss Walker, I do not really care about your personal feelings on what or what is not essential. It is what I think that is important, and you will give the presentation to the president precisely as directed. Do I make myself crystal clear?” He spoke softly, his stare boring into her.
Without letting her speak, he continued. “And if you do not do precisely as directed, then I will find somebody who will. I am sure that there are many people in your department who would jump at the chance to take your place.”
Rachael stared back at her boss. She would not give him the satisfaction of looking away. She hated that she was being pushed into a corner but thought to herself, What harm can it do? It is a presentation to the president that he will forget after a few minutes. But she could not shake that nagging feeling that she was being made part of something bigger that she did not understand.
Finally, unable to think of another way to handle the implacable man before her, she spoke. “Mr Special Assistant Director, I will present to the president precisely as you have instructed.”
David Seagull gave a taut smile to demonstrate his superiority over his subordinate, and with a nod of his head, indicated that Rachael was dismissed.
Seagull stared coldly at Rachael Walker’s back as she left his office. He was satisfied that Rachael would follow his instructions to the letter, and that pleased him. His plan was coming together, a plan that had been years in the making.
He just needed to keep pressure on the new president, a man he considered weak and easily manipulated.