The sun made an appearance, replacing the morning’s storm clouds to make for a glorious, albeit chilly, late winter’s day. The rain-filled thunderheads had moved eastward resembling colossal kernels of brilliant white popcorn with flattened bottoms floating in the distant sky. Marnie eased back into the comfortably heated seats of Mark’s Lexus SC 07 convertible and stared skyward. She was intentionally trying to ignore the fact that she was sure Mark’s defroster worked with luxurious precision.
“This isn’t Phoenix,” she said, sitting up straighter as they approached the grey colored building at 1500 Tyson McLean Drive, otherwise known as Liberty Crossing. Roughly fifteen minutes from Solutions Drive by car, 1500 Tyson McLean Drive was once known as PRC Drive. That was before Congress handed forty-billion dollars to George W. Bush four days after 9/11 and some of that money was put to use to create what was initially called the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. In 2003, the organization cut its teeth on the first combined inter-agency intelligence databases out of their temporary location located on the fourth floor of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Original Headquarters Building. A lot of things had changed or were still in the process of changing since that infamous day when the Twin Towers fell. The creation of the DHS apparatus was unarguably the most extensive reorganization the U.S. government had seen in over fifty years. Here in McLean, only a few years later, stood the National Counterterrorism Center, an intimidating structure conjuring images of stealth and secrecy; to Marnie it actually looked like a building where one would expect to find government agents busy at work thwarting enemies of the state. Muted images of human figures could be barely spotted within, deftly obscured by the mirrored and deeply tinted windows that covered the building’s façade.
Mark caught a glance of Marnie staring contemplatively over the top of her sunglasses as he slowed the convertible before the security gate at the building’s side entrance to the lower level parking lot.
“Those windows are both bullet and blast proof. Each office is a security vault in and of itself. This place was built to post-Oklahoma City bombing standards,” he said.
Marnie said nothing.
The security guard at the gate wore an indistinguishable uniform, but was easily identified as a man of seriousness by his military bearing and the menacing .45 caliber automatic pistol that hung at his right side.
“Identification please, Mr. Harmann,” said the stoic sentry. “And Ms. McCloud’s.”
“They know me here,” he whispered with a sly wink to Marnie, “and apparently you too.” He bounced his eyebrows at her with puckish aplomb.
Mark unclipped a small, black leather holder from the car’s sun visor and held out his hand to Marnie. She reached down on the floorboard for her purse, but not without noticing the guard’s hand move to the butt of his firearm. Instinctively, she moved with exaggerated slowness. She carefully opened her purse, extracted her wallet, removed her driver’s license, and placed it into Mark’s open palm.
The guard examined their identification thoroughly, looking from each card both held in his left hand to each of their faces; his other hand still on the gun. Apparently satisfied, he returned their IDs.
“Open the hood and trunk please, Mr. Harmann,” said the guard.
Seemingly from nowhere, two other guards of equal seriousness appeared beside the Lexus. They circled the car in an eerily graceful dance, each holding convex mirrors attached to short pole lengths that allowed them to see beneath the vehicle’s chassis without having to stoop or crawl on the ground. Mark reached down with his left hand and released the hood then popped the trunk with his right. The serious twins made their way to the front and rear of the vehicle and performed a thorough inspection, presumably for anything explosive. The rear twin closed the trunk and gave a curt nod to the guard in the booth, which Marnie saw reflected in the rear-view mirror. In what seemed longer than it should have, the front twin completed his business and dropped the hood from a professional distance, sealing it with an elegant thunk. He flashed a thumbs-up sign to the booth guard and departed with the other as stealthily as they had appeared.
“You are clear to enter, sir,” said the booth guard. He used his gun hand to pick up a hand-held radio.
He muttered what seemed like gibberish to an unseen party and gestured for Mark to drive forward towards the security gate that was slowly rolling upward to reveal a tunnel that led beneath the building.
“Did you hear that guard speak in tongues? That was a shibboleth,” said Mark. “Warring tribes in ancient Israel used a person’s dialect as a form of security screening. When the Gileadites defeated the Ephraimites sometime around thirteen hundred B.C., they secured the fords along the river Jordan in a measure to identify and kill any Ephraimites who would be attempting to escape homeward incognito. Forty-two thousand refugees were caught and slain by this tactic.”
Marnie cut him off. “This isn’t Phoenix.”
Mark ignored her, took a breath, and continued. “You see the trick was that Ephraimites couldn’t say the sh sound. So when they had to say something like shoe, for example—though I doubt they ever wore anything but sandals—it came out soo. It’s kind of like when Phet says pom-pem, except Phet could probably fake it to pass security. Americans employed this technique in World War II, to identify American Japanese from the baddies. Lollapalooza is still a bit of a tongue twister for most Japanese who weren’t raised in the States. Not state of the art, but definitely effective.”
Mark had maneuvered the car through the parking garage as he’d talked and parked in a stall clearly marked VISITORS. He didn’t bother to put the top up, as he figured security was most likely pretty good around here. He assumed that there were several CCTV cameras and possibly even a riflescope trained on them now.
“This isn’t Phoenix.” Marnie repeated, looking more than a little miffed now.
“Look,” Mark said with an exaggerated look of exasperation. “A little misinformation never hurt anyone. Besides, I’m not actually misinforming you, which you’ll figure out in about six months on your own. Trust me. The best is yet to come.”
He walked around the car and opened Marnie’s door for her. She sat there, obviously in a mood.
“Are we really having lunch?” she asked. “You know how I get when I’m hungry.”
“Believe me, I know. Yes, we are having lunch, and let me just say this will be one you’ll not soon forget.”
Grudgingly she joined him, and they made their way to a red-painted door clearly marked ENTRANCE, behind which Marnie would be subjected to thirty minutes of further security screening that would allow her swifter access on future visits, including: retina detection scanning, electronic fingerprinting, and voice recognition.
By the time they emerged, she was starving and well beyond grumpy.
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