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Claire Osterman drummed her fingers on her desk as her cold eyes roamed over the men sitting in her office. She'd called a meeting of her cabinet officers to discuss their current situation, and she wasn't happy with the news they'd been giving her.
Herb Knoff, her bodyguard and sometime lover, sat on her left, as usual. He was a large man with broad shoulders, coal-black hair, and a boyish face that belied his violent and unforgiving nature. The other men serving under Claire knew he was mean as a snake when riled, so they tried their best never to make him angry.
Claire glanced at Herb, a scornful expression on her face. "Herb," she asked in a low, dangerous voice, "can you believe this shit they're giving me?"
Herb smirked, shaking his head. "No, ma'am," he answered, his eyes narrow and flat.
Harley Millard, Claire's official second in command in the government, even though he was a weak, mild-mannered man who was completely under Claire's thumb, held up his hand. "Now, Claire," he protested in his usual whining voice, "you asked us how things were. It's not our fault the situation is so bad."
Wallace W. Cox, Claire's Minister of Finance, cleared his throat and added, "That's right, Claire. Things could be a lot worse. If Ben Raines and the troops from the SUSA hadn't intervened and helped us defeat those Middle Eastern terrorists, we could all be speaking Arabic now."
Claire fixed him with a steely glare. "How could things be worse, Wally? We may have won the war, but now you assholes sit here and tell me we're dead broke."
She stared at the other ministers in the room. "Hell, what good is it to winthe war if we aren't left with enough money in the treasury to run the country?"
Clifford Ainsworth, Minister of Propaganda, nodded his head. "It's true that the treasury is at very low levels, Claire, but we weren't in good shape even before the invasion by El Farrar's men. I'm afraid if we don't do something soon, the people are not going to stand for more restrictions in governmental services."
"Cliff's right," Gerald Boykin, Minister of Defense, agreed. "My troops haven't received a paycheck in over a month. I don't know how much longer we'll be able to keep the soldiers in uniform if we don't come up with some way to pay them what we owe them."
Claire turned back to Cox. "I thought the United Nations had agreed to a loan package, Wally. Won't that help to bail us out until we can get the economy moving again?"
"It'll help some, Claire, but with half the country on welfare, the money they've promised us won't last six months."
"What the hell's wrong with everybody?" Claire asked, rolling her eyes. "Doesn't anyone want to work anymore?"
Ainsworth smirked. "Why should they, Claire, when welfare pays them more for sitting home on their butts than they can make with a job?"
Claire stared hard at Ainsworth for a moment, and then she slammed her hand down on her desk. "Damn it, I'm tired of being told there's no money in the treasury and the government has to cut back while these layabouts are living off the government's tit. Cliff, I want you to announce immediately that due to the current emergency, all welfare checks will be cut by twenty percent."
Ainsworth's eyes opened wide. "But, Claire, that'll cause riots in the streets."
She smiled grimly. "Good, then stopping them will give Boykin's troops something to do to earn their paychecks."
She got to her feet and leaned forward, her hands on her desk. "Now, get out of here and find me some way to get more money into our coffers--raise taxes or levy fines or something. The government cannot function without money!"
Her cabinet members rose from their chairs, casting worried looks at one another as they filed out of her office.
Claire took a deep breath and stretched her arms out over her head. "Damn, these meetings always make me tense," she said, glancing at Herb Knoff, still sitting next to her. She gave him a half smile. "How about a massage for your boss?" she asked with a lascivious grin.
He returned the look. "Anytime is a good time for a full-body rubdown, Claire."
She moved from behind the desk, took his hand, and led him into her living quarters adjacent to the office. As she went through the door, she began to unbutton her blouse.
Suddenly, a man dressed all in soldier's fatigues stepped from behind the door and whipped his left arm around Herb's forehead, stretching his head back while he put a long, curved knife to his neck.
"Holy shit!" Herb grunted, standing still as the razor-sharp blade drew a few drops of blood from his neck.
Claire whirled around, her hands going to her face. "What the hell's the meaning of this?" she almost shouted.
"My name is Muhammad Atwa," the man said in a heavy accent. "I have a proposition for you, but I first need your assurance you will not summon help."
"How did you get in here?" Claire asked, her eyes flicking toward the phone on her bedside table.
Atwa moved the knife suggestively. "Please do not attempt to call for help," he said. "I am not afraid to die, and I most surely will kill you both before your guards arrive."
"I asked you how you got in here."
He shrugged, his lips curled in a cruel smirk. "Your soldiers are very lazy. Anyone in a uniform is allowed to pass almost without questions."
Claire sighed and sat on the edge of her bed. "What is it exactly you want?"
Atwa reached around Herb's chest, took the pistol from his shoulder holster under his coat, and motioned for him to join Claire on the bed. Once Herb was sitting next to her, Atwa sat on a chair across the room and leaned back, crossing his legs with the pistol resting on his knee, the barrel pointed at them.
"I represent an organization called Al Qa'eda, based in Afghanistan."
"Al-Qa'eda?" Claire asked, her brow furrowed. "I thought we got rid of them back in the early part of the century."
Atwa smiled again, though without the slightest bit of humor in his eyes. "Yes, that is what you thought. You did manage to kill our leader, Osama bin Laden, but we had others ready to take his place."
"And what proposition does Al Qa'eda have for the United States?" Claire asked.
"A friend of our organization, Abdullah El Farrar, has come to us with a plan to bring the world to its knees."
"El Farrar?" Herb asked. "Wasn't he the crazy bastard who led the terrorist attack against us this year?"
Atwa shrugged. "A misguided effort, as it turned out. He had neither the troops nor the materiel to complete his mission, though I think he would have succeeded had it not been for Ben Raines and the SUSA's intervention."
"I doubt it," Claire said. "We would have beaten him even without Raines and his troops. It would just have taken a little longer."
Atwa smiled again, showing he didn't believe her. "At any rate, the SUSA and the U.N. have frozen all of El Farrar's family's assets, and he is angry. He has come up with a very intriguing scheme to make them pay for what they did to him."
"Yeah? And just what does he have in mind?" Claire asked.
"To take control of the world's oil supply," Atwa answered simply.
"Oh, is that all?" Herb asked scornfully.
"Let me explain," Atwa said, moving the pistol so it no longer pointed at them. "As you know, almost all of the working oil fields are in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait since your country destroyed most of the others in Iran and Iraq during your hunt for Osama bin Laden years ago."
"You're forgetting our fields in Alaska," Claire said.
Atwa waved a dismissive hand. "Yes, you have enormous reserves, but your environmentalists have so far blocked you from exploiting them to any degree."
Claire nodded grimly. The tree-huggers were the bane of her existence. She'd been trying for years to get the Congress to let her open up the fields to full production, but so far they'd resisted.
"So, how does El Farrar plan to take control of those oil fields?" Claire asked. "They are under the protection of the U.N."
"My organization is prepared to put fifty thousand of our best troops at his disposal. He will use them to gain control of the oil fields and oust the U.N. troops, which are very poorly disciplined."
"So, and then what?" Claire asked. "Ben Raines and his SUSA troops would take them back in less time than it takes to tell it."
Atwa shook his head. "Not if you agree to help us."
"In what way could we help you?" Claire asked. "As much as I hate to admit it, our troops have never been a match for the SUSA's."
"We don't need your troops," Atwa said. "We merely need fifty pounds or so of the plutonium you have in storage."
"Plutonium?" Claire asked, puzzled. "You want to make an atom bomb?"
"No. We intend to place small amounts of the plutonium near all of the oil wells, rigged to explode if our demands are not met. As you know, plutonium is one of the dirtiest of all radioactive materials. If we set the bombs off, it will contaminate the oil reserves for thousands of years and make them unusable."
"But," Claire said, horrified, "that would throw the world back into the Dark Ages."
"That is how we have been living in Afghanistan for decades," Atwa said, shrugging. "But I doubt it will come to that. Once the U.N. sees that we have the means and the will to destroy the world's oil supply, I think they will accede to our demands."
"And what will the United States get for our help?" Claire asked, a thoughtful look on her face.
Atwa spread his hands, a wide-toothed grin on his face. "Why, you'd get to be our partners in ruling the world, of course." He hesitated a moment, and then he added, "And Ben Raines would have to come crawling to you to get the oil his country needs to maintain their style of life."
The thought of Ben Raines having to beg her for anything persuaded Claire. She'd hated him for as long as she could remember, and now was her chance to get back at him for all he'd done to make her life miserable.
She stood up and stuck out her hand. "We'll do it!"