"On the contrary. He says the White House is impressed with your work."
Rachel exhaled silently. "So what did he want?"
"A meeting with you. In person. Immediately."
Rachel's unease sharpened. "A personal meeting? About what?"
"Damn good question. He wouldn't tell me."
Now Rachel was lost. Keeping information from the director of the NRO was like keeping Vatican secrets from the Pope. The standing joke in the intelligence community was that if William Pickering didn't know about it, it hadn't happened.
Pickering stood, pacing now in front of his window. "He asked that I contact you immediately and send you to meet with him."
"He sent transportation. It's waiting outside."
Rachel frowned. The President's request was unnerving on its own account, but it was the look of concern on Pickering's face that really worried her. "You obviously have reservations."
"I sure as hell do!" Pickering showed a rare flash of emotion. "The President's timing seems almost callow in its transparency. You are the daughter of the man who is currently challenging him in the polls, and he demands a private meeting with you? I find this highly inappropriate. Your father no doubt would agree."
Rachel knew Pickering was right not that she gave a damn what her father thought. "Do you not trust the President's motives?"
"My oath is to provide intel support to the current White House administration, not pass judgment on their politics."
Typical Pickering response, Rachel realized. William Pickering made no bones about his view of politicians as transitory figureheads who passed fleetingly across a chessboard whose real players were men like Pickering himself--- seasoned "lifers" who had been around long enough to understand the game with some perspective. Two full terms in the White House, Pickering often said, was not nearly enough to comprehend the true complexities of the global political landscape.
"Maybe it's an innocent request," Rachel offered, hoping the President was above trying some sort of cheap campaign stunt. "Maybe he needs a reduction of some sensitive data."
"Not to sound belittling, Agent Sexton, but the White House has access to plenty of qualified gisting personnel if they need it. If it's an internal White House job, the President should know better than to contact you. And if not, then he sure as hell should know better than to request an NRO asset and then refuse to tell me what he wants it for."
Pickering always referred to his employees as assets, a manner of speech many found disconcertingly cold.
"Your father is gaining political momentum," Pickering said. "A lot of it. The White House has got to be getting nervous." He sighed. "Politics is a desperate business. When the President calls a secret meeting with his challenger's daughter, I'd guess there's more on his mind than intelligence gists."
Rachel felt a distant chill. Pickering's hunches had an uncanny tendency to be dead on. "And you're afraid the White House feels desperate enough to introduce me into the political mix?"
Pickering paused a moment. "You are not exactly silent about your feelings for your father, and I have little doubt the President's campaign staff is aware of the rift. It occurs to me that they may want to use you against him somehow."
"Where do I sign up?" Rachel said, only half-joking.
Pickering looked unimpressed. He gave her a stern stare. "A word of warning, Agent Sexton. If you feel that your personal issues with your father are going to cloud your judgment in dealing with the President, I strongly advise that you decline the President's request for a meeting."
"Decline?" Rachel gave a nervous chuckle. "I obviously can't refuse the President."
Copyright Dan Brown 2001. All rights reserved.
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