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THE THIRD PERILA Novel
By L. P. Hoffman
Hope Springs MediaCopyright © 2013 L. P. Hoffman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneValley Forge
Saturday, June 23rd
Paige Hays squeezed her husband's hand as she gazed upon the quaint stone house famous for having been Washington's headquarters. "Somehow, I'd envisioned a bigger building," she said. "I mean, for a general destined to be the President of the United States."
"Yes, I would agree it's small by today's standards," Brody answered. "Though I doubt it bothered George Washington. From all accounts, he was a humble man."
"By today's standards," Paige added playfully. Her eyes were fixed upon the thick clouds building in the sky, where brilliant shafts of sunlight broke forth and fanned across Pennsylvania's bucolic landscape.
"Daddy, is this Valley Forge?"
"Yes, son." Brody stooped and tousled his five-year-old's unruly cowlick. "George Washington really slept here."
Paige smiled at her husband, but he had turned his attention to a historical marker. She watched Brody as he absently tapped a finger on the cleft of his chin and read. Despite the premature graying of his light brown hair and the stress lines that marked his face, she still saw the same tall Yale graduate who had captured her heart so many years ago. These days, it was a rare sight to see Brody looking so relaxed.
Connor tugged his father's hand. "Let's go, Daddy. I wanna look inside."
"In a minute, son."
"The camera! I left it in the Land Rover!" Paige sprinted back down the trail toward the parking lot. She found the bag sandwiched between a cooler filled with picnic food and an assortment of Connor's toys. Paige plucked it up and jogged back to her family.
Brody was standing beside the front door of the stone house with his Blackberry in hand.
"For heaven's sake! One of these days, I'm going to throw that thing in the Potomac."
Her husband raised an eyebrow, but his focus remained on the device. "There's a law against destroying government property, you know." Brody finished punching out a quick email message. He slipped the PDA back into its holster and draped his arm across his wife's shoulder. "You should be grateful for such modern conveniences. This Blackberry allows me to enjoy these occasional excursions with my family."
"Where's Connor?" Paige's words came out calm, but her heart began to race.
"He's not with you?" Brody glanced about, cautioning his wife with a look. "Don't overreact."
Fear flashed through Paige's senses. Her throat tightened. "Connor!" She spun around, her eyes keen for any sign of her child.
"He can't be far," Brody said.
Paige's face reddened with anger. "How could you lose him? I was only gone a minute!" She jerked open the front door of Washington's headquarters and called her son's name again.
"I'm in here, Mom."
Relief washed over Paige, but a sick feeling remained. Inside the building, she struggled to calm her nerves.
Brody's strong arms encircled her from behind. "Honey, you've got to stop this," he whispered. "You can't go on like this. It's tearing you up."
Hot tears stung Paige's eyes. "Are you asking me to forget?" She twisted from her husband's embrace and searched his face. "Is that what you're doing, Brody?"
Connor pulled on his mother's arm and pointed toward a room located to the right of the entryway. "Mom, how come they got windows in the doors?"
Paige felt a rush of tenderness for her son and stroked his hairred, the same color as hers. "These are Plexiglas dividers. They're used to keep people from going into these rooms."
"The furniture is old and very fragile," Brody explained. "They don't want little kids poking around in there."
Connor pushed on the Plexiglas as if testing its strength and left behind two faint handprints.
Paige's mood lightened. She offered her husband a conciliatory smile as they lingered outside the office of the nation's first commander-in-chief. "It's almost like George Washington just stepped out for a moment." Paige pointed to his hat, which lay upon a desk strewn with books and papers. "Just think: in this room, Washington steered this great nation!" She glanced at her husband, considering the fact that Brody himself held a unique place in history as the chief economic advisor to the current president. Paige felt a swell of pride.
Connor dashed up a narrow flight of stairs, and the couple hurried after their young son.
Paige glanced around and, realizing they were alone, said, "I expected more tourists."
"The popularity of theme parks has its benefits." Brody leaned down and nuzzled his wife's ear.
A few yards away, Connor pressed his forehead against another Plexiglas partition. "I bet this is General Washington's bedroom."
Paige looked past her little boy "That's right, sweetheart." The room was small and modestly furnished. It had a four-poster bed, a woven rug, and a straight-back chair near the fireplace. Soft light spilled through the French pane window, illuminating the desk beneath it.
"But where did all the other army guys sleep?" the child asked.
Brody motioned toward the window as the sky outside darkened. "The soldiers stayed outside in tents. Some of the men camped on those hillsides."
Connor, having lost interest, turned his attention to three plastic army men that he had retrieved from his pocket.
Paige met Brody's eyes, and she shrugged. "Your son has a longer attention span than most preschoolers." The sound of her husband's Blackberry trilled again, and Paige's heart sank. Not todaynot again! She watched with disapproval as Brody scrolled through an electronic message, punched some numbers, and held the device to his ear.
"This is Hays...." Gone in an instant was Brody's relaxed mannerin its place was a frown. "Yes, I understand. Listen, you're breaking up. I'll call you right back." He cast an apologetic look Paige's way.
She felt her teeth clench. "We've been planning this weekend for months!"
"We'll talk in a few minutes. Right now, I need to make this call." Brody descended the stairs.
Paige bit her lip and struggled to control her mounting frustration.
At her feet, Connor was making little noises like gunfire. "Sweetheart, are you ready to go?"
"No!" he protested. "I like it here. I want to stay for a little while!"
Anger percolated in Paige. The whole day, ruined! Nothis time I will not give in! "Connor, I'll be right back," she said.
Outside, she found Brody pacing back and forth in front of the stone building, the Blackberry pressed against his ear. He was fully engaged in conversation, his mannerisms both animated and serious. A moment later, with shoulders slumped, her husband slid the device back in its holster and turned, surprised to see Paige leaning against the building.
She took one look at her husband's face and knew. "We're heading back to DC, aren't we?"
"I'll make it up to you, I promise."
As far as Paige was concerned, there was nothing more to say except, "I'll get Connor. Raindrops began to fall as she turned back to Washington's headquarters.
Brody caught up to his wife on the second floor. He reached for Paige, but her patience was dangerously thin. She brushed his hand away.
Connor was standing in front of the Plexiglas partition, staring into George Washington's bedroom as if mesmerized. Paige reached for her little boy's hand. "Sweetheart, Daddy's got work to do. I'm afraid that we have to go home."
The child poked his lip into a pout. "No fair! I want to spend a night at the hotel!"
"Some other time," Brody said. "Now, gather up your toys."
"Can't, 'cause I gave them to the giant man."
Paige's maternal antenna shot up. "What man?"
"He was really big and shiny," the boy said, making a sweeping motion. "He can walk through walls, too! But he's not a ghost. He's an angel."
"That's nonsense," Brody said impatiently. "Son, I don't have time for games."
The sound of enthusiastic footsteps rose from the stairwell, and the family turned to see an elderly man ascending. He paused atop the landing, ran a hand down his long white beard, and smiled. His pale blue eyes danced from Brody to Paige and then lit upon the boy, who was yanking insistently upon his father's sleeve.
"But it's true, Daddy," Connor insisted. "The angel asked me for some of my soldiers."
Brody flicked a self-conscious glance toward the visitor, who was now stooping to tie the laces of his hiking boots. The old man raised a bushy eyebrow and said, "When I was a kid, I gave a couple of my favorite marbles to an angel." A puff of laughter blew through his downy beard. "Don't you be thinking I lost my marbles, though, 'cause I offered 'em of my own free will!"
Paige studied the odd character, who wore baggy Bermuda shorts and an oversized Hawaiian shirt.
Connor stared at the traveler. "You look just like our yard gnome."
The old man hooted with laughter as Paige offered an apologetic look.
Brody cleared his throat. "Yes, well. We'd better be going."
A sudden clap of thunder shook the building, followed by buckets of rain that drummed on the ceiling overhead.
"That's a curious sight!" The traveler nodded toward Washington's bedroom window, where rain washed over the glass in glossy sheets. On the sill above the wax-laden desk were three plastic army men, positioned as if looking out upon the deluge.
"Those are Connor's." Paige shook her head in disbelief. "But that's impossible!"
The elderly tourist walked over and inspected the Plexiglas partition. He scratched his head. "Well, there's only one explanation. That angel must have had a good reason to put them there."
Chapter TwoWashington, DC
Thursday, June 28th
Brody watched the president's helicopter bank right around the Washington Monument and head for the White House landing. On either side of the craft, two decoy helicopters split off and circled over the Mall until the commander-in-chief was safely on the ground.
On the South Lawn, the aircraft blades whined to a stop near the courtyard, where Brody and the usual entourage waited.
The helicopter's hatch opened, morphed into a staircase, and Thomas Atwood descended the steps. His salt-and-pepper hair glistened in the sun. He was only 44 years old when he was electedone of the youngest US presidents on record. Atwood had aged visibly in the last few years. He looked more gaunt than lean, and his former youthful energy had flagged since taking office.
At the bottom of the steps, President Atwood saluted a marine and then made eye contact with his personal secretary, Jane Hennings.
"Welcome back, sir." With a stack of memos in hand, she moved forward briskly. "How was Camp David?"
"Not as restful as it should have been." The president's unibrow heaved in a scowl.
"Sir, I'm sorry that your sabbatical was cut short, but the Secretary of Agriculture felt it was important that you make a showing at this meeting." She consulted an oversized wristwatch and then added officiously, "I'm afraid we don't have much time; the event is nearly underway."
"You can be pretty bossy," Atwood quipped.
Jane looked stunned. "Sir, I assumed that's precisely why you hired me."
The president's thin lips twitched with a ghost of a smile.
Brody and Atwood shared a chuckle as Jane led the charge across the South Lawn like a long-necked swan with her gaggle. The president's personal secretary whisked them through the White House, below the south portico, and then out to his private driveway. There, a limousine sat idling, flanked just as the helicopter had been by two identical decoys.
Jane handed the president the stack of memos.
"How many are expected to attend this American Farm Bureau luncheon?" he asked.
"Around 500 invited guests. And I'm informed that the press has already swarmed L'Enfant Plaza Hotel."
"Another media circus," Atwood muttered, thumbing through the papers. "What's all this?"
"Brody Hays has put together a briefing for you, sir." Jane failed to mention that the chief economic advisor had been up all night working on them.
Atwood settled into the backseat of the limo and motioned to Brody. "Climb in, Hays. I don't see the sense of reading all this myself when the author is standing right in front of me! You can fill me in on the way."
Brody took a seat across from the president and waited patiently as he flipped through a series of photos. Brody knew the images of scorched earth, once fertile ground for dry land farmers.
Atwood seemed affected by the pictures. Finally, he looked up. "Give me the bad news first," he said, as they rolled down 17th Street.
"The Ag Department has a right to be worried, sir," Brody began. "We are heading into the second year of severe droughtwell into the peak growing season, I might add. If this weather pattern continues, I'm afraid the long-term economic forecast will be less than favorable."
"That's all we needanother dust bowl!"
Brody looked down at his hands, conscious of the sweat that dampened his palms. He pondered the fragile economy, already weakened by the disasters that had plagued previous administrations. Now, the biggest suppliers of grain in the nation's heartland were withering away beneath a cloudless sky.
Up ahead, the streets cleared for the presidential motorcade, and people gathered for a glimpse of the nation's leader before he was spirited into the hotel parking garage.
"What's your advice, Brody?"
"Sir, I've outlined some economic strategies in the briefingthough these are only temporary measures designed to buy us some time for further analysis. Currently, I am weighing the cost of various options." Brody paused as the president drummed his fingers impatiently on the armrest. "To be concise, sir, I advise you to address the gravity of the situation, suggest an interim strategy, and pledge further attention to the matter."
Thomas Atwood raked his fingers over his silver temples. His mood grew pensive. "Are you a religious man, Hays?"
Brody shifted as the Secret Service detail opened the armored car door. "Not particularly, sir."
"If you were, I'd ask you to pray for rain." The president stepped from the limousine, leaving behind the photos of North Dakota's cracked and dusty landscape.
* * *
Wednesday, July 4th
It was going to be another scorcher, Nora Meyers had decided. The thermometer next to her door read 84 degrees, and it wasn't even 10:00 AM yet. At least I'm on the shady side of Main Street, she told herself.
Delmont's only police cruiser crept past with its flashers on, a signal that the parade was about to begin.
The mood was festive. Rare these days, Nora thought.
From somewhere out of view, the high school marching band started.
She straightened the red, white, and blue bandana that hid another one of her bad hair days. Nora smiled at a cluster of locals who strolled past and said, "There's room on my porchthe more the merrier!"
A small crowd soon joined her on the steps of the Bargain Bin, and they exchanged friendly banter as they waited for the parade.
"Here it comes! Here it comes!" A little girl pointed and sprang up and down. Other children appeared on cue.
"I'm gonna get the most candy," a round-faced boy boasted.
"Uh-uh!" a little girl challenged.
All heads turned to see an old Rambler station wagon rolling up the street on a set of bald tires. The car was a relic, pocked with rust and body putty. The fender was held in place by duct tape.
Children spilled into the street with their hands spread for offerings. The driver slowed the vehicle to a crawl and leaned his hoary head from the window. "Hi, folks!" A breeze caught his snow-white beard, and it fluttered like a flag.
"We want candy!" the round-faced boy croaked.
The man's cottony eyebrows shot up. "Afraid I don't have any."
The kid's chin jutted, and he eyed the driver skeptically. "Just what kind of a clown are you, anyway?"
The old man braked to a full stop and chuckled. "Been told I resembled a yard gnome, but this is the first time I've been called a clown!" He held up his index finger and said, "Hold onthink I got something you might be interested in." After rustling through a stack of boxes on the car seat, the traveler produced handfuls of little bright orange New Testaments. "The Gideons gave me a whole box of these." The children snatched the Bibles as if they were priceless gems, and even a couple adults stepped forward to receive.
On the far end of Main Street, the band inched its way closer, but the elderly fellow didn't seem to notice. He hung his arm out the car window and motioned toward the porch. "Hey, which one of you is Nora?"
"I am," she said. "How do you know my name?"
His crystal-blue eyes glistened playfully. "I read it on the signNORA'S BARGAIN BIN." The stranger smiled. "Sure is a great town you folks got here. I do believe you've got the friendliest welcoming committee that I've ever run across."
"Then you're not part of the Fourth of July parade?" Nora asked.
Excerpted from THE THIRD PERIL by L. P. Hoffman Copyright © 2013 by L. P. Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of Hope Springs Media. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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