The novel opens with Mary, a fighter pilot, attempting to evacuate her F16, which is plummeting toward the earth.
Stanley, the lowly night editor for the Washington Spectator, gets the first wires about the crash. At first, there are conflicting reports—a bus crash, a plane with the president on board—and Stanley is unsure of the nature of the incident.
Mary parachutes from the plane and is severely roughed up in the process; one of her legs gets twisted out of joint. She lands in the trees and awaits the Coast Guard rescue team. She knows she has always been the kind of woman who does what scares her most.
Married journalists Mabel Cannon and Don Grady are hosting a dinner party of Washington’s elite. The guests converse about politics, either playing up or down their knowledge of current events in an effort to impress.
Conflicting reports continue to rush in, so Stanley calls his supervisor, Adam Sanger. Stanley, Adam, and Don had started out together, but Stanley’s journalism career stalled while those of his classmates soared. Adam’s wife answers the phone and tells Stanley her husband will be right over.
At the dinner party, the conversation turns to war, with comparisons of past wars to the current one in the Middle East. When Mabel brings up a top-secret Senate report, her husband, Don, admits that he knows something about it. There is tension in the room as everyone realizes Mabel has been scrambling for a story her husband already has.
Hanging from the tree, Mary considers how she has always been different. In her youth, she’d never had much luck with boys, who weren’t always polite about expressing their disinterest in her. Swinging from her parachute, she tries to grab onto the tree to steady herself.
At the party, the guests (many of whom are writers) are anxious to get details from Don about the report, but he gives few answers.
Mary watches the Lincoln Memorial as she swings in the tree. In shock, Mary sobs openly and secretly hopes the rescue will not happen for a little while longer.
As wine and the later hour make the party sag, Mabel considers her relationship with Don. She is always trailing behind him professionally, and he knows it.
Will Holmes, a government operative, knows about the plane that crashed into the Potomac. It is part of a project from an agency called DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The agency is testing a program that could take over a jet remotely without the pilot’s knowledge. Will had killed the wrong person on one of his first missions, and now he is glad this assignment didn’t have the same potential.
The staff meeting of the Washington Spectator begins at two o’clock. Stanley, at the lower echelons, sits at the periphery as each department presents its stories to Adam. Stanley thinks about the pilot in the crash and remembers the transcripts of black boxes recovered from crashes. When the subject heads toward last night’s crash, Adam says he was not contacted by Donovan, the White House chief of staff; Stanley isn’t sure he’s telling the truth.
Will stops by Mary’s room at Walter Reed Memorial Hospital. He notices that the sign above her bed reads “Mary Mirabilis” even though her last name is Goodwin. He thinks about his responsibility in Mary’s crash, and slips away before she wakes up.
Don Grady comes to see Adam in his glass office, which overlooks the Room (how the journalists refer to the main newsroom). Adam is aware that the Room is always observing him in his office when he has visitors. Don suggests a rewrite on an upcoming story and then gets to the real reason of his visit: his wife, Mabel, is going to apply for the managing editor job. Normally, a columnist of her relatively low stature wouldn’t merit consideration, but her connection to Don changes things.
Mabel, sweating at home while she works, receives a call. One of her three sons shouts down to her that the call is for her.
Stanley walks home to his very modest house, thinking about a new reporter named Vera Hastings along the way; he has high hopes for her. He notes that the coverage of the crash had been limited, and that eyewitnesses are typically unreliable—their testimonies often contradict each other.
In the middle of the night, Mary thinks she hears a sound. She imagines it to be a young soldier, an amputee, with whom she recently had a chance encounter in the hallway. On crutches and with her IV in tow, she heads off to his room. She tries to talk to him, but when she puts her hand on his...
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Will is monitoring stories of the crash related to his operation, known internally as Potomac Pilot. There are few stories and even fewer details, which pleases Will.
Adam and Stanley are having their regular meeting in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It allows them the privacy needed for Adam to sound out ideas and ask Stanley’s advice; currently, he is trying to decide what to do about Mabel’s application and then apparent withdrawal. The church also has significance: Stanley’s father had been a reverend there. Adam is one of the few people who know that Stanley is of African American heritage, born to a woman married to a gay lawyer and who had an affair with Reverend Henry Payne, Stanley’s father. Payne never knew of his son, and the gay lawyer raised Stanley as if he were his own. Stanley mentions to Adam that he thinks there’s more to the crash. Adam reveals that Donovan, the chief of staff, had called him that night to try to get him to delay the reporting of the story. Donovan hinted at the technology, but explained nothing. Stanley wonders why the government would need the technology when Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have fighter jets.
Will is monitoring the disappearance of the crash story. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI, or "Sissy") has a report detailing all intelligence activity. Will knows it had been leaked but isn’t sure whether the media have it or not. Will also knows he can’t keep Potomac Pilot from Sissy for very long. Will arranged for Mary and Frank to be transferred to Bagram. He wants to isolate them, especially Frank, who is asking too many questions about the crash. Mary is a loner whose only permanent connections are Frank and his family. If they were out of the States, he could keep them away from the media. Will thinks of Hoseyn, a foreign double agent he recruited before Will became Chair, or the head of his independent operation; he misses Hoseyn.
Vera Hastings, an African American reporter relatively new to the Spectator, is working late. Vera is very religious, and she used to be a professional dancer before giving it up. She became a journalist after witnessing a cover-up by the police, who shot an elderly African American by mistake and made it look like self-defense. She also knows that Stanley is black; the two are some of the few remaining smokers and share confidences during cigarette breaks. Stanley stops by the desk, asks her about her former career as a dancer, and begins telling her about the crash as they head for a smoke.
In Iran, Hoseyn, Will’s contact, is on his way to work. He has two skin-colored pills tucked into the folds of his ears. Earlier in the morning, he had taken two other pills; he needs to take the ones tucked in his ears within half an hour to stage his own death. Hoseyn makes it through the check-in gate and sees smoke over part of the nuclear facility where he works. He phones someone to ask what it is and is told it is a minor problem with the wind tunnel.
Finally, Hoseyn pulls into the parking lot and leaves his trunk open, with his well-traveled suitcase inside. With him, Hoseyn carries a briefcase that ticks. As he goes through security and walks into the building, Hoseyn finds himself thinking about his wife and his in-laws. Hoseyn loves his wife and thinks Westerners have distorted ideas about love and sex. He stops in at the coffee shop and orders his usual, flirting with a small-framed, veiled girl behind the counter. Theirs is a mutual attraction, but Hoseyn always ends the flirtation at just the right moment, ensuring his searching glances are completely innocent.
Hoseyn sits with his coffee and is soon joined by a man he does not recognize. The man seems to be trying to engage Hoseyn in some kind of conversation, but Hoseyn cannot follow his train of thought. As he gets up, the man points to a line in Hoseyn’s paper that reads, “Wait until I leave.” Hoseyn begins to wonder if he is hallucinating or having side effects from the first dose of the drugs. He thinks about his brother and sister, both of whom live in the United States. Hoseyn feels they are disappointed in him; he does not receive direct contact from them, but hears about them indirectly from an uncle.
Hoseyn begins to feel even stranger; he notices a bunch of managers standing in the open and chatting self-importantly. He suddenly feels enraged and wants to go over and yell at them. He is stopped by the little woman from the coffee shop. She licks his ears and then kisses him deeply, passing the pills to him. Increasingly disoriented, Hoseyn sees his mother and wife in the cafeteria as well. Hoseyn raises the briefcase overhead to attack but soon realizes he is slamming it against an empty chair. He has imagined all of these people.
Hoseyn is recuperating from his faked death in a posh hotel suite in Dubai. He looks over photographs from his funeral that his wife sent to him. The body used in his burial was put to rest standing up, per tradition. Hoseyn belongs to several covert organizations, including the National Council of Resistance in Iran and the Sacred Sons of Persia, the latter of which arranged his false demise. Hoseyn hopes that they know nothing of his work with Will in Washington; similarly, he hopes Will knows nothing of his work with the Sacred Sons.
Hoseyn met Will a decade earlier, when the United States (as well as many European countries) was attempting to recruit as many nuclear scientists as possible to find out information...
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Hoseyn chooses Ahwaz as the city of his destination once he crosses back into Iran. His purpose in coming is to find out who is following him. If it is the Iranians, the follow-up would be swift; if it is the Americans, bureaucratic red tape would prevent them from getting to him for at least a month. Hoseyn has the transistor in his suit jacket pocket; he knows that if someone is following him, they would be using the transistor signal. As he waits in his motel room, he makes sure all of the windows are closed and covered by curtains. He munches on airport snack food as he awaits the next development.
Another possibility about the driver and the transistor occurs to Hoseyn. If the driver had been involved in some other...
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Adam cannot decide between Gordon Bray, the foreign editor, and Martina Welk, the national editor. Martina is the ideal candidate for the managing editor job (that had briefly interested Mabel), but Adam’s first pick is Gordon; the problem is that Gordon had not applied. Adam tries to corner Gordon at his office, but is intercepted by Martina. Gordon is asking to leave early to be with his twin infants, while Martina is bringing bad news—they’ve been scooped. The story on the Sissy report is all over the news and it didn’t come from their paper.
Mabel works from home, and with her sons off at boarding school, she is particularly lonesome and restless. Her column is due and she knows it will be another piece she...
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Since Stanley had assigned Vera the task of digging further into the crash story, she found she liked the investigating. Most of the government agencies she’d talked to had given her the runaround. She was trying to locate the rescue workers who had shown up to deal with the crash and recover the pilot, but each claimed it was out of his or her jurisdiction. So far, Vera’s best lead is a prostitute named Baby who had witnessed the plane crash near the Watergate building. The gas station that is Baby’s regular post does not have a clear view of the crash site, so Vera wonders how she’d seen it. Vera takes Baby into the woods to see whether they can find the tree where the pilot had been caught up.
Will is still...
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Stanley and Adam sit in the church for their usual meeting. Stanley notices the sounds of the church creaking in the background. Adam agonizes about the managing editor decision. He knows he should pick Martina but he wants Gordon. Stanley reiterates concerns about Gordon’s moral character, but Adam does not want to hear them.
Since Mitch’s abrupt dismissal, Vera’s new desk mate has been Marcus, who takes little notice of her. Vera rehashes Baby’s version of the events surrounding the crash—including the idea that men had set up electronic equipment and deliberately burned part of Roosevelt Island; these same men later found the female pilot on another part of the island. Vera picks up a few pictures she’d...
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Mary and Frank have been in Afghanistan for about a month. It’s January, and the weather is snowy and cold. With Frank following, Mary flies over a debris site and bombs it; she and Frank have been working similar missions since their arrival—to clear all debris.
Back at her sleeping quarters, Mary tries to rest, but the uppers she took before her early morning flight are working against her. She has three roommates, one of whom writes press releases and is currently writing about her. Mary is less than excited about a press release; they are usually sent home to families and this is just one more reminder that Mary has none. Her hut doesn’t come equipped with a bathroom (usually just a hole in the ground), which...
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Despite Mary’s efforts, Jeff died from injuries he’d sustained during the fall. Rex has a number of broken bones and bruising, but would be okay. Frank’s condition remains uncertain; he’d been rushed in for surgery, but no one knew how serious his brain injuries were. Late at night, Mary heads back to her hut to attempt to get some rest. Purdue, Mary’s roommate who writes the press releases, nags Mary with questions about the accident. She has written a press release about Mary’s bombing; it leaves out the civilian deaths and changes the type of aircraft Mary was flying to make it more palatable to the public. Seri dismisses Purdue, while Eve, a medic who is the fourth roommate, remains quiet in her room....
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Mary goes to Frank’s living quarters and is greeted succinctly but politely by Frank’s roommates. An officer meets Mary at Frank’s room and explains the process. Mary will help him itemize and box up all of Frank’s material belongings. All of his paperwork would be counted, but not read; it would be for Mary’s eyes only. During the inventory, the officer criticizes Mary for the recklessness that led to the accident. Mary says nothing in her own defense. She is given more than a dozen folders and more than one hundred letters.
Later, Mary meets with a commanding officer who informs her that she is in consideration for a special project. The officer does not know the details, nor does he know the location or...
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Vera works assiduously to find out more about MECS, but finds only a few fleeting references to it on the Internet. The few agencies she speaks with pretend not to know of its existence. She locates a few vendors she suspects may have done business with the mysterious organization.
Early in the year, Gordon Bray had been named the managing editor, and shortly thereafter, Martina quit. Stanley likes Martina and finds her attractive, unlike many of the rest of the staff. Stanley had not been able to change Adam’s mind, and the two of them had stopped having their secret conferences in the church. Vera, like Stanley, thinks that Gordon is a slime. One day in the parking garage, Gordon corners Vera while she is praying...
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Vera finally makes her trip to the address on the vendor’s invoice, hoping to find the MECS office. In the lobby, she stops a young man in a suit to ask whether he knows the whereabouts of the office or works there. The man is a regular visitor, not an employee, but points her in the direction of the elevators, which are accompanied by a directory. There is no MECS listed under M, but Vera decides to continue investigating the location. As she stops other passersby in the lobby, the responses become increasingly rude and hostile. No one seems to have heard of the department, nor are they inclined to help her. When an African American man passes through, Vera hopes that their common heritage will make him friendlier. Instead, the...
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In the heat of summer, Winnow, a teen prostitute (and Will’s neighbor) is headed to work. Child prostitutes, called "tykes," are common in her area, but she is more successful than many of them—perhaps because her mother is in the same business. She has befriended another tyke named Heidi, an Asian girl whose thumbs had been chopped off and was prone to wearing gloves as a cover. Winnow gets picked up a by a group of men and they drive off.
Mary had been in training for months; the three candidates were now two. One had dropped out, leaving Mary pitted against an aggressive woman who seemed to best her at every turn. The mission is to accompany an official to Iran (posing as husband and wife) to try to locate an...
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Adam, Stanley, Gordon, and all of the other editors gather together for a meeting. Vera is there as well, and the group is reviewing an article that Vera wrote based on her review of the Sissy report. Adam is anxious to start the meeting, but they are all waiting for Don, who is late returning from the Pentagon. The editors try to grill Vera about where she got her copy of the report, and Stanley runs interference for her. He knows Vera will not lie because of her religious convictions, so he attempts to divert the conversation.
When Don enters, with a sweep of grandiosity, the meeting proper begins; however, Adam has trouble controlling the energy in the room, and competing agendas bubble to the surface quickly....
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Will and Mary enter Iran on foot, following the highly detailed plan they’ve mapped out in their training. Per Will’s insistence, they do not speak; this way, they can keep their ears tuned to their surroundings and be ready for anything. During a break, Mary steals away to look over one of Frank’s letters; she has brought a few with her on the mission. This particular letter describes in great detail how she earned her nickname, Xtra. When her company had voted on it, they ruled out a number of possibilities that were too cute or suggestive. When someone pointed out that Mary wasn’t X-rated, the name morphed into X and Xtra. Will finds her and she quickly puts away the letter. Throughout training and during the mission,...
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During one of their stops to camp out, Will, Mary, and Baz see a group of jeeps and motorcycles approaching in the distance. They quickly take down their tent and hide their vehicle. They run to a hidden observation point and wait for the caravan to approach. The men in the vehicles fan out into a formation and begin a structured search. Will prepares their weapons, a rifle with a scope and grenades. Mary, meanwhile, opens up a computer and boots up Prophet, a program Will designed. While the men are approaching, Mary is able to get the program to work; it sends a signal to the commander’s walkie-talkie that tells the men to retreat. The commander believes the message is from his supervisor, and he and his men load up and drive...
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