Stuart Woods: Severe Clear

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Stuart Woods Severe Clear
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    Severe Clear
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Stuart Woods

Severe Clear


Scott Hipp turned off I-295 South in Fort Meade, Maryland, at the dedicated exit entitled “NSA Employees Only” and drove to the mirrored black building that is the headquarters of the National Security Agency. The NSA was that part of the United States intelligence community responsible for communications surveillance and code-breaking, and Hipp was its deputy director for cryptology, so he could park in the underground garage instead of in one of the eighteen thousand parking spaces surrounding the building.

Feeling smug that he would return to a cool automobile instead of those baking outside, he inserted his ID badge in the elevator panel and rode up to his office on the top floor, which he entered at the stroke of eight A.M., as he did every day. Four people awaited him at his conference table, drinking his coffee.

Hipp set his briefcase on the conference table and sat down. “Tell me something I don’t know,” he said without preamble.

The four exchanged some glances and shuffled through their papers.

Hipp watched them with satisfaction, since he knew they knew there was not much he didn’t know.

“How about a cryptology joke?” asked one of them, removing a sheet of paper from a stack.

“Amuse me,” Hipp said.

“Overnight down at Fort Gordon, one of our computers picked up a twenty-two-second cell phone conversation between someone in Afghanistan and someone in Yemen. The conversation was too brief to pinpoint locations, and much of it was garbled. The funny part is that, in the middle of the conversation, two English words were clearly spoken: ‘the’ and ‘Arrington.’”

“That is terribly amusing,” Hipp said with a straight face. “It’s also very common, since English is a worldwide language, and foreigners often use phrases from or fragments of English.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Does anyone at Fort Gordon, or for that matter, anyone here have any thoughts on what the words mean?”

“Well,” the man said, “I Googled it and there were essentially four hits, among a lot of duplication: first, there’s some techie businessman named Arrington who’s apparently famous in that world; second, there’s an old Virginia family by that name; third, there’s an Arrington vineyard; and fourth, there’s a new hotel opening in Los Angeles called The Arrington. I like that one best because it has the ‘The’ in front of it.”

“Tell me about the hotel,” Hipp said.

“You remember the movie star Vance Calder, who was murdered some years back? The hotel is being built on the grounds of his former home, something like twenty acres, in Bel-Air, a top-scale residential community in L.A.”

“Home of the Bel-Air Hotel, I believe,” Hipp replied.

“Right,” the man said. “The hotel is being named for his widow, nee Arrington Carter, who herself was murdered early last year. Curiously, both Mr. and Mrs. Calder were murdered by former lovers.”

“Any apparent significance there?” Hipp asked.

“Not really, just a coincidence. The hotel is having a grand opening soon-apparently it’s a hot ticket out there.”

“If it’s a hot ticket in L.A.,” Hipp observed, “there are probably not many invitations circulating in either Afghanistan or Yemen.”

“That occurred to me, sir.”

“In what language did the cell phone conversation take place?”

“A combination of Urdu and Arabic. Not enough was captured to make any sense of it.”

“All right,” Hipp said. “Put ‘The Arrington’ on the phraseology watchlist and let’s see if anything pops up. I don’t think a single mention of the name is grounds for any sort of alert at this point.”

“Yes, sir,” the man said, scribbling a note on the message and setting it aside.

The meeting went on for another hour, five men trying to find some evil intent in the overnight traffic. At nine-thirty, Hipp closed his briefcase and stood up. “I’m due at the White House at eleven,” he said. “You people finish up somewhere else. I need the office.”

The four men shuffled out, and Hipp spent a few minutes going over calls and correspondence with his secretary.

Hipp arrived at the White House at ten forty-five and was admitted to the cabinet room in the West Wing. By eleven there were eight representatives of other intelligence and security agencies present, and the president of the United States entered the room on time. Everyone stood, and he told them to sit, and the meeting began.

An hour and twenty minutes later, the meeting broke, and Hipp went down to the White House Mess to get some lunch before driving back to Fort Meade. He chose a table by himself, but a moment later, the president’s chief of staff, Tim Coleman, walked up. “Hi, Scott, mind if I join you?”

“Not even a little bit,” Hipp replied.

“How’d your meeting go?”

“Like most meetings-nothing monumental was decided. Sometimes I think all this agency cross-talk has gone too far.”

“I know how you feel,” Coleman said. “That’s why I wasn’t there.”

A Filipino waiter came with menus, and they ordered.

A discussion of the troubles of Tiger Woods ensued, and the two men agreed that all the man had to do was to win a couple of tournaments and he’d be back on track. They were on coffee when Hipp, trying to keep the conversation going, told Coleman about the capture of two English words in a foreign telephone conversation.

“What words?” Coleman asked.

“‘The Arrington.’”

Coleman looked at Hipp. “What do you think it means?”

“Could be a new hotel about to open in L.A.,” Hipp said. “I put it on the phraseology watchlist, and we’ll see if it comes up again.”

Coleman stood up. “I gotta get back to work, Scott. Good to see you.”

“Same here, Tim.”

Coleman turned to go, then stopped. “Say, let me know if your watchlist catches that phrase again, will you?”

Hipp was about to ask why, but Coleman was already striding across the room.

Tim Coleman went back to his office, and on the way in he said to one of his secretaries, “Get me the director of the Secret Service, please. Right now.”


Stone Barrington arrived at the offices of Strategic Services, his most important legal client, and was shown to a large conference room. A large object under a sheet dominated the table, and half a dozen men and women stood, chatting idly and drinking coffee.

At the stroke of three P.M. Michael Freeman, chairman and CEO of Strategic Services, the world’s second-largest security firm, entered. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “please be seated.” Everyone found a chair.

“I know most of you have already met, but let me take a moment to review. To my immediate right is Stone Barrington, legal counsel to Strategic Services, and the largest individual investor in the hotel. Strategic Services is, of course, a significant investor, as is Superlative Hotel Management, or Super, as we like to call it, and they are represented here by David Connor, CEO, to Stone’s right, and by Morton Kaplan, to my left, who is serving as the executive director of our hotel. At the other end of the table are Katie Rogers, Super’s marketing director, and Caroline Hugenot, the director of design for the hotel, and finally, Dick Trevor, who leads the architectural team for us.

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