Authors: Karen Cleveland
I open a few of the folders, then the text documents inside them. Page after page of dense Cyrillic text. I feel a wave of disappointment, one I know is nonsensical. It's not like a Russian guy sitting on his computer in Moscow is going to be typing in English, keeping records in English,
List of Deep-Cover Operatives in the United States.
I know that what I'm looking for is encrypted. I'm just hoping to see some sort of clue, some sort of protected file, something with obvious encryption.
High-level penetrations over the years have told us that the identities of the sleepers are known only to the handlers, that the names are stored electronically, locally. Not in Moscow, because the SVRâRussia's powerful external intelligence serviceâfears moles within its own organization. Fears them so much that they'd rather risk losing sleepers than keep the names in Russia. And we know that if anything should happen to a handler, the ringleader would access the electronic files and contact Moscow for a decryption key, one part of a multilayer encryption protocol. We have the code from Moscow. We've just never had anything to decrypt.
The program's airtight. We can't break in. We don't even know its true purpose, if there is one. It might just be passive collection, or it might be something more sinister. But since we know the head of the program reports to Putin himself, I tend to think it's the latterâand that's what keeps me up at night.
I keep scanning, my eyes drifting over each file, even though I'm not entirely sure what I'm looking for. And then I see a Cyrillic word I recognize.
The last icon in the last row, a manila folder. I double-click and the folder opens into a list of five JPEG images, nothing more. My heart rate begins to accelerate. Five. There are five sleepers assigned to each handler; we know that from multiple sources. And there's the title.
I click open the first image. It's a headshot of a nondescript middle-aged man in round eyeglasses. A tingle of excitement runs through me. The sleepers are well assimilated. Invisible members of society, really. This could certainly be one of them.
Logic tells me not to get too excited; all our intelligence says the files on the sleepers are encrypted. But my gut tells me this is something big.
I open the second. A woman, orange hair, bright blue eyes, wide smile. Another headshot, another potential sleeper. I stare at her. There's a thought I'm trying to ignore, but can't. These are just pictures. Nothing about their identities, nothing the ringleader could use to contact them.
Pictures. So maybe Yury's not the elusive handler I was hoping to uncover, the one the Agency devoted resources to finding. But could he be a recruiter? And these five people: They must be important. Targets, maybe?
I double-click the third image and a face appears on my screen. A headshot, close-up. So familiar, so expectedâand yet not, because it's here, where it doesn't belong. I blink at it, once, twice, my mind struggling to bridge what I'm seeing with what I'm
what it means. Then I swear that time stops. Icy fingers close around my heart and squeeze, and all I can hear is the whoosh of blood in my ears.
I'm staring into the face of my husband.
Footsteps are coming closer. I hear them, even through the pounding in my ears. The haze in my mind crystallizes, in an instant, into a single command.
. I guide the cursor to the X in the corner of the picture and click, and Matt's face disappears, just like that.
I turn toward the sound, the open wall of my cubicle. It's Peter, approaching. Did he see? I glance back at the screen. No pictures, just the folder, open, five lines of text. Did I close it in time?
A niggling voice in my head asks me why it matters. Why I felt the need to hide it. This is Matt. My husband. Shouldn't I be running to security, asking why the Russians have a picture of him in their possession? There's a wave of nausea starting to churn deep in my stomach.
“Meeting?” Peter says. One eyebrow is raised above his thick-rimmed eyeglasses. He's standing in front of me, loafers and pressed khakis, a button-down that's buttoned a touch too close to the top. Peter's the senior analyst on the account, a holdover from the Soviet era, and my mentor for the past eight years. There's no one more knowledgeable about Russian counterintelligence. Quiet and reserved, it's impossible not to respect the guy.
And right now there's nothing strange in his expression. Just the question. Am I coming to the morning meeting? I don't think he saw.
“Can't,” I say, and my voice sounds unnaturally high-pitched. I try to lower it, try to keep the tremor out of it. “Ella's sick. I need to pick her up.”
He nods, more of a tilt of his head than anything. His expression looks even, unfazed. “Hope she feels better,” he says, and turns to walk away, over to the conference room, the glass-walled cube that's better suited for a tech start-up than CIA headquarters. I watch him long enough to see that he doesn't look back.
I swivel back to my computer, to the screen that's now blank. My legs have gone weak, my breath coming quick. Matt's face. On Yury's computer. And my first instinct:
I hear my other teammates ambling toward the conference room. Mine is the closest cubicle to it, the one everyone walks past to get there. It's usually quiet down here, the farthest reaches of the sea of cubicles, unless people are heading to the conference room or to the Restricted Access room just beyond itâthe place where analysts can lock themselves away, view the most sensitive of sensitive files, the ones with information so valuable, so hard to obtain, that the Russians surely would track down and kill the source if they knew we had it.
I take a shaky breath, then another. I turn as their footsteps come closer. Marta's first. Trey and Helen, side by side, a quiet conversation. Rafael and then Bert, our branch chief, who does little more than edit papers. Peter's the real boss and everyone knows it.
We're the sleeper team, the seven of us. An odd bunch, really, because we have so little in common with the other teams in the Counterintelligence Center, Russia Division. They have more information than they know what to do with; we have virtually nothing.
“You coming?” Marta asks, pausing at my cubicle, laying a hand on one of the high walls. The scent of peppermint and mouthwash wafts over when she speaks. There are bags under her eyes, a thick layer of concealer. One too many last night, by the look of things. Marta's a former ops officer, likes whiskey and reliving her glory days in the field in equal measure; she once taught me how to pick a lock with a credit card and a bobby pin I found at the bottom of my work bag, one that keeps Ella's hair in a bun for ballet class.
I shake my head. “Sick kid.”
She drops her hand, continues on. I offer a smile to the others as they pass.
Everything's normal here
. When they're all in the glass cube and Bert pulls the door shut, I turn back to the screen. The files, the jumble of Cyrillic. I'm trembling. I look down at the clock in the corner of the screen. I should have left three minutes ago.
The knot in my stomach is twisted tight and thick. I can't actually leave now, can I? But I have no choice. If I'm late to get Ella, it's strike two. Three and we're out; the school has waiting lists for every class and wouldn't think twice. Besides, what would I do if I stayed?
There's one sure way to find out exactly why Matt's picture is here, and it's not by looking through more files. I swallow, feeling sick, and guide the cursor to close Athena, shut down the computer. Then I grab my bag and coat and head for the door.
HE'S BEING TARGETED.
By the time I reach my car, my fingers like icicles, my breath coming in little white bursts, I'm certain.
He wouldn't be the first. The Russians have been more aggressive than ever this past year. It started with Marta. A woman with an Eastern European accent befriended her at the gym, had some drinks with her at O'Neill's. After a few, the woman flat out asked if Marta would be interested in continuing their “friendship” with a discussion about work. Marta refused and never saw her again.
Trey was next. Still in the closet at the time, he'd always come to work functions with his “roommate,” Sebastian. One day I saw him, shaken and pale, on his way up to security. I later heard through the grapevine he'd received a blackmail package in the mailâphotos of the two of them in some compromising positions, a threat to send them to his parents if he didn't agree to a meeting.
So it's not a stretch to think the Russians know who I am. And if they know that, then learning Matt's identity would be a piece of cake. Figuring out where we're vulnerable would be, too.
I turn the key in the ignition and the Corolla makes its usual choking sound. “Come on,” I murmur, turning the key again, hearing the engine gasp to life. Seconds later a blast of icy air hits me from the vents. I reach down, turn the dial so that it's on the hottest setting, rub my hands together, then throw the car into reverse. I should let it warm up, but there isn't time. There's never enough time.
The Corolla is Matt's car, the one he had even before we met. To say it's on its last legs is an understatement. We traded in my old car when I was pregnant with the twins. Got a minivan, used. Matt drives that one, the family car, because he does more of the drop-offs and pickups.
I'm driving by rote, as if in a daze. The farther I go, the more the knot in my stomach tightens. It's not the fact that they're targeting Matt that worries me. It's that word.
. Doesn't that suggest some level of complicity?
Matt's a software engineer. He doesn't know how sophisticated the Russians are. How ruthless they can be. How they'd take just the smallest of openings, the tiniest sign that he might be willing to work with them, and they'd exploit it, twist it to compel him to do more.
I reach the school with two minutes to spare. A blast of warm air strikes me when I step inside. The director, a woman with sharp features and a permanent scowl, glances pointedly at the clock and gives me a hard look. I'm not sure if it's
What took you so long?
If you're back this early, clearly she was sick when you dropped her off.
I offer a half-hearted apologetic smile as I walk by, though on the inside I'm screaming. Whatever Ella has, she caught it from here, for God's sake.
I walk down the hall lined with kids' artworkâhandprint polar bears and glittery snowflakes and watercolor mittensâbut my mind is elsewhere.
Did Matt do something to make them think he'd be willing to work with them? All they'd need is the smallest sign. Something, anything, to exploit.
I find my way into Ella's classroom, tiny chairs and cubbies and toy bins, an explosion of primary colors. She's in the far corner of the room, alone on a bright red kid-size couch, a hardcover picture book open on her lap. Segregated from the other kids, it seems. She's in purple leggings I don't recognize; I vaguely remember Matt mentioning he'd taken her shopping. Of course he did. She's been outgrowing clothes left and right.
I walk over with outstretched arms, an exaggerated smile. She looks up and eyes me warily. “Where's Daddy?”
Inside I cringe, but I keep the smile plastered on my face. “Daddy's taking Caleb to the doctor. I'm picking you up today.”
She closes the book and sets it back on the shelf. “Okay.”
“Can I have a hug?” My arms are still outstretched, albeit drooping. She looks at them for a moment, then walks into a hug. I clasp her tightly, burying my face in her soft hair. “I'm sorry you're not feeling well, sweetie.”
“I'm okay, Mom.”
My breath catches in my throat. Just this morning I was Mommy. Please don't let her stop calling me Mommy. I'm not ready for that. Especially not today.
I face her and paste another smile on my face. “Let's go get your brother.”
Ella sits on the bench outside the infant room while I walk inside to get Chase. The room depresses me as much today as it did seven years ago, when I first dropped off Luke. The diaper-changing station, the row of cribs, the row of high chairs.
Chase is on the floor when I walk in. One of his teachers, the young one, scoops him up before I get to him, cuddles him close, lays kisses on his cheek. “Such a sweet boy,” she says, smiling at me. I feel a pang of jealousy, watching. This is the woman who got to see his first steps, the one whose outstretched arms he toddled into for the first time, while I was at the office. She looks so natural with him, so comfortable. But then, of course she does. She's with him all day long.
“Yes, he is,” I say, and the words sound awkward.
I get both kids bundled into puffy jackets, hats on their headsâit's unseasonably cold today for Marchâand then into their car seats, the ones that are hard and narrow enough to fit three across the back of the Corolla. The good ones, the safe ones, are in the minivan.
“How was your morning, sweetie?” I ask, glancing at Ella in the rearview mirror as I back out of the parking spot.
She's quiet for a moment. “I'm the only girl who didn't go to yoga.”
“I'm sorry,” I say, and as soon as the words are out of my mouth I know they're not the right ones, that I should have said something else. The silence that follows feels heavy. I reach for the stereo dial, turn on the kids' music.
I glance in the rearview mirror again, and Ella's looking out the window, quiet. I should ask another question, engage her in conversation about her day, but I say nothing. I can't get the picture out of my head. Matt's face. It was recent, I think. Within the past year or so. How long have they been watching him, watching us?
The drive from school to home is short, winding through neighborhoods that are a study in contradictions: new-construction McMansions interspersed with older homes like ours, a house far too small for six, old enough that my parents could have grown up in it. The D.C. suburbs are notoriously expensive, and Bethesda's one of the worst. But the schools are some of the best in the country.
We pull up to our house, neat and boxlike, two-car garage. There's a small front porch that the previous owners added, one that doesn't really match the rest of the house, that we don't use nearly as much as I thought we would. We bought the place when I was pregnant with Luke, when the schools made it seem worth the massive price tag.
I look at the American flag hanging near the front door. Matt hung that flag. Replaced the last one when it faded. He wouldn't agree to work against our country. I know he wouldn't. But did he do
? Did he do enough to make the Russians think he might?
There's one thing I know for certain. He was targeted because of me. Because of my job. And that's why I hid the picture, isn't it? If he's in trouble, it's my fault. And I need to do what I can to get him out of it.
I LET ELLA WATCH
cartoons on the couch, one after another. Usually we cap it at a single episode, an after-dinner treat, but she's sick, and I can't get my mind to focus on anything except the picture. While Chase naps and she's zoned out in front of the TV, I clean the kitchen. Wipe down the countertops, the blue ones that we'd replace if we had the cash. Scrub stains off the stovetop, around the three burners that still work. Organize the cabinet full of plastic containers, matching lids with containers, stacking the ones that fit together.
In the afternoon, I bundle up the kids and we walk to the bus stop to pick up Luke. His greeting is the same as Ella's.
Dad's taking Caleb to the doctor
I make him a snack and help him with his homework. A math worksheet, adding two-digit numbers. I didn't know they were already up to two digits. Matt's the one who usually helps.
Ella hears Matt's key in the lock before I do, and she's off the couch like a shot, bounding for the front door. “Daddy!” she shouts as he opens the door, Caleb in one arm, groceries in the other. Somehow he still manages to squat down and give her a hug, ask her how she's feeling, even as he's wriggling Caleb's jacket off. Somehow the smile on his face looks genuine,