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Following the instant #1 New York Times bestsellers Split Second, Hour Game, and Simple Genius, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell return in David Baldacci's most heart-pounding thriller to date . . .
A daring kidnapping turns a children's birthday party at Camp David, the presidential retreat, into a national security nightmare.
Former Secret Service agents turned private investigators, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell don't want to get involved. But years ago Sean King saved the First Lady's husband, then a senator, from political disaster. Now the president's wife presses Sean and Michelle into a desperate search to rescue a kidnapped child. With Michelle still battling her own demons, the two are pushed to the limit, with forces aligned on all sides against them--and the line between friend and foe impossible to define . . . or defend.
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 5, 1960
Place of Birth:Richmond, VIrginia
Education:B.A. in Political Science, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1982; J.D., University of Virginia, 1986
Read an Excerpt
By David Baldacci
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 David Baldacci
All right reserved.
HER FOOTSTEPS were unhurried. Down the street, making one left, a two-block straightaway, and then a slight right. There was a pause at one intersection, a longer stop at another. Just from habit, really. The radar in her head showed no danger and her pace picked up. There were people around though the hour was late, but they never saw her. She seemed to ease by like a breeze, felt but never seen.
The three-story cinderblock building was right where it had always been, stuck between a high-rise on the left and a concrete shell on the right. There was security of course, but it was basic, not the best. A typical package, it would slow down a journeyman for a few minutes, a pro for much less.
She selected a window in the back of the building instead of breaking in the front door. These entry points were almost never wired. She popped the swivel latch, slid up the window, and wriggled through. The motion detector was handled with ease; she was humming as she did it. Yet it was a nervous hum. She was getting close to it, what she was here for.
And it scared the hell out of the lady. Not that she would ever admit that.
The file cabinet was locked. She cracked a smile.
You’re really making me work here, Horatio.
Five seconds later the drawer slid open. Her fingers skimmed over the file tabs. Alphabetical. Which left her smack in the middle of the pack, something she’d never considered herself to be. Her fingers stopped skipping and curled around the file. It was a thick one; she’d never doubted it would be. She obviously wasn’t a mere ten-page head case. A lot more trees had fallen because of her. She pulled it free and glanced at the copier on the worktable.
Okay, here we go.
Horatio Barnes was her shrink, her mind guru. He’d convinced her to enter a psych hospital a while back. The only mystery that voluntary incarceration had solved was one that did not involve her problems at all. Later, good old Horatio had hypnotized her, taking her back to her childhood, as any shrink worth his sheepskin invariably does. The session apparently had revealed many things. The only problem was that Horatio had decided not to fill her in on what she’d told him. She was here to correct that little oversight.
She slid the pages in the feeder and hit the button. One by one the events of her life whooshed through the heart of the Xerox machine. As each fresh piece of paper was catapulted into the catch bin her heart rate seemed to increase by the same single-digit measure.
She put the original file back in the drawer, popped a rubber band around her copy, and held it in both hands. Constituting only a few pounds, its weight still threatened to sink her right through the floor. Out the same way her boots made a clunking sound as they kissed asphalt. She walked calmly back to her SUV, a breeze again, invisible. Nightlife going on all around here; they never saw her.
She climbed in her ride, revved the engine. She was ready to go. Her hands played over the steering wheel. She wanted to drive, always loved to rip her eight cylinders down some new road to where she didn’t know. Yet looking through the windshield, she didn’t want new, she desperately wanted things to be the way they were. She glanced at the file; saw the name on the first page.
For a moment it didn’t seem to be her. In those pages was someone else’s life, secrets, torments. Issues. The dreaded word. It seemed so innocuous. Issues. Everyone had issues. Yet those six letters had always seemed to define her, breaking her down into some simple formula that still no one seemed capable of understanding.
The SUV idled, kicking carbon into an atmosphere already bloated with it. A few raindrops smacked her windshield. She could see people start to pick up their step as they sensed the approaching downpour. A minute later, it hit. She felt the wind buffet her sturdy SUV. A spear of lightning was followed by a long burp of thunder. The storm’s intensity forecast its brevity. Such violence could not be sustained for long; it used up too much energy far too fast.
She couldn’t help herself. She cut the engine, picked up the pages, ripped off the rubber band, and started to read. General info came first. Birth date, gender, education, and employment. She turned the page. And then another. Nothing she didn’t know already, not surprising considering this was all about her.
On the fifth page of typed notes, her hands began to tremble. The heading was “Childhood—Tennessee.” She swallowed once and then again, but couldn’t clear the dryness. She coughed and then hacked, but that only made it worse. The swells of saliva had solidified in her mouth, just like they had when she’d nearly killed herself on the water rowing to an Olympic silver medal that meant less and less to her with each passing day.
She grabbed a bottle of G2 and poured it down her throat, some of it spilling on the seat and the pages. She cursed, scrubbed at the paper, trying to dry it. And then it tore, nearly in half. This made tears creep to her eyes, she was not sure why. She pulled the rent paper close to her face though her eyesight was perfect. Perfect, but she still couldn’t read the script. She looked out the windshield and couldn’t see anything there either, so hard was the fall of rain. The streets were empty now, the people having scattered at the first bite of water bent nearly horizontal by the wind.
She looked back at the pages but there was nothing there either. The words were there of course, but she couldn’t see them.
“You can do this, Michelle. You can handle this.” Her words were low, sounded forced, hollow.
“Childhood, Tennessee,” she began. She was six years old again and living in Tennessee with her mother and father. Her dad was a police officer on the way up; her mom, was, well, her mom. Her four older brothers had grown and gone. It was just little Michelle left at home. With them.
She was doing fine now. The words were clear, her memories also crystallizing, as she crept back to that isolated wedge of personal history. When she turned the page and her gaze flickered over the date on the top it was as though the lightning outside had somehow grounded right into her. A billion volts of pain, a shriek of anguish you could actually see, and feel, as it pierced her.
She looked out the window, she didn’t know why. The streets were still empty; the rain now racing to earth so hard the drops seemed to be connected, like trillions of strings of beads.
Yet as she squinted through the downpour she saw that the streets weren’t empty. The tall man stood there, no umbrella, no overcoat. He was soaked right through, his shirt and pants melted to his skin. He stared at her and she did the same right back. There was not fear or hatred or sympathy in his look as he eyed her through the walls of water. It was, she finally concluded, an underlying sadness that easily matched her own despair.
She turned the key, put the SUV in drive, and hit the gas. As she raced past, she glanced at him as another thrust of lightning cracked and briefly made night into day. Both their images seemed solidified in that blast of energy, each of their gazes frozen onto the other.
Sean King never attempted to speak and didn’t try and stop her as she roared by. He just stood there, his waterlogged hair in his face, yet his eyes as big and invasive as ever she’d seen them. They frightened her. They seemed to want to pull her soul right out of her.
An instant later he was gone as she turned the corner and slowed. Her window came down. The bundle of pages was hurled out, landing squarely in a Dumpster.
A moment later her SUV was lost in the punishing face of the storm.
BIRTHDAY BALLOONS and submachine guns. Elegant forks digging into creamy goodies while toughened fingers coiled around curved metal trigger guards. Gleeful laughter as gifts were unwrapped floated into the air alongside the menacing thump-thump of an arriving chopper’s downward prop wash.
The facility was officially designated by the Defense Department as Naval Support Facility Thurmont, yet most Americans knew it as Camp David. Under either name, it was not a typical venue for a preteen’s birthday party. A former recreation camp built by the WPA during the Great Depression, it was turned into the presidential retreat and named the U.S.S. Shangri-La by FDR, because it was essentially replacing the presidential yacht. It had acquired its current and far less exotic moniker from Dwight Eisenhower, who named it after his grandson.
The hundred-and-thirty-acre property was rustic and had many outdoor pursuits, including tennis courts, hiking trails, and exactly one practice hole for presidential golfers. The birthday party was in the bowling center. A dozen kids were in attendance along with appropriate chaperones. They were all understandably excited about being on hallowed ground where the likes of Kennedy and Reagan had trod.
The chief chaperone and planner of the event was Jane Cox. It was a role she was accustomed to because Jane Cox was married to Dan Cox, also known as “Wolfman,” which made her the First Lady of the United States. It was a role she handled with charm, dignity, and the necessary elements of both humor and cunning. While it was true that the president of the United States was the world’s ultimate juggler of tasks, it was also a fact that the First Lady, traditionally, was no slouch in that department either.
For the record, she bowled a ninety-seven without gutter bumpers while wearing patriotic red, white, and blue bowling shoes. She clamped her shoulder-length brown hair back into a ponytail and carried out the cake herself. She led the singing of “Happy Birthday” for her niece, Willa Dutton. Willa was small for her age, with dark hair. She was a bit shy but immensely bright and wonderfully engaging when one got to know her. Though she would never admit it publicly of course, Willa was Jane’s favorite niece.
The First Lady didn’t eat any cake; Jane was watching her figure since the rest of the country, and indeed the world, was too. She’d put on a few pounds since entering the White House. And a few pounds after that on the hell-on-a-plane they called the reelection campaign her husband was currently engaged in. She was five-eight in flats, tall enough that her clothes hung well on her. Her husband was an inch shy of six feet and thus she never wore heels high enough to make him look shorter by comparison. Perception did matter and people liked their leaders taller and more robust than the rest of the population.
Her face was in decent shape, she thought, as she snatched a look in a mirror. It held the marks and creases of a woman who’d given birth multiple times and endured many political races. No human being could emerge unblemished after that. Whatever frailty you possessed the other side would find and stick a crowbar in to lever every useful scrap out. The press still referred to her as attractive. Some went out on a limb and described her as possessing movie-star good looks. Maybe once, she knew, but not anymore. She was definitely in the “character actress” stage of her career now. Still, she had progressed a long way from the days when firm cheekbones and a firmer backside were high on her list of priorities.
As the party continued, Jane would occasionally glance out the window as serious-looking Marines marched by on patrol, weapons at the ready. The Secret Service had of course traveled up here with her, but the Navy officially ran Camp David. Thus all personnel, from the carpenters to the groundskeepers, were sailors. And the bulk of the security duties fell to the permanent barracks of Marines deployed here. In truth, Camp David was better protected than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, though you wouldn’t find many who would admit that on the record.
Security wasn’t uppermost in Jane’s mind as she watched in delight while Willa blew out the dozen candles on her two-tier cake and then helped hand out slices. Jane moved forward and hugged Willa’s mother, Pam Dutton, who was tall and thin with curly red hair.
“She looks happy, doesn’t she?” said Jane to Pam.
“Always happy around her aunt Jane,” replied Pam, patting her sister-in-law’s back affectionately. As the two women stepped apart Pam said, “I can’t thank you enough for letting us have the party here. I know it’s not, well, it’s not the norm, what with Dan, I mean the president not even being here.”
Not being a blood relation, Pam still found it uncomfortable calling her brother-in-law by his first name, whereas the president’s siblings, and Jane herself, often called him Danny.
Jane smiled. “The law provides for joint ownership of all federal property between the president and the First Lady. And just so you know, I still balance our personal checkbook. Danny’s not that good with numbers.”
Pam said, “It was still very thoughtful.” She looked at her daughter. “Next year she’s a teenager. My oldest a teenager, hard to believe.”
Pam had three children. Willa, John, who was ten, and Colleen, seven. Jane also had three children, but all of them were older. The youngest was a nineteen-year-old son in college and her daughter was a nurse at a hospital in Atlanta. In between was another young man still trying to figure out what to do with his life.
The Coxes had had their family early. Jane was still only forty-eight while her husband had just celebrated his fiftieth.
Jane said, “Based on my own experience, boys will mess with your heart and girls with your head.”
“I’m not sure my head’s ready for Willa.”
“Keep the lines of communication open. Know who her friends are. Gently insert yourself into everything that’s going on around her but pick your battles cautiously. Sometimes she’ll pull back. That’s only natural, but once you’ve laid the ground rules it’ll be okay. She’s very intelligent. She’ll get it pretty quickly. She’ll be glad of the interest.”
“Sounds like good advice, Jane. I can always count on you.”
“I’m sorry Tuck couldn’t make it.”
“He’s supposed to be back tomorrow. You know your brother.”
She shot an anxious glance at Pam. “It’ll be okay. Trust me.”
“Sure, right,” the woman said quietly, her gaze on happy Willa.
As Pam walked off, Jane focused on Willa. The girl was a curious mix of maturity coupled with frequent flashes of the preteen she still was. She could write better than some adults and discourse on subjects that would befuddle many folks far her senior. And she possessed a curiosity about things that was not limited to issues common to her age group. Yet if one watched her, one would see that she giggled impulsively, used “like” and “wow” liberally, and was just starting to discover boys with impulses of both disgust and attraction typical of the preadolescent girl. That reaction to the opposite sex would not change much when Willa became an adult, Jane well knew. Except the stakes would be far higher.
The party ended, goodbyes said. Jane Cox stepped on board the chopper. It wasn’t designated as Marine One because the president wasn’t riding on it. Today, it was strictly ferrying the B-team, Jane knew. And that was perfectly fine with her. In private, she and her husband were equals. In public, she walked the obligatory two steps behind.
She strapped in and the door was swung shut and secured by a uniformed Marine. Four stoic Secret Service agents shared the ride with her. They lifted off and a few moments later she was staring down at Camp David, or the “Birdcage,” as the Secret Service had code-named the retreat, where it was cradled in the Catoctin Mountain Park. The chopper turned south and thirty minutes from now she would land safely on the lawn of the White House.
In her hand she held a note that Willa had given her before they’d left the party. It was a thank-you letter. She smiled. It was not unusual that Willa already had one prepared. The note was written in a mature voice and said all the right things. Indeed, some of Jane’s staff could have taken a page from her young niece’s etiquette handbook.
Jane folded the letter and put it away. The rest of the day and night would not be nearly as pleasant. Official duty called. The life of a First Lady, she had quickly learned, was one of a frenzied perpetual motion machine buffered often by bursts of tedium.
The chopper’s skids touched grass. Since the president wasn’t on board there was little fanfare as she made her way to the White House. Her husband was in his working office near the ceremonial oval one. She had made few demands on him when she’d agreed to stand by him in his run for the nation’s highest office. One of them was that she could enter his inner sanctum without announcement, without being on the official visitor’s list.
“I’m not a visitor,” she’d told him at the time. “I’m your wife.”
She approached the president’s “body man,” officially known as the Special Assistant to the President. He was at that moment looking through the peephole in the door to the Oval Office prior to going in and breaking up a meeting that was running behind. He was the person charged with keeping her husband on schedule and functioning at maximum efficiency. He did so by rising before dawn and devoting every moment of his waking life to whatever the man needed, often by anticipating these needs even before the president. In any place other than the White House, Jane thought, the “body man” would be simply called a wife.
“Get ’em out, Jay, because I’m coming in,” she told him. He moved with alacrity to do just this. He had never once “peeped” her. And never would if he wanted to keep his job.
She spent a few minutes with the president and told him about the birthday party, before going to their living quarters to freshen up and change her clothes for a reception she was hosting. As darkness fell a few hours later she returned to her “official” home, tugged off her shoes, and drank a much-needed cup of hot tea.
Twenty miles away, newly twelve-year-old Willa Dutton screamed.
SEAN LOOKED at Michelle as they drove along. A brief look, a sizing-up glance. If she felt it, she didn’t comment. Her gaze stayed straight ahead.
“When’d you meet them?” she asked.
“When I was in protection. Kept in touch. Really nice family.”
“Okay,” she said absently, staring out the windshield.
“Have you seen Horatio lately?”
Michelle’s hand tightened around her cup of Starbucks coffee. “Why did you follow me down to his office?”
“Because I knew what you were going to do.”
“Which is what exactly?”
“Break in to try and find out what you told him when you were hypnotized.”
Michelle remained quiet.
“Did you find out?”
“It’s pretty late to be going over to someone’s house.”
“Michelle, I think we need to talk this—”
“What you need to do, Sean, is not go there.”
Sean stared out at a night that seemed to be closing in on him.
“You didn’t answer my question,” she said.
“You didn’t answer mine either,” he said in an annoyed tone.
“So about going over to their house this late?”
“It’s not my call.”
“I thought you were dropping off a birthday present?”
“I bought the present after she phoned. I suddenly remembered it was her birthday today.”
“It might have to do with a job for us.”
“Your really nice family needs a private investigator?”
“And she didn’t want to wait.”
They turned off the winding country road and pulled into the long drive, passing trees on both sides.
“Boondocks,” muttered Michelle.
“Private,” Sean amended.
The next instant the large house came into view.
“Nice place,” she said. “Your friend obviously does well.”
“Government contracting. The Feds apparently throw money at people.”
“Wow, what a surprise. But the house is dark. You sure you got the time right?”
Sean eased the car to a stop in front.
Michelle put down her coffee and pulled out her pistol from its belt holster. “That was a woman’s scream.”
“Wait a minute. Don’t go off half-cocked,” he said, putting a restraining hand on her arm. The crashing sound from inside the house made him reach in the glove box for his own weapon. “Let’s confirm before calling the cops.”
“You hit the back, I got the front,” Michelle said.
He climbed out and hustled to the rear of the brick colonial skittering next to the side-load garage and stopping for a few moments to scan the terrain before heading on. After doing her own recon of the area, Michelle was next to the front door a minute later.
No more screams or crashes. No other vehicles in sight. She could call out, see if everything was okay. Only if it wasn’t she might be giving some bad guys a warning. She tried the front door. Locked. Something made her pull her hand back, she wasn’t quite sure what, only she was glad she had.
The bullet blast ripped through the door, sending shards of painted wood spinning into the air. She could actually feel the slugs race past before they riddled Sean’s car.
She leapt off the front porch and did a roll, coming up and hitting full sprint two steps later. Her hand dug into her pocket and her fingers drilled 911 on the keypad. The dispatcher’s voice came on. Michelle was about to speak when the garage door blew open and the pickup truck cut a tight turn and bore down on her. She turned, fired at the tires, then the windshield. Her phone flew out of her hand as she catapulted to the side and rolled down an embankment. She landed in a pile of leaves and mud at the bottom of a runoff ditch. She sat forward and looked up.
Her aim, as usual, was unerring. The bullet hit the man dead in the chest. There was only one problem. Her jacketed 9mm round didn’t drop him. He staggered back, then brought his weapon up, took aim, and fired back.
The only thing that saved Michelle Maxwell that night was that she deduced her attacker was wearing body armor, and then was nimble enough to roll behind a monster oak before the MP5 rounds headed her way. Dozens of slugs slammed into the tree, shredding its bark and sending pieces of oak tailings whipsawing away. Yet wood that thick always won out, even over submachine gun bullets coming in waves.
She didn’t pause, because it only took a practiced hand seconds to eject and then slap in another clip on the MP. She jumped out, both hands on her pistol grip. This time she would aim for the head and drop him for good.
Only there was no one there for her to kill.
Mr. MP5 had pinned her down, then fled.
She cautiously made her way up the slope, her pistol pointed straight ahead. When she heard the truck start to race off she scrambled up, pulling at roots, branches, and vines. The pickup was out of sight by the time she reached the driveway. She hustled toward Sean’s car thinking she would take up pursuit, but stopped when she saw steam rising from under the hood. Her gaze drifted to the bullet holes in the sheet metal. They weren’t going anywhere.
“Sean,” she screamed. “Sean!”
She sprinted up the steps, kicked open what was left of the shattered front door, and barreled into the living room, her gun making precise grid arcs.
Sean was kneeling on the floor, hovering over the woman. She was lying on her back. Arms and legs spread-eagled like she was frozen in a jumping jack. Her eyes were open but hard and flat because she was dead. The red hair touched her shoulders. It was easy to see what had killed the woman. Her throat had been shredded.
“Who is she?”
“Pam Dutton. The woman we were going to be meeting with.”
Michelle noticed the writing on the woman’s bare arms. “What’s that?”
“I’m not sure. It’s just a bunch of letters.” He leaned closer. “Looks like they used a black Sharpie.”
“Is anybody else in the house?”
“Let’s find out.”
“Can’t screw up the crime scene for the cops.”
He countered, “And we can’t let someone die who we could otherwise save.”
It only took a few minutes. There were four bedrooms on the top floor, two on each side of the hall set catty-cornered from one another. There was a young girl in the first bedroom they reached. She was unconscious but with no apparent injuries. Her breathing was steady and her pulse weak but steady.
“Colleen Dutton,” said Sean.
“Drugged?” Michelle said as she gazed down at the little girl.
Sean lifted the girl’s eyelid and noted the dilated pupil. “Looks to be.”
In the second bedroom lay a young boy in the same condition as the girl.
“John Dutton,” said Sean as he checked the child’s pulse and pupil. “Drugged too.”
The third bedroom was empty. The last bedroom was the largest. It wasn’t empty.
The man was on the floor. He had on pants, a T-shirt, and was barefoot. One side of his face was swollen and badly bruised.
“It’s Tuck Dutton, Pam’s husband.” Sean checked his pulse. “Knocked out but his breathing’s okay. Looks like he took quite a blow.”
“We really need to call the cops.” Michelle grabbed the phone off the nightstand. “Dead. They must’ve messed with the outside box.”
“Use your cell phone.”
“I lost it when they tried to run me down.”
“When who tried to run you down?”
“A driver and a guy with a submachine gun. Didn’t you see anybody when you came in?”
He shook his head. “I heard gunfire, then I came in the back door. Then another loud sound.”
“That was them crashing through the garage door. Looks like I had all the fun tonight.”
“Pam dead. Tuck knocked out. John and Colleen drugged.”
“You told me they had three kids.”
“They do. Willa’s apparently gone. Her bedroom was the empty one.”
“In the truck? Kidnapping?”
“Can’t be sure. What’d you see?”
“It was a Toyota Tundra, double cab, dark blue. Didn’t see the plates because I was busy trying not to die. Driver and a shooter. Both guys. Oh, and there’s at least one bullet hole in the windshield.”
“Did you see them well enough for an ID?”
“No, but one of them was wearing some serious body armor, like military level. Took a jacketed round from my Sig with no problem. And he was wearing a black ski mask, which made an ID problematic.”
“And no sign of a twelve-year-old girl in the truck?”
“Not that I saw. Probably drugged her too.”
Sean used his cell to call 911 and relay all the information. He slipped it back in his pocket and looked around.
Michelle strode across the room to check out the piece of luggage that was sticking out of the closet. “Garment bag, half open.” She bent lower. “It has a tag on it. United Airlines Flight 567 into Dulles with today’s date on it.” She used a washcloth snatched from the bathroom to cover her hand while she slid the zipper open a few inches and peered inside. “Men’s clothes. Must be Tuck’s.”
Sean looked down at the unconscious man’s bare feet and his T-shirt. “He gets home, probably sees Pam, heads up here to drop his bag, starts to change, and wham.”
“Something is bugging me. That Tundra that came out of the garage. Either it belongs to the Duttons or the bad guys drove their own vehicle in there.”
“They might have done it so no one would see them put Willa in it.”
“In the boondocks? At this hour? You can’t even see another house from here. I’m not even sure there is another house.”
“And why take Willa and not one of the other kids?”
“And why would they kill the mom and leave everyone else alive?”
Sean tried to rouse Tuck, but got no response.
“Better leave him alone. He might have some internal injuries.”
They walked back downstairs and then Sean veered toward the kitchen and through it into the garage. There were three garage doors. In one bay was a late-model Mercedes four-door sedan. In another bay was a Chrysler minivan. The third bay was empty.
Michelle pointed to the destroyed garage door. “Truck was parked in this space, obviously. Do you know if the Duttons owned a blue Tundra?”
“No. But the odds are it was theirs.”
“Because the bay is clear?”
“Right. Just about every garage is packed with all sorts of crap, sometimes even including a car. The fact that all the bays were clean meant they had three vehicles, otherwise the third bay would be used for storage.”
“Wow, you really are a detective.”
Sean put his hand on the hood of the Mercedes. “Warm.”
Michelle ran her finger over one of the car’s tires. “Tread’s wet. We had some rain this evening. Must be Tuck coming from the airport.”
They walked back to the living room and stared down at Pam Dutton. Sean used his elbow to flick on the light switch, pulled out his notepad, and copied down the letters on the woman’s arm.
Michelle bent lower and examined Pam’s hands. “Looks like she’s got some blood and skin under her nails. Most likely defensive trace.”
“Noticed that too. Hope they can trip something on a DNA database.”
Michelle said, “But shouldn’t there be more blood?”
Sean examined the body more closely. “You’re right. The rug should be covered. Looks like they severed her carotid. She would’ve bled out pretty fast.”
Michelle saw it first, the plastic piece protruding out from under the dead woman’s elbow. “Is that what I think it is?”
Sean nodded. “It’s an empty vial.” He glanced over at his partner. “Did they take her blood with them?”
TALBOT’S WAS HAVING A SALE. Diane Wohl had left work at four to take advantage. A new dress, a few blouses, maybe some slacks, a scarf. She’d just gotten a raise at work and wanted to put it to good use. There was nothing wrong with pampering yourself every once in a while. She parked her car in the shopping mall garage and walked about four hundred feet to the store. She left two hours later after trying on several outfits and buying two bags full of clothing, doing her patriotic duty to stimulate an otherwise lousy economy.
She hopped in the car after tossing her bags in the passenger seat. She was hungry and was thinking about picking up some Chinese take-out on the way home. She had just put the key in the ignition when she felt the small circle of metal against her head. A strong odor made her forget about kung pao chicken with all white meat and egg drop soup. It was a mixture of gun oil and cigarettes.
“Drive,” the voice said quietly but firmly. “Or you’re dead.”
An hour later the suburbs had disappeared. The only thing visible was lined asphalt, a harvest moon, and walls of trees. Not another car, not another person. Diane Wohl was completely alone with whatever monster was sitting in the back of her Honda.
He spoke again. “Turn off here.”
Her gut tightened and stomach acid driven by fear heaved up her throat.
The car bumped along the dirt road for a few minutes. The mass of trees seemed to swallow up the car.
Diane slid the gearshift lever to park. As she pulled her hand back the woman eyed her purse with a sideways glance. Her cell phone was in there. If she could somehow turn it on. Or her keys. She had a big wad of them. She could pull them; gouge him in the eyes like she’d seen on TV shows. Only she was so terrified she couldn’t. Her entire body was trembling like she had Parkinson’s.
The monster of few words said, “Out.”
She didn’t move. Her throat was crusted dry but she managed to say, “If you want my car and my money you can have them. Just please don’t hurt me. Please.”
The monster was not persuaded. “Out.” He wedged the gun muzzle against the back of her head. A piece of her hair caught against the bump of the gunsight and was pulled out root and all. Tears trickled down the woman’s cheeks as she confronted the last few minutes of her life. It was like all the warnings had said:
Know your surroundings. Be alert. It only takes a second.
From Talbot’s to death on a lonely strip of dirt.
She opened the car door and started to slide out, her hand clutching her purse. She gasped and let go when the gloved fingers closed around her wrist.
“You won’t need that.”
She closed the door behind her.
Her hopes sank when he joined her outside the car. She had been praying that he would merely climb over the front seat and take her Honda, instead of stealing her life.
He was older, with thick, longish white hair that looked sweaty and dirty. And his face appeared carved from solid rock with rivulets running all over the surface. He was older, but he was also a big, tall man, well over two hundred pounds with broad shoulders and huge, veined hands. He towered over the petite Wohl. Even without the weapon she had no chance against him. His gun was pointed right at her head. The fact that he wasn’t wearing a mask terrified her; she could clearly see his face.
He doesn’t care. Doesn’t care if I know who he is. He’s going to kill me. Rape and then kill me. And leave me out here. She started to sob.
“Please don’t do this,” she said as he took a step forward and she took a step back, bracing for the attack.
She never noticed the other man come up behind her. When he touched her shoulder, she shrieked and turned. He was smaller and wiry, his Hispanic features clearly defined. Yet she never saw this because he held up the canister and the dense mist hit her squarely in the face.
Choking, Diane took a deep breath to clear her lungs. It didn’t work; her senses quickly leaving her, she slumped in his arms. They put her in the back of a rental van parked nearby and drove off.
THE LAW ENFORCEMENT ARMY was here in full, splendid force. Sean and Michelle watched from one corner of the pine needle–strewn yard as cops, techs, and suits swarmed over the stricken Dutton home like ants on a carcass. In certain important respects that analogy was exact.
The ambulances had come and taken the living members of the Dutton family to the hospital. Mrs. Dutton was still inside enduring the swarm. The only doctor she would be seeing later was one who would cut her up even more than she was already.
Sean and Michelle had been questioned three times by uniforms and then tie-and-jacket homicide detectives. They methodically gave detailed answers and notebooks were filled up with their descriptions of the night’s horrific events.
Michelle’s attention turned to two black sedans skidding into the driveway. When the men and women popped out she said to Sean, “Why’s the FBI here?”
“Didn’t I mention? Tuck Dutton is the First Lady’s brother.”
“The First Lady? As in Jane Cox, wife of President Cox?”
Sean just gave her a look.
“So that means her sister-in-law was murdered and her niece was kidnapped?”
“You’ll probably see the news trucks pull up any minute,” he said. “And the answer would be, ‘No comment.’ ”
“So Pam Dutton wanted to hire us. Any idea why?”
They both watched as the Fibbies talked to the local detectives and then marched inside the house. Ten minutes later they came back out and headed toward Sean and Michelle.
She said, “They don’t look too happy about us being here.”
They weren’t. It was clear after the first three minutes that the FBI agents were having a hard time believing that the two had been summoned by Pam Dutton but didn’t know why.
Sean said for the fourth time, “Like I said, I’m a friend of the family. She called me and said she wanted to meet. I have no idea why. That’s why we were coming tonight. To find out.”
“At this hour?”
“She set the time.”
“If you’re so close to them maybe you have an idea who could have done this,” one of them said. He was a medium-sized guy with a thin face, buffed shoulders, and an apparently permanent sour expression that made Michelle think he was either plagued by ulcers or had jumpy intestines.
“If I had any idea I would’ve told the county suits when they asked me. Any sign of the truck? My partner here put a round through the windshield.”
“And why does your partner carry a gun?” Sour Face asked.
Sean slowly reached in his pocket and pulled out his ID. Michelle did the same along with her concealed weapons permit.
“Private detectives?” Sour Face managed to make it sound like “child molester” before handing the IDs back.
“And former Secret Service,” Michelle said. “Both of us.”
“Good for you,” Sour Face snapped. He nodded at the house. “In fact, the Secret Service might take some heat for this one.”
“Why?” Sean asked. “Siblings of the First Family don’t qualify for protection unless there’s been a specific threat. They can’t guard everybody.”
“Don’t you get it? It’s perception. Mom slaughtered, kid snatched. It won’t play well in the papers. Particularly after the Camp David party today. First Family goes safely home. Last Family gets run over by a freaking tank. Not a great headline.”
“What party at Camp David?” Michelle wanted to know.
“I’m asking the questions,” he shot back.
And for the next hour Sean and Michelle again went through what they’d seen and done in minute detail. For all of Sour Face’s irritating characteristics, they both had to admit the man was plenty thorough.
They ended up back in the house staring down at Pam Dutton’s corpse. One forensic photographer was snapping close-ups of the blood-spatter patterns, the death wound, and the trace under Pam Dutton’s nails. Another tech was typing into a laptop the string of alphabet letters on the dead woman’s arms.
“Anybody know what the letters mean?” Michelle asked, pointing to them. “Is it a foreign language?”
One of the techs shook his head. “It’s not any language I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s more like random letters,” suggested Sean.
“There’s good defensive trace under her nails,” Michelle pointed out. “Looks like she was able to scratch the perp up.”
“Nothing we don’t know,” said Sour Face.
“How’re Tuck and the kids?” asked Sean.
“Heading to the hospital now to get some statements.”
“If they had to knock the guy out because he was fighting with them, he might have seen something,” said one of the agents.
“Yeah, but if he did see something you wonder why they didn’t give him the same treatment they gave his wife,” said Michelle. “The kids were drugged, probably saw squat. But why leave an eyewitness?”
Sour Face looked unimpressed. “If I want to talk to you two again, and I probably will, I trust I’ll be able to find you at the addresses you gave?”
“Not a problem,” said Sean.
“Right,” said Sour Face as he and his team trudged off.
Sean said, “Let’s go.”
“How? They shot up your car. Didn’t you notice?”
Sean walked outside and stared over at his ruined Lexus before whipping around to glare at her. “You know, you could’ve told me that before.”
“I’ve had so much time on my hands.”
“I’ll call Triple A, how about that?”
As they waited for the ride, she said, “So are we just going to leave it like this?”
She pointed to the Duttons’ house. “Like this. One of the pricks tried to kill me. I don’t know about you, but I take that personally. And Pam wanted to hire us. I think we owe it to her to take the case and see it through.”
“Michelle, we have no idea that what she called me about has anything to do with her death.”
“If it doesn’t I’d call that the mother of all coincidences.”
“Okay, but what can we do? The police and the FBI are involved. I don’t see much room for us to operate.”
“Never stopped you before,” she said stubbornly.
“This is different.”
He didn’t say anything.
“I heard you!”
“So what’s different?”
“What’s different are the people involved.”
“Who? The Duttons?”
“No. The First Lady.”
“Why? What does she matter?”
“She matters, Michelle. She just matters.”
“You sound like you know her.”
He started walking off.
“What about Triple A?” she called after him.
Michelle didn’t get an answer.
SAM QUARRY loved his home, or what was left of it. The Atlee Plantation had been in his family for nearly two hundred years. The property’s footprint had once extended for miles with hundreds of slaves working it. It now had been reduced to two hundred acres with migrant laborers from Mexico doing the bulk of the harvesting. The plantation house itself had seen better days, but it was still sprawling, it was still livable, if one didn’t mind the leaky roof, the drafty walls, or the occasional mouse scurrying across the brittle wooden floors. These were surfaces that had encountered the booted steps of Confederate generals and even Jefferson Davis himself on a brief stopover during the losing effort. Quarry knew the history well, but had never reveled in it. You didn’t pick your family or your family history.
He was now sixty-two years old with a cap of thick snowy hair that seemed even whiter because of his sun-beaten skin. Long-boned and strongly built with a big, commanding voice, he was an outdoorsman both by choice and necessity. He made his living off the land but also enjoyed the rustic trappings of the hunter, fisherman, and amateur horticulturist. It was just who he was; a man of the earth, he liked to say.
He sat behind his cluttered and scarred desk in the library. It was at this same desk that generations of Quarry men had perched their behinds and made important decisions that affected the lives of others. Unlike some of his ancestors who’d been a bit freewheeling in their oversight, Sam Quarry undertook this responsibility seriously. He ran a tight ship as much to provide for himself as for the people he still employed here. Yet in truth, it was more than that. Atlee was really all he had left now.
He stretched out his six-foot-four-inch frame and settled wide, callused, and sun-reddened hands over his flat stomach. Gazing around at the bad portraits and grainy black-and-white photos of his male ancestors hanging along the wall, Quarry took stock of his situation. He was a man who always allowed the time to think things through. Almost nobody did that anymore, from the president of the United States to Wall Street barons to the man or woman on the street. Speed. Everybody wanted it yesterday. And because of that impatience the answer they got usually turned out to be wrong.
Thirty minutes went by and he didn’t move. However, his brain was far more active than his body.
He finally hunched forward, slid gloves on, and under the watchful eye of the portrait of his grandfather and namesake Samuel W. Quarry, who’d helped lead the opposition to civil rights in Alabama, he started tapping the faded keys on his old IBM Selectric. He knew how to use a computer but had never owned one, though he did have a cell phone. People could steal things right off your computer, he knew, even while they were sitting in another country. When he wanted to use a computer he traveled to the local library. To get his thoughts from his Selectric, though, they would have to invade his domain at Atlee and he seriously doubted they would walk out alive.
He finished his two-fingered pecking and pulled out the paper. He read over its brief contents once more and then placed it inside an envelope, sealing it not with his saliva but with a bit of water from a glass on his desk. He was not inclined to give folks any way to track him down, from DNA in his spit or otherwise.
He slipped the envelope into his desk drawer and locked it with the turn of a nearly one-hundred-year-old key that still worked just fine. He rose and headed to the door, out to daylight to oversee his little crumbling kingdom. He passed Gabriel, a skinny eleven-year-old black boy whose mother, Ruth Ann, worked for Quarry as his housekeeper. He patted Gabriel on the head and gave him a folded dollar and an old stamp for his collection. Gabriel was a smart boy who had the ability to go on to college and Quarry was determined to help him try. He had not inherited any of the prejudices of his grandfather or those of his father, who’d hailed George Wallace, at least the unrepentant George Wallace, as a great man who “knew how to keep the coloreds in their place.”
Sam Quarry believed all humans had strengths and weaknesses and they weren’t tied to pigment type. One of his daughters had actually married a man of color and Sam had happily given his daughter away at the wedding. They were divorced now and he hadn’t seen either of them in years. He didn’t blame the breakup on his former son-in-law’s race. The fact was, his youngest daughter was damn tough to live with.
He spent two hours going over his land, riding in a battered and rusted Dodge pickup with over two hundred thousand proud miles on it. He finally pulled to a stop in front of a dented decades-old silver Airstream trailer with a tattered awning attached. Inside the trailer was a tiny bathroom with toilet, a propane cook top, a six-cubic-foot under-the-counter fridge, a hot-water heater, a miniscule bedroom, and an air conditioner. Quarry had gotten the trailer in a barter exchange off a produce wholesaler short of cash one harvest season. He’d run an underground power line to it from a junction box cabled to the big hay barn, so it had electricity.
Under the awning sat three men, all members of the Koasati Indian tribe. Quarry was well versed in the history of Native Americans in Alabama. The Koasatis had inhabited parts of northern Alabama for centuries with the Muskogee, Creek, and Cherokee to the east and the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes to the west. After the Great Indian Removal during the 1800s most Native Americans were expelled from Alabama and forcibly moved to reservations in Oklahoma and Texas. Nearly all who spoke the Koasati language now lived in Louisiana, but some had managed to return to the Yellowhammer state.
One of the Koasatis had come here years ago, long after Quarry had inherited Atlee from his father, and he’d been here ever since. Quarry had even given him the little trailer as his home. The other two had been here for about six months. Quarry wasn’t sure if they were going to stay or not. He liked them. And they seemed to tolerate him. As a rule they did not trust white men, but they let him visit and share their company. It was technically his land after all, though the Koasatis had owned it long before there were any Quarrys or any other whites in Alabama.
He sat down on a cinderblock chair with an inch-thick rubber mat over it and shared a beer and some rolled cigarettes, and swapped stories with them. The one whom Quarry had given the trailer to was known as Fred. Fred was older than Quarry by at least a decade or so, small and stooped, with straight white hair and a face right out of a Remington sculpture. He spoke the most of the group, and drank the most too. He was an educated man, but Quarry knew little of his personal background.
Quarry conversed with them in their own language, at least as best he could. His Koasati-speaking skills were limited. They would accommodate him by talking in English, but only with him. He couldn’t blame them. The white men had basically crapped all over the only race that could call itself indigenous in America. He kept this sentiment to himself, though, because they didn’t like pity. They might kill a man over pity.
Fred cherished telling the story of how the Koasati had gotten their name. “It means lost tribe. Our people left here in two groups long ago. The first group left signs for the second group to follow. But along the Mississippi River, all signs from the first group disappeared. The second group continued on and met up with folks who didn’t speak our language. Our people told them that they were lost. And in our language Koasai means ‘we are lost.’ So the folks wrote it down as my people being Koasatis, meaning the lost people.”
Quarry, who’d heard this story about a dozen times, spoke up. “Well, Fred, to tell the truth, in some ways, we’re all lost.”
About an hour later, as the sun blazed down on them, filling the flimsy awning with furnace-like heat, Quarry rose, dusted off his pants, and tipped his hat at them, promising to come back soon. And he would bring a bottle of the good stuff and some corn on the cob and a bucket of apples. And smokes. They could not afford but liked the store-bought cigs over the rolled ones.
Fred looked up at him, his face even more leathery and wrinkled than Quarry’s. He took the homemade cigarette out of his mouth, went through a protracted coughing spell, and then said, “Bring the unfiltered ones next time. They taste better.”
“Will do, Fred.”
Quarry drove on for a long way over dirt trails that were so rutted they knocked his old truck from side to side; the man barely took note. This was just how he lived.
The road ended.
There was the little house.
Actually, it was not really a house. No one lived there, at least not yet, but even if they did, it would never really be a place where anyone could live for an extended time. It was really just a room with a roof and a door.
Quarry turned and looked in each direction of the compass and saw nothing but dirt and trees. And the slice of Alabama blue sky of course that was prettier than any other sky Quarry had ever seen. Certainly nicer than the one in Southeast Asia, but then that horizon had always been filled with anti-aircraft fire aimed squarely at him and his U.S. Air Force–issued F-4 Phantom II.
He walked toward the structure and stepped up on the porch. He’d built the place himself. It wasn’t on the Atlee property. It was several miles from there on a plot of land his granddaddy had bought seventy years ago and never done anything with, and for good reason. It was in the middle of nowhere, which fit Quarry’s purposes just fine. His granddaddy must’ve been drunk when he bought this patch of dirt, but then the man had often been drunk.
The building was a mere two hundred and twenty-five square feet but it was large enough for his purposes. The only door was a standard three feet wide with no raised paneling and set on ordinary brass hinges. He used a key to unlock the door but did not go inside right away.
He’d built all four walls two and a quarter inches wider than was normal, though one would have to possess a keen eye to discern that construction anomaly. Encased behind the exterior walls were thick sheets of metal welded together, giving this little house incredible strength. He’d done the welding himself with his own acetylene Oxy-fuel welding flame torch. Each seam was a work of art. It would probably take a tornado landing right on top of the place to knock it over, and even that hammer of God still might not do it.
He let fresh air fill the place before he stepped inside. He’d made that mistake before and had almost passed out going from full oxygen on the outside to barely any on the inside. There were no windows. The floor was two-inch-thick wooden planks. He’d sanded the boards down fine; there wasn’t a splinter anywhere. What there was, though, was an eighth-of-an-inch gap between each floorboard; again barely discernible to the naked eye.
The subfloor was also special. Quarry could say with great confidence that probably no other floor of any home in America had an underbelly such as the one he’d built here. The interior walls were covered in hand-applied plaster over chicken wire. The roof was tied down to the walls as tight as anything on an oceangoing tanker. He’d used incredibly strong bolts and fasteners to ensure strength and to prevent any settling or movement. The foundation was poured cement, but there was also a sixteen-inch-high wrapped-in-cement crawlspace that ran underneath the structure. That lifted the house up by the same amount, of course, but because of the porch it was hardly noticeable.
The furnishings were simple: a bed, a ladder-back chair, a battery-powered generator, and some other equipment, including an oxygen tank that sat against one of the walls. He stepped off the porch and turned to face his creation. Every mitered cut on the walls was perfect. He had often worked under the generator lights as he lined up the studs and joists on his sawhorses, his gaze a laser on the cut-line. It was hot, tiring work, but his limbs and mind had been driven with a determination wrought from the two strongest human emotions of all:
He nodded in appreciation. He had done good work. It was solid, as perfect as he was ever going to make it. It looked unexceptional, but it really was an extraordinary bit of engineering. Not bad for a boy from the Deep South who’d never even gone to college.
He looked to the west where in a tree shielded from both the burn of the sun and prying eyes was a surveillance camera. He had designed and built this too, because nothing he could afford was good or reliable enough. With a bit of careful pruning of leaves and branches the camera had a good sightline of all that needed to be seen here.
He’d notched out a hole and a long trench in the bark on the rear of the tree and run the cable feed from the camera down it, and then glued the bark strips back over it, concealing the line completely. On the ground he’d buried the cable and run it several hundred feet away from the tree, to a natural berm that also featured one man-made attribute.
There was another underground cable running from this same spot up to and under the little house inside a PVC pipe that Quarry had laid in before he’d poured the foundation. That cable line had a dual end splitter with more cable running in two routes off it. All of it was concealed behind lead sheathing he’d overlaid on the metal sheets in the wall.
He locked the door to the house and climbed back in his old Dodge. Now he had somewhere else to go. And it wasn’t by pickup truck.
He looked up at that perfect Alabama sky. Nice day for a plane ride.
AN HOUR LATER the decades-old four-seat Cessna raced down the short runway and lifted into the air. Quarry looked out the side window and down as the end of his land raced by. Two hundred acres sounded like a lot but the fact was it wasn’t much.
He flew low, keeping an eye out for birds, other planes, and the occasional chopper. He never filed a flight plan so a good lookout was essential.
An hour later he dipped down, landed softly on the tarmac of a private airstrip, and refueled the plane himself. There were no fancy corporate jets here. Just sheet-metal hangars with open fronts, a narrow strip of asphalt for a runway, a windsock, and aircraft like his, old, patched together, but looked after lovingly and with respect. And as cheap as the plane had been when he’d bought it thirdhand years ago, he couldn’t have afforded to buy it today.
He’d been flying ever since he’d joined the Air Force and raced his sturdy F-4 Phantom over the paddy fields and dense waterlogged jungles of Vietnam. And then later over Laos and Cambodia dropping bombs and killing folks because he’d been ordered to in a phase of the war that he only found out later hadn’t been officially authorized. Yet it wouldn’t have mattered to him. Soldiers simply did what they were told. He wasn’t second-guessing anything riding that high up while people were shooting at him.
He climbed back in his little plane, throttled up, and once more lifted into the sky. He headed on, zipping into a forgiving headwind of less than five knots an hour.
A short time later, he pulled back on the throttle, pushed the yoke forward, and rode the thermals down. This was the tricky part, landing at his other property. It was set in the mountains and there was no runway, just a long strip of grass that he’d leveled and mown with his own sweat. It was firm and flat and yet the crosswinds and shears up here could be challenging. The balls of his cheeks tightened and his strong hands gripped the yoke as he swooped down, his landing flaps set on full. He touched, bounced, touched again and bounced up once more, the tiny plane’s suspension system getting a nice quiver. When he came down the third time his wheels held to the earth and he pushed hard on the tops of the foot pedals with his heels to engage the front-wheel brake. That along with the landing flaps allowed the Cessna to come to a halt well short of the end of the makeshift landing strip.
He pressed the tops of the lower foot pedals with his toes to work the inner flaps and direct the plane back around so it faced in the opposite direction; then he cut the engine. Quarry climbed out after grabbing his knapsack and a set of roped-together triangular parking blocks that he carried in the aircraft. He placed them under the wheels of the lightweight plane to keep it stationary. Then his long legs ate up the rising, rock-strewn ground to the side of the mountain. He pulled a ring of keys from his coat pocket and flicked them around until he found the correct one. He stooped and unlocked the thick wooden door set into the side of the mountain. It was mostly hidden behind some boulders that he’d levered off an adjacent outcrop and then chocked down tight.
For decades his grandfather had worked the coal seams inside this mountain, or rather his crew of underpaid men had. As a child Quarry had come here with his ancestor. Back then they had traveled here by a road that had been accessible until a day ago when Quarry had blocked it off. It was by this road that the dump trucks had carted away the coal when the mine was in operation, and he had used the same route to ferry by truck all the supplies he’d needed up here. They wouldn’t have fit in his little plane.
This chunk of mountain hadn’t always been a mine. Cavernous rooms had been created over time by the corrosive force of water and other geological muscle. In these spaces, long before any coal was ripped out of it, imprisoned Union soldiers had slowly and horribly died here during the Civil War, eking out their final days without sun and fresh air as the flesh fell off their bodies, leaving only glorified skeletons on the day they stopped breathing.
The shafts were now set up with lights, but Quarry didn’t use them unnecessarily. The power came from a vented generator and fuel was expensive. He used an old flashlight to see. The same one, in fact, that his father had used to hunt down “uppity” blacks—as his daddy had called them—at night in the swamps of Alabama. As a child he’d spied on his old man coming home at night, all giddy about what he and his comrades in hate had done. Sometimes he would see the blood of the old man’s victims on his father’s sleeves and hands. And his daddy would cackle as he sucked down his whiskey, in sick celebration of whatever it was he thought he was accomplishing by killing folks who didn’t look like him.
“Old hateful bastard,” Quarry said between clenched teeth. He reviled the man for all the misery he’d caused, but not enough to throw out a perfectly good flashlight. When you didn’t have much, you tended to keep what you had.
He opened another door set against a rock wall off one of the main shafts. He grabbed a battery-powered lantern from a shelf and switched it on, setting it on a table in the middle of the room. He looked around, admiring his handiwork. He’d framed out the room with sturdy two-by-fours and put the Sheetrock up himself; every wall was plumb and painted a therapeutic light blue. He’d gotten all the materials for free from a contractor buddy of his who had supplies left over from jobs with no place to store them. Behind the walls was the solid rock of the mountain’s innards. But anyone looking around the room would think they were in a house somewhere. That was sort of the idea.
He walked over to one corner and studied the woman who sat slumped in the straight-backed chair. Her head rested on her shoulder as she slept. He poked her in the arm, but she didn’t react. That wouldn’t last.
He rolled up her sleeve, pulled a sterilized syringe from his knapsack, and stuck her in the arm. That did drive her awake. Her eyes opened and then slowly focused. When they settled on him, she opened her mouth to scream, but the tape across it prevented this.
He crinkled a smile at her even as he efficiently filled two vials with her blood. She stared down in horror at what he was doing but the restraints held her tightly to the chair.
“I know this must seem strange to you, ma’am, but believe me, it’s all for a good cause. I’m not looking to hurt you or anybody else, for that matter, really. Do you understand that?”
He pulled the syringe free, dabbed the wound with a cotton swab doused with alcohol, and carefully placed a Band-Aid over it.
“Do you understand that?” He gave her a reassuring smile.
She finally nodded.
“Good. Now, I’m sorry I had to take some of your blood but I really needed to. Now, we’re going to feed you and keep you clean and all that. We won’t keep you tied up like this. You’ll have some freedom. I know you can see that was necessary at first. The tying-up part. Right?”
She found herself locking gazes with him and, despite the terror of her situation, nodding once more in agreement.
“Good, good. Now, don’t you worry. It’s going to turn out okay. And there won’t be any funny business. You know with you being a woman and all. I don’t tolerate any crap like that. Okay? You have my word.” He gently squeezed her arm.
She actually felt the edges of her mouth curl up in a smile.
He put the vials in his knapsack and turned away from her.
For a moment she imagined him whipping back around and, with a maniacal laugh, firing a bullet into her brain or slitting her throat.
Yet he simply left the room.
As Diane Wohl looked around she had no idea where she was, why she was here, or why the man who’d kidnapped her had just relieved her of some of her blood. She had gone shopping at Talbot’s, he had been in her car with a gun, and now she was here, wherever here was.
She began to sob.
SEAN KING SAT in the dark. The light blazing on made him lift a hand to shield his eyes and squint up at the intruder.
“Sorry, didn’t know you were in here,” Michelle said, though she didn’t actually sound apologetic.
“I slept here,” he explained.
She perched on the edge of his desk. “Going off in a pout? Refusing to answer questions? Sleeping at the office? Sitting in the dark? Do I sense a pattern?”
He slid a newspaper across to her. “Did you see the story?”
“Read it online already. Got most of the facts right. You seemed appropriately thoughtful in the photo.”
“It’s a file shot they pulled from my Secret Service days.”
“I thought you looked remarkably youthful.”
“Had a bunch of reporters calling. I kept hanging up.”
“They’re not just calling. They’re parked out in front of our office. I came in through the back. I think someone spotted me, so that exit’s probably covered now too.”
“Great. So we’re trapped in here.”
He stood and paced, his long feet kicking out angrily.
“You want to talk about it now?” she asked.
He stopped, flicked a piece of carpet fuzz with his loafer. “It’s a tough situation,” he answered.
“Which part? Finding a woman cut up and a kid gone? Or something going on inside your head?”
He just started pacing again, his chin tucked to his chest.
“You said you knew the First Lady. How? You were long gone from the Service before Cox was elected. Come on, fess up.”
He was about to say something when the phone rang. Sean turned away, but Michelle snatched it up. “King and Maxwell. We snoop so you don’t have to.” She stopped dead. “What! I… Oh, yeah, sure. Here he is.”
She held the phone out.
“I don’t want to talk to anybody.”
“You will to this person.”
“Who is it?”
“Jane Cox,” she whispered.
Sean cupped the phone against his ear. “Mrs. Cox?” He listened and, giving a quick, embarrassed glance at Michelle, said, “Okay, Jane.”
Michelle did an eyebrow hike and watched her partner closely.
“I know. It’s truly a tragedy. Willa, yes, of course. Right. That’s right. You understood correctly. Have you spoken to Tuck? I see. Of course, I understand that. What?” He checked his watch. “Certainly, we can make that.” He glanced at Michelle. “She’s my partner. We do work together, but if you’d rather… Thank you.”
He hung up and looked at Michelle.
She snapped, “If you clam up and start pacing again I swear to God I’m going to pistol-whip you. What did she say?”
“She wants us to come by to see her.”
“See her? Where?”
“At the White House.”
“Why? What does she want us for? To tell her what we saw the other night?”
“Then what exactly?”
“I think she wants to hire us to find out who did this.”
“The First Lady wants to hire us? Why? She has the entire freaking FBI.”
“She doesn’t want them apparently. She wants us.”
“I’m not deaf. You mean she wants you.”
“Do you think we can lose the reporters? I don’t want them trailing us to Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Michelle stood and tugged out her keys. “I’m offended you even have to ask.”
SAM QUARRY UNLOCKED the door and peered in, saw her sitting at the table having a bowl of cereal. She snapped her head around, jumped from the chair, and drew back against the wall.
He kept the door open as he walked in. “Willa, there’s nothing to be scared of.”
“I’m not stupid. There’s like everything to be scared of. Most of all you!”
Her cheeks quivered and fearful tears clustered at the corners of both eyes.
Quarry pulled up a chair and sat down. “I guess I’d be scared too. But I’m not going to hurt you. Okay?”
“You can say anything. How do I know you’re not lying? You’re a criminal. Criminals lie all the time. That’s why they’re criminals.”
Quarry nodded. “So you think I’m a criminal?”
“You are a criminal. You kidnapped me. People go to jail for that.”
He nodded again and then glanced at the bowl. “Cereal not too soggy? Sorry, but powdered milk is all we got.”
She stayed flattened against the wall. “Why are you doing this?”
“Doing what? You mean bringing you here?”
“Under the circumstances, what else could I possibly mean?”
Quarry smiled at her blunt logic. “Heard you were smart.”
“Where’s my family? I asked the other man but he wouldn’t say. He just grunted.”
Quarry pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his face, concealing a look of profound disgust as he did so.
“Why are you wearing latex gloves?” she asked, staring at his hands.
“Heard of eczema?”
“That’s what I got and don’t want to give it to anybody else.”
“I asked you about my family,” she said earnestly. “Are they okay? Tell me.”
“They’re doing fine. But then if I’m a criminal, I could be lying.”
“I hate you!” she screamed.
“Can’t blame you.”
“Is this because of my aunt?’ she said suddenly.
“Your aunt?” he replied innocently.
“Don’t treat me like I’m dumb. Jane Cox is my aunt. My uncle is the president.”
“You’re right. You’re sure right about that.”
“So is it about him?”
“I’m not gonna answer that. Sorry.”
Willa raised the sleeve on her shirt, showing a Band-Aid near the crook of her elbow. “Then tell me what’s this for?”
“I guess you got cut.”
“I looked. It’s just a little pinprick.”
He eyed her bowl and spoon again. “You done with these?”
“Is this about my uncle?” she snapped.
“Let’s get something straight right now, Willa. I don’t want to hurt you. It’s true I broke the law and brought you here, but I’d much prefer to see you walk right out that door and get on back home. But while you’re here, it’d be real good if we can just try to get along as best we can. I know it’s hard, but that’s just the way it’s got to be. Better for me.” He stared intensely at her. “And better for you.”
He scooped up the spoon and bowl, cradling them against his chest, and walked toward the door.
“Will you tell my mom and dad I’m okay?” she said in a softer tone.
He turned around. “I sure will.”
This statement made his growing anger harden intractably.
After he left, Willa sat back down on a cot set up in one corner and slowly gazed around the room. She had spoken bravely to the man, but she didn’t feel very courageous. She was scared and she wanted to see her family. She curled and uncurled her hands in anxiety. The tears began to slide down her cheeks as she considered one horrible scenario after another. She prayed and spoke out loud to her mom and dad. She told her brother and sister that she loved them very much, even if they did come in her room unannounced and mess with her stuff.
She wiped the tears away and tried to stay focused. She didn’t believe the man about the gloves and the eczema or the mark on her arm. She believed it had to do with her aunt and uncle. What other reason could there be? Her family was pretty ordinary otherwise. She began walking around the room, singing softly to herself; it was something she often did when she was worried or scared.
“It’ll be okay,” she said to herself over and over after she couldn’t sing anymore. She lay back down and covered herself with the blanket. But before she turned the light off, she looked over at the door. She rose, crossed the room, and stared at the lock.
It was a sturdy dead bolt, she noted for the first time.
And because of that, fear was suddenly replaced with a tiny spark of hope.
QUARRY WALKED DOWN the mineshaft, one hand idly playing over the black rock of the walls where the remains of old bituminous coal seams were still visible. He unlocked the door to another room. Inside he sat at a table and lifted out the vials of blood from his knapsack and labeled each with different numbers. On a shelf hung on the wall he pulled off a box and opened it. Inside were more vials of blood. Some belonged to Pam Dutton, who now lay in a morgue in Virginia, he knew. Others were blood he’d taken from Willa while she had been unconscious.
He labeled Pam’s and Willa Dutton’s vials with numbers and placed them all in a cooler filled with ice packs. Next, he slid Willa’s bowl and spoon in a plastic baggie and put this inside another box.
Okay, the busy work’s done. I got to get on with things.
He rose, unlocked a freestanding metal gun safe that he’d brought here on his truck. Inside were automatic and semiautomatic pistols, shotguns, rifles, scopes, two MP5s, and a couple of AKs and rounds of ammo for all of them. The cache represented several generations of the affection Quarry men held for the Second Amendment. He looked carefully over the selection and settled on a .45 Cobra Enterprises Patriot. His hand gripped the polymer frame as he slapped in an extended seven-round magazine filled with standard 1911 ordnance. It was a light gun, though with plenty of power, and took twelve pounds of force to pull the trigger. Because of its imbalance with a twenty-ounce frame and a .45 round, it wasn’t the most fun pistol to shoot. But it was light to carry around and whatever you hit with it at close range dropped on the spot.
It was a nice, compact weapon for personal protection. But that’s not what he’d be using it for. As his hand gripped the loaded pistol it began to sweat.
His magazine carried seven rounds, but in truth he only would need two. And it would give him no pleasure. Not one damn bit.
He trudged down the rock corridor preparing mentally for what needed to be done. His daddy and granddaddy had hunted down humans before, though he knew they hardly considered black folks human. Killed ’em probably without much thought, like they would a cottonmouth or a pesky mole. Yet that’s where the son and grandson parted company with his male relations. He would do what needed to be done, but he also knew the scars would be deep and he would relive the killing moment over and over for the rest of his life.
He came to the spot and shone his light through the prison bars set in the opening of a large alcove in the wall. These were the same bars that had held back scores of Union soldiers, although Quarry had refinished the rusting metal and reseated the bars back into the rock.
Against the back wall two men crouched. They were dressed in Army fatigues, their hands cuffed behind them. Quarry looked over at the small, wiry man who stood next to him on the free side of the bars.
“Let’s get this done, Carlos.”
The man licked his lips nervously and said, “Mr. Sam, all due respect, I don’t think we got to go down this road, sir.”
Quarry wheeled around on him, towering over the little man. “Only one damn leader of this band, Carlos, and that’s me. You got a chain of command here and that’s just the way it’s got to be. You’re an Army man and you know that’s the truth, son. Trust me, this is hurting me a helluva lot more than it’ll ever hurt you. And it’s leaving me shorthanded for what I got to do. A real pisser all around.”
The cowed man looked down, opened the door, and with a hesitant wave of his hand motioned the two men to step out. Their legs were shackled together too, so they hobbled forward. When they came into the wash of light from Carlos’s flashlight, the perspiration shone clear on their faces.
One of the men said, “I’m sorry. Jesus, sir, I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too, Daryl. This doesn’t give me any pleasure at all. None.”
While Daryl was thickset the man behind him was tall and reedy. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down in his terror. “We didn’t mean to do it, Mr. Quarry. But after we got the kid knocked out she came in and started screaming and fighting. Hell, look at Daryl’s face, she damn near scratched it off. It was just self-defense. We were trying to knock her out too and get her with the syringe, but the lady just went nuts.”
“What’d you expect a momma to do when you’re taking her baby? We went over that scenario a hundred times and what you were supposed to do in every damn situation. Killing was not an option. Now I got a little girl who’s never gonna see her momma again and it never should’ve happened.”
Daryl’s voice was pleading. “But the daddy was home. And he wasn’t supposed to be.”
“Don’t matter. Planned for that too.”
Daryl was not giving up. “She scratched me up good, dug a finger in my eye. I got real pissed. Lost my head. I just swung with the knife. Caught her right in the neck. I didn’t mean for it to happen. She just died. We tried to save her. Nothing we could do. I’m sorry.”
“You already told me all this. And if that had made a difference you wouldn’t be standing here right now and neither would I.”
Daryl nervously eyed the Patriot. “We always been there for you. You know that. And we got the little girl for you. Not a bruise on her.”
“One exception breaks the rule. When you agreed to help me do this, I told you there weren’t many rules, but you broke the most important one. You swore me an oath and I accepted that oath. Now here we are.”
He nodded at Carlos, who reluctantly gripped the men by their wrists and pulled them down to their knees.
Quarry stood over them. “Speak to your God, men, if you got one. I’ll give you time to do that.”
Daryl started mumbling what sounded like the fragments of a prayer. The thin man just started to cry.
Sixty seconds later Quarry said, “Done? Okay.”
He placed the Patriot against the base of Daryl’s skull.
“Oh, Jesus. Sweet Jesus,” wailed Daryl.
“Please,” screamed the other man.
Quarry’s finger slipped from the metal guard onto the trigger. Yet he ended up pulling away the Patriot. He didn’t exactly know why, he just did.
Daryl looked at him in astonishment. “What?”
“I said get up.”
Daryl stood on shaky legs. Quarry stared at the man’s scratched-up face and the blood red right eye, then he ripped open the front of Daryl’s shirt. A large purplish bruise was revealed between the man’s muscled pecs.
“You say it was a woman who shot you?”
“Yes sir. It was dark, but I could still see it was a girl.”
“That girl was a damn good shot. By all rights you ought to be dead anyway, boy.”
“Wore the armor like you told us,” Daryl gasped. “I’m sorry she got killed. I didn’t mean for it to happen. I’m sorry.”
“And you say you think you left a vial behind?”
“Just the one. It was all rushed like after what happened, especially when the other folks showed up. We counted the vials up on the way back. But they gonna know we took the woman’s blood anyway, when they cut her open and stuff.”
Quarry looked uncertain for a moment. “Get the hell on, then.”
Quarry nodded at a relieved Carlos, who quickly unshackled Daryl. The man rubbed his raw wrists and looked at the thin man still on his knees. “What about Kurt?”
Quarry shoved the muzzle against Daryl’s chest. “No more talking. Now get on before I change my mind. Kurt’s not your concern.”
Daryl staggered off, fell, picked himself back up, and stumbled onward into the dark.
Quarry turned back to Kurt.
“Please, Mr. Quarry,” the condemned man mumbled.
“I’m sorry about this, Kurt. But what we got here is an eye for an eye, boy.”
“But Daryl’s the one what killed the lady, sir.”
“He’s also my son. I don’t have much, but I got him.”
He pointed the pistol at Kurt’s head.
“But you’re like a daddy to me, Mr. Quarry,” said Kurt, the tears lapping down his cheeks.
“That’s what makes this so damn hard.”
“This is crazy, Mr. Quarry. You crazy,” he screamed.
“Damn right I’m crazy, boy!” Quarry shouted right back. “Crazy as a mad hatter on crack. It’s in my blood. No way to shake it.”
Kurt threw himself sideways and tried to wriggle away, his clunky boots throwing up little clouds of coal dust. His screams swept down the shaft, like the Union soldiers before.
“Hold the damn light closer, Carlos,” ordered Quarry. “I don’t want him to suffer one second more than he’s got to.”
The Patriot barked and Kurt stopped trying to get away.
Quarry let the gun drop and swing next to his side. He mumbled something incomprehensible while Carlos crossed himself.
“You know how pissed off I am about this?” said Quarry. “You understand my level of rage and disappointment?”
“Yes, sir,” said Carlos.
Quarry nudged dead Kyle with his boot, stuck the heated Patriot in his waistband.
He turned and marched on down the shaft. To daylight.
He was tired of the dark.
He just wanted to fly.
MICHELLE LEFT HER PISTOL in her locked safe box in the SUV. She had no desire to sit in a federal prison for the next several years contemplating the error of her ways for trying to waltz into the White House with a loaded weapon.
They had lost the reporters hanging outside their office, although the effort had cost some rubber off Michelle’s truck tires and one of the journalist’s cars had banged into a parked van during the abbreviated chase. She had not stopped to assist.
They passed through the visitor’s entrance. They expected to be led into the White House but were surprised when after they’d been wanded and searched one of the agents stationed there said, “Come on.”
They were hustled into a Town Car waiting outside the entrance. It sped off as soon as the door closed.
Sean said to the driver, “Where the hell are we going?”
The man didn’t answer. The guy next to him didn’t even turn around.
Michelle whispered, “SS doesn’t look too happy right now.”
“Blame game’s started,” Sean whispered back. “And they might know why the First Lady has asked us here. And they probably don’t like outsiders snooping around.”
“But we used to be one of them.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t exactly leave on the best terms. And neither did you.”
“So the FBI hates us and so do our own guys. You know, what we need is a union.”
“No, what we need is to know where we’re going.” He was about to ask the question again when the car slowed and stopped.
“Out here, in the church,” the driver said.
“Get your ass in the church. The lady’s waiting.”
As soon as they stepped out of the car they realized their trip had been very short. They were on the other side of Lafayette Park from the White House. The church was St. John’s. The door was open. They walked inside as the Town Car drove off.
She was seated in the front pew. Sean and Michelle sensed rather than saw the presence of the security detail around the room. When Sean sat next to Jane Cox, he couldn’t tell whether she had been crying or not. He suspected she had, but he also knew she was not the sort of woman who showed her emotions easily. Perhaps not even to her husband. He had seen the woman become emotional before, but only once. He had never expected to witness another such episode.
Under her black overcoat she wore a knee-length blue dress, along with sensible pumps and little jewelry. Her hair, though covered in a scarf, was in its trademark upsweep that many had compared, mostly favorably, to Jackie Kennedy. The woman had never been flash, Sean knew, just classy. Elegant. She never tried to be something she wasn’t. Well, that wasn’t exactly true, he concluded. A First Lady had to be many things to many people, and there was no way any single personality could accommodate so many different requests. So some role-playing was inevitable.
“This is Michelle Maxwell, Mrs…. Jane.”
Jane smiled graciously at Michelle and then turned back to Sean. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me so quickly.”
“We thought it was going to take place at the White House.”
“I thought so too, but then reconsidered. The church is a little more private. And… peaceful.”
He leaned back in the pew and studied the altar for a moment before saying, “What can we do for you?”
“You really were there when it happened?”
“Yes. I was bringing a present for Willa.” He went on to fill in the details of the night’s events, withholding the more graphic elements.
“Tuck doesn’t remember much,” she said. “They said he’ll be fine, no internal bleeding or anything, but his short-term memory appears to be impaired.”
“That often happens with blows to the head,” Michelle remarked. “But it might come back.”
“The Secret Service is undertaking protection of the… extended First Family now,” she said.
“Smart move,” said Sean.
“The Achilles’ heel finally exposed,” noted Jane quietly.
Sean said, “The FBI is investigating. I’m not sure there’s anything we can do that they can’t.”
“I threw a birthday party for Willa at Camp David. Pam was there, Willa’s friends, her brother and sister. It was a very special day for a very special girl.”
“She is special,” Sean agreed.
“To think that on the same day of that wonderful celebration this… this horror would have happened.” She suddenly stared at Sean. “I want you to find Willa. And the people responsible for this.”
He swallowed nervously. “It’s a federal investigation. We can’t get in the middle of that. They’ll eat us for lunch.”
“You helped me once, Sean, and I’ve never forgotten that. I know I have no right to ask, but I desperately need your help again.”
“But the FBI?”
She waved a dismissive hand. “I’m sure they’re very good. But it goes without saying that because of Willa’s relationship to me this will very quickly become a political punching bag.”
“How could anyone make the murder of a mother and the kidnapping of her child political?” Michelle asked.
Jane gave her a smile that came awfully close to condescending. “We’re in the middle of a reelection campaign. This town specializes in making the apolitical political, Michelle. There are no limits to the depths to which some people will go.”
“And you think that might influence the FBI’s investigation?” Sean said.
“I don’t want to take the chance that the answer to that question is yes. I want people with only one agenda. Finding out the truth. Without smears. Without spin. Which means I want you.”
“Do you have any idea why someone would have done this, Mrs. Cox?” asked Michelle.
“I can’t think of anyone.”
Sean suggested, “How about the usual suspects? A terrorist group? The First Family is too well protected so they go against a softer target.”
“If so, we should hear some group taking responsibility then, or a demand of some kind,” added Michelle.
“We might soon. What does the president think?” asked Sean.
“He’s as worried and concerned as I am.”
“I meant does he have any idea who might have done this?’
“I don’t believe so, no.”
Sean added in a delicate tone, “Does he know you’re meeting with us?”
“I see no reason for him to know, at least not right now.”
“With all due respect, your Secret Service detail knows, ma’am,” said Michelle.
“I believe I can rely on them to be discreet.”
Michelle and Sean exchanged a nervous glance. There wasn’t a Secret Service agent alive who would intentionally hide anything from the president. That would be career suicide, discretion notwithstanding.
“Okay,” said Sean. “But if we’re going to look into this thing, our involvement may come out at some point.”
Michelle interjected, “If it does we can claim we’re just doing it because Sean is a friend of the family and was actually there when it happened. In fact they tried to kill me. So maybe we hang our hat on that.”
Sean nodded and glanced at Jane. “We can play it that way, certainly.”
“We’ll need to talk to Tuck and John and Colleen.”
“I can arrange that. Tuck is still in the hospital. The children are staying at Pam’s sister’s house in Bethesda.”
“And we’ll need access to the crime scene.”
Michelle added, “The FBI will have all the forensics evidence. We’ll need to see that too if we’re really going to get anywhere.”
“I’ll see what I can do. After all, this is my family.”
“Okay,” Sean said slowly, watching her closely.
“So you’ll do it?” She laid her hand over the top of Sean’s.
He looked at Michelle, who gave a quick nod. “We’ll do it.”
THEY LEFT THE CHURCH. The Town Car was not waiting for them.
“I guess we didn’t pay for a round trip,” muttered Michelle.
They were starting to walk across Lafayette Park when Sean said, “Hold on to your organs. Here they come.”
The two men were marching with a shared purpose. One was Sour Face, the FBI agent. The other one Sean knew well, as did Michelle. He was Secret Service, higher-up Secret Service named Aaron Betack. The man’s distinguished career at the Service had swiftly propelled him from the trenches to the power tower, and Sean noted he had quite the spring in his step right now.
They blocked Sean and Michelle’s way.
Sean feigned surprise. “Hey, you guys out for a stroll too? Great minds and all.”
Sour Face said, “We know where you’ve been and who you just talked to and we’re here to put the kibosh on it right now. The last thing we need are two cowboys—” He paused and leered at Michelle. “Excuse me, and cowgirl screwing this up.”
“I never did get your name,” said Sean pleasantly.
“FBI Special Agent Chuck Waters, WFO.”
“That’s good to know,” put in Michelle. “Because I’ve just been referring to you as dickhead.”
“Maxwell,” snapped Betack. “You show some damn respect.”
“Show me something I should respect and I will,” she shot back.
Waters inched closer to her and waggled a finger an inch from her nose. “You just back the hell off, little lady.”
Since Michelle was nearly four inches taller than Waters, she said, “If I’m a little lady that must mean you’re a dwarf.”
“And just so you know, Chuck, this little lady here can kick all of our asses without breaking a sweat, so back off,” said Sean.
Betack, who was the same size as the six-foot-two King with even broader shoulders, cleared his throat and gave his FBI colleague a cautious look and then a shake of the head. Waters’s face flamed red but he did take a noticeable step back.
Betack said, “Sean, you and Maxwell are not investigating this case. Period.”
“Last time I looked at my pay stub it didn’t mention Uncle Sam.”
“There’s no nevertheless. We met with a prospective client. We have agreed to represent said client. This is America. They allow that sort of thing here. Now, we have a case to get working on.”
“You’re really going to regret this, King,” barked Waters.
“I’ve regretted a lot of things in my life. And yet here I am.”
He pushed past them and Michelle followed. She made sure to let her elbow impact with Waters’s shoulder.
When they got back to Michelle’s SUV she said, “I was really proud of you back there.”
“Don’t be. We just made enemies of two of the most powerful agencies in the world.”
“Go big or go home.”
“I’m serious, Michelle.”
She put the SUV in gear. “So that just means we have to solve this thing fast.”
“You really think that’s even remotely possible?”
“We’ve cracked tough stuff before.”
“Yeah, and none of it happened fast.”
“Allow me to be cautiously pessimistic. Where to first? Tuck?”
“No, the kids.”
As they drove along she said, “And what did you think of Jane Cox’s story?”
“It seemed pretty straightforward.”
“Oh, you think so?”
“And you didn’t?”
“You never did tell me how you know the lady.”
“How does anyone really know anyone else?”
“Cut the existential crap. I want to know how you know her.”
“Why does that matter?”
“It matters because if your judgment is clouded—”
“Who the hell says my judgment is clouded?”
“Come on, I saw how she put her hand on top of yours. Did you two have an affair or something?”
“You think I was banging the president of the United States’ wife? Give me a freaking break!”
“Maybe she wasn’t the First Lady when you knew her,” Michelle said calmly. “But I don’t know that because you refuse to tell me, your partner, anything about it. Talk about a one-way street. I’ve bared my guts to you, I expect a little reciprocity.”
“Okay, okay.” He fell silent and looked out the window.
“I did not have an affair with Jane Cox.”
“Did you want to?”
He shot her a glance. “What do you care?”
Michelle, who’d been grinning at him, now looked flustered. “I, I don’t care who you lust after. That’s your business.”
“That’s good to know, because I’m really into lust privacy.”
There was an awkward silence as they drove along.
Michelle was racking her brains for some other line of questioning and gratefully pounced on it. “But you were gone from the Service long before her husband ran for the Oval Office.”
“He was also a U.S. senator before that.”
“But what’s the connection with the Service? Or did it not have anything to do with that?”
“It did. And it didn’t.”
“Great, thanks for clearing that up.”
He remained silent.
“Sean, come on!” She slapped the steering wheel in frustration.
“This can go no further, Michelle.”
“Yeah, I’m a real blabbermouth.”
“I’ve never told anyone this. No one.”
She glanced over at him and noted the grim expression. “Okay.”
He settled back in his seat. “Years ago I was working presidential advance team duty in Georgia. I went out to have a late bite to eat with another agent. He left to get back on shift but I was off for the night. I took a stroll, scoping out the place, with an eye to doing some recon for trouble spots along the motorcade route. I’d been walking around for about an hour. It was maybe 11:30. That’s when I saw him.”
“He wasn’t president back then. He’d just been elected to the Senate. If you recall, he served a full term and then a couple years of his next before running for president.”
“Okay, you saw him, so what?”
“He was in a parked car in an alley, dead drunk, with some chick going down on him.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“You think I’d make that up?”
“So what happened?”
“I recognized him. He’d actually been at a briefing we did for the local officials in anticipation of the president coming to town.”
“So what was he doing getting ‘serviced’ in an alley by a woman who wasn’t his wife?”
“Well, I didn’t know it wasn’t his wife at the time, but it was still dicey. He was in the same political party as the president and I didn’t want this to make waves before the man came down. So I knocked on the car window and flashed my shield. The chick jumped off him so fast I thought she was going to go right through the car roof. Cox was so wasted he had no idea what was happening.”
“So what’d you do?”
“I told the lady to get out of the car.”
“Was she a hooker?”
“Don’t think so. She was young but not dressed the way you’d think a hooker would be. I remember she almost fell out of the car trying to pull her panties on. I asked her for some ID.”
“Just in case this came back to bite me in the ass later, I wanted to be able to find the lady.”
“So she just gave you her driver’s license?”
“She obviously didn’t want to, but I told her she had no choice. I bluffed her and told her if she didn’t I was going to have to call in the police. She let me see her license and I wrote her name and address down. She lived in the city.”
“What happened after that?”
Excerpted from First Family by David Baldacci Copyright © 2012 by David Baldacci. Excerpted by permission.
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