Beyond the iron gates that guarded the entrance to the property, beyond the manicured lawn and hedges that lined the driveway, the senator’s home loomed in the darkness. Upstairs in the master bedroom, a phone warbled two sets of triplets, the pattern indicating the encrypted line.
“The President knows,” the caller said.
“What?” Senator Luther mumbled, still asleep.
The message was clearer this time. “He knows about Spectrum!”
Eyes wide open, the senator lifted himself onto one elbow. “Who is this?”
“Viper,” Norman Trexler replied. “He knows.”
“All of it. He has a full report.”
The senator swung his legs off the bed, fully awake. “How did it get out?”
“How the hell should I know? Someone leaked it to his press secretary.”
“An hour ago. I just got out of the meeting at the White House,” Trexler said.
“Did you explain the implications?”
“Of course. Why do you think I’m calling? He went ballistic. He’s scheduled a press conference for tomorrow at noon.”
“We’ll all be indicted,” Trexler choked on the last syllable.
“That idiot. Who else knows?”
“Just the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the press secretary. He wants to go public with it himself.”
“The Chairman’s not a problem,” the senator said. “Has he contacted the FBI?”
“Hell no. Director Gregory’s office leaks like a screen door. He’s afraid if it gets out before tomorrow the media will accuse him of being part of it. He’s beating them to the punch.”
“There must be some way to reason with him.”
“Believe me, I’ve tried. You know how righteous he is.” Trexler sighed. “It’s over. Spectrum is finished and so are we.”
“Not necessarily.” The senator glanced at his alarm clock. “Where’s the press conference being held?”
“In the White House Briefing Room. Why?”
The Senator didn’t answer.
“You’re not serious? It can’t be done!”
“I’ll discuss it with Raptor.”
“You’ve got to be crazy. It’s in the White House!”
“Are you certain he’s told no one else?”
Trexler’s voice was shaky. “I can’t say for sure, but I know his wife is out of town, and he wants to make damn sure the media hears it from his lips. That’s all I know.”
“Go home and get some rest. Call for further instructions in the morning. With any luck we’ll be one step ahead of him.” The senator disconnected and punched in Raptor’s speed dial number.
· · ·
Across the Potomac River, the Secretary of Defense, Norman Trexler, hung up his phone and steadied his trembling hand. He had never met the man they called Counselor, and had no idea to what extent he would go to protect the project. They considered themselves patriots, but selling weapons to a terrorist state was a treasonable act, and hiding their true identities was crucial. By midday the President would expose them all and his political career would end behind iron bars.
Perhaps Counselor did have the power to stop the speech. His political future might yet be saved, and if anyone could pull it off, it was the man they called Raptor.
· · ·
DuPont Circle, Washington, DC
The beer cradled between his palms was warm, the foam long gone. Special Agent Devrin Crosby never liked beer, but the smell of alcohol was still tempting. FBI agents were expected to remain sober even when off duty, but Crosby was a recovering alcoholic, a disease that had nearly cost him his job. He knew that if his boss so much as smelled it on him at work, he would be cleaning out his desk the same day. The beer was a self-imposed test, a ritual he went through every Sunday evening, never touched nor tasted, but if he could resist its aroma and proximity, he knew he could remain sober for another week.
The glare of the bar television reflected the mirrored image of 12:34 a.m. onto his beer mug and Crosby glanced across the room at the corner of Goodtime Charlie’s lounge. There, a shiny black Baldwin grand piano stood with ivory keys and a touch much finer than the electronic piano he kept in the tiny bedroom of his apartment. The lounge had a regular pianist on weekdays, but on Sundays the bench was empty. Crosby played well but his addiction had robbed his confidence, so he preferred to wait for the other patrons to leave. This evening, he had hovered over his warm mug for an hour as a young couple stubbornly remained.
The couple seemed an odd match to Crosby. The woman was blonde, well endowed and strikingly beautiful, but the man was short, bald and in a rumpled black suit. Must be an expensive date, he thought.
“Go ahead, Devrin,” the bartender said. “They won’t care.”
“I’ll wait. What’s my latest time on the cube?”
The bartended placed a Rubik’s Cube in front of Crosby and turned a few pages in his small notebook. “One minute, forty seconds. You were off pace last week.”
“Depends on the starting point.” Crosby studied the layout. “You ready?”
The bartender clicked a stop watch and Crosby’s fingers began spinning the faces. He only glanced at what he was doing, as if each set of fingers had memorized the pattern and acted independently of each other, turning sections without even rotating the cube.
“How do you do that?” the bartender said.
Crosby shrugged, fingers flying. “It’s algorithms designed to change parts of the cube without scrambling the others. Once you learn the patterns, it’s simple.”
“These cubes are easy. You wouldn’t believe the really complex ones. What was my best time to date?”
The bartender flipped back a few pages. “Forty-four seconds.”
“Was I sober?”
“You came in looking like you had slammed a half-bottle of scotch.”
“That figures. Almost there,” Crosby said with a final spin. “Time?”
The completed cube sat on the bar, each color arranged perfectly. “Fifty-eight seconds,” the bartender said. “Not bad.”
“It’s a far cry from the world record.”
“You’re way ahead of everyone here.” The bartender closed the notebook.
Crosby glanced up at a muted news segment on the television. A reporter was standing in a park with blooming flowers behind her, and in the distant background, the White House.
She’s in Lafayette Park, he thought. Images of the park flashed through his memory. The shouted warnings, the recoil of his Glock, and tiny red spots on yellow daffodils.
Even as he refocused on his beer, a smell of cordite remained. A year had passed since the incident, and there was no one to blame but himself. Well, almost no one.
· · ·
Senator Christian Luther had no choice but to use his regular phone to make the call. He had tried Raptor’s secure line, but apparently his unit was switched off. The phone rang twice before he heard a rough voice.
“What is it?” Harold Sanders said curtly.
“It’s Counselor,” Luther replied. “There’s a storm.”
Sanders waited a beat to respond. “Serious?”
“A squall line is approaching.”
Luther hesitated, remembering his unsecure line. “Sixteenth and Pennsylvania.”
Sanders remained silent for a moment. “Give me a minute. I’ll call you back.”
Only seconds later the senator’s encrypted line rang.
“Tell me about it.” Sanders voice lacked any hint of emotion.
“The President knows about Project Spectrum,” Luther said. “He has a detailed report that he’s going to reveal tomorrow in the briefing room. All attempts to reason with him have failed.”
“Yes. Stalker is working on the confirmation.”
“What time is the briefing?”
Sanders paused, apparently checking his watch. “Short notice.”
“What choice do we have? The report is lethal to the project. He must be stopped!”
“Proceed with Operation Sweep.”
“I’ll need executive authorization.”
“You’ll have it,” Luther said. “Can it be done?”
“What’s the collateral damage?”
“One witness and some documentation. Stalker will handle the documents. The witness will have to look like a coincidence.”
“Won’t work,” Sanders said. “Better to make it a consequence. Who is the witness?”
“The press secretary. You have someone in mind?”
“I’ll see if Pigs is available.”
“Approved,” Luther said. “The identity package is being prepared.
“What about his wife?”
“Out of town. Stalker is accessing her cell. What else do you need?”
“Stalker will have to place the propaganda material in the sponsor’s home. I’ll handle the camera equipment and seeding the sponsor’s clothing and locker. I need access to the storage facility and the station’s news van.”
“Both keys will be in the package. What time?”
“By 0200,” Sanders said. “See that the primary cameraman calls in sick. Give him something that’s untraceable.”
“I’ll try not to make it too contagious.”
“Whatever. Just make damn sure he doesn’t show up. And one other thing.”
“What’s that?” Luther asked.
“Find out what time the cleaning crew vacuums the briefing room.”
“Just do it.”
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