In The Wingman, veteran Midwestern reporter Jack Sharpe has made it big thanks to the deep-rooted voter-fraud conspiracy he uncovered in The People’s House (the first of the series). Sharpe catches a whiff that something rotten is taking place in the Democratic Presidential primary, and ultimately discovers an elaborate scheme to put a corrupt and dangerous politician in the nation’s highest office by any means necessary. Dark money, drone technology, paramilitary government contractors, neglected veterans, kompromat—we see these issues in the news every day. But in The Wingman David Pepper shows that if shadowy entities with enough incentive and resources were to connect and exploit these issues, the American people would be largely powerless to stop them. Jack must risk his life and reputation to get to the bottom of the story before the disturbing plot he and his team have uncovered becomes reality.
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HANOVER, NEW HAMPSHIRE
We had been in Dartmouth's red-bricked Baker Hall for 40 minutes, 300 audience members and an entire nation watching. The four Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination had jousted back and forth with predictable attacks and tired rhetoric, making no news whatsoever. As the debate's only moderator, seated behind a small black desk that faced the stage, I was solely responsible for shifting the discussion into a higher gear. Having prepped for my big moment for weeks, I was now guiding a dull and dreary conversation, and — even worse — a ratings killer.
"Move on, Jack," my producer warned through my earpiece. "People are tuning out." A few minutes remained, leaving me time for only one or two more questions. A bead of sweat snaked down my cheek. If I blew this, my debate moderating career would be over after only one try. I jumped to national defense.
"Senator, what should we do about the Jordan uprising?" I asked Michigan Senator Wendell Stevens, the most revered African-American politician on the national stage.
"We must stand with our friends," Senator Stevens said in his deep baritone, reaching forward with a clenched fist, thumb on top, Clinton-style. "King Hassan has been a great ally. Advising him is not supporting him. We have to do more."
Good rhetoric, but a dodge. "Would you send in ground troops?" I asked, pressing.
"If that's what it takes. But we should start with targeted air strikes on the insurg —"
"Typical of those who've never served," said a voice from the far left of the stage. The interruption had come from upstart Congressman Anthony Bravo, who'd barely said a word all night, let alone lobbed any bombs like this one. I was taken aback. Stevens looked as though he felt the same.
"What do you mean, Congressman?" I asked, desperately hoping to amp things up.
"Politicians who've never been on the battlefield commit troops like it's some bloodless board game," Bravo said soberly. "Doing so here would be a big mistake. I saw friends lose limbs, and others their lives, from those mistakes. I held one in my arms. Why would we send troops into another civil war?"
"Because," said Stevens, regaining his composure, "if we don't, and Jordan falls, so will its neighbors. It will only get worse."
I ignored him and turned back to the congressman. A unique opportunity had just presented itself. Bravo's best political asset was his war record. The Army had honored him for valor, and his campaign plastered photos of his time in Afghanistan and Iraq all over his literature. But Bravo had never talked about that record in detail, even when pushed. He usually made broad reference to it and then moved on.
"Tell us more about that story, Congressman."
"What story?" he asked, visibly in retreat.
"Saving that soldier." Clearly a softball, but this was my chance to save the debate. Add some drama. Maybe even a little humanity.
"That's the point," Bravo said quietly. "I couldn't save him. He died in my arms." He gently lifted both arms as he said it, palms out, as if still holding his fallen comrade.
Gasps arose from the audience, raw emotion that had been elusive all night. Still, my journalist's instincts kicked in and I said nothing, gambling that the silence would invite even more from Bravo. He obliged.
"We were in Baghdad, a section called Rusafa, during the surge," he said. "Our brigade was going door to door, and we knocked on the wrong door. A sergeant, a close friend, took a spray of bullets to the gut through a screen door. He fired back, but it was too late. I heard the gunfire, saw him fall, and dragged him to a doorstep we'd already cleared. I sat down behind him. We prayed together, cried together, and I held him until he took his final breath."
Bravo paused, grimacing, reliving his comrade's final moment before the entire country. He looked down at his hands, then back up, directly at the camera. "I think about that moment every time I hear a politician casually propose more boots on the ground. If all our politicians served, and saw what I saw, Senator, they'd make better decisions."
Having been so thoroughly called out, Senator Stevens turned from the audience and glared across the stage toward Bravo. But he said nothing.
After a few moments of stunned silence, a handful of folks ignored my pre-debate instructions and began clapping. Like a wave, the quiet applause grew into a rowdy roar until every one of the 300 well-heeled political junkies jammed into Baker Hall rose to their feet.
"Holy shit, Jack," my producer said in my ear amid the din. "You saved it."
Bravo's three opponents, even Stevens, ultimately turned Bravo's way and applauded, essentially conceding the debate. They undoubtedly realized that not cheering would have been worse — as unpatriotic as reciting the nation's pledge with your hands at your side. The small monitor in front of me showed that our cameras now panned out, capturing the war hero being honored by his more seasoned stage-mates, two men and a woman, all considered far more prepared to be president. It was an iconic image. A powerful passing of the torch. A game-changing moment.
Bravo knew it. He nodded his head, acknowledging the praise. But he also pursed his lips. Clenched his jaw. Any sense of celebration would kill the moment. He had struck a deeper chord, way beyond politics. And he carried himself accordingly. For 30 full seconds, the cheers continued.
That's when I noticed. With the cameras still pulled back to the wider shot, and the studio audience sitting well behind me, my guess was that I was the only one seeing it.
Bravo's eyes. His dark brown eyes.
They widened, then darted ever so slightly.
Then he looked at me. Directly. Impatiently. In a way no one else could have seen.
He was eager to move on. Desperate to move on.
His words may have been moving, his delivery powerful. But those eyes told the real story — they always did. As my high school coach had drilled into me as a young quarterback, "It's all about your eyes, Jack. The best players are watching your eyes, and if you're not careful, they'll betray you every time." I'd long ago learned that Coach's lesson applied way beyond football. A man could mouth whatever words he wanted, lie or tell the truth. He could smile or frown, gesture wildly or sit perfectly still. But his eyes told the real story. If he wasn't careful, and if you paid attention, the eyes told all.
Now, Bravo's eyes signaled that something was off. Discomfort, at a time when discomfort made no sense. Maybe it was a painful memory. Or maybe something about the story was not quite right. Or maybe there was more to it. Whatever it was, Bravo wanted to change topics.
And since he had saved my debut, I returned the favor, moving onto the final question of the night. But because of those eyes, I also jotted down a simple reminder on the notepad in front of me: "Check out Bravo war story."
* * *
"Jack, that was incredible television," Bridget Turner said when she called me immediately after the debate. "You drew that story out of him perfectly."
Good. Positive feedback from my network's star anchor meant as much to my success as strong ratings.
"Thanks," I said, collapsing into my dressing room chair and eyeing a small mirror. "How'd he look when he answered it?"
"Like an absolute hero. Amazing."
"Anything seem off to you?" I asked, mopping the remnants of blush from my face with a damp cloth.
"Off? Not at all. It's as if his entire life was made for that moment. We've never seen a focus group react so strongly."
She hadn't noticed Bravo's look, so I left it at that. I handed the cloth back to the young woman who'd been hovering near me all evening. A handler, I think she was called. I still wasn't used to having them around.
"Thank you," I whispered. I nodded in a way that I hoped would signal that she was free to scram. She didn't get the message.
"We should dig deeper and do a story on the incident," I said to Bridget. "On his war record. Now that it's front and center."
"We absolutely must. Hell, we could do a whole special on it."
I rolled my eyes. A special. This was my daily reminder that I had joined the dark side. After watching for years as television reporters mangled story after story or simply regurgitated the scoops we print reporters had uncovered first, I'd always looked down on TV news. Now here I was, less than a year after my Abacus election-rigging story had turned Washington upside down, doing TV — debates, live shots, interviews, handlers, and now specials. After the Abacus scoop had made me famous, Bridget Turner and Republic News had made an offer I couldn't refuse. Executive producer of a new investigations bureau, with a staff of reporters and researchers to systematically dig up scoops and scandals just like Abacus. And I would have the leeway to serve as a roving reporter and commentator on political matters of my choosing. To top it all off, they'd offered me a salary five times what the Youngstown Vindicator had offered to keep me. That combination had overwhelmed my resistance to new media.
Outside of occasional Beltway claustrophobia, I wasn't complaining. Covering politics from a safe and high-profile pedestal had its benefits. I could still land the big scoop, but without risking my own hide, or that of my son, his wife, or my new grandson. It was a welcome change from the daily, white-knuckle fear I'd endured only a year ago. And with each month that passed, this new life buried my deepest secret that much deeper. I looked forward to the day that the compromise I'd made no longer weighed on me.
It hadn't arrived yet, but it was coming.
* * *
An hour after the debate, I scooted into the first window seat available on the Washington-bound 737, ten rows back. Moments later, longtime FOX anchor Rob Stone sat in the aisle seat of my row, with only one empty seat separating us. I nodded in acknowledgement but didn't hide my annoyance.
As the political reporter at the biggest paper in Youngstown, I'd always had the terrain all to myself. But covering national politics for a media behemoth like Republic News was the opposite — fiercely competitive, everyone trying to drag scoops out of the same sources. You jumped on even the smallest tips, and you angled for the slightest hint of what your competitors were digging into. Even in the most casual conversations, you were on guard. And whether on a bus, a plane, at the movies, whatever — you sat in different rows. But Stone had boarded too late to sit anywhere else, and he looked about as happy about it as I was. Even with a seat between us, we leaned in opposite directions.
"Decent work tonight, Sharpe," he said.
"Thanks. I know I'm a rookie, but I enjoyed it," I said, gazing out the window, matching his insincerity. The green de-icing liquid oozed off the back of the wing as we taxied through the blowing snow.
"Yeah, with the exception of that war story, it was a little dull. But I guess they're all saying the same things now anyway."
Nice zing. Subtle. As a newbie with one of the best deals in the industry, I received my fair share of hazing. But I turned to him with a smile. "Might really shake things up in the race."
"True. I think Bravo just became a national sensation. That story gave me goose bumps. I used to embed a lot back in the day. Covered those boys on the ground. Terrible stuff."
"Terrible," I muttered, turning back to the window. It hadn't taken Stone long to turn the conversation to himself. I almost admired his dexterity.
Thankfully, the cabin lights dimmed and we stopped talking as the 737 powered down the runway and took off into the wintry night. Stone was out cold by the time the pilot announced we had reached cruising altitude, but despite my long day I remained wide awake, and not because of Stone's loud, wet snores.
Our brief exchange had confirmed that Stone had missed Bravo's eyes. Bridget Turner had clearly missed them. Keen observers, both. If they hadn't noticed, chances were no one had — no one but me.
And in this industry that I now called my own, being the sole person to notice pretty much anything presented one hell of an opportunity.
At 10:30 the next morning, I sat at the head of our glass-topped conference room table, braced for battle. The large flat-screen monitor on the wall had just played back Congressman Bravo's breakthrough moment from the night before. Knowing my team would be skeptical about diving into a purely political story, I was doing my best to motivate them.
"Everyone will be talking about that moment, but I doubt anyone will dig into it," I said.
As usual, Cassie Knowles, sitting to my right, spoke out first. A small white opal stud gleamed from the left side of her nose, and the V-neck of her casual black shirt dropped low enough to display the large, half-moon-shaped tattoo on her upper chest. Must've been a non-camera day. When she was on air, she made sure to look as preppy as the rest of the industry.
"Jack, I don't get it," she said, frowning. "What do you want us to find out?"
The phrasing was pure Cassie. Finding out was her specialty, along with questioning authority. I had plucked her from the Washington bureau of the Boston Globe only months after she had moved to D.C. She'd won a Pulitzer for tracing a toxic water outbreak to unscrupulous contractors who were also major donors to the Massachusetts governor. The man had walked right into a trap when he'd granted her interview request, but I knew why he'd messed up. Cassie could fool you. Her bangs and wide hazel eyes made her look younger than 30. The governor had probably assumed she was harmless. But the lies she'd recorded over that hour ultimately had cost the governor his job. And now here she was, pressing me, her boss, wanting to find out what I knew.
It was too early to mention my theory about Bravo's eyes. Better to keep that shaky detail — the only source for my hunch — to myself.
"Everything," I said. "I want you to find out everything. More on Bravo's service. Who was the soldier he was talking about? What other soldiers were there that day? And while we're at it, track down his family. See what they have to say."
"Bravo's family?" Cassie asked.
"No," I said, "the family of the dead soldier. What do they think of Bravo? His story?"
"Sounds like a fluff piece," I heard mumbled at me from my left. "Isn't that better left to someone else?" Now George Vassos was piling on.
Vassos had spent years as a public records lawyer for major newspapers. When motivated, he was a master at getting documents out of government, a skill that anchored any investigation of public entities. We had enticed him to join our team by matching his lawyers' salary and pairing it with a far more exciting role, minus the billable hours. But I already worried he was coasting toward retirement. Bearded, bespectacled, and slightly overweight, he certainly didn't look the part of a crack Republic News reporter. And for the most part he was our resident naysayer, jumping in to meetings just when the rest of the team was getting excited about something, telling us the reasons our plans wouldn't work, generally playing the part of a wet blanket. He was the best at what he did, but I worried about his attitude and its effect on the rest of the operation. And now here he was, calling my idea a fluff piece.
"At the very least, we need a full accounting of what happened," I said. "Given how important this has now become, see if there's more to the story."
"Come on, Jack, you think he was lying about it?"
This came across the table from Alex Fischer. Her skepticism confirmed that I had exactly zero allies when it came to this Bravo story. Great. And out of all of my reporters, Alex was the one I most needed at my back. Alex Fischer was the celebrity of our little unit. When we'd stolen her from NBC, the television world could tell we were serious. But she'd covered the Pentagon for years, embedding in Iraq numerous times, so I wasn't surprised she was suspicious of my idea.
"It wouldn't be the first time someone lied about his war record," I said, feeling defensive. "See if you can use your old Pentagon sources to get more on the story."
"I'll see what I can dredge up," she said flatly.
"Dredge?" I said. "What's the deal, Alex?" My mind was telling me to cool it, but Alex had gotten under my skin.
Excerpted from "The Wingman"
Copyright © 2017 David Pepper.
Excerpted by permission of St. Helena Press.
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