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By JOHN GILSTRAP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 John Gilstrap, Inc.
All rights reserved.
In all his seventeen years with the United States Secret Service, Special Agent Jason Knapp had never felt this out of place, this exposed. The January chill combined with his jumpy nerves to create a sense of dread that rendered every noise too loud, every odor too intense.
Rendered the night far too dark.
With his SIG Sauer P229 on his hip, and an MP5 submachine gun slung under his arm—not to mention his five teammates on Cowgirl's protection detail—he couldn't imagine a scenario that might get away from them, but sometimes you get that niggling voice in the back of your head that tells you that things aren't right. Years of experience had taught Knapp to listen to that voice when it spoke.
Oh, that Mrs. Darmond would learn to listen to her protection detail. Oh, that she would listen to anyone.
While he himself rarely visited the White House residence, stories abounded among his colleagues that Cowgirl and Champion fought like banshees once the doors were closed. She never seemed to get the fact that image mattered to presidents, and that First Ladies had a responsibility to show a certain decorum.
Clearly, she didn't care.
These late-night party jaunts were becoming more and more routine, and Knapp was getting sick of them. He understood that she rejected the traditional role of First Lady, and he got that despite her renown she wanted to have some semblance of a normal life, but the steadily increasing risks she took were flat-out irresponsible.
Tonight was the worst of the lot.
It was one thing to dash out to a bar on the spur of the moment with a reduced protection detail—first spouses and first children had done that for decades—but to insist on a place like the Wild Times bar in Southeast DC was a step too far. It was five steps too far.
Great disguise notwithstanding, Cowgirl was a white lady in very dark part of town. And it was nearly one in the morning. Throw in all those bodies floating in Lake Michigan from the as yet unresolved East-West Airlines explosion last week, and you had a recipe for disaster.
Knapp stood outside the main entrance to the club, shifting from foot to foot to ward away the cold. Charlie Robinson flanked the other side of the door, and together they looked like the plain-clothed version of the toy soldiers that welcomed children to the FAO Schwarz toy store in Manhattan. He felt at least that conspicuous.
Twenty feet away, Cowgirl's chariot, an armored Suburban, idled in the handicapped space at the curb, its tailpipe adding a cloud of condensation to the night. Inside the chariot, Gene Tomkin sat behind the wheel, no doubt reveling in the warmth of the cab. Bill Lansing enjoyed similar bragging rights in the follow car that waited in the alley behind the bar.
Typical of OTR movements—off the record—the detail had chosen silver Suburbans instead of the black ones that were so ubiquitous to official Washington, in hopes of drawing less attention to themselves. They'd driven here just like any other traffic, obeying stoplights and using turn signals the whole way. On paper that meant that you remained unnoticed.
But a Suburban was a Suburban, and if you looked hard enough you could see the emergency lights behind the windows and the grille. Throw in the well-dressed white guys standing like toy soldiers, and they might as well have been holding flashing signs.
In these days of Twitter and Facebook, when rumors traveled at the speed of light, all it would take for this calm night to turn to shit would be for somebody to connect some very obvious dots. While the good citizens of the District of Columbia had more or less unanimously cast their votes to sweep Champion into office, they'd since turned against him. It didn't stretch Knapp's imagination even a little to envision a spontaneous protest.
Then again, Cowgirl was such a media magnet that he could just as easily envision a spontaneous TMZ feeding frenzy. Neither option was more attractive than the other in this neighborhood.
The Wild Times was doing a hell of a business. The main act on the stage was a rapper of considerable local fame—or maybe he was a hip-hopper (how do you tell the difference?)—and he was drawing hundreds of twentysomething kids. Within the last twenty minutes, the pace of arrivals had picked up—and almost nobody was leaving.
From a tactical perspective, the two agents inside with Cowgirl—Peter Campbell and Dusty Binks, the detail supervisor—must have been enduring the tortures of the damned. In an alternate world where the First Lady might have given a shit, no one would have been allowed to touch the protectee, but in a nightclub situation, where the headliner's fans paid good money to press closer to the stage, preventing personal contact became nearly impossible.
For the most part, the arriving revelers projected a pretty benign aura. It was the nature of young men to swagger in the presence of their girlfriends, and with that came a certain tough-guy gait, but over the years Knapp had learned to trust his ability to read the real thing from the imitation. Over the course of the past hour, his warning bells hadn't rung even once.
Until right now.
A clutch of four guys approached from the north, and everything about them screamed malevolence. It wasn't just the gangsta gait and the gangsta clothes. In the case of the leader in particular, it was the eyes. Knapp could see the glare from twenty feet away. This guy wanted people to be afraid of him.
"Do you see this?" he asked Robinson without moving his eyes from the threat.
Robinson took up a position on Knapp's right. "Handle it carefully," he warned. More than a few careers had been wrecked by YouTube videos of white cops challenging black citizens.
As the kids closed to within a dozen feet, Knapp stepped forward. "Good evening, gentlemen," he said. "You know, it's pretty crowded inside."
"The hell outta my way," the leader said. He started to push past, but Knapp body-blocked him. No hands, no violence. He just physically blocked their path.
"Look at the vehicle," Knapp said, nodding to the Suburban. "Take a real close look."
Their heads turned in unison, and they seemed to get it at the same instant.
"If any of you are armed, this club is exactly the last place you want to be right now. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"What?" the leader said. "Is it like the president or something?"
Knapp ignored the question. "Here are your choices, gentlemen. You can go someplace else, or you can submit to a search right here on the street. If I find a firearm on any of you, I'll arrest you all, and your mamas won't see their boys for about fifteen years. Which way do you want to go?"
Simple, respectful, and face-saving.
"Come on, Antoine," one of them said. "This place sucks anyway."
Antoine held Knapp's gaze for just long enough to communicate his lack of fear. Then he walked away, taking his friends with him.
"Nicely done, Agent Knapp," Robinson said.
They returned to their posts. "Every time we do one of these late-night OTRs, I'm amazed by the number of people who keep vampire hours. Don't these kids have jobs to wake up for?"
Robinson chuckled. "I figure they all drive buses or hazmat trucks."
With the Antoine non-confrontation behind them, Knapp told himself to relax, but in the world of gang-bangers, you always had to be on your toes for the retaliatory strike. He couldn't imagine that Antoine and his crew would be in the mood to take on federal agents, but you never knew.
He just wanted to get the hell out of here.
"Look left," Robinson said.
Half a block away, a scrawny, filthy little man was doing his best to navigate a shopping cart around the corner to join their little slice of the world. The cart overflowed with blankets and assorted stuff—the totality of his worldly possessions, Knapp imagined. Aged somewhere between thirty and eighty, this guy had the look of a man who'd been homeless for decades. There's a hunched movement to the chronically homeless that spoke of a departure of all hope. It would be heartbreaking if they didn't smell so bad.
"If Cowgirl sees him, you know she'll offer him a ride," Robinson quipped.
Knapp laughed. "And Champion will give him a job. Couldn't do worse than some of his other appointments." Knapp didn't share the first family's attraction to the downtrodden, but he admired it. It was the one passion of the president's that seemed to come from an honest place.
Knapp didn't want to take action against this wretched guy, but if he got too close, he'd have to do something. Though heroic to socialists and poets, the preponderance of homeless folks were, in Knapp's experience, nut jobs—harmless at the surface, but inherently unstable. They posed a hazard that needed to be managed.
He felt genuine relief when the guy parked himself on a sidewalk grate and started to set up camp.
Knapp's earpiece popped as somebody broke squelch on the radio. "Lansing, Binks. Bring the follow car to the front. Cowgirl's moving in about three."
"Thank God," Knapp said aloud but off the air. Finally.
He and Robinson shifted from their positions flanking the doors of the Wild Times to new positions flanking the doors to Cowgirl's chariot. He double-checked to make sure that his coat was open and his weapon available. A scan of the sidewalk showed more of what they'd been seeing all night.
When the follow car appeared from the end of the block and pulled in behind the chariot, Knapp brought his left hand to his mouth and pressed the button on his wrist mike. "Binks, Knapp," he said. "We're set outside."
"Cowgirl is moving now."
This was it, the moment of greatest vulnerability. Ask Squeaky Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, or John Hinckley. These few seconds when the protectee is exposed are the moments of opportunity for suicidal bad guys to take their best shot.
Robinson pulled open the Suburban's door and cheated his body forward to scan for threats from that end of the street, and Knapp cheated to the rear to scan the direction of the homeless guy and the real estate beyond him. He noted with some unease that the guy was paying attention in a way that he hadn't before. His eyes seemed somehow sharper.
Knapp's inner alarm clanged.
Ahead and to his left, the double doors swung out, revealing a clearly unhappy Cowgirl, who seemed to be resisting her departure. She wasn't quite yelling yet, but assuming that past was precedent, the yelling would come soon.
Movement to his right brought Knapp's attention back around to the homeless man, who suddenly looked less homeless as he shot to his feet and hurled something at the chariot.
Knapp fought the urge to intercept the throw, and instead drew his sidearm as he shouted, "Grenade!"
He'd just leveled his sights on the attacker when an explosion ripped the chariot apart from the inside, the pressure wave rattling his brain and shoving him face-first onto the concrete. He didn't know if he'd fired a shot, but if he had, it missed, because the homeless guy was still standing.
He'd produced a submachine gun from somewhere—a P90, Knapp thought, but he wasn't sure—and he was going to town, blasting the night on full-auto.
Behind him, he knew that Campbell and Binks would be shielding Cowgirl with their bodies as they hustled her toward the follow car. In his ear, he heard Lansing shouting, "Shots fired! Shots fired! Agents down!"
Once Knapp found his balance, he rolled to a knee and fired three bullets at the attacker's center of mass. The man remained unfazed and focused, shooting steadily at the First Lady.
Body armor, Knapp thought. He took aim at the attacker's head and fired three more times. The attacker collapsed.
But the shooting continued, seemingly from every compass point. Had passersby joined the fight? What the hell—
Binks and Campbell were still ten feet from the follow car when head shots killed them both within a second of each other. They collapsed to the street, bringing Cowgirl with them. She curled into a fetal ball and started to scream.
Past her, and over her head, bullets raked the doors of the follow car. Going that way was no longer an option.
Keeping low, Knapp let his SIG drop to the pavement as he reached for his slung MP5. This wasn't time for aimed shots; it was time for covering fire. At this moment, the First Lady of the United States was far more important than any other innocents in the crowd. He held the weapon as a pistol in his left hand as he raked the direction he thought the new shots were coming from.
With his right hand, he grabbed Cowgirl by the neck of her coat and pulled. "Back into the club!" he commanded as he draped his body over hers.
To others it might have looked as though she was carrying him on her back as he hustled her toward the front doors of the club, past the burning chariot and around the body of Charlie Robinson, who'd been torn apart by the blast.
Knapp was still five steps away when searing heat tore through his midsection, driving the breath from his lungs and making him stagger.
He'd taken that bullet for Cowgirl. He'd done his job. Now he just had to finish it.
He had to get her inside.
The next two bullets took him in the hip and the elbow.
He was done, and he knew it.
"Inside!" he yelled as he pushed the First Lady as hard as he could.
He saw her step through the doors the instant before a bullet sheared his throat.
Jonathan Grave waited at the Learjet's door while the stairway deployed. When it was down and locked, he centered his rucksack between his shoulders with a shrug and hefted the two green duffels that contained rifles and electronic gear. He turned his head to the right, where he could see Boxers, his longtime friend and cohort, in the cockpit, shutting things down.
"Hey, Box, your ruck and the other duffels are here on the floor."
"Got it," Boxers said without looking. "Be sure to leave the heaviest ones for me. I don't want you hurting your little self."
Jonathan grinned. "I always do." And in fact, he always did. A couple of inches shy of seven feet tall with a girth that made linebackers look puny, Boxers was easily the strongest man Jonathan had ever known. Big Guy always did the heavy lifting.
As Jonathan made his way down the narrow stairs onto the tarmac, it occurred to him that this would be the first time in a long while that he wouldn't need to spend twelve hours after an 0300 mission cleaning weapons and replacing gun barrels and receivers. The mission had been a quick one, and surprisingly uncomplicated. They hadn't even fired a shot.
As a rule, the covert side of Security Solutions didn't get involved with recovering errant young people from the clutches of cults, but this case had had the feel of a kidnapping. At least, that's what the family had thought, though the FBI disagreed.
The kid's father—Daddy Lottabucks—contacted Jonathan through the usual combination of cutouts and fake e-mail addresses, and was anxious to pay the gate rate for Jonathan's services. In the end, when Jonathan and Boxers crashed the door to recover the PC—precious cargo—the cult leader just handed the kid over.
That fact alone—the absence of shooting—helped explain Boxers' fouler-than-usual mood. For the Big Guy, self-actualization had a lot to do with wreaking havoc. It wasn't that he was homicidal—not really—but rather that he enjoyed the ... efficiency of solutions that created fire and noise.
Jonathan waited at the base of the stairs for Boxers. He had to laugh when the Big Guy's massive frame filled the doorway. With his ruck in place and the two duffels in his hands, squeezing through the door took on the elements of a high school physics calculation.
"There's some butter in the galley if you need to slather up," Jonathan quipped.
"My mama's womb had a bigger opening than this," Boxers grumped.
Jonathan let it go. No matter how close the friendship, jokes about men's mothers were eternally off-limits.
"I vote you tell Mannix we're done with his sardine can," the Big Guy said when he joined his boss on the tarmac.
Austin Mannix had thrown in two years' access to his private plane when Jonathan negotiated the fee for this latest job. Given their line of work, it helped to have air service that was traceable to a third party. Commercial aviation options were out of the question. Between the two of them, they carried enough weapons, ammunition, and explosives to repel an invasion. You never knew what might go wrong on even the simplest of ops, so it always paid to be prepared. One man's preparation, though, was a TSA agent's heart attack.
Excerpted from HIGH TREASON by JOHN GILSTRAP. Copyright © 2013 by John Gilstrap, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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