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By Alan Jacobson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 Alan Jacobson
All rights reserved.
ELECTION NIGHT November 7
10:57 PM EST
Everyone dies, it's just a matter of when. But Glendon Rusch, vice president of the United States, had always figured it would be a distant occurrence—three or four decades in the future. He had no way of knowing the events that would prove godlike in their finality were a mere three or four minutes away.
The Sikorsky VH-3 helicopter, one of only a dozen in the executive transport fleet out of Quantico, chopped its way through Virginia air space. Inside, in the relative quiet of the custom outfitted cabin, Rusch tapped his right foot, staring ahead at his wife, Macy, wanting the time to dissolve away like grains of sugar in hot coffee. Because the sooner the minutes passed, the sooner he'd know if his grueling two-year run for president would be the crown jewel in his career ring, or a nine hundred million dollar faux diamond.
"Too close to call," Rusch was told as they lifted off. But what the hell did that mean? He needed to talk with his campaign director. Just how close was "too close to call"? Was that statistical jargon for "It doesn't look good, but we're not mathematically eliminated"?
Rusch stole a glance at Macy's watch: could the last forty minutes have made a difference? He looked at the cabin phone ten feet away, willing it to ring. But would it bring good news or bad? He closed his eyes and let his head rest against the seatback. Stop obsessing.
Fatigue was dragging at every body part, trying to pull him into defeat. Like gravity, he fought it unconsciously, not permitting the lack of sleep and his weary mind to darken his thoughts. He needed to shift his attention elsewhere, if only for a moment or two.
Rusch looked at his daughter, Kelsey, who was strapped into seat number three to her mother's left along the cabin wall. She was staring with longing eyes at Sam Washburn, the Special Agent-in-Charge of the vice president's Secret Service detail. Washburn was a hunk, or so sixteen year-old Kelsey had said, and she had a crush on him. Rusch cleared his throat and caught his daughter's attention. He raised a disapproving eyebrow and tilted his head. She rolled her eyes in response, her face shading red as she turned away.
Rusch shared a smile with Macy. He remembered when Kelsey was only a newborn bundle wrapped in a drawstring nightgown, sleeping in his arms. Time passed much too quickly.
And yet, in times like these, it passed much too slowly.
The cabin phone rang. Rusch's heart rate surged.
Sam Washburn, a veteran of the executive detail and several election cycles, knew the importance of the call. He unbuckled and snatched up the handset, listened a moment, then handed the receiver to Rusch's senior campaign aide, Chris Sawyer.
Sawyer nodded and grunted, his eyes darting around as he digested the information being relayed to him over the phone. His gaze found Rusch, the aide's poker face giving away nothing— but his shoulders slumping slightly. Finally, he hung up the phone and said, "The polls are just about closed in Washington, Arizona, and California. And CNN's calling it." He waited a beat, then said, "We're in!"
Rusch closed his eyes and sighed relief. Macy took his hands in hers and squeezed. Rusch knew that of everyone on board, his wife was the most proud of him ... with Kelsey a close second. He absorbed the moment, surrounded by those he loved dearly and who loved him, and he realized it didn't get any better than this. He blinked away the tears and found his voice.
"How long till touch down?" Rusch said, forcing the hoarse words from his throat.
"Five or six minutes," Sawyer said. "Big crowd waiting for us."
"Then where's that champagne? Pop the damn cork."
Sawyer snapped his heels together and sprung into a mock salute. "Yes sir, Mr. President."
Macy, seated across from her husband, leaned forward and wiped at his tears with a thumb. She spoke close to his ear: "I guess I'll find out tonight what it's like to sleep with the President of the United States. Not many women can make that claim."
"Probably more than you know," Rusch deadpanned, then planted a kiss on her hand. He leaned back, then blew a kiss to Kelsey as Sawyer ripped the foil from the Dom Perignon. With an audible pop, the cork exploded upward, frothy suds fizzling out of the bottle and crawling over Sawyer's hands like ocean foam. He stepped back to keep the champagne off his Allen Edmonds wingtips, then lifted the bubbly for everyone to see. "To Glendon Rusch, President of the United States!"
Sawyer reached forward to pour Rusch's glass, but the helicopter lurched hard to the right and the bottle flew from his hand. It shattered against a bulkhead, shards and spilled champagne showering the floor.
"What the hell was that?" Rusch shouted, his hands gripping the thick armrests.
But before anyone could venture a guess, a thunderous explosion blew the armored chopper aside like a plastic toy. Sawyer slammed into Washburn and the two men fell in tandem. The Secret Service agent tried to push Sawyer aside, but their tangled legs kept him buried beneath the man's weight.
A bright flash caught the edge of Rusch's peripheral vision. Through the window to his left, the blinding flare of the pulverized escort helicopter's flaming debris accelerated toward him.
"Sweet Jesus!" Rusch instinctively recoiled, bracing for impact.
The wreckage slammed against the VH-3, ripping a hole in the cabin's metal skin. The helicopter rotated out of control in a dizzying elliptical orbit, whipping its occupants about like an amusement park ride. The force dislodged the sprawled Sawyer and flung him into the wall like a rag doll—along with everything else that was not secured.
Glass from the demolished window littered Macy's bleeding face, her head flopping from side to side against the firm, upholstered seatback. "Macy ... honey!" Rusch grabbed her wrist and gave a gentle tug. "Macy!"
She did not respond.
Kelsey. Her voice was barely audible over the wind and rotor noise, which was now deafeningly loud. Rusch turned toward his daughter, whose eyes were flushed with terror. Her thick auburn hair whipped fiercely in the violent wind. Straining against his seatbelt, Rusch reached forward and to his right, across the debris that littered the floor. "Sweetie—take my hand!"
Rusch knew the VH-3 was designed for maximum crash survivability, but logic told him that at five thousand feet, human flesh and bones in a free-falling metal coffin faced longer odds than he wanted to admit. What's more, there were only two crashworthy seats. And he and his wife occupied both of them.
Washburn's black suit jacket flapped furiously against his face as he wrapped a bloody arm around the adjacent bulkhead, desperately trying to right himself.
Despite numerous attempts, Rusch could not get hold of Kelsey's hand. He turned back to his wife, whose neck and shoulders were visibly soaked with blood.
"Macy, can you hear me? Answer me!"
Other than involuntary jostling, she did not move. He again twisted toward Kelsey and stretched as far as he could, but he still could not reach her. Waves of nausea began racking his intestines. He fought the urge to vomit as he reached down to his seatbelt and struggled with the buckle. But the stress of the moment—or the violent movement of the helicopter—made the simple task of releasing the clasp instantly complex.
Washburn was suddenly in front of him. "Do not remove your seatbelt, sir!"
"Her belt's secure," Washburn shouted over the din. "She's fine." Washburn grabbed hold of the two arms of Rusch's chair to keep himself from tumbling out the gaping hole in the side of the cabin. His face was inches from the president-elect's.
"Get me out of this damn seatbelt, Sam." Rusch continued to struggle with the latch. "Now!"
"My orders are to ensure your safety—"
The chopper lurched again, and a cold flash of air blasted against Rusch's face. The rotor blades roared louder, then the cabin went black. A red emergency light snapped on, but in the dizzying spin, Rusch could not steady his vision long enough to make out what was happening. One thing was clear, though: Washburn was no longer in front of him.
In the dim light, Rusch could barely see the outline of Macy's still body. Uncontrolled grief struck him in the chest like a powerful blow, evacuating his breath like a vacuum. As he turned toward Kelsey, fire exploded into the cabin. Intense heat seared his cheeks. He instinctively threw his hands up to shield his face, a pain unlike anything he'd ever experienced enveloping his fingers and arms.
Flames sprouted all around him, licking at the spilled champagne along the floor.
Rusch saw Washburn in the fire's flaring light, his feet suddenly ablaze. The Secret Service agent stumbled backwards as if practicing an awkward dance step, arms flailing the dead air. And before the scream could leave his throat, he was gone, sucked through the jagged opening that used to be the cabin wall.
The rumble of another blast rocked the helicopter. Angry flames devoured the interior. Like a runaway elevator, the craft was suddenly free-falling, and Rusch once again reached for his daughter's hand. But she wasn't there.
Her seat—along with that section of the bulkhead—was gone.
A MAN DRESSED IN A BLACK leather jacket sat on a motorcycle, its muffled engine purring quietly. Somewhere off in his thoughts, Alpha Zulu was aware that the surrounding brush and field straw could ignite against the searing heat of his bike's exhaust pipes. But none of that mattered. At this point, nothing would sully their plans. They were well past the point of turning back.
Zulu checked his chronograph, then strapped a panoramic night vision device over his eyes. Seconds later, he located his target. The chopper was rocking from side to side and flying erratically, spinning uncontrollably as it fell from the heavens. He yanked the light amplification unit away just as a white flash brightened the sky.
Zulu rooted a tracking device from his pocket and followed a blinking red light as it coursed the grid.
"Acquired the target," he said into his helmet-mounted encrypted two-way radio.
"Copy that," came the response.
The man seated behind him with his Timberlands curled over the rear footrests tapped him on his right shoulder. Time to go.
Zulu kicked the motorcycle into first gear as the VH-3 dropped from the lifeless night sky like a shot pheasant—a fiery, dying hulk heading for its final resting place.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Washington Field Office – WFO 601 4th Street NW Washington, D.C.
11:02 PM EST
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Aaron Uziel drummed his fingers on the armrest of his boss's guest chair. The office was finished with tan paisley wallpaper, walnut furniture, and a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall entertainment cabinet. Playing across a forty-six-inch LCD television was ABC News Election Center, their pundits and anchors debating the latest presidential precinct tallies.
Uziel—"Uzi" to his colleagues and friends—stared vacantly at the images scrolling across the screen. A few moments earlier he had pulled his tired body out of the chair to lower the volume so he didn't have to listen to the repetitive drone of newscasters and so-called experts spinning their party's take on the evening's results.
He ran the back of his hand across the black stubble that had accumulated on his face since this morning. His wife had always said it gave him a rugged look, and with the sharp, pleasing angles of his face, he had to agree. He never had difficulty getting a date as a young teen, and the lingering stares he got as his face and lean body matured only numbed him to all the attention. But in the past several years, his face had lost its boyish good looks. Lines crisscrossed his forehead like roads on a street map. Stress lines were one thing: live long enough in today's type-A lifestyle and they accumulated like larvae on a corpse. But his were pain lines, formed from grief and deep-seated sadness ... constant reminders of past tragedy. As if Uzi needed physical reminders. The emotional torment was enough, and it never gave him much of a reprieve.
The door swung open and Marshall Shepard lumbered in. Despite the relentless pressure that accompanied the assistant special agent-in-charge position, Shepard's ebony skin was the polar opposite of Uzi's: nearly wrinkle-free. His graying temples and creeping hairline were the sole overt signs of middle age. Shepard paused in front of his desk chair and removed his suit coat with a flourish, then draped it over the seatback.
"Well," Shepard said, "you pulled a real freakin' doozie this time, Uzi."
Uzi rubbed at his dark eyes with a finger. "Are you trying to be funny, or do you always rhyme this late at night?"
Shepard sat down heavily. The large chocolate brown leather chair groaned. "Serious heat's coming your way."
"I'm surprised it took this long."
Shepard massaged his temples. "My life just got a whole lot more complicated. Thanks a freakin' bunch."
"Look," Uzi said, shifting in his chair and pulling himself upright. "I did what I thought was right. Osborn— What he did was dangerous. It wasn't a little thing, Shep, it was big-time shit. And you know it. Could've gotten innocent people killed. It wasn't the first time."
Shepard waved a hand. "Yeah, I know the speech—"
"It's not a speech." Uzi was leaning forward now, his brow hard. "I did what was right, what I hope every agent would do if he or she was faced with the same situation." He paused, leaned back, then continued. "It was the right thing to do. I get paid to do a job and I did it."
"You don't get paid to rat out a colleague."
Uzi snorted. "You think I should've kept my mouth shut?"
Shepard looked away. "From my seat, you did the right thing. I just wish ... I just wish it never happened. It's bad all around."
Uzi gave a conciliatory nod.
"I'm leaving him on the job. For now. You'll have to deal with that."
"Your decision. You're the boss."
Shepard shook his head. "You know I'd go to the end of the Earth for you, man. But some things I can't protect you from."
Uzi's eyes narrowed. "I don't need your protection. I can take care of myself."
Shepard rested two beefy elbows on his desk. "That's never been an issue. But this is different. It's not a criminal with a gun or a terrorist with a bomb ... This is an enemy different from anything you've ever dealt with. The enemy's your own unit, and they're pissed as hell. They may never forgive you. You've gotta be prepared for that. That's a lot to deal with, on top of, well ... you know."
"Not like I'll ever forget."
Shepard looked down. A moment of silence passed, then he asked, "And that brings me to why I wanted to meet with you. Whatever happened with that shrink?"
Uzi let his eyes wander to the television screen. "Stupid talking heads. None of 'em predicted such a close election. Not one of them."
"You never saw her, did you?"
Uzi tilted his head. "President Glendon Rusch. Has a ring to it, don't you think?"
"It'd be a good idea, especially because of what's happened. The shrink can help. Your plate's been full, and this Osborn thing's only going to make it ... fuller."
Uzi tore his gaze from the television. "Thanks for the cliché. And for the advice."
"Here's the thing, Uzi. It's not advice. Not this time. It's mandatory. If you want to remain in Washington. If you don't, then it'll be up to your new ASAC to determine what should be done."
Uzi's eyes widened. "Shep, don't do this to me—"
"Your macho side doesn't want to spill your guts to a woman, fine. You want someone closer to home, fine. No excuses this time."
"You should be thanking me for circumventing an EAP," Shepard said, referring to the FBI's in-house Employee Assistance Program that required a counselor to talk with an agent before sending him to a psychiatrist. "Besides, you did it to yourself. I'm just trying to keep my people happy. And right now they're not very happy. You need to get some help and I need to keep things under control. Control's important right now. For your sake."
Uzi bit his lower lip.
"I've got someone else for you to see."
"You'd really transfer me if I don't see a shrink?"
"And by see him, I mean actually go. Talk to him, work with him. For as long as he sees fit."
"What about what I think?"
"I've cut you a lot of slack the past few years, Uzi. I've given you a lot of leeway in how you run your unit. Time's come for you to do it my way."
Uzi looked away.
"Way I see it, you ratted out Osborn because what he did struck too close to home. He reminds you of yourself. That's it, isn't it?"
Excerpted from Hard Target by Alan Jacobson. Copyright © 2012 Alan Jacobson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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