By David Baldacci
Copyright © 2003
Columbus Rose, Ltd.
All right reserved.
EIGHT YEARS LATER
The motorcade streamed into the tree-shaded parking lot, where it
disgorged numerous people who looked hot, tired and genuinely
unhappy. The miniature army marched toward the ugly white brick
building. The structure had been many things in its time and
currently housed a decrepit funeral home that was thriving solely
because there was no other such facility within thirty miles and the
dead, of course, had to go somewhere. Appropriately somber gentlemen
in black suits stood next to hearses of the same color. A few
bereaved trickled out the door, sobbing quietly into handkerchiefs.
An old man in a tattered suit that was too large for him and wearing
a battered, oily Stetson sat on a bench outside the front entrance,
whittling. It was just that sort of a place, rural to the hilt,
stock car racing and bluegrass ballads forever.
The old fellow looked up curiously as the procession passed by with
a tall, distinguished-looking man ceremoniously in the middle. The
elderly gent just shook his head and grinned at this spectacle,
showing the few tobacco-stained teeth he had left. Then he took a
nip of refreshment from a flask pulled from his pocket and returned
to his artful wood carving.
The woman, in her early thirties and dressed in a black pantsuit,
was in step behind the tall man. In the past her heavy pistol in the
belt holster had scraped uncomfortably against her side, causing a
scab. As a solution she'd sewn an extra layer of cloth into her
blouses at that spot and learned to live with any lingering
irritation. She'd overheard some of her men joke that all female
agents should wear double shoulder holsters because it gave them a
buxom look without expensive breast enhancement. Yes, testosterone
was alive and well in her world.
Secret Service agent Michelle Maxwell was on the extreme fast track.
She was not yet at the White House detail, guarding the president of
the United States, but she was close. Barely nine years in the
Service, and she was already a protection detail leader. Most agents
spent a decade in the field doing investigative work before even
graduating to protection detail as shift agents, yet Michelle
Maxwell was used to getting to places before other folks.
This was her big preview before almost certain reassignment to the
White House, and she was worried. This was an unscheduled stop, and
that meant no advance team and limited backup. Yet because it was a
last-minute change in plan, the plus side was no one could know they
were going to be there.
They reached the entrance, and Michelle put a firm hand on the tall
man's arm and told him to wait while they scoped things out. The
place was quiet, smelled of death and despair in quiet pockets of
misery centered on coffins in each of the viewing rooms. She posted
agents at various key points along the man's path: "giving feet" as
it was called in Service parlance. Properly done, the simple act of
having a professional with a gun and communication capability
standing in a doorway could work wonders.
She spoke into her walkie-talkie, and the tall man, John Bruno, was
brought in. She led him down the hallway as gazes from the viewing
rooms wandered to them. A politician and his entourage on the
campaign trail were like a herd of elephants: they could travel
nowhere lightly. They stomped the earth until it hurt with the
weight of the guards, chiefs of staff, spokespersons, speechwriters,
publicity folks, gofers and others. It was a spectacle that if it
didn't make you laugh would at least cause you considerable worry
about the future of the country.
John Bruno was running for the office of president of the United
States, and he had absolutely no chance of winning. Looking far
younger than his fifty-six years, he was an independent candidate
who'd used the support of a small but strident percentage of the
electorate fed up with just about everything mainstream to qualify
for each state's national ballot. Thus, he'd been given Secret
Service protection, though not at the staffing level of a bona fide
contender. It was Michelle Maxwell's job to keep him alive until the
election. She was counting the days.
Bruno was a former iron-balls prosecutor, and he'd made a great
number of enemies, only some of whom were currently behind bars. His
political planks were fairly simple. He'd tell you he wanted
government off the backs of the people and free enterprise to rule.
As for the poor and weak, those not up to the task of unfettered
competition, well, in all other species the weak died and the strong
prevailed, and why should it be any different for us? Largely
because of that position, the man had no chance of winning. Although
America loved its tough guys, they weren't ready to vote for leaders
who exhibited no compassion for the downtrodden and miserable, for
on any given day they might constitute a majority.
The trouble started when Bruno entered the room trailed by his chief
of staff, two aides, Michelle and three of her men. The widow
sitting in front of her husband's coffin looked up sharply. Michelle
couldn't see her expression through the veil the woman was wearing
but assumed her look was one of surprise at seeing this herd of
interlopers invading hallowed ground. The old woman got up and
retreated to a corner, visibly shaking.
The candidate whirled on Michelle. "He was a dear friend of mine,"
Bruno snapped, "and I am not going to parade in with an army. Get
out," he added tersely.
"I'll stay," she fired back. "Just me." He shook his head. They'd
had many such standoffs. He knew that his candidacy was a hopeless
long shot, and that just made him try even harder. The pace had been
brutal, the protection logistics a nightmare.
"No, this is private!" he growled. Bruno looked over at the
quivering woman in the corner. "My God, you're scaring her to death.
This is repugnant."
Michelle went back one more time to the well. He refused yet again,
leading them all out of the room, berating them as he did. What the
hell could happen to him in a funeral home? Was the eighty-year-old
widow going to jump him? Was the dead man going to come back to
life? Michelle sensed that her protectee was really upset because
she was costing him valuable campaign time. Yet it wasn't her idea
to come here. However, Bruno was in no mood to hear that.
No chance to win, and the man acted like he was king of the hill. Of
course, on election day the voters, including Michelle, would kick
his butt right out the door.
As a compromise Michelle asked for two minutes to sweep the room.
This was granted, and her men moved quickly to do so while she
silently fumed, telling herself that she had to save her ammo for
the really important battles.
Her men came out 120 seconds later and reported everything okay.
Only one door in and out. No windows. Old lady and dead guy the only
occupants. It was cool. Not perfect, but okay. Michelle nodded at
her candidate. Bruno could have his private face time, and then they
could get out of here.
Inside the viewing room, Bruno closed the door behind him and walked
over to the open coffin. There was another coffin against the far
wall; it was also open, but empty. The deceased's coffin was resting
on a raised platform with a white skirting that was surrounded
waist-high with an assortment of beautiful flowers. Bruno paid his
respects to the body lying there, murmuring, "So long, Bill," as he
turned to the widow, who'd returned to her chair. He knelt in front
of her, gently held one of her hands.
"I'm so sorry, Mildred, so very sorry. He was a good man." The
bereaved looked up at him from behind the veil, smiled and then
looked down again. Bruno's expression changed and he looked around,
though the only other occupant of the room was in no condition to
eavesdrop. "Now, you mentioned something else you wanted to talk
about. In private."
"Yes," the widow said in a very low voice. "I'm afraid I don't have
much time, Mildred. What is it?" In answer she placed a hand on his
cheek, and then her fingers touched his neck. Bruno grimaced as he
felt the sharp prick against his skin, and then he slipped to the
Excerpted from Split Second
by David Baldacci
Copyright © 2003 by Columbus Rose, Ltd..
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.