New Dawn Underground: Chapter 2
Elora pulled into the parking lot of the CIA headquarters outside Langley, Virginia. Nick followed behind her in his car; the two were coming from Brendan’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Nick had urged Elora to go home after the funeral but she flat-out refused.
“If I go home right now and sit alone in my house, I’ll go fucking crazy,” she’d told him. “I want to work—I need to work. I can’t rest until I know the assholes responsible for Brendan’s death are in prison or dead, preferably the latter. The NDU Task Force still has a job to finish. You and I both know Malik Khalid wasn’t killed in the raid. We don’t know for sure if he was even there that night. We still have work to do, and I will not stop until that son of a bitch is brought down.”
Nick didn’t have the heart to tell Elora there had already been talk of dissolving the CIA’s NDU Task Force, of which he was the team leader, and Elora, along with three other analysts, were members. “Okay, let’s go to work,” he’d simply said with a smile and followed her on the twenty-minute drive from Arlington out to Langley.
Nick and Elora walked into the NDU Task Force suite on the fifth floor of the CIA headquarters building and were greeted by fellow team members Derek, Jason, and Lori, who were all surprised to see Elora, but not shocked.
“Hey Elora, how are you holding up?” Derek asked.
“I’ve been better,” Elora replied with a fake grin.
Everyone on the team knew the drama Ashley had caused regarding the funeral, so none of them dared to ask how the funeral had gone. Elora was eager to dive back into the mission anyway and decided to waste no time.
“Did we get a copy of Major Jacobs’ autopsy report yet?” she asked. She kept her references to Brendan professional, to both safeguard herself emotionally and prove to the team she could compartmentalize her work and personal feelings. Elora knew it was a real possibility the agency would remove her from the NDU Task Force because of her personal connection to Brendan. She wanted to avoid that if possible.
Derek briefly looked past Elora to Nick, who subtly shook his head. “No, we haven’t received it yet,” Derek lied, shifting his focus back to Elora. “But we have received a preliminary report on the post-raid investigation. Iraqi authorities accompanied by an FBI forensics team have been on site sifting through the rubble since yesterday morning.”
“Okay, it’s four o’clock now,” Nick said, glancing at his watch. “Let’s all meet in the conference room in ten minutes to go over the FBI report and regroup.”
Elora sat at her desk and shoved her purse underneath as Nick approached and squatted beside her chair.
“If at any point you need to leave, get up and go,” he told her. “You don’t have to say a word. Just go home. Or if you want to talk to someone, go see the counselors downstairs. They are in every day from six a.m. to six p.m. Whatever you need, just do it.”
“Thanks, Nick, but honestly I’m okay.”
The CIA had formed the NDU Task Force after New Dawn won a noteworthy number of seats in Iraq’s 2010 Parliamentary elections. NDU and its leader, Malik Khalid, had originally popped up on the CIA’s radar in 2007 when the organization began making waves as a minor militant group bombing government targets and picking fights with Iranian backed militias in Baghdad and northwestern Iraq. In the beginning, the U.S. intelligence community dubbed NDU a minor grassroots uprising. Considering they had no foreign government backing, it was predicted they’d soon fizzle out from lack of resources and funding. However, Malik Khalid proved himself a gifted businessman and built a small fortune trafficking weapons, narcotics, bootlegged alcohol, and other illegal commodities across the Middle East.
Though Malik Khalid was rapidly expanding his organization, he himself remained a relatively mysterious figure, making him all the more dangerous. There was still no detailed intel on his background, what he looked like, or if “Malik Khalid” was even his real name. The CIA knew he was a Sunni Muslim, well educated, and from Baghdad. There was also rumor that his parents and siblings had died in a U.S. airstrike near the beginning of the Iraq War, fueling his intense hatred of the U.S. and opening the door for his radicalization by pro-Saddam resistance fighters.
Currently, Malik Khalid’s arch nemesis was Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Ali Ansari who commanded a Tehran-backed paramilitary force in Iraq. Ansari and Malik Khalid had been engaging in a game of cat and mouse for the last eighteen months. NDU had made at least two attempts to assassinate the Iranian general but both failed – one being the explosion that killed U.S. Ambassador Casey.
The CIA’s NDU Task Force had spent the last two years investigating NDU’s international drug and weapons trafficking operations and monitoring the expansion of their political power in Iraq. They also tracked the movements of the NDU militia, trying to predict major attacks and operations. Everyone on the team took it as a personal failure when NDU successfully launched the massive coordinated bombing attack that killed the ambassador and several other Americans. When they had enough intel to convince JSOC to conduct a raid on the NDU compound, everyone on the Task Force was desperate for a win. Elora had even more riding on it—her fiancé. When the raid went sideways and resulted in the death of Major Jacobs, the team plunged even further into depression.
In the conference room, the NDU Task Force members took their seats as Derek walked around, plopping a copy of the FBI’s preliminary report on the post-raid investigation in front of each member. Derek, who’d had a chance to flip through the report, gave the team the highlights.
“As you all are aware, the NDU compound was leveled. JSOC had called in a drone airstrike to light the place up, but before the drone launched, the entire compound imploded,” Derek explained. “The prevailing theory is that the militants donned explosive vests, slipped into an underground bunker, and then detonated themselves—perhaps even unintentionally. According to the report in front of you, this theory seems to hold water. Investigators did locate a subterranean tunnel running beneath a kitchen in the main building, and the FBI forensics team discovered human remains in the collapsed portion of the tunnel.” Everyone at the table perked up when they heard Derek mention the dead bodies in the tunnel.
“Have they identified any of the remains yet? Is one of them Malik?” Jason asked excitedly as he scanned the report.
“Did they say how many bodies they found?” Lori added on the heels of Jason’s question.
“The FBI is running DNA analysis on the remains now but, so far, no conclusive IDs have been established,” Derek announced. “At this point they’ve determined there are at least five bodies, but excavation efforts are still underway.”
“So, it’s possible we got him after all,” Lori said.
Elora remained silent, staring at her report.
“If they are able to identify Malik, do you think the president will do a press conference...” Jason began but Elora cut him off.
“He wasn’t there,” she said, without looking up from her report. “We all know he’s still alive.” She finally lifted her eyes to meet her colleagues’ stares. “Everyone here knows how smart this asshole is. He wouldn’t get caught like a rat in a trap, and he sure as hell wouldn’t blow himself up. He’d surrender first and bet on being able to talk his way out of it, because that’s the type of cocky son of a bitch he is. Even knowing as little as we do about him, we all know none of those bodies in that tunnel are Malik Khalid, nor do they belong to any of his top leadership.” She shook her head and tossed the report back to the center of the table. “Malik made it out. Or he was never there to begin with. We still have a job to do. And before any of you makes a comment about Brendan, this has nothing to do with what happened to him. If it had been one of the other guys who died or even if everyone had made it home safely, I’d be sitting here saying the same damn thing. We failed and we still have a mission to finish, and you all know it.”
“I hear you Elora and I agree with you,” Nick said, breaking his silence in the meeting for the first time, “but, as you well know, what we think, or what we even know, doesn’t count for shit. I’ve received word that the National Security Council is considering the raid a success. They too have reviewed this preliminary summary and, pending the final report, they’re ready to declare Malik Khalid dead and NDU neutralized.”
Elora shook her head and fought back tears of frustration. “You know that’s a huge mistake. The suits in Washington just want to wrap this up with a big fake bow so they can stick it in their win column for the next election.”
“I have a meeting with the Task Force Oversight Committee tomorrow,” Nick added, dodging Elora’s comments. “I wanted to tell you all while I have you here, I have a strong feeling they’re going to disband our Task Force and reassign us. It’s been my incredible privilege and honor to lead this team. You are all amazing analysts.” He paused and looked at Elora, “I know how much you have sacrificed for this mission. They’ll likely keep us up and running for a few weeks to finalize our mission reports and conduct debriefings, but unless new developments arise between now and then, we all need to prepare ourselves, personally and professionally, to put the NDU mission to bed.”
“So, we’re just going to let him go?” Elora asked. “Where’s the justice? The justice we owe Ambassador Casey, and the justice Brendan deserves?”
“It’s over Elora,” Nick said, hardening his tone a bit. “I’m sorry—it’s time to move on.” He was referring to the mission, but Elora knew he also meant move on from Brendan. “Let’s go ahead and call it a day,” Nick continued. “I want drafts of everyone’s End of Mission reports on my desk by next Friday. Again, thank you all for your service and dedication to this mission.”
As everyone was gathering their things to leave, Elora again asked Derek to let her know as soon as Brendan’s autopsy report came in from the medical examiner. Derek gave her an awkward nod and scurried out of the room.
“Hang back for a minute please, Elora,” Nick asked. The rest of the team hurried out, and Elora made a preemptive attempt to defend herself.
“Look, Nick, I’m not trying to be difficult, I just think....”
“We have Brendan’s autopsy report,” Nick interjected, cutting her off.
Elora shot him a confused look. “Okay. So, Derek lied to me?”
“He did what I asked him to do,” Nick replied with a hint of sternness.
“Well, can I have a copy?” Elora asked, wondering why Nick was being so cryptic.
“Elora… it’s not something you need to see. It has no bearing on your mission, and it will only upset you.”
“Are you fucking serious?”
“Elora, you’re a lot more fragile right now then you’re letting on—than you’re even admitting to yourself. I’m trying to protect you.”
“Nick, I’m not a broken little girl. Give me the fucking autopsy.”
Shaking his head in resignation, Nick pulled a manila file folder from beneath the stack of papers in front of him and flung it across the table. The folder smacked down and slid a few inches across the tabletop in front of Elora.
“Thank you,” she declared with indignation.
Nick did not reply and left the room.
Elora returned to her cubicle near the middle of the office and sat with the folder on the desk in front of her. With her hands folded in front of her mouth, she stared at the closed file for a few moments. Taking a deep breath, she finally opened the folder.
Her fellow NDU Task Force members sat in silence at their respective cubicles as Elora flipped through the report. It was well after five o’clock. They were free to go home, but everyone remained at their desks fiddling and pretending to wrap up their day. They all knew what was in the folder.
Elora skimmed through the report:
• BRUISING & SOFT TISSUE HEMORRHAGES: ANTERIOR REGION OF NECK
• LEFT RIB 9 FRACTURED LATERALLY
• SUPERFICIAL ABRASIONS
• CONTUSION OF LEFT ANKLE
• FRACTURE OF MANDIBLE
• LACERATION VERTEBRAL ARTERY, JUGULAR VEIN AND SUBCLAVIAN ARTERY—RIGHT
• GUNSHOT WOUND TO NECK & CHIN, LOWER CERVICAL, UPPER THORACIC, SPINAL COLUMN: FATAL
CAUSE OF DEATH WAS THE RESULT OF A GUNSHOT WOUND AT APPROXIMATELY 24-36 INCH DISTANCE TO THE NECK WITH A TOTAL TRANSECTION OF THE LOWER CERVICAL AND UPPER THORACIC SPINAL CORD AND OTHER STRUCTURES OF THE NECK. DIRECTION OF THE WOUND WAS FRONT TO BACK. BULLET TRAVELED THROUGH J.V. AND V.A. TO SPINAL CORD. SEVERING OF THE SPINAL CORD AT THIS LEVEL AND TO THIS EXTENT WOULD HAVE PROVED FATAL SHORTLY AFTER OCCURRENCE.
Realizing she had stopped breathing somewhere in the middle of reading the report, Elora inhaled sharply and the crushing weight of grief and anger immediately landed on her chest. She visualized every injury Brendan suffered with stunning clarity in her mind. Struck with nausea, she slapped her hand over her mouth as she began to heave. In a split second, Lori and Jason were at her side. Lori shoved a trashcan beneath Elora’s chin, and Jason placed a steadying hand on her back as she violently vomited into the waste bin. Derek arrived on the scene with a box of tissues, and Elora pulled out a couple, pressing them to her mouth.
“I’ll bring you some water,” Lori said as she removed the soiled plastic liner from the trash can.
“Thanks guys,” Elora said, wiping her mouth with a tissue. “I’m okay now.”