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.”
In Goodtime Charlie’s lounge the couple at the bar finally got up to leave. The bartender nodded toward the piano. “Better hurry, Devrin. I’m closing at 1:00 A.M.”
Crosby moved to the piano and examined his haggard face in its mirrored finish. He imagined his mother’s reflection looking over his shoulder as she had during his years of piano lessons. What would she think? He was forty-four, but he felt ten years older. He had gained fifteen pounds since the incident in Lafayette Park, but at least his sandy blond hair hadn’t grayed.
His fingers moved over the piano’s keys and strains of a song called, ‘As for Us,’ filled the room. He had no music, just a knack for picking out tunes from memory. Over the music he heard the door ding and glancing up saw a man rush in. He stopped at the bar, his hair soaking wet and his suit dripping on the floor. The man glanced at Crosby, ashen faced, fingers trembling, and clutching a manila envelope close to his side; he said something to the bartender who poured him a shot and pointed down the street. The man downed the drink, slid money across the bar and dashed back into the storm, the envelope still at his side.
Twenty minutes later, Crosby stepped out under the awning, and the bartender switched off the neon lights behind him.
“Who was that?” Crosby asked.
“I think it was Tim Cook, the White House Press Secretary,” the bartender said. “He wanted directions to the nearest mailbox.”
“I thought he looked familiar.”
“He left you a tip.” The bartender handed him a twenty dollar bill.
Crosby smiled. “Whoa. I must have sounded okay.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying, Devrin,” he said, locking the door. “See you next week.”
“Thanks, Charlie,” Crosby replied. It was raining hard, so he hustled down the dark familiar path toward his tiny apartment two blocks away.
· · ·
Kathryn Froscher leaned closer to the wheel trying to see through the streaks left by her windshield wipers. She was on I-77 just north of the Panthers Stadium, still in the dress she had worn to her father’s wake earlier that evening. He had been terminally ill for over a year, but the news of his death had brought out far more mourners than even she anticipated. From 7:00 until 10:00 P.M. she had stood in the receiving line shaking hands with people she had never met and never expected to again. Afterwards, a couple of girlfriends had taken her out for a late dinner and a drink.
The dress was new, expensive and looked great with her pale skin, brown hair and green eyes. At twenty-nine she still had a great body and could have taken home any of the guys who kept eyeing her long legs under the table. Wasn’t getting laid while your father was in an open casket a sin? Surely he would know.
A flash of lightening followed by the crack of thunder refocused her attention on the road and seemed to confirm her thoughts. Right decision. Her older brother, Chuck, was flying in from Oak Ridge early in the morning. There simply wasn’t any time to deal with a strange guy in her bed, no matter how cute he might be.
The wheel began to vibrate, and she felt the rear of the car pull to one side, the unmistakable signs of tire trouble.
Oh great. The interstate was busy, the rain blinding with no off-ramps in sight. She spotted a bridge overpass and guided her vintage Honda Prelude to an exit ramp under the bridge hoping it might afford her some shelter from the rain.
It didn’t. It was a railway bridge that let as much rain through it as around it. To make matters worse, the ramp led to another interstate and trucks were flying past her at sixty miles per hour. She eased off the roadway as far as the guardrail would permit and turned on her emergency blinkers. She found her triple-A card in her purse, but when she opened her cell phone, it beeped for a second and went dead.
“Damn it.” She rifled through the glove box, failing to find the battery charger and realized that her only option was to get out and survey the damage. She glanced down at the new dress. “Just my luck.”
When she cracked the door, a huge truck flew past, rocking the entire car and coating the windows in a dirty mist.
Katie slammed it shut and threw the cell phone into her purse. Wrong decision, she thought realizing how close she had come to having a man who could change the tire in the seat beside her. She thought about the ‘driving test’ she would sometimes give a male passenger if he was especially cute. The Prelude had a five-speed manual transmission and she would place his left hand on the stick shift and say, “Let’s see if you can follow directions.” She would then put her right hand down his pants, grab his joystick, and change gears by remote control.
Truck lights appeared in her rearview mirror and pulled to a stop behind her. Fear gripped her as she watched a man open his door. Ignoring the rain and oncoming traffic, he walked toward her car. He might be an off-duty policeman, or a psychopath.
He knelt down beside her flat tire for a second before approaching. She glanced around the car searching for something she could use as a weapon and grabbed the heaviest thing in her purse; the useless cell phone.
He tapped the glass, his mocha-colored face at her window. Rain had already soaked his dark curly hair, and water was dripping from his nose. She cracked her window and said, “Thanks for stopping, but I’m okay.” She brandished the cell phone. “My husband should be here any second.”
“You have a blowout, ma’am,” the stranger said. “Do you have a spare?”
“Uh, I suppose.”
“Pop the trunk and I’ll check.”
She hesitated wondering if he could get into her car through the trunk. The rear seat folded down, but it locked from the inside.
He smiled. “It’s okay, ma’am. You can trust me.”
Wasn’t that the psychopath’s motto? He seemed nice enough and nice looking, but so was Ted Bundy. If there wasn’t a spare, she wouldn’t have to ruin her new dress to find out. She pulled the trunk release.
Within a minute, she felt the car being jacked up and heard the squeal of loosening lug bolts. She rolled down the window far enough to yell, “Sir, you don’t have to do that.” Another truck rocked the car, showering her face with specks of mud and the smell of diesel fuel. If he’s crazy enough to change the damn tire, let him.
The rain slowed and she adjusted the side mirror so she could see what he was doing. To her astonishment, the man was on all fours, his legs in the lane of traffic. Trucks were passing within inches of them, yet he seemed unconcerned. A total stranger risking his life?
The car was lowered and the flat returned to the trunk. Katie looked through her purse, but found only a ten-dollar bill, hardly enough to pay the man for his kindness. The trunk slammed shut and the stranger wiped his hands on his now filthy jeans.
“That should do it,” he shouted and gave her a goodbye salute.
Lowering her window and waving the money, she yelled, “Wait a minute.”
The stranger came back to her door. He was handsome, a thirty-something version of Denzel Washington. She felt ashamed she had not lowered the window further the first time.
“How much do I owe you?”
“But your jeans are soaked. At least let me pay to have them laundered.”
He laughed. “I have a washer and dryer.”
“You risked your life. Those trucks could have taken your legs off.”
She noted that he wasn’t wearing a wedding band when he turned to watch a car speed past where his legs had been.
“It’s a matter of faith, ma’am,” he said with a smile.
“How can I thank you?”
“You just did. Have a nice day.”
Within seconds he was back in his truck and had pulled into traffic. He had been a shining example of human decency and had said more with that single act of kindness than a thousand sermons.
I didn’t even get his name, she thought and cranked the Honda.
· · ·
Huge vinyl letters on each side of the van proclaimed NBC-6 to its viewers. Harold Sanders inserted the key, stepped into the back and closed the door. He used a smaller key to unlock one of the wall-mounted storage lockers and noted that it contained two video cameras, one older and the other almost brand new. He removed the older one, opened his black bag and took out a duplicate camera, pausing to make sure they were identical. He zipped the station’s older camera into his bag, and placed the duplicate in the locker. To ensure that the newer camera wouldn’t be chosen, he removed it from the locker, held it about three feet off the floor, and let the $55,000 camera drop. The impact did little visible damage, cracking a UV filter and denting the lens cowling. He returned the broken camera to the shelf, making sure it was turned so the damaged lens would be visible the next time the locker was opened. He checked his watch as he locked the van door. It was 2:14 a.m.
· · ·
Gerald McMullen had stripped out of his wet clothes and taken a shower before climbing in bed. He was tired and his flight back to Washington left at 6 A.M. He thought about the girl’s left hand. No wedding ring. My husband should be here any second, he recalled her saying. That was smart, given her situation. People were naturally suspicious of strangers. But when she offered him money, her smile had given him an overwhelming feeling that she wasn’t married. It was only a chance encounter, but Gerald had learned to trust his feelings.
Perhaps it was hopeful thinking, or the way the light reflected off the letters as he slammed her trunk, but when he closed his eyes, a clear image of her personalized license plate remained.
· · ·
Wesley Heights, Washington, DC
The canvas-draped Corvette was parked in front of apartment 301 in building 4174. The man, dressed in black, emerged from his truck holding a briefcase. He lifted a corner of the canvas and focused a penlight on the candy red fiberglass quarter panel. Drives a red Corvette; he recalled from the file. D.C. License plate, REBA, the subject’s favorite singer. He checked the personalized license plate and spotted the NBC-6 parking sticker. He returned the penlight to his pocket and gazed at the faint light coming from a second floor window. Nightlight in the bathroom, the man thought.
Moving quickly up the exterior staircase, he unscrewed the light bulb by the door and checked to make sure no one was around. He opened the lid of the wall-mounted mailbox and pointed the penlight at the name, Chad Stillwell. Subject is single. One cat, no dogs, he recalled, picturing the apartment layout he had studied. Single bedroom, second floor apartment. Door opens into a small den. Kitchen on the left. Bedroom and bath facing the parking lot. No direct access was available to windows from the exterior staircase. The door’s threshold would have to do.
The man squatted, opened the briefcase, removed a gasmask and placed it over his head. He inserted a length of clear plastic hose attached to a metal wand into the crack under the door and attached the other end to a small yellow cylinder. He opened the valve releasing the viral agent through the tube and waited. A clear, odorless gas containing a cocktail of a genetically altered zoonotic influenza virus, THC and carbon monoxide flowed through the tube. It would give the subject a severe headache followed by flu-like symptoms. Since the bedroom was fifteen feet from the front door he had to use the entire canister to insure the desired results. The whole process took less than a minute.
· · ·
By 3:45 a.m., Raptor’s van was outside the gates of a storage facility located less than three miles from the sponsor’s apartment. With a gloved finger, he punched the entry code on a keypad and the gate opened. The rows of cinderblock storage buildings, lit by the orange glow of sulfur-vapor street lamps, revealed the pale outlines of numbers painted on the roll-top doors. Storage locker K-11 was identical in size to the rest. Harold Sanders got out of the van, carrying a cardboard box that contained the now disassembled parts of the station’s video camera. The sponsor’s palm print, lifted from a microphone in the van, had been placed conspicuously on one of the camera parts.
He inserted his key into the Master lock, removed it, and lifted the door. Inside the space were stacks of cardboard boxes, flags, tent poles and what appeared to be folded white sheets. He ripped open one of the boxes, removed a handful of brochures, and pointed his penlight at the cover.
“A Message Of Hope And Deliverance For White Christian America,” he read. “Compliments of The Imperial Knights of The Ku Klux Klan.”
Sanders put a few of the brochures into his coat pocket. He placed the camera parts on a workbench at the center of the room and relocked the door.
· · ·
The White House
As head of the White House Secret Service detail, Harold Sanders walked the halls with total confidence. He was tall and lean with salt and pepper hair, and a ruddy face, the result of severe teenage acne. He entered the press corps offices located near the rear of the briefing room and nodded to the fellow agent on duty. In his hands were two Styrofoam cups of coffee, and under one arm, a folded newspaper. He offered the paper and a cup to the duty agent.
“Thanks,” the agent said. “You’re here early.”
“Got a call,” Sanders said. He stood opposite the duty agent and looked down the hall into the darkened and near empty briefing room. “Something’s up.”
“Haven’t heard anything,” the duty agent said, taking a sip. “Good coffee.”
“Yeah.” Sanders watched the cleaning crew running a carpet shampooer near the podium at the far end of the briefing room. The rest of the room was dark. “They have Danish down in the Navy Mess. Want some?”
“I’m too fat already,” the agent said. He put down the coffee and opened the newspaper.
“Nothing’s on the morning schedule,” Sanders added, noting that the duty agent was already involved in the headlines. “Must be the President.”
“Maybe he’s going to address this Argentine mess,” the agent said. “Ever since the coup, their self-appointed president has been making noise about leading them into the nuclear age.”
“He’s a mile wide and an inch thick,” Sanders said. “All surface.”
“I don’t know. They say his father was killed in the Falklands war and he keeps talking about taking back what’s theirs. I guess we’ll find out soon enough,” the agent replied, never looking up.
“I’m going to ask around, maybe get some Danish,” Sanders said, stepping back into the hall that led into the briefing room. “Be back in a minute.”
Sanders stepped back and watched the agent for a second. He was still reading, oblivious to anything else. He found the cord of the carpet shampooer plugged into a wall socket beside the door. It ran down the right aisle toward the front between banks of video equipment mounted on various stands. He spotted the NBC-6 video camera mounted on a tripod near the aisle. It took only a second to make a loop in the cord and hook it high on one leg of the tripod.
· · ·
“NBC-6,” the receptionist said into her headset. “How may I direct your call?”
“Gina.” The voice sounded weak. “It’s Chad.”
“Chad? You don’t sound good.”
“I’ve come down with something,” he replied coughing. “Anything on the schedule?”
“The White House called. The cleaning crew knocked over our camera. The President is scheduled to speak at noon and we need a replacement.”
“Oh, great!” Chad said. “There’s no way I can make it, Gina. I’m sorry. I’ve thrown up twice already and have a splitting headache. To top it off, my cat died.”
“Miss Reba’s dead?”
“Yeah. She was fifteen. Died in her sleep.”
“Oh, Chad, I’m sorry.”
“Call Billy for me, will you?”
“Sure,” Gina said. “Can he handle setting up a replacement camera?”
“He knows the drill. There’s a spare camera in the van. He’ll have to fill in for me, okay?”
“I’ll take care of it,” she said. “You should go back to bed.”
“I am. Thanks, Gina.”
“You take care, Chad.”
THE FOURTH ANGEL
It was a clear Monday morning, with a slight breeze to carry the scent of the freshly mowed grass into the portico of the White House. As the April sun climbed into the sky, the moist heat rose, hinting that soon the muggy days of summer would follow. President William Joseph Barnett had begun his day like every day, by reading a passage from his Bible. He had chosen an unusual verse; Revelation 16:8. The words seemed so appropriate that he added them to the first paragraph of the speech he would deliver at his noon press conference.
President Barnett was a pious man and vowed that he would once again make the office of President beyond reproach. He was a born-again Christian, a former minister, and an African-American — the first direct descendent of slaves to achieve the office of President. Barnett was fifty-six, a father of three whose youngest daughter, Alma, lived with them in the White House and would soon begin her freshman year at the College of William and Mary. The first lady, Phyllis, had taken Alma to Williamsburg for orientation, and they were scheduled to return the following evening. He had called Phyllis earlier but her cell phone signal kept fading out. At least he knew they had slept well and that Alma loved the campus.
Barnett had been up early, polishing his speech. Unlike most modern presidents, Willie preferred to write his own and he packed them with as many southern clichés and jokes as he damn well pleased. His admirers said it made him sound “down-home,” and his return to ordinary language caused a soar in his approval ratings after every speech. His critics rolled their eyes and sneered behind his back, but even they admitted that Barnett knew how to reach people.
He looked over the pages, committing them to memory. He moved the announcement terminating Norman Trexler to the third paragraph. He always considered his Secretary of Defense a friend, but the web of deceit Trexler had woven was inexcusable. Trexler had gone to great lengths to cover up the covert military operation entitled The Spectrum Project. Even when confronted with the physical proof of its existence, Trexler continued to lie. That was the one thing that Barnett never tolerated. Trexler acted as though the operation was above the law and his actions were exceeded only by his arrogance. Trexler would have to go.
The President paused at a mirror outside the Oval Office to straighten his favorite blue tie, a birthday gift from his daughter. His shirt, white with blue pinstripes, contrasted well with his navy suit and dark skin and would look great at his next portrait sitting.
· · ·
Special Agent Devrin Crosby entered Woodbutcher’s Deli a little before his lunch appointment. He wore the trademark Hoover Blues business suit of the FBI, but his tie was loosened, the top button of his shirt undone. Crosby hated ties and couldn’t understand how starting the day with a noose around one’s neck had ever come into fashion.
The hostess was young and in deep conversation with a waitress. She ignored Crosby.
He cleared his throat to get her attention.
She reluctantly excused herself. “How many?” she said with all the enthusiasm of a mortician.
“Two,” Crosby said, nodding towards a darkened section. “We’ll take that booth in the back corner.”
“Sorry. That section is closed.”
“Then please tell Louie that Special Agent Devrin Crosby of the FBI would prefer to have his usual table in the corner,” he said in a firm tone. In any other city the title alone would be enough to warrant a degree of respect, but not in Washington. This city was crawling with “agents” of this or that, and if the title meant anything to the hostess, she wasn’t showing it.
“Just a minute!” she said through clenched teeth and disappeared.
Crosby looked around and saw a table of young women glancing at him and whispering something to the rest with raised eyebrows. To his left he caught a glimpse of his profile in a mirror and the slight pouch above his belt. Instinctively, he sucked it in and heard muted chuckles coming from the table.
Within moments, the owner emerged from the kitchen, took the menus from the hostess and gave her a dismissive nod. “Agent Crosby!” he said with a Greek accent. “Your usual booth?”
“You have a guest joining you?”
“Just one.” Crosby gave the hostess a smirk as they walked into the closed section.
She marched back to her station mouthing, “Whatever!”
“College kids,” Louie said putting down the menus. “They think they own the place. I’ll send a waitress when your guest arrives.”
“Thanks, Louie. He has wavy black hair and looks like a model.”
While Crosby waited, he looked over the selections. The menu laminate was clean and bore none of the tiny brown spots roaches leave when they walk across them at night. Louie ran a tidy ship. With that assurance, Crosby weighed the selections against their respective calories. His stocky build had added a few pounds since he was reassigned to the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program and started spending his days in front of a computer. Surely his friend, Gerald McMullen, had put on weight as well.
They had hardly spoken at all since the incident that had landed Crosby his desk job. During the first Gulf War, Crosby’s Humvee loaded with wounded prisoners had gotten lost in the darkness and wandered into a mine field. The explosion killed everyone aboard except Crosby, whose lacerations had saved his life since the Iraqi’s assumed he was dead. Gerald’s helicopter was one of three sent out to locate them. When met with hostile fire, the other helicopters held back, but not Gerald. His courage was the only reason Crosby was alive.
“Devrin?” a voice said.
Crosby saw Gerald standing a few feet away. “Hi Gerry,” he said getting out of the booth. The two men gave each other an awkward hug.
“You’ve put on a few pounds,” Gerald said patting Crosby’s belly.
Crosby noted that Gerald’s abdomen was flat as a board. If anything he had lost weight. He had spent most of the previous afternoon at the gym at Quantico in a vain attempt to sweat off thirty pounds in three hours. He sucked in his stomach as he slid back into the booth. “It’s no bigger than normal people in their mid-forties.”
“You have a girlfriend cooking for you?” Gerald said as he sat.
“I work for the bureau, remember? The only women in my life pack a Glock and can kill you with their bare hands.”
“Some women think guns are sexy.”
“Yeah, but their idea of a hot date is a five-mile run to a firing range,” Crosby said. “So, how’s your love life?”
“Who wants a beach bum like me?”
Crosby surveyed the room, expecting a sea of waving arms from every woman in the place. “I figured you moved to the Caribbean and were feasting on turtle soup.”
“Someday, buddy, I’m going to find me an island with an all female staff and an endless supply of soup and margaritas.” He hesitated. “Speaking of which, how long has it been?”
“I’ve managed to stay on the wagon for almost two months,” Crosby said.
“That’s good to hear.”
“Are you still at the Post?”
“That’s one of the reasons I called. I flew down to Charlotte yesterday for a job interview. The Observer offered me an editorial position.”
“The Observer?” Crosby said. “I thought you loved Washington.”
“I don’t have a choice. Mom’s cancer returned.”
“Oh… sorry, Gerald.”
“Who knows, it could be six months or six years. Ned’s moved in with Mom, but with his aerial business he can’t be with her all the time.”
Gerald’s mother was Portuguese, his late father Jamaican, and his dark wavy hair and chestnut skin was the same as theirs. Crosby had met her and his brother, Ned, when Gerald won the Scripps Howard Journalism Award for his story on Gulf War helicopter pilots.
“I need to spend as much time with her as I can before the end.” Gerald said, a hint of sadness in his voice.
Crosby changed the subject. “Does Ned still do aerial photography?”
“No, just traffic reports. It’s steady work, and he also flies air-rescue choppers when needed.” Gerald leaned closer. “The thing is, as soon as all of this is over, I’m planning on coming back to the Post. That’s where you come in, buddy.”
“Are you still in that tiny apartment near DuPont Circle?”
“Of course,” Crosby said. “What else could I afford?”
“How would you like to move into my condo while I’m gone?”
Crosby laughed. “On my salary?”
“Here’s the deal. If Mom goes into remission, I could be in Charlotte for years. If I rent my place, who knows what will happen to it, plus I would prefer to have it available when I come back to town on assignments. It’s three bedrooms and most of my furniture can go into storage. There’s plenty of room for your stuff and you can use the spare bedroom for your piano.”
“Sounds interesting,” Crosby said, “but I don’t have that kind of dough.”
“If you cover the utilities, I’ll lease it to you for a dollar a month.”
“A dollar! What about your mortgage payment?”
“It’s covered,” Gerald said. “I’ll be living with Mom.”
“Yeah, but she’s sick. You can’t pay your mortgage on top of her medical bills?”
“Insurance and Medicare. She planned well. You would be doing me a big favor, Devrin. What do you say?”
“Can I pay a year in advance?” Crosby said.
Gerald laughed. “Sure. Deal?”
“Deal!” Crosby said with a handshake.
“By the way, my boss thinks I’m having lunch with my inside source at the FBI,” Gerald added, “so lunch is on me.”
Devrin laughed. “I’ve never leaked any secrets.”
“They don’t know that.”
The waitress arrived. “What’ya havin’?”
“I’ll take a Cobb Salad and bottled water,” Gerald said never bothering to look at the menu.
A salad and water? Devrin thought. “What tha hell! Give me a Philly with extra cheese.”
Gerald smiled. “No wonder.”
· · ·
US Secret Service agent Harold Sanders examined the professional video camera carefully before placing it in front of the electronic scanner, which would x-ray it and check the lens for anything unusual. This was an old camera, not unlike thousands he had seen come through the White House security check before. A large label with the letters “NBC-6” was pasted on its side with the television station’s call letters, WBC-TV. The station was a frequent visitor to the briefing room, but the cameraman was not their usual operator.
“Name?” Sanders asked.
“Billy Ray Anderson.” He held out his press-pass. Sanders examined it for authenticity.
“You have a license or other ID?”
Billy Ray handed the agent his wallet. Another Secret Service agent ran a portable metal detector over Anderson’s body as Sanders typed the name into a computer. Billy Ray’s name popped up on his screen. His clearance was just over three years old, but his job function listed him as a soundman.
“Remove your shoes and belt and place them on the scanner.”
Billy Ray complied.
“How long have you been assigned to the press corps?”
“Three years, two months.”
“You’re listed here as the soundman. Where is your regular cameraman?”
“He called in sick. I’m his backup.”
“I’ll need his phone number,” Sanders said. “Have you ever operated a camera in the briefing room before?”
“Briefly, awhile back, but I usually handle the sound.”
“You’re familiar with the protocol?”
“Yes, sir. I’m the backup.”
The station’s NBC correspondent, herself being scanned with the metal detector spoke up. “Sir, Billy’s been with the station for twelve years.”
Agent Sanders knew the correspondent’s face, and her comment added the credibility he needed. “Sign here,” he instructed and turned his attention to the equipment. “Why the replacement?”
“Don’t know,” Billy Ray said. “I was told to pick up another camera before coming in.”
The correspondent explained. “Your cleaning crew got a power cord entangled in our tripod last night. The camera was knocked over and damaged. Your office called the station manager this morning.”
Sanders already knew this, but he needed the correspondent to explain it in front of the other agents for the record.
“Write that out on this form and sign it,” Sanders said handing her a clipboard. He looked at Billy Ray. “Turn on your camera, please.”
Billy Ray picked up the camera, attached a portable battery from the camera bag and switched it on. The blue-gray light glowed from the viewfinder, and he handed it to Sanders.
Sanders put his eye to the viewfinder and ran his hand in front of the lens. He noted the auto focus and the remote zoom control. Both were common options on professional cameras of this type. He tested various switches, and they all functioned as expected.
“You may proceed,” Sanders said, handing the camera, belt and shoes back to Billy Ray. He slipped a camera remote into Billy’s jacket pocket while he put on the belt. The camera seemed flawless and short of taking it apart, he had given it an extensive examination. Spectrum’s technicians had done an excellent job.
· · ·
Norman Trexler returned from his morning jog and waited to catch his breath before calling Counselor. He had put off calling but time was running short. He punched a four-digit speed-dial number into his secure phone and waited through two rings.
Senator Christian Luther’s voice came on the line. “Yes.”
“Counselor, this is Viper. Are we scrambled?”
“Have you heard from Raptor?”
“We are go. You are to proceed with operation SWEEP.”
“Holy mother.” Trexler mumbled. Even though he knew it was coming, the confirmation sent shock waves through him. His father had been a Tennessee congressman who had lost his seat in a bribery scandal and was now serving a seven-year sentence in federal prison. He remembered his father’s advice: “Your reputation’s all you got,” but his reputation had landed him a view of a razor-wire fence from a six by nine-foot cell.
Today could bring Trexler a similar fate. He struggled to regain his composure. “What are my instructions?”
“The documentation has been deleted from the subject’s computer and replaced with an appropriate but harmless report,” Luther said. “A backup copy of the speech has been removed from the private residence safe. The subject has the final copy on his person. Your objective is to secure that copy. A replacement is already inside the podium and will be discovered afterwards. Your window of opportunity will be brief. Use it and be careful in positioning yourself. This video will be studied frame-by-frame.”
Trexler felt sick as he hung up the phone. One screw-up and he could spend the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary. He thought about his father, his wife and their daughter. How would they ever understand? There was still time to act. He could save the President and perhaps even himself. With a little luck he might even avoid prosecution, but he knew it wasn’t an option. Counselor had given him his assignment and there was no turning back now. Raptor would make damn sure of that.
· · ·
Crosby took another bite of his sandwich and listened to Gerald expound about his upcoming move to Charlotte. They had both attended the University of North Carolina, but never met while there. Gerald played varsity basketball, and his one claim to fame was that he had once blocked Michael Jordan’s shot in a scrimmage game.
“My boss wants to know what’s up at the bureau?” Gerald said smiling.
“Not my favorite subject,” Crosby said. “Let’s talk about something else.”
“What’s wrong, Devrin?”
Crosby shrugged. “I’m thinking about leaving.”
“Leaving? The last time we talked, you said it was the greatest job in the world.”
“I was reassigned. Now I sit at a computer all day profiling suspects.”
“When did this happen?”
“A year ago,” Crosby said, “and I fell off the wagon soon after.” He again thought of the red spots on yellow daffodils.
“So that’s why you stopped calling,” Gerald said. “What happened?”
“I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
“Come on, Devrin. I’m your best friend.”
“The usual reasons. I screwed up.” He pictured the slamming doors of the surveillance van; the suspect with the briefcase ignoring the shouts to stop; the White House looming two blocks away.
“That’s nothing new. Anyone who falls asleep at the wheel of his Humvee during the middle of a battle should be accustomed to screwing up.”
“I wish it was that simple.” Crosby waited a long moment. “I blew an innocent man’s face off.”
Gerald’s smile vanished. “Good Lord. Were you sober?”
“Yeah, but I had to prove it.”
“That must have been rough.”
“It still is,” Crosby explained. “We mistook his identity and I shot the wrong guy.”
“That’s an accident.”
Crosby shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I gave the order. After the FBI screw-up at Ruby Ridge, someone always takes the blame. I happened to be the most convenient.”
“Can you appeal?”
Crosby resumed eating, a clear sign that his part of the conversation was finished.
· · ·
Inside the super-secure domain of the briefing room, Agent Harold Sanders checked his mike and earphone. As chief of the White House Secret Service detail, it was his responsibility to make sure everything was ready.
“OK, people,” Sanders said, his voice almost as rough as his face. “Five minutes. Let’s call them in.”
“Penn Avenue entrance, clear,” the agent reported. A series of responses followed as each agent reported the status of their area and ended with, “Tunnel, clear.”
Sanders notified the team leader of the President’s security detail. “Scout One, briefing room is secure. Send in the clowns.”
Through his left earphone, he could monitor the President’s movements.
“This is Scout Three; Potus is in the elevator. I repeat, Potus is in the elevator and moving. Stand by, Scout Two.”
“Roger Scout Two,” Sanders said. “ETA in one minute.”
Everything was ready. Sanders moved his hand to his waist and unplugged one of his microphones. He then switched on a second wireless set, encrypted and programmed to an ultra-high frequency. He checked his new equipment. “Scout One, do you read, over?”
There was no response.
“Scout team? Scout team, do you read, over?” He waited ten seconds for a response. There was none. If anyone was scanning the frequencies, the only thing they might hear would be static.
“Raptor,” Counselor’s voice was calm through Sanders’ right earphone. “Signal is scrambled. You are authorized to proceed.”
· · ·
The napkins lay in their plates, their drinking glasses empty. Their waitress had either forgotten them or was siding with the hostess.
“So what was that other thing you wanted to ask me earlier?” Crosby asked.
“It’s a personal favor.” Gerald slid a scrap a paper across the table.
“What’s KT-GIRL mean?”
“It’s a North Carolina license tag number. I was in a driving rainstorm in Charlotte last night and helped change this girl’s flat tire. She was something! Only problem is I don’t know her name or where she lives. All I’ve got is her license plate number.”
“I see.” Crosby smiled. “Still chasing skirts.”
“I tried the Department of Motor Vehicles website and hit a wall. I thought you might be able to suggest an agency I could contact.”
“This is probably illegal.” Crosby leaned forward. “But I might be able to get a name.”
“I don’t want to get you fired, Devrin. It’s not that big a deal. For all I know she could be married.”
“What the hell. I’m leaving the bureau anyway. I’ll see what I can do.”
· · ·
Harold Sanders spoke softly to minimize the movement of his lips. “Roger, Counselor. Switching to visual.”
Sanders reached into his breast pocket and put on a pair of aviator-type sunglasses. The sunglasses were standard Secret Service gear, and since a potential assailant could not see their eyes, the agents wore them inside as well as out. To the other agents, the putting on of the sunglasses had always been their final signal to Scout One that the team was in place.
But Sanders’ glasses were different, and as soon as he put them on, his visual point of view was transferred to the center of the room. A virtual image filled his lenses, shot from a news video camera twenty feet away and tapped into the signal from the video control bank located in the back. The image showed the empty podium with the White House logo in blue and white mounted on the wall behind it. Sanders took an ink pen from his pocket and casually twisted the head of it to focus the camera’s lens on the logo. With the pen, he could also make the lens zoom in tighter, but it had no control over panning from side to side. A remote pan control might arouse the suspicions of his fellow agents as well as the cameraman. The job had to look like the work of one man. Additional controls were an unnecessary risk. With only a click of the pen’s head, the shutter would release at exactly the right moment.
· · ·
Billy Ray’s hands were sweating. This was his first time as cameraman on a live presidential shoot, and he was sure that he had forgotten something vital that might ruin the broadcast. If so, it would forever kill his chances for a repeat assignment. He knew how to do this, having watched the regular cameraman, Chad, for three years. He had been a soundman for twelve years, and this was his big chance to move up.
There was something odd about this camera, though. He was sure that he had switched off the auto-focus, but somehow it kept refocusing as though it had a mind of its own. This was an older model, and it was probably a faulty switch. Chad must have dropped the newer camera he found in the van, so he was forced to use this one. It was heavy as hell, and he was glad it was mounted on a tripod for the duration.
“Billy, you ready?” his NBC correspondent said.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Five seconds,” the director called from the control room.
Billy put his eye to the viewfinder and pressed the record switch.
· · ·
At the same moment a symbol in Sanders’ sunglasses notified him that the camera was recording.
“Standby Counselor,” Raptor said. “We are armed and ready.”
· · ·
Billy Ray watched as Tim Cook, the President’s Press Secretary, entered the room followed by several members of the Cabinet. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense took their place to the right of the podium.
“Thank you for coming,” the Press Secretary said into the microphones. “I’m sure you are curious about the nature of this meeting, so without delay, The President of the United States.”
The attendees erupted with applause as President William Barnett entered the room. Beside him was a surprise visitor, the Reverend Jebadiah Johnson. The President shook hands with several of the reporters, took his place at the lectern, and waited for the applause to fade.
Billy Ray zoomed in for a tight close-up, but as soon as he tried for a wider shot, the lens refused to budge.
“This sorry piece of junk!” he growled into his headset as he tried to free the lens by hand.
“What’s wrong?” the NBC correspondent asked.
“The damn lens is stuck!”
· · ·
“Raptor, you are clear to proceed,” Luther’s voice said.
“Affirmative,” Raptor replied, “but the Sponsor is jerking the target all over the place.”
“Don’t take any chances,” Luther said. “Make sure it’s clean.”
· · ·
Billy Ray slapped the lens with his fist and it started working perfectly, just as the President began to speak. He zoomed out for the introduction.
“My fellow Americans,” President Barnett began. “I have asked you here today to tell you of a matter of utmost urgency. I have spent many hours in fervent prayer as I contemplated how to proceed. I’ve asked a friend, whose entire life has been devoted to social change through non-violence, to join with me this morning. I’m proud to introduce the Reverend Jeb Johnson.”
Reverend Johnson took the opportunity to shake the President’s hand for the photographers and remained standing beside him for several seconds.
· · ·
“Any time Raptor,” Luther said.
Sanders tried to control his frustrations. “I almost had him, but the sponsor is now focused between Barnett and Jeb.”
· · ·
Where is his speech? Secretary of Defense Norman Trexler felt a wave of panic flow over him. Barnett would often memorize his speeches, but if this one were to fall into the hands of the press, all of this would be for nothing. Raptor had told him to put on the sunglasses only if he had the speech in sight. It must be in his jacket, he thought and put them on anyway.
· · ·
“As many of you know,” the President continued, “I’m a firm believer in reading the Holy Scriptures. The Bible says that the truth shall set us free. This morning, while reading my daily passage, I came across a verse which I have deemed most appropriate for this occasion.”
The President reached into his coat for his glasses. Reverend Johnson handed the President his Bible.
“I’m reading from Revelation 16:8.”
· · ·
The camera was back on the President, but the scene was so wide that the center of the target was on the President’s neck. Instantly Raptor had an idea.
“Do it now,” Luther said into Raptor’s earphone. “Before he gives the whole damn thing away!”
“Just a second,” Sanders growled.
· · ·
Billy Ray’s camera zoomed in so tight that all he could see was the President’s necktie.
“Not this shit again!” The curse was just loud enough for the surrounding reporters to take notice. He tried to zoom out, but the lens wouldn’t budge. His only choice was to tilt the camera up to the President’s face and hope for the best.
· · ·
The President read the passage with great reverence. “And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire.”
At that moment, Sanders placed his thumb on the head of the pen and squeezed.
· · ·
Billy Ray’s camera lurched backwards as a deafening sound exploded against his ears. He turned to his right to get a glimpse of the source, but found none. As he turned back he saw a red smear sprayed across the White House logo. He gasped, but shock willed him back to his camera. He put his eye to the viewfinder where only seconds before the President’s head had filled the screen. The lens was still zoomed in tight, and now pieces of flesh and bone covered the formerly pristine logo behind the lectern. The lens worked perfectly as he zoomed out. He tilted it down toward the mass of humanity that was now covering the President. Secret Service agents were spread-eagle over the body. Other agents brandished their automatic weapons. The Reverend Johnson was once again kneeling over his martyred prince of peace, just as he had with Martin Luther King on a motel balcony in 1968.
· · ·
Harold Sanders already had his weapon drawn and pointing toward the crowd of reporters. The sunglasses and pen were safely tucked away in his pocket. The smell of gunpowder hung heavy in the room. Reporters cowered in small groups on the floor. Few of the cameramen were brave enough to still man their equipment.
“Nobody move!” Sanders ordered. “All stations, Potus is down! I repeat, Potus is down! Secure all sectors. No one leaves the building!”
· · ·
Billy Ray kept thinking of Dallas in 1963. He had to keep his camera rolling. He thought of the Zapruder film, the only piece of evidence, which showed Kennedy’s fatal head shot. His camera had been focused on the President’s head moments before. It must have recorded the best possible image of the moment of impact. The tape could be worth millions and, if so, his name would soon become immortal.
Men were covering the President’s body, but the images were powerful. The anguished look painted on Reverend Johnson’s face; the bloody logo and the constant screaming. The Secretary of Defense, covered with blood, was holding the President’s Bible over him and apparently gathering pages torn from it. The secret service agents, with their automatic weapons drawn, were yelling something and pointing their guns towards—
Wait a minute…. They were aimed at him!
· · ·
One camera swiveled towards Sanders and he brought his weapon to bear on its operator.
“I said nobody move!” Sanders repeated.
Everyone seemed to drop closer to the floor, but the camera kept moving, turning its lens toward the agents, its cameraman ignoring the command in an apparent attempt to film the total mayhem. Other agents instinctively followed that movement.
Sanders spotted the evidence he needed; the frayed, burned end of the microphone windsock. “Gun!” he yelled. “His camera is the gun!”
· · ·
Devrin and Gerald stepped out of the booth and shook hands. As they walked towards the checkout counter Gerald gave him the note with the license tag number and a key to the condo so he could begin moving in. Crosby heard a gasp and glanced over at the table where the girls were whispering earlier. Most of them were visibly upset, hands over their mouths and makeup running down their faces. He followed their gaze to the silent television on the far wall. Displayed was a view of the White House briefing room with secret service agents covering someone on the floor. Other agents had their weapons drawn and were pointing at the camera.
Gerald turned and said, “What’s wrong?”
Crosby’s cell phone rang. He removed it from his pocket and noted the incoming number. It was the emergency call back number issued from the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
He looked back at the screen, saw the red smear on the logo and knew.
“What is it, Devrin?” Gerald asked again.
“My God, the President has been shot.”
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