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The President Is Missing / (by Bill Clinton, James Patterson, 2018) -

The President Is Missing /   (by Bill Clinton, James Patterson, 2018) -

The President Is Missing / (by Bill Clinton, James Patterson, 2018) -

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The President Is Missing / (by Bill Clinton, James Patterson, 2018) -
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2018
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Bill Clinton, James Patterson
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Dennis Quaid, January LaVoy, Peter Ganim, Jeremy Davidson, Mozhan Marno
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upper-intermediate
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12:55:28
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The President Is Missing / :

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Thursday, May 10 Chapter 1 The House Select Committee will come to order The sharks are circling, their nostrils twitching at the scent of blood. Thirteen of them, to be exact, eight from the opposition party and five from mine, sharks against whom Ive been preparing defenses with lawyers and advisers. Ive learned the hard way that no matter how prepared you are, there are few defenses that work against predators. At some point, theres nothing you can do but jump in and fight back. Dont do it, my chief of staff, Carolyn Brock, pleaded again last night, as she has so many times. You cant go anywhere near that committee hearing, sir. You have everything to lose and nothing to gain. You cant answer their questions, sir. It will be the end of your presidency. I scan the thirteen faces opposite me, seated in a long row, a modern-day Spanish Inquisition. The silver-haired man in the center, behind the nameplate MR. RHODES, clears his throat. Lester Rhodes, the Speaker of the House, normally doesnt participate in committee hearings, but he has made an exception for this select committee, which he has stacked with members of Congress on his side of the aisle whose principal goal in life seems to be stopping my agenda and destroying me, politically and personally. Savagery in the quest for power is older than the Bible, but some of my opponents really hate my guts. They dont just want to run me out of office. They wont be satisfied unless Im sent to prison, drawn and quartered, and erased from the history books. Hell, if they had their way, theyd probably burn down my house in North Carolina and spit on my wifes grave. I uncurl the gooseneck stem of the microphone so that it is taut, fully extended, as close to me as possible. I dont want to lean forward to speak while the committee members sit up straight in their high-backed leather chairs like kings and queens on thrones. Leaning forward would make me look weak, subservienta subliminal message that Im at their mercy. I am alone at my chair. No aides, no lawyers, no notes. The American people are not going to see me exchanging hushed whispers with an attorney, my hand over the microphone, removing it to testify that I have no specific recollection of that, Congressman. Im not hiding. I shouldnt have to be here, and I sure as hell dont want to be here, but here I am. Just me. The president of the United States, facing a mob of accusers. In the corner of the room, the triumvirate of my top aides sits in observation: the chief of staff, Carolyn Brock; Danny Akers, my oldest friend and White House counsel; and Jenny Brickman, my deputy chief of staff and senior political adviser. All of them stoic, stone-faced, worried. Not one of them wanted me to do this. It was their unanimous conclusion that I was making the biggest mistake of my presidency. But Im here. Its time. Well see if they were right. Mr. President. Mr. Speaker. Technically, in this context, I should probably call him Mr. Chairman, but there are a lot of things I could call him that I wont. This could begin any number of ways. A self-congratulatory speech by the Speaker disguised as a question. Some light introductory setup questions. But Ive seen enough video of Lester Rhodes questioning witnesses before he was Speaker, back when he was a middling congressman on the House Oversight Committee, to know that he has a penchant for opening strong, going straight for the jugular, throwing off the witness. He knowsin fact, after 1988, when Michael Dukakis botched the first debate question about the death penalty, everyone knowsthat if you blow the opener, nobody remembers anything else. Will the Speaker follow that same plan of attack with a sitting president? Of course he will. President Duncan, he begins. Since when are we in the business of protecting terrorists? We arent, I say so quickly that I almost talk over him, because you cant give a question like that oxygen. And we never will be. Not while Im president. Are you sure about that? Did he really just say that? The heat rises to my face. Not one minute in, and hes already under my skin. Mr. Speaker, I say. If I said it, I meant it. Lets be clear about that from the start. We are not in the business of protecting terrorists. He pauses after that reminder. Well, Mr. President, maybe we are parsing words here. Do you consider the Sons of Jihad to be a terrorist organization? Of course. My aides said not to say of course; it can sound pompous and condescending unless its delivered just right. And that group has received support from Russia, has it not? I nod. Russia has given support to the SOJ from time to time, yes. Weve condemned their support of the SOJ and other terrorist organizations. The Sons of Jihad has committed acts of terror on three different continents, is that correct? Thats an accurate summary, yes. Theyre responsible for the deaths of thousands of people? Yes. Including Americans? Yes. The explosions at the Bellwood Arms Hotel in Brussels that killed fifty-seven people, including a delegation of state legislators from California? The hacking of the air-traffic control system in the republic of Georgia that brought down three airplanes, one of them carrying the Georgian ambassador to the United States? Yes, I say. Both of those acts occurred before I was president, but yes, the Sons of Jihad has claimed responsibility for both incidents Okay, then lets talk about since youve been president. Isnt it true that just a few months ago, the Sons of Jihad was responsible for hacking into Israeli military systems and publicly releasing classified information on Israeli covert operatives and troop movements? Yes, I say. Thats true. And far closer to home, here in North America, he says. Just last week. Friday, the fourth of May. Didnt the Sons of Jihad commit yet another act of terror when it hacked into the computers controlling Torontos subway system and shut it down, causing a derailment that killed seventeen people, injured dozens more, and left thousands of people stranded in darkness for hours? Hes right that the SOJ was responsible for that one, too. And his casualty count is accurate. But to the SOJ, that wasnt an act of terror. That was a test run. Four of the people who died in Toronto were Americans, correct? Thats correct, I say. The Sons of Jihad did not claim responsibility for that act, but we believe it was responsible. He nods, looks at his notes. The leader of the Sons of Jihad, Mr. President. Thats a man named Suliman Cindoruk, correct? Here we go. Yes, Suliman Cindoruk is the leader of the SOJ, I say. The most dangerous and prolific cyberterrorist in the world, correct? Id say so. A Turkish-born Muslim, is he not? Hes Turkish-born, but hes not Muslim, I say. He is a secular extreme nationalist who opposes the influence of the West in central and southeastern Europe. The jihad hes waging has nothing to do with religion. So you say. So says every intelligence assessment Ive ever seen, I say. Youve read them, too, Mr. Speaker. If you want to turn this into an Islamophobic rant, go ahead, but its not going to make our country any safer. He manages to crack a wry smile. At any rate, hes the most wanted terrorist in the world, isnt he? We want to capture him, I say. We want to capture any terrorist who tries to harm our country. He pauses. Hes debating whether to ask me again: Are you sure about that? If he does, it will take all the willpower I can summon not to knock over this table and take him by the throat. Just to be clear, then, he says. The United States wants to capture Suliman Cindoruk. Theres no need to clarify that, I snap. Theres never been any confusion about that. Never. Weve been hunting Suliman Cindoruk for a decade. We wont stop until we catch him. Is that clear enough for you? Well, Mr. President, with all due respect No, I interrupt. When you begin a question by saying with all due respect, it means youre about to say something that doesnt show any respect. You can think whatever you want, Mr. Speaker, but you should show respectif not for me then for all the other people who dedicate their lives to stopping terrorism and keeping our country safe. We arent perfect, and we never will be. But we will never stop doing our best. Then I wave at him dismissively. Go ahead and ask your question. My pulse banging, I take a breath and glance at my trio of advisers. Jenny, my political adviser, is nodding; she has always wanted me to be more aggressive with our new Speaker of the House. Danny shows nothing. Carolyn, my levelheaded chief of staff, is leaning forward, elbows on her knees, her hands pitched in a temple under her chin. If they were Olympic judges, Jenny would give me a 9 for that outburst, but Carolyn would have me under a 5. I wont have my patriotism questioned, Mr. President, says my silver-haired adversary. The American people have grave concerns about what happened in Algeria last week, and we havent even gotten into that yet. The American people have every right to know whose side youre on. Whose side Im on? I come forward with a start, nearly knocking the base of the microphone off the table. Im on the side of the American people, thats whose side Im on. Mr. Pres Im on the side of the people who work around the clock to keep our country safe. The ones who arent thinking about optics or which way the political winds are blowing. The ones who dont seek credit for their successes and cant defend themselves when theyre criticized. Thats whose side Im on. President Duncan, I strongly support the men and women who fight every day to keep our nation safe, he says. This isnt about them. This is about you, sir. This is no game were playing here. I take no pleasure in this. Under other circumstances, Id laugh. Lester Rhodes has been looking forward to the select committee hearing more than a college boy looks forward to his twenty-first birthday. This whole thing is for show. Speaker Rhodes has engineered this committee so that there is only one real outcomea finding of presidential misconduct sufficient to refer the matter to the House Judiciary Committee for impeachment proceedings. The eight members of Congress on his side are all in safe congressional districts, gerrymandered so cartoonishly that they could probably drop their pants in the middle of the hearing, start sucking their thumbs, and not only would they be reelected in two years, they would also run unopposed. My aides are right. It doesnt matter if the evidence against me is strong, weak, or nonexistent. The die is already cast. Ask your questions, I say. Lets get this charade over with. Over in the corner, Danny Akers winces, whispering something to Carolyn, who nods in response but maintains her poker face. Danny doesnt like the charade comment, my attack on these hearings. Hes told me more than once that what I did looks bad, very bad, giving Congress a valid reason for inquiry. Hes not wrong about that. He just doesnt know the full story. He doesnt have the security clearance to know what I know, what Carolyn knows. If he did, hed have a different take. Hed know about the threat to our country, a threat like none weve ever faced. A threat that led me to do some things I never thought Id do. Mr. President, did you call Suliman Cindoruk on Sunday, April 29, of this year? Just over a week ago? Did you or did you not contact the most wanted terrorist in the world by phone? Mr. Speaker, I say. As Ive said many times before, and as you should already know, not everything we do to keep our country safe can be disclosed publicly. The American people understand that keeping the nation safe and conducting foreign affairs involve a lot of moving parts, a lot of complex transactions, and that some of what we do in my administration has to remain classified. Not because we want to keep things secret, but because we must. Thats the point of executive privilege. Rhodes would probably contest the applicability of executive privilege to classified material. But Danny Akers, my White House counsel, says I will win that fight, because we are dealing with my constitutional authority in foreign affairs. Either way, my stomach clenches as I say these words. But Danny said that if I dont invoke the privilege, I might waive it. And if I waive it, I have to answer the question of whether I placed a phone call to Suliman Cindoruk, the most wanted terrorist on the planet, two Sundays ago. That is a question I will not answer. Well, Mr. President, Im not sure the American people would consider that much of an answer. Well, Mr. Speaker, Im not sure the American people would consider you much of a Speaker, either, but then again, the American people didnt elect you Speaker, did they? You got eighty thousand measly votes in the third congressional district in Indiana. I got sixty-four million votes. But your buddies in your party made you their leader because you raised so much damn money for them and promised them my head mounted on a wall. That probably wouldnt play so well on television. So you dont deny that you called Suliman Cindoruk on April 29would that be accurate? Ive already answered your question. No, Mr. President, you havent. Youre aware that the French newspaper Le Monde published leaked phone records, along with statements from an anonymous source, indicating that you called and spoke with Suliman Cindoruk on Sunday, April 29, of this year. Youre aware of that? Ive read the article, I say. Do you deny it? I give the same answer I gave before. Im not discussing it. Im not getting into a game of did-I-make-this-call-or-didnt-I. I dont confirm or deny or even discuss actions that I take to keep our country safe. Not when Im required to keep them secret in the interest of national security. Well, Mr. President, if one of the largest newspapers in Europe is publishing it, Im not sure its much of a secret anymore. My answer is the same, I say. God, I sound like an ass. Worse yet, I sound like a lawyer. Le Monde reports thathe holds up a paperUS president Jonathan Duncan arranged and participated in a phone call with Suliman Cindoruk, leader of the Sons of Jihad and among the most wanted terrorists in the world, seeking to find common ground between the terrorist organization and the West. Do you deny that, Mr. President? I cant respond, and he knows it. Hes batting me around like a kitten bats a ball of yarn. Ive already given my answer, I say. Im not going to repeat myself. The White House never commented on that Le Monde report one way or the other. Thats correct. Suliman Cindoruk did, though, didnt he? He released a video saying, The president can beg all he wants for mercy. The Americans will get no mercy from me. Isnt that what he said? Thats what he said. In response, the White House released a statement. It said, The United States will not respond to the outrageous rants of a terrorist. Thats right, I say. We wont. Did you beg him for mercy, Mr. President? My political adviser, Jenny Brickman, is practically pulling her hair. She doesnt have security clearance, either, so she doesnt know the whole story, but her main concern is that she wants me to be seen as a fighter in this hearing. If you cant fight back, she said, then dont go. Youll just be their political pi?ata. And shes right. Right now, its Lester Rhodess turn to put on the blindfold and whack a stick at me, hoping a bunch of classified information and political miscues will spill out of my torso. Youre shaking your head no, Mr. President. Just to be clear: you are denying that you begged Suliman Cindoruk for mer The United States will never beg anyone for anything, I say. Okay, then, you deny Suliman Cindoruks claim that you begged The United States, I repeat, will never beg anyone for anything. Is that clear, Mr. Speaker? Would you like me to say it again? Well, if you didnt beg him Next question, I say. Did you ask him nicely not to attack us? Next question, I say again. He pauses, looking over his notes. My time is expiring, he says. I have just a few more questions. One downalmost downbut another twelve questioners to go, all prepped with their fresh one-liners and zingers and gotcha questions. The Speaker is known just as much for his closing questions as he is for his openers. I already know what hes going to say anyway. And he already knows that I wont be able to answer. Mr. President, he says, lets talk about Tuesday, the first of May. In Algeria. Just over a week ago. On Tuesday, May the first, he says, a group of pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia separatists assaulted a ranch in northern Algeria where Suliman Cindoruk was believed to be hiding. And in fact he was hiding there. They had located Cindoruk, and they moved on that ranch with the intention of killing him. But they were thwarted, Mr. President, by a team of Special Forces and CIA operatives from the United States. And Suliman Cindoruk escaped in the process. I remain completely still. Did you order that counterattack, Mr. President? he asks. And if so, why? Why would an American president dispatch US forces to save the life of a terrorist? Chapter 2 The chair recognizes the gentleman from Ohio: Mr. Kearns. I pinch the bridge of my nose, fighting the fatigue setting in. I havent slept but a handful of hours over the last week, and the mental gymnastics I have to perform while defending myself with one hand tied behind my back are wearing on me. But more than anything else, Im annoyed. I have things to do. I dont have time for this. I look to my leftthe panels right. Mike Kearns is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and Lester Rhodess prot?g?. He likes to wear bow ties so well all know how intelligent he is. Personally, Ive seen Post-it notes with more depth. But the guy knows how to ask a question. He was a federal prosecutor for years before entering the political ring. The mounted heads on his wall include two pharmaceuticals CEOs and a former governor. Stopping terrorists is a matter of grave national security, Mr. President. Youd agree? Absolutely. Then would you also agree that any American citizen who interfered with our ability to stop terrorists would be guilty of treason? I would condemn that action, I say. Would it be an act of treason? Thats for lawyers and courts to decide. Were both lawyers, but I made my point. Would it be an impeachable offense if it were the president who interfered with stopping terrorists? Gerald Ford once said that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives says it is. Thats not up to me, I say. He nods. No, its not. Earlier, you refused to say whether you ordered US Special Forces and CIA operatives to stop an attack on Suliman Cindoruk in Algeria. I said, Mr. Kearns, that some matters of national security cannot be discussed publicly. According to the New York Times, you acted on classified information indicating that this anti-Russia militia group had located Suliman Cindoruk and was about to kill him. I read that. I wont discuss it. Sooner or later, every president faces decisions in which the right choice is bad politics, at least in the short term. If the stakes are high, you have to do what you think is right and hope the political tide will turn. Its the job you promised to do. Mr. President, are you familiar with title 18, section 798, of the United States Code? I dont have the sections of the United States Code committed to memory, Mr. Kearns, but I believe youre referring to the Espionage Act. Indeed I am, Mr. President. It concerns the misuse of classified information. The relevant part says that its a federal offense for anyone to deliberately use classified information in a manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States. Does that sound right? Im sure your reading is accurate, Mr. Kearns. If a president deliberately used classified information to protect a terrorist bent on attacking us, would that fall under this statute? Not according to my White House counsel, who says that the section couldnt apply to the president, that it would be a novel reading of the Espionage Act, and that a president can declassify any information he wants. But that doesnt matter. Even if I were inclined to get into a semantic legal debate about the reach of a federal statuteand Im notthey can impeach me for anything they want. It doesnt have to be a crime. Everything I did was done to protect my country. Id do it again. The problem is, I cant say any of that. All I can tell you is that I have always acted with the security of my country in mind. And I always will. I see Carolyn in the corner, reading something on her phone, responding. I maintain eye contact in case I need to drop everything and act on it. Something from General Burke at CENTCOM? From the under secretary of defense? From the Imminent Threat Response Team? We have a lot of balls in the air right now, trying to monitor and defend against this threat. The other shoe could drop at any minute. We thinkwe hopethat we have another day, at least. But the only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain. We have to be ready any minute, right now, in case Is calling the leaders of ISIS protecting our country? What? I say, returning my focus to the hearing. What are you talking about? Ive never called the leaders of ISIS. What does ISIS have to do with this? Before Ive completed my answer, I realize what Ive done. I wish I could reach out and grab the words and stuff them back in my mouth. But its too late. He caught me when I was looking the other way. Oh, he says. So when I ask you whether youve called the leaders of ISIS, you say no, unequivocally. But when the Speaker asks you whether youve called Suliman Cindoruk, your answer is to invoke executive privilege. I think the American people can understand the difference. I blow out air and look over at Carolyn Brock, who maintains that implacable expression, though I can imagine a hint of I told ya so in her narrowed eyes. Congressman Kearns, this is a matter of national security. Its not a game of gotcha. This is serious business. Whenever youre ready to ask a serious question, Ill be happy to answer. An American died in that fight in Algeria, Mr. President. An American, a CIA operative named Nathan Cromartie, died stopping that anti-Russia militia group from killing Suliman Cindoruk. I think the American people consider that to be serious. Nathan Cromartie was a hero, I say. We mourn his loss. I mourn his loss. Youve heard his mother speak out on this, he says. I have. We all have. After what happened in Algeria, we disclosed nothing publicly. We couldnt. But then the militia group published video of a dead American online, and it didnt take long before Clara Cromartie identified him as her son, Nathan. She outed him as a CIA operative, too. It was one gigantic shitstorm. The media rushed to her, and within hours she was demanding to know why her son had to die to protect a terrorist responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, including many Americans. In her grief and pain, she practically wrote the script for the select committee hearing. Dont you think you owe the Cromartie family answers, Mr. President? Nathan Cromartie was a hero, I say again. He was a patriot. And he understood as well as anyone that much of what we do in the interest of national security cannot be discussed publicly. Ive spoken privately to Mrs. Cromartie, and Im deeply sorry for what happened to her son. Beyond that, I wont comment. I cant, and I wont. Well, in hindsight, Mr. President, he says, do you think maybe your policy of negotiating with terrorists hasnt worked out so well? I dont negotiate with terrorists. Whatever you want to call it, he says. Calling them. Hashing things out with them. Coddling them I dont coddle The lights flicker overhead, two quick blinks of interruption. Some groans in response, and Carolyn Brock perks up, writing herself a mental note. The congressman uses the pause to jump in for another question. You have made no secret, Mr. President, that you prefer dialogue over shows of force, that youd rather talk things out with terrorists. No, I say, drawing out the word, my pulse throbbing in my temples, because that kind of oversimplification epitomizes everything thats wrong with our politics. What I have said repeatedly is that if there is a way to peacefully resolve a situation, the peaceful way is the better way. Engaging is not surrendering. Are we here to have a foreign-policy debate, Congressman? Id hate to interrupt this witch hunt with a substantive conversation. I glance over to the corner of the room, where Carolyn Brock winces, a rare break in her implacable expression. Engaging the enemy is one way to put it, Mr. President. Coddling is another way. I do not coddle our enemies, I say. Nor do I renounce the use of force in dealing with them. Force is always an option, but I will not use it unless I deem it necessary. That might be hard to understand for some country-club, trust-fund baby who spent his life chugging beer bongs and paddling pledges in some secret-skull college fraternity and calling everybody by their initials, but I have met the enemy head-on on a battlefield. I will pause before I send our sons and daughters into battle, because I was one of those sons, and I know the risks. Jenny is leaning forward, wanting more, always wanting me to expound on the details of my military service. Tell them about your tour of duty. Tell them about your time as a POW. Tell them about your injuries, the torture. It was an endless struggle during the campaign, one of the things about me that tested most favorably. If my advisers had their way, it would have been just about the only thing I ever discussed. But I never gave in. Some things you just dont talk about. Are you finished, Mr. Pres No, Im not finished. I already explained all this to House leadership, to the Speaker and others. I told you I couldnt have this hearing. You could have said, Okay, Mr. President, we are patriots, too, and we will respect what youre doing, even if you cant tell us everything thats going on. But you didnt do that, did you? You couldnt resist the chance to haul me in and score points. So let me say to you publicly what I said to you privately. I will not answer your specific questions about conversations Ive had or actions that Ive taken, because they are dangerous. They are a threat to our national security. If I have to lose this office to protect this country, I will do it. But make no mistake. I have never taken a single action, or uttered a single word, without the safety and security of the United States foremost in my mind. And I never will. My questioner is not the least bit deterred by the insults Ive hurled. He is undoubtedly encouraged by the fact that his questions have now firmly found their place under my skin. He is looking at his notes again, at his flowchart of questions and follow-ups, while I try to calm myself. Whats the toughest decision youve made this week, Mr. Kearns? Which bow tie to wear to the hearing? Which side to part your hair for that ridiculous comb-over that isnt fooling anybody? Lately I spend almost all my time trying to keep this country safe. That requires tough decisions. Sometimes those decisions have to be made when there are many unknowns. Sometimes all the options are flat-out shitty, and I have to choose the least flat-out-shitty one. Of course I wonder if Ive made the right call and whether it will work out in the end. So I just do the best I can. And live with it. That means I also have to live with the criticism, even when it comes from an opportunistic political hack picking out one move on the chessboard without knowing what the rest of the game looks like, then turning that move inside out without having a single clue how much he might be endangering our nation. Mr. Kearns, Id like to discuss all my actions with you, but there are national security considerations that just dont permit it. I know you know that, of course. But I also know its hard to pass up an easy cheap shot. In the corner, Danny Akers has his hands up, signaling for a time-out. Yeah, you know what? Youre right, Danny. Its time. Im done with this. This is over. Were done. I lash out and whack the microphone off the table. I knock over my chair as I get to my feet. I get it, Carrie. Its a bad idea to testify. Theyll tear me to pieces. I get it. Carolyn Brock gets to her feet, straightens her suit. Okay, everyone, thank you. Please give us the room now. The room being the Roosevelt Room, across from the Oval Office. A good place to hold a meetingor in this case, a mock committee hearingbecause it contains both the portrait of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback as a Rough Rider and the Nobel Peace Prize he won for settling the war between Japan and Russia. There are no windows, and the doors are easy to secure. Everyone stands. My press secretary pulls off his bow tie, a nice little detail he threw in to complete his role as Congressman Kearns. He looks at me with an apology, but I wave him off. He was just playing his role, trying to show me the worst-case scenario if I go forward with my decision to testify next week before the select committee. One of my lawyers in the White House counsels office, today playing the role of Lester Rhodes, all the way down to a silver wig that makes him look more like Anderson Cooper than the House Speaker, shoots me a sheepish look, too, and I give him the same reassurance. As the room slowly empties, the adrenaline drains from me, leaving me exhausted and discouraged. One thing they never tell you about this job is how much its like your first roller-coaster ridethrilling highs, lows lower than a snakes belly. Then its just me, staring at the Rough Rider portrait above the fireplace and hearing footsteps as Carolyn, Danny, and Jenny gingerly approach the wounded animal in the cage. Least flat-out shitty was my personal favorite, Danny says, deadpan. Rachel always told me I swear too much. She said swearing shows a lack of creativity. Im not so sure. When things get really tough, I can get pretty creative with my cussing. Anyway, Carolyn and my other close aides know Im using this mock session as therapy. If they really cant talk me out of testifying, at least they hope this will get the frustration, at its most colorful, out of my system, so I can focus on more presidential, profanity-free responses when its showtime. Jenny Brickman, with characteristic subtlety, says, Youd have to be a complete horses ass to testify next week. I nod at Jenny and Danny. I need Carrie, I say, the only one of them with the security clearance to speak with me right now. They leave us. Anything new? I ask Carolyn, just the two of us in the room now. She shakes her head. Nothing. Its still happening tomorrow? As far as I know, Mr. President. She nods in the direction where Jenny and Danny just left. Theyre right, you know. This hearing on Monday is a lose-lose. Were done talking about the hearing, Carrie. I agreed to do this mock session. I gave you one hour. Now were done. We have more important things on our minds right now, dont we? Yes, sir. The team is ready for the briefing, sir. I want to talk to Threat Response, then Burke, then the under secretary. In that order. Yes, sir. Ill be right there. Carolyn leaves me. Alone in the room, I stare at the portrait of the first President Roosevelt and think. But Im not thinking about the hearing on Monday. Im thinking about whether well still have a country on Monday. Chapter 3 As she emerges from the gate at Reagan National, she pauses a moment, ostensibly to look up at the signs for directions, but in fact she is enjoying the open-air space after the flight. She inhales deeply, pulls on the ginger candy in her mouth, the whimsical first movement of Violin Concerto no. 1, featuring Wilhelm Friedemann Herzog, playing softly in her earbuds. Look happy, they tell you. Happiness, they say, is the optimal emotion to project when under surveillance, the least likely to arouse suspicion. People who are smiling, who are content and pleased, if not laughing and joking, dont look like a threat. She prefers sexy. Its easier to pull off when alone, and its always seemed to work for herthe lopsided smile, the strut in her walk as she pulls her Bottega Veneta trolley behind her down the terminal. Its a role like any other, a coat she puts on when necessary and sheds as soon as shes done, but she can see its working: the men trying for eye contact, checking the cleavage shes made sure to reveal, allowing just enough bounce in her girls to make it memorable. The women sizing up her entire five-foot-nine-inch frame with envy, from her knee-high chocolate leather boots to her flaming red hair, before checking their husbands to see what they think of the view. She will be memorable, no doubt, the tall, leggy, busty redhead, hiding in plain sight. She should be in the clear by now, walking through the terminal toward the taxis. If they recognized her, she would know by now. They wouldnt have let her get this far. But she is not free and clear just yet, and she doesnt let down her guard. Ever. The moment you lose focus, you make a mistake, said the man who put a rifle in her hands for the first time, some twenty-five years ago. Dispassionate and logical are the words she lives by. Always thinking, never showing. The walk is agonizing, but she only shows it in her wincing eyes, concealed by Ferragamo sunglasses. Her mouth retains its confident smirk. She makes it outside to the taxis, appreciating the fresh air but nauseated by the vehicle exhaust. Airport officials in uniforms are yelling at cab drivers and directing people into the cars. Parents are corralling whiny children and rolling luggage. She moves into the center aisle and looks for the vehicle with the license plate she has committed to memory, the roadrunner decal on the cars side door. Its not here yet. She closes her eyes a moment and keeps time with the strings playing through her earbuds, the andante movement, her favorite, at first rueful and longing and then calming, almost meditative. When her eyes open, the cab with the right license plate, with the roadrunner decal on the passenger door, has entered the queue of cars. She rolls her luggage over and gets inside. The overpowering odor of fast food brings her breakfast to her throat. She stifles it and sits back in the seat. She kills the music as the concerto is entering its final, frenzied movement, the allegro assai. She removes her earbuds, feeling naked without the reassuring accompaniment of the violins and cellos. How is traffic today? she asks in English, a midwestern accent. The drivers eyes flash at her through the rearview mirror. The driver has surely been advised that she does not like people who fixate on her. Dont stare at Bach. Pretty good today, he answers, measuring every word, uttering the all-clear code she was hoping to hear. She didnt expect any complications this early on, but you never know. Now able to relax a moment, she crosses one leg and unzips her boot, then repeats with the other boot. She moans softly with the relief of freeing her feet from those boots and the four-inch lifts inside them. She stretches her toes and runs her thumb firmly under each arch, the closest she can come to a foot massage in the back of a cab. With any luck, she wont need to be five feet nine inches for the rest of the trip; five feet five will do just fine. She unzips her carry-on, folds the Gucci boots inside it, and pulls out a pair of Nike court shoes. As the car pulls into thick traffic, she looks out the window to her right, then glances to the left. She drops her head low, between her legs. When she reemerges, the red wig is in her lap, replaced with ink-black hair, pulled back mercilessly into a bun. You feelmore like yourself now? asks the driver. She doesnt reply. She steadies a cold stare for him, but he doesnt meet her eyes in the rearview mirror. He should know better. Bach doesnt like small talk. And its been a long time since shes felt like herself, as Americans would say. At most, she has an occasional window of relaxation. But the longer she stays in this line of work and the more times she reinvents herselfreplacing one facade with another, sometimes lingering in shadow, sometimes hiding in plain sightthe less she remembers her true self or even the concept of having her own identity. That will change soon, a vow she has made to herself. Her wig and boots now changed out, her carry-on zipped up and resting next to her on the seat, she reaches down to the floor mat at her feet. Her fingers find the edges of the mat and lift, freeing it from its Velcro moorings. Beneath it, a carpeted floorboard with latches. She pops the latches on each side and lifts open the door. She sits up again, checking the speedometer to make sure the driver isnt doing something stupid like speeding, to make sure that a police cruiser isnt happening by at this moment. Then she bends down again, removing the hard-shell case from the floorboard compartment. She places her thumb on the seal. It takes only a moment for the thumbprint recognition to pop the seal open. Not that the people who have hired her would have any reason to mess with her equipment, but better safe than sorry. She opens the case for a quick inspection. Hello, Anna, she whispers, the name she has given it. Anna Magdalena is a thing of beauty, a matte-black semiautomatic rifle capable of firing five rounds in less than two seconds, capable of assembly and disassembly in less than three minutes with nothing but a screwdriver. There are newer models on the market, of course, but Anna Magdalena has never let her down, from any distance. Dozens of people could confirm its accuracytheoreticallyincluding a prosecutor in Bogot?, Colombia, who until seven months ago had a head atop his body and the leader of a rebel army in Darfur who eighteen months ago suddenly spilled his brains into the lamb stew on his lap. She has killed on every continent. She has assassinated generals, activists, politicians, and businessmen. She is known only by her gender and the classical-music composer she favors. And by her 100 percent kill rate. This will be your greatest challenge, Bach, said the man who hired her for this job. No, she replied, correcting him. This will be my greatest success. Friday, May 11 Chapter 4 I wake with a start, staring into the darkness, fumbling for my phone. Its just past four in the morning. I text Carolyn. Anything? Her response comes immediately; shes not asleep. Nothing sir. I know better. Carolyn wouldve called me right away if something had happened. But shes become accustomed to these early morning communications ever since we discovered what we were up against. I exhale and stretch my arms, letting out nervous energy. Theres no way Ill go back to sleep. Todays the day. I spend some time on the treadmill in the bedroom. Ive nevernot since my baseball dayslost the need to work up a good sweat, especially in this job. Its like a massage before the stress of the day. When Rachels cancer returned, I had a treadmill installed in the bedroom so I could keep an eye on her even while exercising. Today its an easy stroll, not a run or even a brisk walk given my current physical condition, the relapse of my illness, which is the last thing I need right now. I brush my teeth and check my toothbrush when Im done. Nothing on it but the slushy remnants of the gel. I do a wide smile in the mirror and check my gums. I strip off my clothes and turn around, look back at myself in the mirror. The bruising is mostly on my calves but is also on the backs of my upper thighs. Its getting worse. After a shower, its time to read the Presidents Daily Brief and hear about any late developments not covered in it. Then on to breakfast in the dining room. That was something Rachel and I used to do together. The rest of the world can have you for the next sixteen hours, she used to say. I get you for breakfast. And usually dinner. We made the time, though when Rachel was alive, we didnt eat either meal in this dining room; we usually ate at the small table in the kitchen next door, a more intimate setting. Sometimes, when we really wanted to feel like normal people for a change, wed cook for ourselves. Some of our best moments, in the time we shared here, were spent flipping pancakes or rolling pizza dough, just the two of us, as we did back home in North Carolina. I cut through the hard-boiled egg with my fork and look absently out the window at Blair House, across from Lafayette Park, the hum of the television serving as white noise in the background. The television is new since Rachel. Im not sure why I bother with the news. Its all about the impeachment, the networks trying to bend every story to fit this narrative. On MSNBC, a foreign-affairs correspondent is claiming that the Israeli government is transferring a high-profile Palestinian terrorist to another prison. Could this be part of some deal the president has cut with Suliman Cindoruk? Some deal involving Israel and a prisoner trade? CBS News is saying that Im considering filling a vacancy at Agriculture with a southern senator from the opposing party. Is the president hoping to siphon off votes for removal by handing out cabinet appointments? I suppose if I turned on the Food Network right now, theyd be saying that when I let them visit the White House a month ago and told them my favorite vegetable is corn, I was secretly trying to curry favor with the senators from Iowa and Nebraska who are part of the bloc itching to remove me from office. Fox News, over the banner TURMOIL IN THE WHITE HOUSE, claims that my staff is sharply split on whether I should testify, the yes-testify crew led by the White House chief of staff, Carolyn Brock, the dont-testify faction headed by the vice president, Katherine Brandt. Plans are already under way, as a contingency, says a reporter standing outside the White House right now, to claim that the House hearings are a partisan charade to give the president an excuse to change his mind and refuse to attend. On the Today show, a color-coded map shows the fifty-five senators in the opposing party as well as the senators from my party who are up for reelection and who might feel pressure to be part of the twelve defectors necessary to convict me at an impeachment trial. CNN says that my staff and I are calling in senators as early as this morning to lock them down as not-guilty votes in the impeachment trial. Good Morning America says that White House sources indicate that Ive already decided not to run for reelection and that I will try to cut a deal with the House Speaker to spare me impeachment if I agree to a single term in office. Where do they get this crap? I have to admit its sensational. And sensational sells over factual every day. Still, the wall-to-wall impeachment speculation has been hard on my staff, most of whom dont know what happened in Algeria or during my phone call to Suliman Cindoruk any more than Congress or the media or the American people do. But so far theyve rallied while the White House is under assault, considering it a source of pride to stand together. Theyll never know how much that means to me. I punch a button on my phone. Rachel would kill me for having a phone at breakfast, too. JoAnn, wheres Jenny? Shes here, sir. Do you want her? Please. Thank you. Carolyn Brock walks in, the only person who would feel free to do so while Im eating. Ive never actually said that nobody else is allowed in. Its one of the many things a chief of staff does for youstreamlining, acting as a gatekeeper, being the hard-ass with staff so I dont have to think about such matters. She is buttoned-up as always, a smart suit, dark hair pulled back, never letting her guard down while on camera. Her job, she has told me more than once, is not to make friends with the staff but to keep them organized, praise good work, and sweat the details so I can focus on the hard, big stuff. But thats a dramatic understatement of her role. Nobody has a tougher job than the White House chief of staff. She does the little things, surethe personnel issues and the scheduling. Shes also right there with me on the big things. She has to do it all because shes also the go-to person for members of Congress, the cabinet, the interest groups, and the press. I dont have a better surrogate. She does all that and keeps her ego in check. Just try to pay her a compliment. She brushes it away like a piece of lint on her impeccable suit. There was a time, not long ago, when people predicted that Carolyn Brock would one day be the Speaker of the House. She was a three-term congresswoman, a progressive who managed to win a conservative House district in southeastern Ohio and who moved swiftly up the ranks of House leadership. She was intelligent, personable, and telegenic, the political equivalent of a five-tool player. She became a hit on the fund-raiser circuit and built alliances that allowed her to move to the coveted position as head of our partys political arm, the congressional campaign committee. She was barely forty years old and poised for the pinnacle of House leadership, if not higher office. Then 2010 came. Everyone knew it was going to be a brutal midterm election for our party. And the other side fielded a strong candidate, a former governors son. A week out, the race was a statistical tie. Five days before the election, while blowing off steam with her two closest aides over a bottle of wine at midnight, Carolyn made a derogatory comment about her opponent, whod just released an ad viciously attacking Carolyns husband, a noted trial lawyer at the time. Her comment was caught on a live mike. Nobody knows who picked it up or how. Carolyn thought she was alone with her two aides in a closed restaurant. She said her opponent was a cocksucker. The audio made its way around the cable news networks and the Internet within hours. She had options at that point. She could have denied it was her voice on that recording. Either of her aides, both of whom were women, could have assumed attribution for the comment. Or she could have said what was probably the truththat she was tired and a bit tipsy and furious about the negative ad targeting her husband. But she didnt do any of those things. She only said this: Im sorry my private conversation was overheard. If a man had said it, it wouldnt be an issue. Personally, I loved her response. Today it might work. But back then, her support cratered with social conservatives, and she lost the race. With that c word forever glued to her name, she knew shed probably never get another chance. Politics can be cruel in the way it treats its wounded. Carolyns loss became my gain. She started a political consulting firm, using her skills and brains to navigate victories for others around the country. When I decided to run for president, and I needed someone to run my campaign, I had only one persons name on my list. You should stop watching this garbage, sir, she says as some political consultant Ive never heard of says on CNN that Im committing a serious tactical blunder by refusing to comment on the phone call and letting the House Speaker control the narrative. By the way, I say, did you know that you want me to testify before the select committee? That youre leading the pro-testify forces in the civil war going on in the White House? I didnt realize that, no. She wanders over to the wallpaper in the dining room, scenes of the Revolutionary War. Jackie Kennedy first put it up, a gift from a friend. Betty Ford didnt like it and took it down. President Carter put it back up. Its been up and down since. Rachel loved the wallpaper, so we put it back up. Have some coffee, Carrie. Youre making me nervous. Good morning, Mr. President, says Jenny Brickman, my deputy chief of staff and senior political adviser. She ran my campaigns for governor and worked under Carolyn on my presidential run. She is petite in every way, with a mess of bleached blond hair and a mouth like a truck driver. She is my smiling knife. She will go to war for me, when I let her. She would not merely dissect my opponents. If I didnt rein her in, she would slice them open from chin to navel. She would rip them to pieces with all the restraint of a pit bull and slightly less charm. Carolyn, after my victory, turned to policy. She still keeps an eye on politics, but her bigger role now is to get my agenda through Congress and push my foreign policy. Jenny, on the other hand, just focuses on politics, on getting me reelected. And, unfortunately, on worrying about whether I will even make it through my first term. Our caucus in the House is holding steady right now, she says, having conferred with our side of House leadership. They said theyre eager to hear your side of the Algeria story. I cant suppress a smirk. It probably came out more like, Tell him to get his head out of his ass and defend himself. Is that closer? Nearly a direct quote, sir. Im not making it easy on my allies. They want to defend me, but my silence makes that nearly impossible. They deserve more, but I just cant give it to them yet. Well have time for that, I say. We are under no illusions about the vote in the House. Lester has the majority, and his caucus is itching to push a button to impeach. If Lester calls for a vote on it, Im toast. But a strong defense in the House will make it much more likely that well prevail in the Senate, where Lesters party has fifty-five votes but needs a supermajority of sixty-seven for removal. If our caucus in the House holds together, it will be harder for our people in the Senate to defect. What were hearing from our side in the Senate is similar, Jenny says. Leader Jacoby is trying to lock down a caucus position of presumptive supporther wordsthe idea being that removal is an extreme remedy and we should know more before such important decisions can be made. But theyre not willing to do anything more than keep an open mind right now. Nobodys rushing to my defense. You arent giving them a reason to, sir. Youre letting Rhodes kick you in the balls and not fighting back. What I kept hearing was, Algeria looks bad, really, really bad. He better have a good explanation. Okay, well, that was enjoyable, Jenny. Next topic. If we could stay here for one more Next topic, Jenny. You got your ten minutes on impeachment, and I gave you an hour last night for that mock session. Thats the end of impeachment talk for right now. I have other things on my mind. Now, is there anything else? Yes, sir, Carolyn interjects. The issues layout we were planning for the reelection? We should start it now with the issues we know the American people care about and supportthe minimum wage, the assault weapons ban, and tuition credits. We need positive news to counter the negative. That will give us a counter-narrativethat in spite of all the political shenanigans, youre determined to move the country forward. Let them hold their Salem witch trial while you try to solve real problems for real people. It wont get drowned out in all this impeachment talk? Senator Jacoby doesnt think so, sir. Theyre begging for a good issue to start rallying around. I heard the same thing in the House, says Jenny. If you give them something to sink their teeth into, something they really care about, it will remind them how important it is to protect the presidency. They need a reminder, I say with a sigh. Frankly, sir, right nowyes, they do. I hold up my hands. Fine. Talk to me. Start with the minimum-wage increase, next week, says Carolyn. Then an assault-weapons ban. Then tuition credits An assault-weapons ban has as much chance of passing the House as a resolution to rename Reagan National airport after me. Carolyn tucks in her lips, nods. Thats correct, sir, it wont pass. We both know shes not pushing for an assault-weapons ban because we can pass it, at least in this Congress. She goes on. But you do believe in it, and you have the credibility to fight for it. Then, when the opposition party kills it and the minimum-wage hike, both of which most Americans support, you will show them for who they are. And youll jam up Senator Gordon. Lawrence Gordon, a three-term senator from my side of the aisle who, like every senator, thinks he should be president. But unlike most of them, hes willing to consider running against a sitting president from his own party. Hes also on the wrong side of our party and our country on both these issues. He voted against a minimum-wage hike, and he likes the Second Amendment, at least as the NRA defines it, better than the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments combined. Jenny wants to take out his knees before he even considers lacing up his shoes. Gordon wont primary me, I say. He doesnt have the balls. Nobodys watching the Algeria story more closely than Gordon, says Jenny. I look at Carolyn. Jenny has sharp political instincts, but Carolyn has instincts plus institutional knowledge of DC from her time in Congress. Shes also the smartest person Ive ever met. Im not afraid of Gordon primarying you, says Carolyn. Im afraid of him thinking about primarying you. Privately encouraging speculation. Allowing himself to be courted. Reading his name in the Times or on CNN. Whats there to lose for him? It gives him a leg up down the road. He gets a nice ego stroke, too. Whos more popular than a challenger? Hes like a backup quarterbackeveryone loves him while hes sitting on the sidelines. Gordon will get nothing but a nice vanity tour out of it, but meanwhile, your credibility is undercut every second it happens. He looks bright and shiny; you look weak. I nod. That all sounds right. I think we should float the minimum wage or the assault-weapons ban, she says. We make Gordon come to us and ask us to sit on them. Then he owes us. And he knows if he screws us, well shove a legislative item or two up his keester. Remind me never to piss you off, Carolyn. The vice president is on board with this, says Jenny. Of course she is. Carolyn makes a face. She has a healthy suspicion of Kathy Brandt, who was my chief opponent for the nomination. She was the right choice for vice president, but that doesnt make her my closest ally. Either way, Kathy would make the same calculation in her own self-interest. If Im removed from office, she becomes president, and she will almost immediately be running for election. She doesnt need Larry Gordon or anyone else getting any ideas. While I agree with your analysis of the problem, I say, I think your proposed solution is too cute by half. I want to come out strong for both measures. But I wont back off for Gordon. Well force the oppositions hand. Its the right thing to do, and win or lose, well be strong and theyll be wrong. Jenny pipes up. Thats the person I voted for, sir. I think you should do it, but I still dont think it will be enough. You are seen as really weak right now, and I dont think any domestic policy move can fix it. The phone call to Suliman. The Algeria nightmare. You need a commander-in-chief moment. A rally-around-the-leader mo No, I say, reading her mind. Jenny, Im not ordering a military strike just to look tough. There are any number of safe targets, Mr. President. Its not like Im asking you to invade France. How about one of the drone targets in the Middle East, but instead of a drone, escalate it to a full aerial No. The answer is no. She puts her hands on her hips, shakes her head. Your wife was right. You really are a shitty politician. But she meant it as a compliment. Mr. President, can I be blunt? she says. You havent been so far? She puts her hands out in front of her, as if trying to frame the issue for me, or maybe shes pleading with me. Youre going to be impeached, she says. And if you dont do something to turn things around, something dramatic, the senators in your own party will jump ship. And I know you wont resign. It isnt in your DNA. Which means President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan will be remembered in history for one thing and one thing only. Youll be the first president forcibly removed from office. Chapter 5 After talking with Jenny and Carolyn, I head across the hall into my bedroom, where Deborah Lane is already opening her bag of goodies. Good morning, Mr. President, she says. I pull down on my tie, unbutton my shirt. Top of the morning, Doc. She focuses on me, appraises me, and doesnt look happy. I seem to have that effect on a lot of people these days. You forgot to shave again, she says. Ill shave later. Its actually four days running now that I havent shaved. When I was in college, at UNC, I had this superstitious routineI didnt shave during finals week. It tended to shock people because, though the hair on my head is probably best described as light brown, my facial hair doesnt follow script: somehow, an orange pigment creeps in to give me a fiery auburn beard. And I can grow a beard fast; by the end of finals, everyone was calling me Paul Bunyan. I never thought much about that after college. Until now. You look tired, she says. How many hours did you sleep last night? Two or three. Thats not enough, Mr. President. I have a few balls in the air right now. Which you wont be able to juggle without sleep. She puts her stethoscope on my bare chest. Dr. Deborah Lane is not my official doctor but a specialist in hematology at Georgetown. She grew up under apartheid in South Africa but fled to the United States for high school and never left. Her close-cropped hair is now completely gray. Her eyes are probing but kind. For the last week, shes come to the White House every day because its easier and less conspicuous if a professional-looking womanalbeit one with a not-very-well-disguised medical bagvisits the White House as opposed to the president visiting MedStar Georgetown University Hospital on a daily basis. She puts the blood-pressure wrap on my arm. Howve you been feeling? I have a gigantic pain in my ass, I say. Can you look and see if the Speaker of the House is up there? She shoots me a look but doesnt laugh. Not even a smirk. Physically, I say, I feel fine. She shines a light inside my mouth. She looks closely at my torso, my abdomen, my arms and legs, turns me around and does the same on my other side. Bruising is worsening, she says. I know. It used to look like a rash. Now it looks more like someone has been pummeling the backs of my legs with hammers. In my first term as governor of North Carolina, I was diagnosed with a blood disorder known as immune thrombocytopeniaITPwhich basically means a low platelet count. My blood doesnt always clot as well as it should. I announced it publicly at the time and told the truthmost of the time, the ITP isnt an issue. I was told to avoid activities that could lead to bleeding, which wasnt hard for a man in his forties. My baseball days were long over, and I was never much for bullfighting or knife juggling. The disorder flared up twice during my time as governor but left me alone during the campaign for the presidency. It reemerged when Rachels cancer returnedmy doctor is convinced that an overload of stress is a significant cause of relapsebut I treated it easily. It returned a week ago, when the bruising under the skin on my calves first started appearing. The rapid discoloration and spread of bruising tells both of us the same thingthis is the worst case Ive had yet. Headaches? Dr. Deb asks. Dizziness? Fever? No, no, and no. Fatigue? From lack of sleep, sure. Nosebleeds? No, maam. Blood in your teeth or gums? Toothbrush is clean. Blood in your urine or stool? No. Its hard to be humble when they play a song for you every time you enter the room, when the world financial markets hang on your every word, and when you command the worlds greatest military arsenal, but if you need to knock yourself down a few pegs, try checking your stool for blood. She steps back and hums to herself. Im going to draw blood again, she says. I was very concerned by your count yesterday. You were under twenty thousand. I dont know how you talked me out of hospitalizing you right then and there. I talked you out of it, I say, because Im the president of the United States. I keep forgetting. I can do twenty thousand, Doc. The normal range for platelets is between 150,000 and 450,000 per microliter. So nobodys throwing a parade for a count under 20,000, but its still above the critical stage. Youre taking your steroids? Religiously. She reaches into her bag, then gets to work rubbing alcohol on my arm with a swab. Im not looking forward to the blood draw, because shes not great with needles. Shes out of practice. At her high level of specialty, somebody else usually performs the rudimentary tasks. But I have to limit the number of people in this world who know about this. My ITP disorder may be public knowledge, but nobody needs to know how bad it is right now, especially right now. So shes a one-person show for the time being. Lets do a protein treatment, she says. Whatnow? Yes, now. The last time I did that I couldnt string a sentence together for the better part of a day. Thats a nonstarter, Doc. Not today. She stops, the swab in her hand trailing down to my knuckles. Then a steroid infusion. No. The pills mess with my head enough. Her head angles slightly as she considers her response. Im not the usual patient, after all. Most patients do whatever their doctors tell them. Most patients are not leaders of the free world. She goes back to prepping my arm, frowning deeply, until she has the needle poised. Mr. President, she says in a tone I heard my grade-school teachers use, you can tell anyone else in the world what to do. But you cant order your body around. Doc, I Youre at risk of internal bleeding, she says. Bleeding in the brain. You could have a stroke. Whatever it is youre dealing with, it cant be worth that risk. She looks me in the eye. I dont respond. Which in itself is a response. Its something that bad? she whispers. She shakes her head, waves her hand. Dont. II know you cant tell me. Yes, its something that bad. And the attack could come an hour from now or later today. It could have happened twenty seconds ago, and Carolyn could be rushing in to tell me about it right now. I cant be out of commission for even an hour, much less several. I cant risk it. It has to wait, I say. A couple of days, probably. A bit rattled by what she doesnt know, Deb just nods and plunges the needle into my arm. Ill double the steroids, I say, which means it will feel like Ive drunk four beers instead of two. Its a line I have to straddle. I cant be out of commission, but I have to stay alive. She finishes in silence, packing away the blood draw in her bag and getting ready to leave. You have your job, and I have mine, she says. Ill get the labs back within two hours. But we both know your count is cratering. Yes, we do. She stops at the doorway and turns to me. You dont have a couple of days, Mr. President, she says. You might not even have one. Chapter 6 Today, and only today, they will celebrate. He must give them that. His small team has worked day and night, with purpose and devotion and with great success. Everyone needs a break. The wind off the river lifts his hair. He pulls on his cigarette, the orange tip glowing in the dim early evening air. He savors the view from the penthouse terrace overlooking the river Spree, the city bustling across the waterthe East Side Gallery, the entertainment center. The Mercedes-Benz Arena is hosting a concert tonight. He doesnt recognize the groups name, but the muted sounds, audible even from across the river, tell him that the music involves heavy guitar and a thumping bass. This part of Berlin has changed considerably since he was last here, a mere four years ago. He turns back to look inside the penthouse, 160 square meters, with four bedrooms and a designer open-plan kitchen where his team is laughing and gesturing, pouring Champagne and probably already halfway drunk. The four of them, all geniuses in their own right, none of them over the age of twenty-five, some of them probably still virgins. Elmurod, his stomach hanging over his belt, his beard unkempt, wearing an insipid blue hat that reads VET WWIII. Mahmad, already with his shirt off, showing off his decidedly unimpressive biceps in a mock bodybuilder pose. All four of them turn toward the door, and Elmurod goes to answer it. When the door opens, eight women walk in, all wearing teased-up hair and skintight dresses, all with bodies of centerfolds, all paid princely sums to show his team the night of their lives. He steps carefully along the terrace, wary of the heat and pressure sensorsdeactivated right now, of courserigged to detonate the entire terrace should anything heavier than a bird land on it. It set him back nearly a million euros, these precautions. But whats one million euros when youre about to earn a hundred million? One of the prostitutes, an Asian who cant be over twenty, with boobs that cant be real, with a sudden interest in him that cant be sincere, approaches him as he walks back into the penthouse and slides the door shut. Wie lautet dein name? she asks. What is your name? He smiles. She is just flirting, playing a part. She doesnt care what he tells her. But there are people who would pay anything, or do anything, to know the answer to her question. And just once, hed like to let down his guard and answer the question truthfully. I am Suliman Cindoruk, hed like to say. And Im about to reboot the world. Chapter 7 I close the folder on my desk after reviewing the various items that my White House counsel, Danny Akers, and his staff have prepared for me in consultation with the attorney general. A draft executive order declaring martial law throughout the nation and a legal memorandum exploring the constitutionality of doing so. Draft legislation for Congress and a draft executive order declaring the suspension of habeas corpus throughout the nation. An executive order instituting price controls and rationing of various consumer goods along with authorizing legislation where needed. I just pray that it doesnt come to this. Mr. President, says JoAnn, my secretary, the Speaker of the House. Lester Rhodes smiles politely at JoAnn and strides into the Oval Office, his hand outstretched. Im already out from around my desk to greet him. Good morning, Mr. President, he says, shaking my hand and sizing me up, probably wondering why I have the scruffy beginnings of a beard. Mr. Speaker, I say. Usually I follow up with a Thanks for coming or Good to see you, but I cant summon pleasantries with this man. Rhodes, after all, was the architect of his partys reclamation of the House during midterm elections, based exclusively on the promise of taking our country back and that ridiculous report card on my performance that he blew up for all the candidates, grading me on foreign policy, the economy, a number of hot-button issues, with the tagline Duncan is flunkin. He takes the couch, and I sit in the chair. He shoots his cuffs and settles in. He is dressed for the part of the powerful legislator: the slate-blue shirt with white collar and cuffs, the bright red tie perfectly dimpled, all the colors of the flag represented. He still has that cocky glow of newly acquired power. Hes only been Speaker for five months. He doesnt realize his limitations yet. That makes him more dangerous, not less. I asked myself why you invited me here, he goes on. You know one of the story lines coming out of cable news is that were cutting a deal, you and I. You agree not to seek reelection, and I call off the hearings. I nod slowly. I heard that one, too. But I told my aides, I said, go back and watch those videos of the POWs who were captured in Desert Storm along with Corporal Jon Duncan. See how scared they were. How scared they must have been to denounce their own country on camera. And then, after you see that, ask yourself what the Iraqis must have done to Jon Duncan for being the only American POW from that unit who refused to go on camera. And after youve wrapped your mind around that, I told them, ask yourself if Jon Duncan is the sort of fellow who will back down from a fight with a bunch of congressmen. Which means he still doesnt know why hes here. Lester, I say, do you know why I never talk about that? What happened to me in Iraq? I dont, he says. Modesty, I suppose. I shake my head. No one in this town is modest. No, the reason I dont talk about that is that some things are more important than politics. Most rank-and-file congressmen never need to learn that lesson. But in order for the government to function, and for the good of the country, the Speaker of the House does. The sooner the better. He opens his hands, signaling that hes ready for the punch line. Lester, how many times have I failed to discuss covert operations with the intelligence committees since Ive been president? Or if it was particularly sensitive, with the Gang of Eight? The law says that I must make a finding before engaging in a covert action and must share that finding with the House and Senate Intelligence Committeesin advance of the action if possible. But if the matter is particularly sensitive, I can limit disclosure to the so-called Gang of Eightthe Speaker and House minority leader, the Senate majority and minority leaders, and the chairs and ranking members of the two intelligence committees. Mr. President, Ive only been Speaker a few months. But in that time, as far as I understand it, you always have complied with your disclosure commitment. And your predecessorIm sure he told you that I always complied when he was Speaker as well. Thats my understanding, yes, he agrees. Which is why its so troublesome that not even the Gang of Eight heard one word about Algeria. Whats troublesome to me, Lester, is that you dont realize that I must have a good reason why Im not disclosing this time. His jaw clenches, some color rising to his pale face. Even after the fact, Mr. President? Youre allowed to act first, disclose later, if time is of the essencebut youre not even disclosing now, after that debacle in Algeria. After you allowed that monster to escape. Youre breaking the law. Ask yourself why, Lester. I sit back in my chair. Why would I do that? Knowing exactly how youd react? Knowing that Im handing you grounds for impeachment on a silver platter? There can only be one answer, sir. Oh, really? And whats that one answer, Lester? Well, if I may speak freely Hey, its just us kids here. All right, then, he says with a sweeping nod. The answer is that you dont have a good explanation for what you did. Youre trying to negotiate some truce with that bastard terrorist, and you stopped that militia group from killing him so you could keep negotiating whatever peace-love-and-harmony deal you seem to think you can cut. And you almost got away with it. We never would have heard a word about Algeria. Youd have denied the whole thing. He leans forward on his knees, looking me dead in the eye, his gaze so intense his eyes are almost watering. But then that American boy got killed, and they got it on video for all the world to see. You got caught with your pants down. And still you wont tell us. Because you dont want anyone to know what youre doing until its signed, sealed, and delivered. He jabs a finger at me. Well, Congress will not be denied our oversight function on this. As long as Im Speaker, no president will run off on his own and cut some deal with terrorists that theyll never honor anyway and leave us looking like the weak stepchild. As long as Thats enough, Lester. Im Speaker, this country will Enough! I get to my feet. After a moment, stunned, Lester stands as well. Get this straight, I say. There are no cameras here. Dont pretend that you believe what youre saying. Dont pretend that you really think I wake up every morning whispering sweet nothings to terrorists. You and I both know that Id take out that asshole right now if I thought it would serve the best interests of our nation. Its great political spin, Lester, Ill give you thatthat garbage youre spewing about me wanting to make love, not war with the Sons of Jihad. But do not walk into the Oval Office and pretend for one second that you actually believe it. He blinks his eyes, out of his element here. Hes not accustomed these days to someone raising his voice to him. But he remains silent because he knows Im right. Im doing you all kinds of favors here, Lester. Im aiding and abetting you by remaining silent. Every second I say nothing, you get more fuel on your fire. Youre beating the ever-loving crap out of me in public. And Im sitting there saying, Thank you, sir, may I have another? Surely you are smart enough to realize that if Im going to violate every political instinct I possess and remain mute, there must be a pretty damn important reason why Im doing that. There must be something vitally important at stake. Lester holds his stare for as long as he can. Then his gaze drops down to the floor. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and rocks on his heels. Then tell me, he says. Not Intelligence. Not the Gang of Eight. Me. If its as important as you say, tell me what it is. Lester Rhodes is the absolute last person to whom I would give all the details. But I cant let him know I think that. I cant. Lester, I cant. Im asking you to trust me. There was a time when that statement, from a president to a House Speaker, would be enough. Those days are long in the rearview mirror. I cant agree to that, Mr. President. An interesting word choicecant, not wont. Lester is under so much pressure from his caucus, especially the fire-breathers who react to every sound bite on social media and talk radio, ginning up this whole thing. Whether its true or not, whether he believes it or not, theyve now created a caricature of me, and Speaker Lester Rhodes cannot let it be known that he decided to trust that caricature during this important moment. Think about the cyberattack in Toronto, I say. The Sons of Jihad hasnt claimed responsibility for it. Think about that. Those guys always claim responsibility. Every attack theyve ever done has come with a message to the West to stay away from their part of the world, central and southeastern Europe. Get our money out, our troops out. But not this time. Why, Lester? You could tell me why, he says. I motion for him to sit down, and I do the same. Your ears only, I say. Yes, sir. The answer is we dont know why. But my guess? Toronto was a test run. Proof that he had the goods. Probably to get his down payment for his real job. I sit back and let that settle in. Lester has the sheepish look of a kid who realizes hes supposed to understand something but doesnt and doesnt want to admit it. Then why not kill him? Lester asks. Why rescue him from that attack in Algeria? I stare at Lester. My ears only, he says. I cant give Lester all the details, but I can give him enough to nibble on. We werent trying to rescue Suliman Cindoruk, I say. We were trying to capture him. Then Lester opens his hands. Why did you stop that militia group? They didnt want to capture him, Lester. They wanted to kill him. They were going to fire shoulder-launched missiles into his house. So? Lester shrugs. A captured terrorist, a dead terroristwhats the difference? In this case, a huge difference, I say. I need Suliman Cindoruk alive. Lester looks at his hands, twists his wedding ring. Staying in listen mode, revealing nothing on his end. Our intel told us this militia group had found him. We didnt know more than that. All we could do was piggyback their operation in Algeria, try to stop them from a full-on attack, and catch Suliman ourselves. We stopped their attack, but Suliman got away in the melee. And yes, an American died. Something we wanted to remain covert and highly classified became viral on social media within hours. Lester works that over, his eyes narrowed, head nodding. I dont think Suliman is working alone, I say. I think he was hired. And I think Toronto was the warm-up, the trial run, the appetizer. And we are the main course, Lester whispers. Correct. A cyberattack, he mumbles. Bigger than Toronto. Big enough to make Toronto look like a stubbed toe. Christ. I need Suliman alive because he may be the only person who can stop it. And he can identify who hired him and who else, if anyone, is working with him. But I dont want anyone to know what I know or what I think. Im trying to do something that is incredibly difficult for the United States of America to dofly under the radar. A hint of realization comes to the Speakers expression. He leans back against the couch like a man whos holding all the cards. Youre saying our hearings will interfere with what youre doing. Without a doubt. Then why did you agree to testify in the first place? To buy time, I say. You wanted to haul my entire national security team before your committee earlier this week. I couldnt have that. I offered myself up in exchange for the time extension. But now you need even more time. Beyond next Monday. Yes. And you want me to go back to my caucus and tell them we should give it to you. Yes. But I cant tell them why. I cant tell them any of what you told me. I just have to tell them that I decided to trust you. Youre their leader, Lester. So lead. Tell them youve decided that its in the best interests of our nation that we temporarily hold off on the hearings. His head drops, and he rubs his hands together, warming up for the speech that he probably recited into a mirror a dozen times before coming over here. Mr. President, he says, I understand these hearings are not something you want us to do. But just as you have your responsibilities, we have an oversight responsibility that serves as a check on executive power. I have members who elected me to ensure that we serve as that check. I cant go back to my caucus and tell them we are going to shirk our responsibility. It was never going to matter what I said to him today. Hes got a playbook, and hes following it. Patriotism was never going to factor in. If this guy ever had an unselfish thought, as my mama would say, it would die of loneliness. But Im not done trying. If this goes well, I say, and we stop this terrorist attack, you will be standing right next to me. I will tell the world that the Speaker put aside partisan differences and did the right thing for his country. I will hold you up as an example of what is right in Washington, DC. Youll be Speaker for life. He continues to nod, clears his throat. His foot, on the floor, has begun to tap. But if He cant bring himself to finish the sentence. If things go wrong? Then Ill take the blame. All of it. But I will be blamed, too, he says. Because I stopped these hearings without giving my members, or the public, any reason at all. You cant promise me that Ill come out of this unscathed Lester, this is the job you signed up for. Whether you knew it or not, whether you like it or not. Youre right. There are no promises here. No sure things. I am the commander in chief, looking you in the eye and telling you that the security of this country is in jeopardy and I need your help. Are you going to help me or not? It doesnt take him long. He works his jaw, looks at his hands. Mr. President, Id like to help you, but you have to understand, we have a responsib Damn it, Lester, put your country first! I push myself out of my chair too fast, feeling wobbly, the anger consuming me. Im wasting my breath. Lester rises from the couch, shoots his cuffs again, straightens his tie. So well be seeing you on Monday? As if nothing I said remotely registered with him. The only thing he cares about is returning to his caucus and telling them he stood up to me. You think you know what youre doing, I say, but you dont have the slightest idea. Chapter 8 I stare at the door after Speaker Rhodes leaves. Im not sure what I expected of him. Old-fashioned patriotism? A sense of responsibility, maybe? A bit of trust in the president? Dream on. There is no trust anymore. In the current environment, theres no gain in it. All the incentives push people in the opposite directions. So Rhodes will go to his corner, leading a charge he cant really control because his caucus twitches at each tweet. Some days, my side isnt much better. Participation in our democracy seems to be driven by the instant-gratification worlds of Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and the twenty-four-hour news cycle. Were using modern technology to revert to primitive kinds of human relations. The media knows what sellsconflict and division. Its also quick and easy. All too often anger works better than answers; resentment better than reason; emotion trumps evidence. A sanctimonious, sneering one-liner, no matter how bogus, is seen as straight talk, while a calm, well-argued response is seen as canned and phony. It reminds me of the old political joke: Why do you take such an instant dislike to people? It saves a lot of time. What happened to factual, down-the-middle reporting? Thats hard to even define anymore, as the line between fact and fiction, between truth and lies, gets murkier every day. We cant survive without a free press, dedicated to preserving that fine line and secure enough to follow the facts where they lead. But the current environment imposes serious pressures on our journalists, at least those who cover politics, to do just the reverseto exercise their own power and to, in the words of one wise columnist, abnormalize all politicians, even honest, able ones, often because of relatively insignificant issues. Scholars call this false equivalency. It means that when you find a mountain to expose in one person or party, you have to pick a molehill on the other side and make it into a mountain to avoid being accused of bias. The built-up molehills also have large benefits: increased coverage on the evening news, millions of retweets, and more talk-show fodder. When the mountains and molehills all look the same, campaigns and governments devote too little time and energy debating the issues that matter most to our people. Even when we try to do that, were often drowned out by the passion of the day. Theres a real cost to this. It breeds more frustration, polarization, paralysis, bad decisions, and missed opportunities. But with no incentive to actually accomplish something, more and more politicians just go with the flow, fanning the flames of anger and resentment, when they should be acting as the fire brigade. Everybody knows its wrong, but the immediate rewards are so great we stagger on, just assuming that our Constitution, our public institutions, and the rule of law can endure each new assault without doing permanent damage to our freedoms and way of life. I ran for president to change that vicious cycle. I hope I still can. But right now, I have to deal with the wolf at the door. JoAnn walks in and says, Danny and Alex are here. JoAnn used to work for the governor I succeeded in North Carolina. As he was leaving office and I was on my way in, she ran the transition with an efficiency that impressed me. Everyone was afraid of her. I was told not to hire her because she came from themthe opposing political partybut JoAnn told me, Mr. Governor-Elect, I just got divorced, I have two kids in middle school, and Im broke. Im never late, Im never sick, I can type fastern you can spit, and if youre acting like a donkeys ass, Ill be the first to let you know it. Shes been with me ever since. Her oldest just started in the Treasury Department. Mr. President, says Danny Akers, White House counsel. Danny and I were next-door neighbors in Wilkes County, North Carolina, growing up in a tiny town all of one square mile in area, nestled between a highway and a single traffic signal. We swam and fished and skateboarded and played ball and hunted together. We taught each other how to knot a tie and jump-start a car and string a pole and throw a breaking ball. We went through everything togethergrade school through college at UNC. We even enlisted together, joining the Rangers as E-4s after college. The only thing we didnt experience together was Desert Storm: Danny wasnt assigned to Bravo Company, as I was, so he never saw action in Iraq. While I was trying, unsuccessfully, to overcome my injuries from Desert Storm and play pro ball in Double A in Memphis, Danny was starting law school at UNC. He was the one who vouched for me to Rachel Carson, a 3L when I entered UNC Law. Mr. President. Alex Trimblethe barrel chest and buzz cut practically scream out Secret Service when you first look at him. Hes not exactly a laugh a minute, but hes as straight and strong as they come, and he runs my security detail as efficiently as a military operation. Sit, sit. I should go back to my desk, but I sit on the couch. Mr. President, says Danny, my memorandum on title 18, section 3056. He hands me the document. You want the long or the short version? he asks, knowing the answer already. Short. The last thing I feel like doing is reading legal-speak right now. I have no doubt the memo was prepared with precision. I always loved the battlefield of the courtroom as a prosecutor, but Danny was the scholar, combing over new Supreme Court opinions for fun, debating fine points of law, and prizing the written word. He left his law firm to be my counsel when I was governor of North Carolina. He was great at it until the then-president nominated him to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. He loved that job and could have held it happily for life had I not been elected president and asked him to join me again. Just tell me what I can and cant do, I say. Danny winks at me. The statute says you cant decline protection. But there is precedent for temporarily refusing it as part of your right to personal privacy. Alex Trimble is already leveling a stare at me. Ive previously broached this topic with him, so this isnt coming completely out of the blue, but he was obviously hoping Danny would talk me out of it. Mr. President, Alex says, with all due respect, you cant be serious. Serious as a heart attack. Now, of all times, sir Its decided, I say. We can do a loose perimeter, he says. Or at least some advance work. No. Alex clutches the arms of his chair, his mouth slightly agape. I need a minute with my White House counsel, I say to him. Mr. President, please dont Alex, I say. I need a minute with Danny. With a heavy sigh and a shake of the head, Alex leaves us. Danny looks back at the door to ensure were alone. Then he looks at me. Son, youve gone craziern a March hare, he says, a hint of the old twang in his voice as he invokes my mamas favorite saying. He knows them all as well as I do. Dannys parents were good, hardworking people, but they were away from home a lot. His dad put in a lot of overtime for a trucking company, and his mom worked the night shift at the local plant. My father was a high school math teacher who died in a car crash when I was four. So when I was a kid, we lived on a grade school teachers partial pension and what Mama earned waiting tables at Curly Rays by Millers Creek. But she was always home at night, so she helped the Akerses out with Danny. She loved him like a second son; he spent as much time at our house as his own. Normally when he triggers those memories, it brings a smile to my face. Instead, I lean forward and rub my hands together. Okay, you wanna tell me whats going on? he tries. Youre starting to freak me out. Join the club. I feel my guard slowly lowering, being alone with Danny. In this job, he and Rachel were always my ports in a storm. I look up at him. Were a long way from catching brookies at Garden Creek, I say. Good. Because you could never cast a line to save your life anyway. Again, I dont smile. Youre right where youre supposed to be, Mr. President, he says. If the shits hitting the fan, youre the guy I want in charge. I let out air, nod my head. Hey. Danny gets up from his chair and sits down next to me on the couch. He lightly punches my knee. Being in charge isnt being alone. Im right here. Same place Ive always been, no matter what your title is. Same place Ill always be. Yeah, II know. I look at him. I know that. This isnt about the impeachment bullshit, is it? Because thatll work itself out. Lester Rhodes? That boys so dumb he couldnt pour piss out of a boot if the directions were on the bottom. Hes pulling out all the stops, dusting off another of Mama Lils greatest hits. Hes trying to take me back to her, to her strength. After Daddy died, she cracked the whip as hard as any drill sergeant Id later meet, smacking me in the head if she heard a double negative or an aint, telling me Id go to college or shed tan my hide. Shed go to work early and come home in the afternoon with two Styrofoam cartons of food that would be dinner for Danny and me. Id rub her feet while she checked our homework and interrogated us about our day at school. She always said, You boys arent rich enough to afford not to pay attention. Its that other thing, isnt it? says Danny. That thing that you cant tell me, thats had you canceling half your schedule for the last two weeks? The reason that youve suddenly become so interested in martial law and habeas corpus and price controls? Whatever it is thats kept you quiet as falling snow about Suliman Cindoruk and Algeria while Lester Rhodes beats the snot out of you? Yeah, I say. Its that thing. Yeah. Danny clears his throat, drums his fingers. Scale of 1 to 10, he says. How bad? A thousand. Jesus. And you have to go off leash? I gotta tell you, that sounds like a terrible idea. It just might be. But its the best one I have. Youre scared, he says. Yeah. Yeah, I am. We are quiet for a long moment. You know when the last time was I saw you this scared? When Ohio put me over 270 electoral votes? No. When I found out Bravo Company was deploying? No, sir. I look at him. When we were getting off that bus at Fort Benning, he says. And Sergeant Melton was calling out, Wherere the E-4s? Wherere the goddamn frat-boy maggots? We werent off the damn bus yet, and the sergeant was already sharpening his knives for the college boys, who got to start at a higher pay and rank. I chuckle. I remember. Yeah. Never forget your first smoke session, right? I saw the look on your face when we were walking down the aisle of that bus. It was probably the same as the look on mine. Scared as a mouse in a snake pit. Do you remember what you did? Piss my pants? Danny turns and looks at me squarely. You dont remember, do you, Ranger? I swear I dont. You stepped in front of me, he says. I did? You sure as hell did. Id been in the aisle seat, and you were by the window. So I was in front of you, in the aisle. But the moment the sergeant started going off about the E-4s, you elbowed your way in front of me so youd be the first one off the bus to face him, not me. Scared as you were, that was your first instinct, to look out for me. Huh. I dont remember that. Danny pats my leg. So go ahead and be scared, President Duncan, he says. Youre still the one I want protecting us. Chapter 9 As the sun warms her face, as her earbuds fill her with the music of Wilhelm Friedemann Herzog performing the full set of Johann Sebastians sonatas and partitas for solo violin, Bach decides that there are worse ways to spend time than sightseeing at the National Mall. The Lincoln Memorial, with its Greek columns and imposing marble statue perched atop a seemingly endless staircase, is inappropriately magisterial, better suited for a deity than a president revered for his humility. But that contradiction is quintessentially American, typical of a nation that was built on the premise of freedom, liberty, and individual rights but that tramples freely on those principles abroad. These thoughts pass only as observations; geopolitical policy is not what drives her. And, like the country itself, this memorial, for all its irony, is no less magnificent. The reflecting pool, shimmering in the midmorning sun. The veterans memorials, especially the Korean War memorial, move her in a way she hadnt expected. But her favorite attraction was the one she visited earlier this morningFords Theatre, the site of the most daring presidential assassination in the nations history. It is bright enough outside to force one to squint, which makes her oversize sunglasses a natural. She puts to good use the camera around her neck, making sure to capture multiple shots of everythingthe Washington Monument, close-ups of Abe and FDR and Eleanor, inscriptions at the veterans memorialsto cover herself in the unlikely event that anyone should happen to inquire how Isabella Mercadothe name on her passportspent her day. In her earbuds now are the soulful cries of the chorus, the dancing violins of the Saint John Passion, the dramatic confrontation between Pilate and Christ and the masses. Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn! Away, away with him, crucify him! She closes her eyes, as she often does, losing herself in the music, imagining herself sitting inside the Saint Nicholas Church in Leipzig when the passion was first played, in 1724, wondering how the composer must have felt hearing his work come to life, observing its beauty wash over the congregants. She was born in the wrong century. When she opens her eyes, she sees a woman sitting on a bench, nursing her child. A flutter passes through her. She removes her earbuds and watches this woman, looking down as her infant feeds from her, a soft smile on the mothers face. That, Bach knows, is what they mean when they say love. She remembers love. She remembers her mother, the feeling of her more than a visual image, though the latter is buoyed by the two photographs she managed to escape with. She remembers her brother more clearly, though unfortunately its hard to remember anything but the scowl on his face, the look of pure hatred in his eyes, the last time they saw each other. He has a wife and two daughters now. He is happy, she thinks. He has love, she hopes. She pops another ginger candy in her mouth and hails a cab. M Street Southwest and Capitol Street Southwest, she says, probably sounding like a tourist, but that works just fine. She stifles the nausea brought on by the greasy smell and the jerky movements of the cab. She puts her earbuds back in to prevent conversation with the chatty African driver. She pays in cash and breathes in fresh air for a few moments before proceeding to the restaurant. A pub, its called, serving all manner of slaughtered animals on massive plates with an assortment of fried vegetables. She is invited to TRY OUR NACHOS!which, from what she can tell, consist of a plate of fried tortillas and processed cheese, a few token vegetables, and more meat from more slaughtered animals. She doesnt eat animals. She wouldnt kill an animal. Animals never did anything to deserve it. She sits on a stool fronting the window at a ledge intended for single customers, looking out over the street, massive vehicles lined up at a traffic light, scrolling advertisements on billboards for various beers and fast food and auto loans and clothing stores and movies. The streets are crowded with people. The restaurant is not; it is just now eleven in the morning, so the lunch rush, as they call it, has not yet begun. The menu offers almost nothing she could stomach. She orders a soft drink and soup and waits. Overhead, clouds the color of ash have begun to appear throughout the sky. The newspaper said there is a 30 percent chance of rain. Which means there is a 70 percent chance that she will complete her assignment tonight. A man takes the seat next to her, to her left. She does not look at him. Face forward, her eyes glance only at the counter, waiting for the crossword puzzle to show. A moment later, the man slaps down the newspaper, folded open to the crossword, and enters letters into the squares on the top horizontal line of the puzzle. The letters say: C O N F I R M E D Looking down at her map of the National Mall, she uses a ballpoint pen to write in the white space on top: Freight elevator? The man, pretending to be considering another clue, taps his pencil on the word he already wrote. The waiter arrives with her soft drink. She takes a long sip and savors the carbonations settling effect on her roiling stomach. She writes, Backup? He taps the same word again, confirming once more. Then, in a down column on the crossword puzzle, he writes: Y O U H A V E I D I have it, she writes. She adds, If it rains, meet at 9? He writes, I T W O N T She seethes, but she will say nothing and do nothing but wait. Y E S A T N I N E, he writes in a lower horizontal column. He gets up before the waiter can take his order, leaving the crossword puzzle on the counter next to her. She slides it over and opens the newspaper more fully, as if interested in one of the articles. The map and the newspaper will be destroyed and discarded in separate trash bins. She is already looking forward to leaving tonight. She has little doubt that she will perform her task. The only thing she cant control is the weather. She has never prayed in her life, but if she did, she would pray for no rain. Chapter 10 It is 1:30 p.m. in the Situation Room, cool and soundproof and windowless. Montejos going to declare martial law throughout Honduras tomorrow, says Brendan Mohan, my national security adviser. Hes already imprisoned most of his political rivals, but hell step that up. Theres a food shortage, so hell probably institute price controls to keep the people calm for a few more days until hes in complete control. By our estimate, the Patriotas have an army two hundred thousand strong next door in Managua, awaiting word. If he doesnt step down He wont, says Vice President Kathy Brandt. Mohan, a former general, does not appreciate the interruption but understands the chain of command. He shrugs his thick shoulders and turns in her direction. I agree, Madam Vice President, he wont. But he may not be able to hold the military. If he doesnt, hell be overthrown. If he does, by our estimate, Honduras will be in civil war within a month. I turn to Erica Beatty, the CIA director, a bookish, soft-spoken woman with dark, raccoonish eyes and cropped gray hair. She is a spook through and through, a lifer at the CIA. She was recruited out of college by the Agency and became a clandestine officer stationed in West Germany in the 1980s. In 1987, she was abducted by the StasiEast Germanys state security servicewhich claimed that she had been caught on their side of the Berlin Wall with a fake passport and architectural drawings of GDR headquarters. She was interrogated and held for nearly a month before the Stasi released her. Stasis records, made public after the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany, showed that she was brutally tortured but gave up no information. Her days as a clandestine officer over, she moved up the ranks and became one of our nations foremost experts on Russia, advising the Joint Chiefs and heading the CIAs Central Eurasia Division, which oversaw intelligence operations in the former Soviet satellites and Warsaw Pact countries, and finally serving on the Senior Intelligence Service. She was my campaigns top adviser on Russia. She rarely speaks unless spoken to, but when you wind her up, she can tell you more about President Dmitry Chernokev than Chernokev himself probably could. What do you think, Erica? I ask. Montejos playing right into Chernokevs hands, she says. Chernokev has wanted an inroad into Central America since he took office. This is his best chance to date. Montejos turning fascist, giving the Patriotas credibility, making them look like freedom fighters and not Russian puppets. He is playing precisely the role that Chernokev scripted for him. Montejo is a coward and a moron. But hes our cowardly moron, Kathy says. Kathys right. We cant let the Russian-backed Patriotas, Chernokevs puppets, into that region. We could declare any overthrow of President Montejo a coup d?tat and cut off all American aid, but how would that help our interests? That would just turn the Honduran government even more strongly against us, and Russia would be happy to gain a foothold in Central America. Do I have any good options here? I ask. Nobody can think of one. Lets do Saudi Arabia next, I say. What the hell happened? Erica Beatty handles this one. The Saudis have arrested several dozen people in what they say was a plot to assassinate King Saad ibn Saud. They apparently recovered weapons and explosives. It never got as far as an attempt on his life, but the Saudis are saying they were in the final stages of putting it together when the Mabahith executed its raids and mass arrests. Saad ibn Saud is only thirty-five years old, the youngest son of the former king. Only a year ago, his father reshuffled his leadership and surprised a lot of people by naming Saad the crown princenext in line to the throne. It made a lot of people in the royal family unhappy. And within three months of his elevation, his father died, and Saad ibn Saud became Saudi Arabias youngest king. Its been a rocky road for him so far. Hes overcompensated by using his internal state police, the Mabahith, to crack down on dissidents, and one night several months ago he executed more than a dozen of them. I didnt like it, but there wasnt much I could do. I need him in that region. His country is our closest ally. And without a stable Saudi Arabia, our influence is compromised. Whos behind it, Erica? Iran? Yemen? Was it in-house? They dont know, sir. We dont know. The human rights NGOs are claiming there was no assassination plot, that its just an excuse to round up more of the kings political rivals. We do know that some of the wealthy but less influential members of the royal family have been swept up, too. Its going to be a rough few days there. Were assisting? Weve offered. So far, they havent taken us up on it. Its atense situation. Unrest in the most stable part of the Middle East. While Im dealing with this problem at home. Its the absolute last thing I need right now. At 2:30, back in the Oval Office, I say into the phone, Mrs. Kopecky, your son was a hero. We honor his service to this country. Im praying for you and your family. He lovedhe loved his country, President Duncan, she says, her voice trembling. He believed in his mission. Im sure he I did not, she says. I dont know why we still have to be in that country. Cant they figure out how to run their own stupid country? Overhead, the lights flicker, a quick blink-blink. Whats with the lights? I understand, Mrs. Kopecky, I say. Call me Margareteveryone else does, she says. Can I call you Jon? Margaret, I say to a woman whos just lost her nineteen-year-old son, you can call me anything you want. I know youre trying to get out of Iraq, Jon, she says. But do more than try. Get the hell out. Ten after three in the Oval Office, with Danny Akers and Jenny Brickman, my political adviser. Carolyn walks in and makes eye contact with me and gives a curt, preemptive shake of her headstill no news, no change. Its hard to concentrate on anything else. But I have no choice. The world isnt going to stop for this threat. Carolyn joins us, taking a seat. This is from HHS, says Danny. I wasnt in the mood for the Heath and Human Services secretarys presentation today, wanting to minimize time spent on nonessential matters, so I had Danny get into the issue and break it down for me. Its a Medicaid issue, says Danny, involving Alabama. You recall that Alabama was one of the states that refused to accept the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act? Sure. Carolyn pops up from her seat and rushes to the door, which opens just as she reaches it. My secretary, JoAnn, hands her a note. Danny stops talking, probably seeing the expression on my face. Carolyn reads the note and looks at me. Youre needed in the Situation Room, sir, she says. If its what were afraid it isif this is itwere hearing about it together for the first time. Chapter 11 Seven minutes later, Carolyn and I enter the Situation Room. We know immediately: it isnt what we feared. The attack hasnt commenced. My pulse slows. Were not here for fun and games, but its not the nightmare. Not yet. In the room as we enter: Vice President Kathy Brandt. My national security adviser, Brendan Mohan. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Rodrigo Sanchez. The defense secretary, Dominick Dayton. Sam Haber, the secretary of homeland security. And the CIA director, Erica Beatty. Theyre in a town called al-Bayda, says Admiral Sanchez. Central Yemen. Not a center of military activity. The Saudi-led coalition is within a hundred kilometers. Why are these two meeting? I ask. Erica Beatty, CIA, answers. We dont know, Mr. President. But Abu-Dheeq is al-Shabaabs head of military operations, and al-Fadhli is the military commander of AQAP. She raises her eyebrows. The top generals for the Somali terrorists and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, coming together for a meeting. Who else is there? Looks like Abu-Dheeq came with just a small entourage, she says. But al-Fadhli brought his family. He always does. Right. He brings his family along to make himself a harder target. How many? Seven children, she says. Five boys, two girls. Ages two to sixteen. And his wife. Tell me where they are, exactly. Not geographically but in terms of civilians. Theyre meeting in an elementary school, she says. Then she quickly adds, But there arent any kids there right now. Remember, theyre eight hours ahead of us. Its nighttime. You mean there arent any kids, I say, besides al-Fadhlis five boys and two girls. Of course, sir. That bastard, using his children as a shield, daring us to kill his entire family to get to him. What kind of coward does that? Theres no chance that al-Fadhli will be separated from his children? He appears to be in a different part of the school, for what thats worth, says Sanchez. The meeting is taking place in some interior office. The children are sleeping in a large space that is probably a gymnasium or assembly room. But the missile will demolish the entire school, I say. We have to assume it will, yes, sir. General Burke? I say into the speakerphone. Any comment? Burke is a four-star general and head of US Central Command, on the phone from Qatar. Mr. President, you dont need me to tell you that these are two high-value targets. They are the best military minds in their respective organizations. Abu-Dheeq is al-Shabaabs Douglas MacArthur. Al-Fadhli is not only the top military commander but also the top strategist for AQAP. This would be significant, sir. We may never have an opportunity like this again. Significant being a relative term. These men will be replaced. And depending how many innocents we kill, we may create more future terrorists in their wake than we kill right now. But this will be a setback to their organizations, no question. And we cant let terrorists think that theyre safe as long as they hide behind their families, either. Mr. President, says Erica Beatty, we dont know how long this meeting will last. It could be breaking up right now. There is obviously something important that these two military commanders want to say to each other, or share with each other, and theyre afraid to do it through intermediaries or electronically. But for all we know, in five minutes theyll be gone. Its now or never, in other words. Rod? I say to the Joint Chiefs chairman, Admiral Sanchez. I recommend we strike, he says. Dom? I say to the defense secretary. I agree. Brendan? I agree. Kathy? I say to the vice president. The vice president takes a quick moment, lets out air. Tucks a strand of her gray hair behind her ear. He made the choice, not us, to use his family as a human shield, she says. I agree that we should strike. I look at the CIA director. Erica, do you have the childrens names? She knows me well enough by now. She hands me a piece of paper with seven names written on it. I read them, from the sixteen-year-old boy, Yasin, to the two-year-old girl, Salma. Salma, I say aloud. That means peace, doesnt it? She clears her throat. I believe it does, sir. I picture a small child, nestled in her mothers arms, sleeping quietly, knowing nothing of a world filled with hate. Maybe Salma will grow up to become the woman who changes it all. Maybe shell be the one to lead us away from our divisions and toward understanding. We have to believe that can happen someday, dont we? We could wait for the meeting to break up, I say. When they go their separate ways, we follow Abu-Dheeqs convoy and take it out. Thats one dead terrorist leader. Its not two, but its better than zero. And al-Fadhli? asks Chairman Sanchez. We follow his convoy, too, and hope that he separates himself from his family. Then we strike. He wont, sir. Separate himself from his family, I mean. Hell return to a populated area and disappear, like he always does. Well lose him. Al-Fadhli rarely comes up for air, says Erica Beatty. Thats why this is such a tremendous opportunity. Tremendous. I flip a hand. Yes. Killing seven children feelstremendous. I stand up and move away from my chair, pace along the wall. My back turned to the team, I hear Kathy Brandts voice. Mr. President, she says, al-Fadhli is no dummy. If we take out Abu-Dheeq within a kilometer or two of where the meeting took place, hell know you tracked both of them to that elementary school. Hell know why you spared him. Hell spread the word to his brothers in arms. Keep your children close to you, and the Americans wont strike. They dont worry about our children, says Erica Beatty. So were no different? I ask. Were no better? They dont care about our children, so we dont care about theirs? Kathy raises a hand. No, sir, thats not what Im saying. They deliberately target civilians. Were not doing it deliberately. Were doing it as a last resort. We are conducting a precision military strike against a terrorist leader, not randomly choosing civilians and children as targets. Thats the argument, sure. But the terrorists were fighting dont see the difference between a military strike conducted by the United States and what they do. They cant drop missiles on us from drones. They cant take on our army, our air force. What they do, blowing up or attacking civilian targets, is their version of a precision military strike. Arent we different? Dont we draw the line at conducting a military strike that we know will kill innocent children? Unintended consequences are one thing. This time we know the result before we start. Rod Sanchez checks his watch. This debate could become moot any minute. I doubt they will stay together for very long be Yes, that point was made already, I say. I heard it the first time. I lower my head and close my eyes, shutting out the rest of the room. I have a team of highly competent, well-trained professionals advising me. But I am making this decision alone. There is a reason that the founders of our country put a civilian in charge of the military. Because it is not only about military effectiveness. Its also about policy, about values, about what we stand for as a nation. How can I kill seven children? Youre not. Youre killing two terrorists who are plotting their next slaughter of innocent civilians. Al-Fadhlis killing his children by hiding behind them. True, but thats semantics. Its my choice. They live or they die based on my choice. How do I meet my Maker one day and justify their deaths? Its not semantics. If you pass on this, youre rewarding them for their cowardly tactics. But that doesnt matter. Seven innocent children are what matters. Is that what the United States stands for? But why are those high-value terrorists meeting in person? Thats never happened before. They must be planning something big. Something that will result in the deaths of more than seven children. Stop this now, you might stop an attack. A net saving of lives. I open my eyes. I take a deep breath, waiting for the drumming of my heart to slow. It doesnt. It speeds up. I know the answer. I always knew the answer. I havent been searching for the answer. Ive been searching for a justification. I take one more moment and whisper a prayer. I pray for those children. I pray that one day no president will have to make a decision like this. God help us, I say. You have my authorization to strike. Chapter 12 I return to the Oval Office with Carolyn as the clock slowly, agonizingly approaches five. We are silent. A lot of working men and women look forward to five oclock on Friday because it signals the end of the work week, some much-needed relaxation and time with family. But for the last four days, Carolyn and I have been waiting and planning for this particular hour of this particular day not knowing whether its the beginning of something, the end of something, or both. It was last Monday, just after noon, when I received the phone call on my personal cell. Carolyn and I were grabbing turkey sandwiches in the kitchen. We already knew we were facing an imminent threat. We didnt understand the scope or magnitude of it. We had no idea how to stop it. Our mission in Algeria had already failed in spectacular fashion for all the world to see. Suliman Cindoruk remained on the loose. My entire national security team had been subpoenaed to testify the following day, Tuesday, before the House Select Committee. But when I put down my sandwich and answered that call in the kitchen, everything changed. The dynamic was completely upended. For the first time, I had the tiniest sliver of hope. But I was also more scared than ever. Five p.m. Eastern time, Friday, May the eleventh, I was told. So as the time approaches five oclock on Friday, May 11, I am no longer thinking about the seven innocent children in the Republic of Yemen who are dead under a pile of ash and rubble based on a decision I made. Now Im wondering what in the hell is about to happen to our country and how I can best deal with it. Where is she? I mumble. Its not quite five, sir. Shell be here. You dont know that, I say as I pace. You cant know that. Call down. Before she can, her phone buzzes. She answers. Yes, Alexsheall rightshes alone?yesthats fine, do what you need to doyes, but be quick about it. She puts away her phone and looks at me. Shes here, I say. Yes, sir, shes here. Theyre searching her. I look out the window, up at the bruised sky, threatening rain. What is she going to say, Carrie? I wish I knew, sir. I will be monitoring. The instruction delivered to me was a one-on-one meeting, no exceptions. So I will be alone, physically, in the Oval Office with my guest. But Carolyn will be watching from a monitor in the Roosevelt Room. I bounce on my toes, not knowing what to do with my hands. My stomach is in full-scale revolt. God, I havent been this nervous since I cant finish the sentence. I dont think Ive ever been this nervous. You dont show it, sir. I nod. Neither do you. Carolyn never shows weakness. Its not her way. And its a comfort right now, because shes the only one I can count on. Shes the only person in the US government, besides me, who knows about this meeting. Carolyn leaves. I stand by my desk and wait for JoAnn to open the door for my visitor. After what feels like an endless slog of time, the clock moving in slow motion, JoAnn opens the door. Mr. President, she says. I nod. This is it. Show her in, I say. Chapter 13 The girl enters the room wearing work boots, torn jeans, and a gray long-sleeved T-shirt bearing the word PRINCETON. She is waif-thin, with a long neck, prominent cheekbones, and narrow eyes spread apart in a way that suggests eastern Europe. Her hair is in one of those styles Ive never understood, the right side of her head shaved in a military buzz cut with longer hair hanging over it, down to her bony shoulders. A cross between a Calvin Klein model and a Eurotrash punk rocker. She scans the room, but not the way most people who enter the Oval Office do. First-time visitors soak it all in, eagerly devour all the portraits and knickknacks, marvel at the presidential seal, the Resolute desk. Not her. What I see in her eyes, behind the impenetrable wall of her face, is pure loathing. Hatred of me, this office, everything it stands for. But shes tense, too, on alertwondering if someone will jump her, handcuff her, throw a hood over her head. She fits the physical description I received. She gave the name at the gate that we expected. Its her. But I have to confirm, regardless. Say the words, I tell her. She raises her eyebrows. She cant be surprised. Say it. She rolls her eyes. Dark Ages, she says, curling her rs, as if the words were poison on her tongue. Her accent is heavily eastern European. How do you know those words? She shakes her head, clucks her tongue. There will be no answer to my question. YourSecret Servicedoes not like me, she says. Doze not like me. You were setting off the metal detectors. I do thatalways. Thewhat is your word? The bomb fragthe Shrapnel, I say. Parts of a bomb. From an explosion. This, yes, she says, tapping her forehead. They told me that twocentimeters to the rightand I would not have woken up. She curls a thumb into the belt loop of her jeans. There is defiance in her eyes, a challenge. Would you like to knowwhat I did to deserve it? Im going to guess it had something to do with some military strike ordered by an American presidentmaybe mein some faraway land. But I know next to nothing about this woman. I dont know her real name or where shes from. I dont know her motivation or her plan. After first making contact with meindirectlyfour days ago, on Monday, she fell off the map, and despite my considerable efforts to learn more about her, I failed. I dont know anything about her for certain. But I am reasonably sure that this young woman holds the fate of the free world in her hands. I was walking mycousinto mass when the missile hit, she says. I shove my hands in my pockets. Youre safe here, I say. Her eyes drift up and away, enlarging them, a beautiful copper color. It makes her look even younger. Less of the hardened image shes trying to project and more the scared kid she must be, underneath it all. She should be scared. I hope shes scared. I sure as hell am, but Im not going to show it any more than she will. No, she says. I do not think. I donut zink. I promise. She blinks her eyes heavily, looks away with disdain. The American president promises. She reaches into the back pocket of her jeans and produces an envelope, tattered and folded in half. She straightens it and places it on the table next to the couch. My partner does not know what I know, she says. Only I do. I did not write it down. She taps the right side of her head. It is in here only. Her secret, she means. She didnt put it on a computer we could hack or in an e-mail we could intercept. She is storing it in one place only, a place that not even our sophisticated technology can penetrateher mind. And I do not know what my partner knows, she says. Right. She has separated herself from her partner. Each of them, she is telling me, holds part of the puzzle. Each of them is indispensable. I need both of you, I say. I understand. Your message on Monday was clear about that. And you will be alone tonight, she says. Yes. Your message was clear on that, too. She nods, as if we have settled something. How do you know Dark Ages? I ask again. Her eyes turn down. From the table by the couch, she picks up a photograph of my daughter and me walking from Marine One toward the White House. I remember the first time I saw a helicopter, she says. I was a young girl. It was on the television. There was a hotel in Dubai that was opening. The Mari-Poseidon, it was called. Thismajestic hotel on the waters of the Persian Gulf. It had a helia helipad? A helipad, yes, I say. A rooftop landing for helicopters. This, yes. The helicopter landed on the roof of this hotel. I remember thinking that if people could fly, they could doanything. Im not sure why shes telling me about Dubai hotels or helicopters. Maybe its nothing more than nervous chatter. I approach her. She turns, puts down the photo, and steels herself. If I do not leave here, she says, you will never see my partner. You will have no way to stop this. I lift the envelope from the table. It is nearly weightless, flimsy. I can see a trace of color through the paper. The Secret Service would have inspected it, checked it for any suspicious residue and the like. She steps back, still wary, still waiting for government agents to burst through the door and whisk her away to some Guant?namo Baystyle interrogation room. If I thought that would work, Id do it in a heartbeat. But she has set this up so that it wouldnt. This young woman has managed to do something that very few people could pull off. She has forced me to play this game on her terms. What do you want? I ask. Why are you doing this? For the first time, her stoic expression breaks, her lips curve, but its not an expression of mirth. Only the president of this country would ask such a question. She shakes her head, then her face once again becomes a poker-face wall. You will find out why, she says, nodding toward the envelope in my hand. Tonight. So I have to trust you, I say. This draws a look from her, a raised eyebrow, her eyes glistening. I have not convinced you? Youve gotten this far, I say. But no, you havent entirely convinced me. She eyeballs me, a confident, daring look, like Id be a fool to call her bluff. Then you must decide, she says. Wait, I say as she heads for the door, reaches for the knob. She bristles, freezes in place. Still looking at the door, not me, she says, If I am not allowed to leave, you will never see my partner. If I am followed, you will never see my part No ones going to stop you, I say. No ones going to follow you. She holds still, her hand poised over the knob. Thinking. Debating. About what, I dont know. I could fill a room with what I dont know. If anything happens to my partner, she says, your country will burn. She turns the knob and leaves. Just like that, shes gone. And then Im alone with the envelope. I have to let her go. I have no choice. I cant risk alienating the one chance I have. Assuming I believe her. Assuming that everything shes saying is true. Im nearly 100 percent there, but in my line of work, its hard to get closer than that. I open the envelope, which tells me where the next meeting will take place, tonight. I replay everything that just happened. So very little did. She had almost nothing of substance to say. She accomplished two things, I realize. One, she needed to hand me this envelope. And two, she wanted to know if she could trust me, if I would let her leave. I walk over and sit on my couch, staring at the envelope, trying to glean any hints from what she said. Trying to think ahead on the chessboard. A knock on the door, and Carolyn enters. I passed her test, I say. Thats all this was, she agrees. And that, she adds, nodding at the envelope in my hand. But did she pass mine? I ask. How do I know this is real? I think it is, sir. Why? Overhead, the lights flicker again, a momentary strobe effect. Carolyn looks up and curses under her breath. Another thing shell have to address sometime down the road. Why do you believe her? I ask. The reason it took me a few minutes to come in, sir. She points at her phone. We just got word out of Dubai. There was an incident. An incident in Dubai. With a helicopter? She nods. A helicopter exploded while landing on the helipad of the Mari-Poseidon Hotel. I bring a hand to my face. I checked the timing, sir. It happened after shed walked into the Oval Office. Theres no other way she could have known about it. I fall back against the couch. So she accomplished a third goal. She showed me she was the real deal. All right, I whisper. Im convinced. Chapter 14 Up in the private residence, I open one of the dresser drawers, which contains only a single item: a picture of Rachel. I have plenty of those around here, photos of her vibrant and happy, mugging for the camera or hugging or laughing. This one is for me only. It was taken less than a week before she died. Her face is blotchy from treatments; she has only wisps of hair on her head. Her face is almost skeletal. To most people, this would be hard to look atRachel Carson Duncan at her absolute worst, finally succumbing to a ravaging disease. But to me, its Rachel at her best, her strongest, her most beautifulthe smile in her eyes, her peace and resolve. The fight was over at that point. It was just a matter of time, they told uscould be months, but more likely weeks. It turned out to be six days. It was six days I wouldnt trade for any others in my life. All that mattered was us, our love. We talked about our fears. We talked about Lilly. We talked about God. We read from the Bible and prayed and laughed and cried until our wells of tears had run dry. Id never known intimacy so raw and cathartic. Id never felt so inseparable from another human being. Let me take a picture of you, I whispered to her. She started to object, but she understood: I wanted to remember this time because, at that moment, Id never loved her more. Sir, says Carolyn Brock, lightly rapping her knuckles on the door. Yeah, I know. I put my fingers to my lips, then touch Rachels photo. I close the drawer and look up. Lets go, I say, dressed in my civvies and holding a small bag over my shoulder. Alex Trimbles head drops, his jaw clenched with disapproval. When the head of a Secret Service detail dreams his worst nightmare, it is this. He can always console himself with the fact that I gave him an order, that he had no choice but to let me go. Just a loose perimeter? he says. Youll never see us. I give him a smile that says no. Alex has been with me since I was first assigned security protection during the primaries, when I was a governor viewed as a long shot for the nomination. It wasnt until the first major debate that my poll numbers surged, placing me in the top tier of candidates behind the front-runner, Kathy Brandt. I didnt know how the Secret Service doled out its assignments, but I had assumed, as a dark-horse candidate, that I did not receive their best and brightest. But Alex always said to me, Governor, as far as Im concerned, you are the president, and he was disciplined and organized. His team feared him the same way cadets fear their drill sergeants. And as I told him when I made him the head of the White House detail, nobody killed me, so he must have done something right. You dont get too close to your security, and they dont get too close to you. Each side of the arrangement understands the need for emotional separation. But Ive always seen the goodness in Alex. He married his college sweetheart, Gwen; he reads the Bible every day and sends money to his mother back home every month. Hes the first to tell you he wasnt book smart, but he was a hell of a left tackle and got a football scholarship to Iowa State, where he studied criminal justice and dreamed of joining the Secret Service so he could do in life what he did on the gridironprotect the blind side of his client. When I asked him to head up my detail at the White House, he kept his standard stoic expression and ramrod posture, but I caught a brief sheen of emotion across his eyes. It would be the greatest honor of my life, sir, he whispered. Well use GPS, he says to me now. Just so well know where you are. Sorry, I say. Checkpoints, he tries, a Hail Mary. Just tell us where youre going No, Alex, I say. He doesnt understand why. He is convinced that he could surveil me invisibly. Im sure he could. So why wont I let him? He doesnt know, and I cant tell him. At least wear a bulletproof vest, he says. No, I answer. Too noticeable. Even the new ones are too bulky. Alex wants to argue more. He wants to tell me that Im being a horses ass, but hed never speak to me like that. He runs through an entire plea in his head, probably no different from the arguments hes already raised with me, before dropping his shoulders and relenting. Be safe, he says, a line that people throw out every day as an innocuous sign-off but that in this case is charged with emotion and dread. Will do. I look at Danny and Carolyn, the only other people in the room. Its time for me to go, alone and off the record. For years Ive been constantly going, but never alone and never off the record. The Secret Service takes every step with me, and at least one aide is almost always there, even when Im on vacation. A record is kept of where I am every hour. I know this is the only option that will spare the country untold misery and allow me to do my duty to preserve, protect, and defend it. I know my fellow Americans go alone and off the record all the time, though surveillance cameras, cell phones, social media mining, and hacking are shrinking their zones of privacy, too. Still, this is a big change, and I feel a little disoriented and disarmed. Danny and Carolyn are by my side for the last leg of my dislocation from the trappings of office. We are quiet. They each tried hard to talk me out of this. Now theyre resigned to helping me make it work. Its harder than you might think to get out of the White House unnoticed. We take the stairs from the residence all the way down. We walk slowly, each footfall another movement toward what is about to happen. With every step, I am surrendering more control to an uncertain fate tonight. You remember when we first took this route? I ask, recalling our postelection tour before I took the oath of office. Like it was yesterday, says Carolyn. Ill never forget it, Danny says. We were so full ofhope, I guess. We were so sure wed make the world a better place. Carolyn says, Maybe you were. I was scared to death. I was, too. We knew the world we were inheriting. We had no illusions that we would leave everything perfect. When I hit the pillow every night during those heady preinauguration days, my mind would veer wildly from dreams of massive strides forward in national security, foreign relations, shared prosperity, and health care and criminal justice reform to nightmares of completely botching the whole thing and plunging the nation into crisis. Safer, stronger, fairer, kinder, Danny says, reminding me of the four words I ticked off every morning as we began to put fine points on our policies and build our team for the upcoming four-year term. Finally we reach the subbasement, where theres a one-lane bowling alley, a bunkerlike but well-furnished operations center that Dick Cheney occupied after 9/11, and a couple of other rooms designed for meeting around simple tables or sleeping on cots. We pass the doors and head toward a narrow tunnel that connects the building to the Treasury Department, just to the east, on 15th and Pennsylvania. What exactly is beneath the White House has been the subject of myth and rumor going back to the Civil War, when the Union Army feared an attack on the White House and plans were put together to evacuate President Lincoln to a vault in the Treasury Building as a last resort. The real work on the tunnel didnt begin until FDR and World War II, when an air assault on the White House became a real possibility. It was designed in a zigzag pattern precisely to mitigate the impact of a bomb strike. The entrance to the tunnel has a door alarm, but Carolyns taken care of that. The tunnel itself is only ten feet wide and seven feet highnot a lot of headroom for someone like me, whos over six feet tall. It could have a claustrophobic effect, but I dont feel it. For someone no longer accustomed to going anywhere without the Secret Service or aides, the empty, open space of the tunnel is liberating. The three of us walk almost the length of the tunnel before coming to another path, which turns right into a small underground parking garage reserved for high-ranking Treasury officials and important guests. Tonight it also holds my getaway car. Carolyn hands me car keys, then a cell phone, which I put in my left pocket, next to the envelope that the girl gave me half an hour ago. The numbers are preprogrammed, she says, referring to the cell phone. Everyone we talked about. Including Lilly. Lilly. Something breaks inside of me. You remember the code? she asks. I remember. Dont worry. From behind my back, I produce an envelope of my own, this one bearing the presidential seal and containing a single piece of paper. When Danny sees it, he almost loses his composure. No, he says. Im not opening that. Carolyn puts out her hand and takes it from me. Open it, I tell her, if you need to open it. Danny puts a hand on his forehead, pushing his hair back. Jesus, Jon, he whispers, the first time since I took office that hes used my name. Are you really going to do this? Danny, I whisper, if anything happens to me Heyhey now. He puts his hands on my shoulders. He is faltering, holding back emotion. Shes like flesh and blood to me. You know that. I love that kid more than anything. Dannys divorced now, with one son in grad school. But he was in the waiting room when Lilly was born; he stood on the altar at her baptism; he teared up at every one of her graduations; he held Lillys other hand at Rachels funeral. Early on, he was Uncle Danny to Lilly. Somewhere along the line, the uncle part got dropped. He will be the closest thing shell have to a parent. You got your Ranger coin? he asks. What, youre popping me with a coin check right now? I pat my pocket. Never go anywhere without it, I say. What about you? Cant say I have mine with me. Guess I owe you a drink. So now you His throat catches with emotion. Now you have to come back. I hold my stare on Danny, my family not in blood but in every way that matters. Roger that, brother. Then I turn to Carolyn. We dont have a hugging kind of relationship; other than the nights I won the nomination and then the general election, weve never embraced. But we do now. She whispers into my ear. My moneys on you, sir. They dont know what theyre up against. If thats true, I say back, its because I have you on my side. I watch them leave, shaken but resolved. The next twenty-four or forty-eight hours will not be easy for Carolyn, who will have to serve as my point person at the White House. These are unprecedented times. We are, in a real sense, making this up as we go along. When they are gone, when I am alone in the tunnel, I bend over and put my hands on my knees. I take a few deep breaths to combat the butterflies. I hope you know what the hell youre doing, I say to myself. Then I turn and head farther into the tunnel. Chapter 15 I walk into Treasurys underground parking garage with my head angled downward, hands in the pockets of my blue jeans, my leather shoes moving softly along the asphalt. I am not the only person down here at this hour, so my presence is not conspicuous by any means, though Im dressed more casually than the departing employees of the Treasury Department, with their suits and briefcases and ID badges. Its easy to hide among the sounds of heels clicking on pavement, car remotes beeping, automatic locks on cars releasing, and engines turning over, especially when the departing employees are more concerned with their weekend plans than with the guy in the cotton button-down and blue jeans. I may be in hiding, and this is no joyride, but I cant deny the small thrill of release I feel while moving about in public without being noticed. It has been more than a decade since Ive set foot in a public place without being on display, without feeling like someone might snap a photo of me at any moment, without seeing dozens of people wanting to approach me for a handshake or a quick hello, a selfie, a favor, or even a substantive policy discussion. As promised, the car is the fourth from the end on the left, a nondescript sedan, an older model, silver, with Virginia plates. I hold out the remote and push the Unlock button for too long, causing every door to unlock and then a series of beeps to sound. Im out of practice. I havent opened my own car door for a decade. Behind the wheel, I feel like someone fresh out of a time machine, transported into the future by this mysterious contraption. I adjust the seat, turn the ignition, gun the gas once, throw it into Reverse, and turn my head to look back, my arm over the passenger seat. As I slowly back out of the space, the car emits a beep that grows more urgent. I hit the brakes and see a woman walking behind the car, on the way to hers. Once she has passed by, the beeping stops. Some kind of radar, an anticollision device. I look back at the dashboard and notice a backup camera. So I can drive in Reverse while facing forward, watching the screen? They didnt have that ten years ago, or if they did, my car sure as hell didnt have it. I navigate the sedan through the garage, the lanes surprisingly narrow, the angles sharp. It takes me a few minutes to get the hang of it again, jumping forward too abruptly, braking too harshly, but then it feels like yesterday that I was sixteen, driving that beater Chevy off the lot of Crazy Sam Kelseys New and Used Autos for twelve hundred dollars. I watch the cars in front of me in the line to leave the garage. The gate lifts automatically as each car reaches the front. No need for the driver to reach out the window to press a card against some reader or anything like that. It occurs to me that I didnt even think to ask about that. When its my turn at the front, the gate rises, letting me leave. I pull slowly up the ramp, approaching daylight, wary of passing pedestrians, before I pull into the street. Traffic is thick, so my urge to gun the car, to feel the freedom of this temporary independence, is stymied by the congestion at every intersection. I look up through the windshield at the bruised sky, hoping it wont rain. The radio. I click a knob to turn it on, and nothing happens. I push a button, and nothing happens. I push another button, and the sound blares out, sending a shock wave through me as two people are arguing, talking over each other about whether President Jonathan Duncan has committed an impeachable offense. I push the same button, kill the sound, and focus on driving. I think about where Im going, the person Im about to see, and invariably my mind wanders back Chapter 16 Professor Waite strolled across the well of the lecture hall, hands clasped behind his back. And what was the point of Justice Stevenss dissent? He returned to the lectern, looked over his name chart. Mr.Duncan? He looked up at me. Shit. Id thrown a lump of Copenhagen in my cheek so I could stay awake after a night of getting my paper done. Id only skimmed the case for today. I was one of a hundred in this class, after all, so the odds of my being called on were slim. But this was my unlucky day. I was on the spot and unprepared. Justice Stevensdisagreed with the majority inwith I flipped through the pages, feeling the heat rise to my face. Well, yes, Mr. Duncan, dissents do typically disagree with the majority. I do believe thats why theyre called dissents. Nervous laughter rippled through the lecture hall. Yes, sir, hehe disagreed with the majoritys interpretation of the Fourth Amendment You must be confusing Justice Stevenss dissent with Justice Brennans dissent, Mr. Duncan. Justice Stevenss dissent did not so much as mention the Fourth Amendment. Well, yes, I am confusedI mean confusing I think you had it right the first time, Mr. Duncan. Ms. Carson, would you be so kind as to rescue us from Mr. Duncans confusion? Justice Stevenss point was that the Supreme Court should not intervene in state court decisions that, at worst, would have the effect of raising the floor of the federal constitution Burned for the first time by the notorious Professor Waite, this being only the fourth week of my first year at UNC Law, I looked across the room at the woman in the third row who was speaking as I thought to myself, This is the last time you come to class unprepared, you maggot. And then I fixed my gaze on her, seated in the third row, confidently, almost casually giving her answer. It is a floor, not a ceiling, and so long as an adequate and independent state ground exists for the decision I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. Whois that? I whispered to Danny, seated next to me. Danny was two years ahead of me in schoolhe was a third-yearand he knew pretty much everyone. Thats Rachel, he whispered back. Rachel Carson. A 3L. The one who beat me out for editor in chief of the law review. Whats her story? You mean is she single? No idea. Youve made a great first impression, though. My heart was still pounding as the class ended. I jumped out of my seat and hit the door, hoping to catch her in the hallway amid a sea of students. Cropped chestnut hair, jean jacket Rachel CarsonRachel Carson There. I spotted her. I navigated the crowd and caught up to her just as she was breaking away from the forward movement of the masses and angling toward one of the doors. Hey, I said, my voice shaky. My voice was shaking? She turned and looked at me, liquid green eyes, eyebrows raised. The most delicate, sculpted face Id ever seen. Hi she said tentatively, trying to place me. Um. Hi. I hiked my backpack over my shoulder. I, uh, just wanted to say thanks for, yknow, bailing me out in there. Oh. No problem. Youre a 1L? Guilty as charged. Happens to all of us, she said. I took a breath. So, uh, what are youI meanwhat are you, yknow, doing right now? What the hell was wrong with me? Id taken every smoke session Sergeant Melton could dish out. Id been waterboarded, beaten, strung up, and mock-executed by the Iraqi Republican Guard. Suddenly I was tongue-tied? Right now? Well, I She nodded to one side. For the first time, I focused on the door shed been about to enterthe ladies bathroom. Oh, you were gonna Yeah You should, then. Should I? she said, amused. Yeah, I mean, its not good toto hold it in, orI meanif you gotta go, you gotta go, right? What in holy hell was wrong with me? Right, she said. Soit was nice meeting you. I could hear her laughter inside the bathroom. A week after I first laid eyes on her, I hadnt been able to get her out of my mind. I scolded myself: the first year of law school is the year to buckle down, the year when you establish yourself. But no matter how hard I tried to focus on the minimum-contacts doctrine of personal jurisdiction or the elements of a negligence claim or the mirror-image rule of contract law, that girl in the third row of my federal jurisdiction elective kept popping into my head. Danny gave me intel: Rachel Carson was from a small town in western Minnesota, went to Harvard undergrad, and was at UNC Law on a public-interest grant. She was editor in chief of the law review, first in her class, and had a job waiting for her at a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to the poor. She was sweet but quiet. She kept a low profile socially, tended to hang out with the older people in school who didnt come straight from undergrad. Well, shit, I thought to myself. I didnt come straight from undergrad, either. I eventually mustered my courage and found her in the library, sitting at a long table with several of her friends. I told myself again that this was a bad idea. My legs had a different notion, though, and suddenly I was standing by her table. When she saw me coming, she put down the pen in her hand and stared. I wanted to do this in private, but I was afraid that if I didnt do it now, Id never do it. So go on, you dumb ass, before someone calls security. I removed the piece of paper from my pocket, unfolded it, and cleared my throat. By now I had the entire tables attention. I started reading: The first two times you heard me speak, I sounded like a fool. I made about as much sense as a top hat on a mule. I wasnt sure a third attempt would do me any better, So I decided that Id put my thoughts down in a letter. I peeked at her, an amused smile flirting with her face. She hasnt walked away yet, I said, getting a chuckle from one of her friends, a good start. My name is Jon. I come from here, a town near Boomer. I have good manners, listen well, a decent sense of humor. I have no money, have no car, no talent as a poet, But I do possess a working brain, though I often fail to show it. That line got me another chuckle from her friends. Its true, I said to Rachel. I can read and write and all that junk. Im sure, Im sure. May I keep going? By all means. She swept her hand. Youre here to study, says my buddy. Remember Professor Waite? But for some reason I just cant concentrate. Im reading the section on equal protection, the law and racial quotas, But instead Im thinking of a green-eyed girl from Minnesota. She couldnt suppress her smile, her face coloring. The rest of the women at the table applauded. I bowed at the waist. Thank you very much, I said, doing my best Elvis imitation. Ill be here all week. Rachel didnt look at me. I mean, if nothing else, the fact that I rhymed Minnesota No, that was impressive, she agreed, her eyes closed. All right, then. Ladies, if youll excuse me, Im going to pretend that this whole thing went well, and Im going to leave while Im ahead on points. I walked slowly enough for her to have caught up with me if she wanted. Chapter 17 I snap out of my reverie and slide into the parking space, just where I was told it would be, not three miles from the White House. I park the car and kill the ignition. No one else is in sight. I grab my bag and get out. The back entrance looks like a loading dock of some sort, with steps up to a large door that has no outside knob. A voice through an intercom squawks at me. Who is it, please? Charles Kane, I say. A moment later, the thick door pops ajar. I reach in and pull it open. Inside is a freight area, empty of people, cluttered with UPS and FedEx boxes, large crates and wheeled dollies. A large elevator is to the right, the doors open, the walls covered with thick padding. I press the top button, and the doors close. I draw a sharp breath as the elevator reacts clumsily, dropping for a moment before lifting me, the grinding of the gears audible. Another moment of light-headedness. I put my hand against the padded wall and wait it out while Dr. Lanes words echo in my head. When I reach the top and the doors open, I step out carefully into a well-appointed hallway, the walls painted a light yellow, Monet prints guiding me toward the only door on the top floor, the penthouse. When I reach the door, it opens without my doing anything. Charles Kane, at your service, I say. Amanda Braidwood stands inside the penthouse, her arm fully extended as she holds the door open and appraises me. A thin sweater hangs loose over a fitted shirt. Shes wearing black stretch pants and nothing on her feet. Her hair is long these days, courtesy of the movie she wrapped a month ago, but tonight its pulled back into a ponytail, with a few strands hanging down to frame the contours of her face. Well, hello there, Mr. Kane, she says. Sorry about the subterfuge, but the doorman at the front entrance is a little busybodyish. Last year, an entertainment magazine named Mandy one of the twenty most beautiful women on the planet. Another dubbed her one of the top twenty highest-paid actors in Hollywood, less than a year after she took home her second Oscar. She and Rachel lived together all four years at Harvard and stayed in touch over the yearsas closely as a North Carolina lawyer and an international movie star can manage. The code name Charles Kane was Mandys idea: about eight years ago, over a bottle of wine in the backyard of the governors mansion, Rachel, Mandy, and I agreed that Orson Welless masterpiece was the finest movie ever made. She shakes her head as a smile slowly blooms on her face. My, my, she says. Whiskers, scruff, she adds as she kisses my cheek. How rugged. Well, dont just stand there looking all outdoorsycome in. Her scent, the smell of a woman, lingers with me. Rachel wasnt much for perfume, but her bath gel and body lotionwhatever you call all those creams and lotions and soapswere both vanilla. I will never smell that scent again, as long as I live, without seeing the image of Rachels bare shoulder and imagining the softness of her neck. They say theres no manual for overcoming the death of a spouse. Thats truer still when the survivor is the president and all hell is breaking loose, because you have no time to grieve. There are too many decisions to make that wont wait, constant security threats that, with even a momentary lapse in your attention, can have catastrophic consequences. As Rachel hit the end stages of her illness, we watched North Korea and Russia and China more closely than ever, knowing that the leaders of those countries were looking for any hint of vulnerability or inattention from the White House. I considered temporarily stepping down as presidentI even had Danny draw up the papersbut Rachel would have none of it. She was determined that her illness would not cause any interruption in my presidency. It mattered to her, in an intense way that she never fully explained and I never fully understood. Three days before Rachel passedby that point, wed returned to Raleigh so she could die at homeNorth Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile off its coast, and I ordered an aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea. The day we buried her, as I stood at her grave, holding hands with my daughter, our embassy in Venezuela was attacked by a suicide bomber, and I soon found myself in our kitchen with generals and our national security team considering options for a proportional response. In the short term, its probably easier to deal with personal loss when the world around you constantly demands your attention. Youre too busy to be sad and lonely at first. Then the reality drops inyouve lost the love of your life, your daughter has lost her mother, and a wonderful woman was denied the chance to live a long, rich life. Now youre grateful for the demands of your job. But there are moments of intense loneliness, even when youre the president. Id never felt it before. Id had plenty of tough decisions to make in my first two years, plenty of times I could do nothing more than pray that Id made the right call, times when it didnt matter how many aides I had because the buck stopped with me and me alone. But I never felt alone. I always had Rachel there with me, giving me her honest opinion about how I was making the decisions, telling me to do the best I could, then wrapping her arms around my neck when it was over. I still miss Rachel all the time, in every way a man can miss his wife. Tonight I miss her uncanny sense of when to dress me down and when to back me up, make me believe that no matter what, everything will turn out all right. There will never be another Rachel. I know that. But I do wish I werent alone all the time. Rachel demanded that we talk about what would happen after she died. She used to joke that Id be the most eligible bachelor on the planet. Maybe. Right now I feel like a clueless nerd about to let everybody down. Drink? Mandy asks over her shoulder. No time, I say. I dont have very long. Honestly, I dont even understand why you want to do this, she says. But Im ready. Lets get to it. I follow her into the apartment. Chapter 18 This feels weird, I say. Youre doing fine, Mandy whispers. Nobodys ever done this to you? No, and I hope nobody ever does again. It will be more enjoyable for both of us, she says, if youd stop complaining. For Gods sake, Jon, you were tortured in a Baghdad prison and you cant handle this? You do this every day? Most days. Now holdstill. Its easier that way. Easier for her, maybe. I try to stay as still as possible, seated in a pink chair in the dressing room inside Mandys bedroom suite as she uses a makeup pencil on my eyebrows. To my right, Mandys vanity is covered with makeup supplies, bottles and brushes and powders and creams and clays of all different sizes and colors. It looks like something on the set of a B movie about vampires or zombies. Dont make me look like Groucho Marx, I say. No, no, she says. But speaking of She reaches down and pulls something out of a bag and shows it to meGroucho Marx glasses, the bushy eyebrows and mustache. I take them from her. Rachels, I say. When Rachel started getting really sick, it bothered her how sorry for her everyone felt. So when friends would come to visit, she had a little routine to lighten things up. Id warn people that Rachel isnt really herself today. And when theyd walk into the room, theyd see Rachel in bed, wearing the Groucho glasses. Sometimes it was a clown nose. She had a mask of Richard Nixon, too, which really got a laugh. That was Rachel, right there. Always worrying about everyone but herself. Anyway, says Mandy, before things get too misty, dont worry about your eyebrows. Im just thickening them a little. Youd be amazed how they can change ones appearance. Eyes and eyebrows. She scoots back in her chair and looks at me. Honestly, kiddo, that beard you showed up with was half the battle right there. And its so red! It almost doesnt look real. You want me to color your hair to match? Definitely not. She shakes her head, still studying my face like its a lab specimen. Your hair isnt long enough to do much with, she mumbles, talking to herself more than to me. Changing the part from the right to the left wouldnt help. We could forget the part and comb it all forward. She puts her hands in my hair, gripping it, finger-combing it, mussing it. At least youd have a hairstyle that matches this decade. How about I wear a baseball cap? I say. Oh. She draws back. Sure, that would be easier. Does that work? Did you bring one? Yeah. I reach down into my bag and pull out a Nationals baseball cap, put it on. Reliving your glory days, eh? Okay, well, between the beard and the red baseball cap, the eyebrows, andhmm. Her head bobs back and forth. The key is in the eyes, she says, gesturing to her own face. She lets out a sigh. Your eyes havent looked the same, honey. What do you mean? Since Rachel, she says. Your eyes havent looked the same since she died. She snaps out of it. Sorry. Lets get you in some eyeglasses. You dont wear glasses, do you? Reading glasses when Im tired, I say. Hang on. She goes into her closet and comes out with a rectangular velvet box. She pops it open and reveals about fifty pairs of eyeglasses, each perched in a small divot. Jeez, Mandy. I borrowed these from Jamie, she says. When we did the sequel to London last year. Its coming out this Christmas. Heard about that. Congrats. Yeah, well, I told Steven that was the last one Im doing. Rodney couldnt keep his paws off me the whole time. But I handled it. She hands me a pair of eyeglasses with thick brown frames. I put them on. Hmph, she says. No. Try these. I try another pair. No, these. Im not trying to win a fashion award, I say. She gives me a deadpan look. Youre in absolutely no danger of that, my sweet, believe me. Here. She removes another pair. These. These, yes. She hands me a pair with thick frames again, but this time the color is more of a reddish-brown. I put them on, and she lights up. It blends in with your beard, she says. I make a face. No, I mean it throws off your color completely, Jon. Youre fair. Dirty blond and fair-complected. The glasses and beard highlight a deep brown-red. I stand up and go to the mirror over her vanity. Youve lost weight, she says. You were never overweight a day in your life, but youre looking skinny. Im not hearing a compliment in there. I check myself out in the mirror. Im still myself, but I see her point about the change in my coloring. The cap, the glasses, and the beard. And I never realized how much slightly thicker eyebrows could change the look of a person. All that and no Secret Service entourage. Nobody will recognize me. Yknow, Jon, its okay to move on with your life. Youre only fifty. She wanted you to. In fact, she made me prom She stops on that, some color coming to her face, a sheen over her eyes. You and Rachel talked about that? She nods, placing a hand on her chest, taking a moment to let the emotion dissipate. She said to me, and I quote, Dont let Jon spend the rest of his life alone out of some misplaced sense of loyalty. I take a sharp breath. Those wordssome misplaced sense of loyaltywere exactly what she said to me more than once. They bring Rachel right back into this room, as if her breath is on my face, her head angled as it always was when she had something important to say. Her vanilla scent, the dimple in her right cheek, the smile lines by her eyes Her hand clutching mine, that last day, her voice groggy from the pain meds, so weak, but strong enough to squeeze my hand tight one last time. Promise me youll meet someone else, Jonathan. Promise me. My only point, Mandy says, her voice gravelly with emotion, is that everyone understands that theres a time when you have to get back in the ring. You shouldnt have to disguise your appearance just to go on a date. I take a moment of my own to recover and to remember something I never should have forgottenthat Mandy has no idea whats happening. Sure, now that I think about it, it makes sense that shed think I was meeting a woman for a datedinner or a drink or a movieand I might not want our first get-together observed by the international press. You are going on a date, arent you? Her perfectly shaped eyebrows come together as she starts thinking things through. If Im not going on a date, then what am I doing? Why else would a president sneak away from his security detail and travel incognito? Before I let that imaginative mind of hers go any further down that path, I say, Im meeting someone, yes. She waits for more and is hurt when it isnt forthcoming. But shes handled me with kid gloves since Rachels death, and she wont push if I dont want to be pushed. I clear my throat as I check my watch. Im on a strict schedule. Im not used to that. I always have a busy schedule, but the president is never late. Everybody waits for him. Not this time. I have to go now, I tell her. Chapter 19 I take the freight elevator back down and come out into the alley. My car is still parked in its spot. I drive to the Capitol Hill neighborhood and find a parking lot near 7th Street and North Carolina, leaving my keys with an attendant who hardly glances at my face. I blend in with the pedestrians and the sounds of people enjoying a spring Friday evening in a vibrant residential neighborhood, restaurants and bars with their windows flung open, people laughing and mingling, pop music blasting from speakers. I come upon a shabbily dressed man sitting against the wall of a corner coffee shop. A German shepherd, lying next to him, pants in the heat next to an empty bowl. The man, like many of the homeless, is wearing more layers than he needs. He also wears dark, scratched-up sunglasses. The sign hes been holding says HOMELESS VETERAN, but it now leans against the wall of the building. It must be break time. On his other side, a small cardboard box holds a few dollar bills. Music is playing quietly on a boom box. I remove myself from the wave of pedestrian traffic and bend down next to him. I recognize the song playing, Van Morrisons Into the Mystic. My mind whirls back to a slow dance in Savannah during basic training, closing time at one of the bars on River Street, my brain foggy from booze, my limbs aching from smoke sessions and training exercises. Are you a Gulf War vet, sir? I ask. By his appearance, Id almost guessed Vietnam before factoring in the lean years, which likely aged him faster than they should have. Sure am, he says, but I wasnt no sir. I earned my pay, friend. Platoon sergeant in the Big Red One. I was there when they breached Saddams wire. I sense the pride well up in him. It feels good to give him that moment. I want to throw another log onto that fire, get this guy a sandwich, listen just a little more. But I also feel the press of time and check my watch. First Infantry Division, huh? You guys led the charge into Iraq, right? Tip of the spear, man. We rolled over those Republican Guard pansies like they were caught sleeping. Not bad for a leg, I say. A leg? He sounds surprised. You served? What were you, Airborne? Im a hooah just like you, I say. Yeah, spent a couple of years in the Seventy-Fifth. He sits up a little and raises his ungroomed unibrow. Airborne Ranger, huh? I bet you saw some shit, boy. Raids and recon missions, right? Not as much as you guys in the bigger units, I say, deflecting the narrative back to him. What did it take you guysa week to get halfway up the country? And then we stopped short, he says with a crimped mouth. Always thought that was a mistake. Hey, I say. I could use a sandwich. How about you? That would be much appreciated, he says. As I move toward the door he adds, This place makes a killer turkey sandwich, by the way. Turkey it is. When I return, Im committed to a quick exit, but not without finding out a few more things. Whats your name, hooah? I ask. Sergeant First Class Christopher Knight, he says. Here you go, Sergeant. I hand him the paper sack of food. I put down the dish full of water for the dog, who laps it up until its gone. Its been an honor to meet you, Sergeant. Where do you put your head down at night? Shelters a couple streets over. I come here most mornings. People are a little nicer. I have to move along, but here, Chris, take this. I pull the change from the meal out of my pocket and give it to him. God bless you, he says, squeezing my hand with the still-firm grip of a warrior. For some reason, that starts a catch in my throat. Ive visited clinics and hospitals and done my best to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs, but this is what I dont see, the homeless PTSD vet who cant find or hold down a job. I move back along the sidewalk, taking out my cell phone to store his name and the coffee-shop location so I can make sure this guy gets some help before its too late for him. But there are tens of thousands like him. The familiar feeling passes through me, the sense that my ability to help people is both vast and limited at the same time. You learn to live with the paradox. If you dont, obsessing over the limits will keep you from making the most of what you can do. Meanwhile, you keep looking for chances to push the limits back, to do as much as you can for as many as you can, every day. Even on the bad days, theres always something good you can do. Two blocks beyond Sergeant Knight, as I walk among the shadows created by the setting sun, the crowd ahead of me has stopped moving. I walk through some people and step into the street to get a better look. Two police officers from DC Metro are trying to force a man to the ground, an African American kid in a white T-shirt and jeans. He is resisting, trying to swing his arms free while one of the two officers tries to cuff him. They have weapons and Tasers but arent using them, at least not yet. Two or three people along the sidewalk are holding up their phones and filming the incident. Get on the ground! On the ground! the officers are shouting. The man theyre trying to take into custody stumbles to his right, the officers along with them, spilling over into the street, where traffic has stopped, blocked by the police car. I take a step forward, instinctively, then step back. What am I going to do, announce that Im the president and Ill handle this? Theres nothing for me to do but either gawk or leave. I have no idea what led up to this moment. It could be that this man has committed a violent felony or even a purse snatching, or maybe he just pissed these guys off. I hope the officers are simply responding to a call and acting properly. I know that most cops, most of the time, do the best they can. I know that there are bad cops, just as there are bad actors in every profession. And I know that there are cops who think of themselves as good cops but, even if unconsciously, see a black man in a T-shirt and jeans as more threatening than a white man dressed the same way. I look around at the watching crowd, people of all races and colors. Ten different people could watch the same thing and come away with ten unique takes on it. Some will see good cops doing their job. Some will see a black person being treated differently because of the color of his skin. Sometimes its the one. Sometimes its the other. Sometimes its a bit of both. Regardless, in the back of every onlookers mind is the same question: Will this unarmed man leave the scene unshot? A second squad car rolls down the street as the officers get the man to the ground, cuff him, and lift him to his feet. I cross the street and head to my next destination. There are no easy solutions to problems like these, so I try to follow my own adviceunderstand my limitations and keep doing whatever I can to make things better. An executive order, a bill that reaches my desk, speeches, words from my bully pulpitthese things can set the right tone, move us in the right direction. But its a battle as old as humanityus versus them. In every age and time, individuals, families, clans, and nations have struggled with how to treat the other. In America, racism is our oldest curse. But there are other dividesover religion, immigration, sexual identity. Sometimes the them strategy is just a narcotic to feed the beast in all of us. All too often, those who rail against them prevail over earnest pleas to remember what we can be and do together. Our brains have worked this way for a long time. Maybe they always will. But we have to keep trying. Thats the permanent mission our Founding Fathers left usmoving toward the more perfect union. The wind whips up as I turn a corner. I look up at a troubled sky, ash-colored clouds. As I walk to the end of the street, toward the bar on the corner, I fear Im facing the hardest part of a very tough night. Chapter 20 I take a deep breath and enter the bar. Inside: banners for the Georgetown Hoyas and Skins and Nationals, televisions perched in the corners of the exposed-brick walls, loud music competing with the animated chatter of the happy-hour crowd. Many are dressed casually, college and grad students, but some are young after-work professionals in their suits with ties pulled loose or in blouses and pants. The outdoor patio is filled to the brim. The floors are sticky, and the odor is one of stale beer. Im taken back again to Savannah during basic training, when we used to tear up River Street on the weekends. I nod to the two Secret Service agents, dressed in suits, standing sentry. Theyve been told that I was coming and how Id be dressed. Theyve been told not to formally acknowledge me, and they follow that directive, only brief nods, a slight stiffening of their posture. In the back corner, my daughter is seated at a table, surrounded by peoplesome friends, some who just want to be in the presence of the First Daughterdrinking something colorful and fruity from a glass as another woman whispers something into her ear over the loud music. She reacts to the comment, bringing her hand to her mouth, as if trying to laugh and swallow at the same time. But it looks forced. Shes just being polite. Her eyes scan the room. They pass over me at first but then return to me. Lillys lips part, her eyes narrow. Finally, her expression softens. It took her a moment, so my disguise must be pretty good. I keep walking, past the bathrooms into the stockroom at the back of the bar, the door unlocked by design. Inside, it smells like a frat house, with shelves upon shelves of assorted liquors, kegs lined up along the walls, open boxes of napkins and bar glasses on the concrete floor. My heart swells when she walks in, the infant with the round face and enormous eyes reaching out to touch my face, the little girl lifting herself on her tippy-toes to kiss me with a PBJ-smudged face, the teenager slicing the air with her hand as she argued the merits of alternative-energy incentives at the state debate finals. When she draws back and looks me in the eyes, her smile has vanished. So this is real. Its real. Did she come to the White House? She did, yeah. I cant say more than that. Where are you going? she asks. What are you doing? Why dont you have Secret Service? Why are you dressed in some disguise Hey. Hey. I hold her at the shoulders. Its okay, Lil. Im going to meet with them. With Nina and her partner? I highly doubt that the girl in the Princeton T-shirt gave my daughter her real name. But the less said, the better. Yes, I say. I havent seen her since she talked to me, says Lilly. Not once. She completely disappeared from the program. I dont think she was ever enrolled in the Sorbonne program, I say. I think she went to Paris to see you. To deliver the message. But why talk to me, of all people? I dont answer. I dont want to give any more specifics than necessary. But Lilly has her mothers smarts. It doesnt take her long. She knew Id deliver the message to you directly, she says. No intermediaries. No filter. Thats exactly why. So what did she mean? Lilly asks. Whats Dark Ages? Lil I draw her in close but dont say anything. You wont tell me. You cant, she adds, giving me the out, forgiving me. It must be important. So important that you asked me to fly home from Paris, and now youredoing whatever it is youre doing. She glances over her shoulder. Wheres Alex? Wheres your protection? Other than Frick and Frack, the men you sent to guard me? Since she graduated from college, Lilly has opted to decline protection, as is her right. But the moment I got the call from her last Monday, I rushed the Service to her side. It took a couple of days to get her home, because she had a final exam, and I was assured she was secure in Paris. My protection is around, I say. She doesnt need to know that Im going it alone. She has enough anxiety as it is. Getting over the loss of her mother, barely a year ago, is still a work in progress. She doesnt need to add the possibility of losing a second parent. Shes no child, and mature beyond her years, but shes only twenty-three, for Gods sake, still a babe in the woods when it comes to what life will throw at her. My chest tightens at the thought of what all this could mean to Lilly. But I have no choice. I made a vow to defend this country, and Im the only person who can do this. Listen, I say, taking her hand. I want you to spend the next few days at the White House. Your rooms all ready. If you need anything from your condo, the agents will get it for you. Idont understand. She turns and looks at me, her lips trembling slightly. Are you in danger, Daddy? Its all I can do to rein in my emotions. She stopped calling me Daddy during adolescence, though she pulled it out once or twice when Rachel was dying. She reserves it for the times when shes feeling most vulnerable, most terrified. I have stood down sadistic drill sergeants, cruel Iraqi interrogators, partisan lawmakers, and the Washington press corps, but my daughter can punch my buttons like no one else. I lean over and touch my head against hers. Me? Cmon. Im just being cautious. I just want to know that youre safe. Its not enough for her. She wraps her arms around my neck and squeezes tight. I draw her close, too. I can hear her sobs, feel her body shake. Im so proud of you, Lilly, I whisper, trying to avoid the catch in my throat. I ever tell you that? You tell me that all the time, she says into my ear. I stroke the hair of my brilliant, strong, independent girl. She is a woman now, with her mothers beauty and brains and spirit, but she will always be the little girl who lit up when she saw me, who squealed when Id bombard her with kisses, who couldnt fall back asleep after a nightmare unless Daddy held her hand. Go with the agents now, I whisper. Will you? She pulls back from me, wipes the tears off her cheeks, takes a breath, looks at me with hopeful eyes, and nods. Then she lunges toward me, throwing her arms around me again. I squeeze my eyes shut, hold her trembling body. Suddenly my grown daughter is fifteen years younger, a grade-schooler who needs her daddy, a father who is supposed to be her rock, who will never let her down. I wish I could hold her, wipe away her tears, allay her every concern. I had to teach myself, long ago, that I couldnt follow my baby girl around and make sure the world was kind to her. And now I have to pry myself loose and get on with the business at hand when Id like nothing more than to hold her and never let go. I cup my hands around her face, my daughters swollen, hopeful eyes looking up at me. I love you more than anything in the world, I say. And I promise I will come back to you. Chapter 21 After Lilly leaves the bar with the Secret Service agents, I ask the bartender for a glass of water. I reach into my pocket and take out my pills, the steroids that will boost my platelet count. I hate these pills. They mess up my head. But I either operate with a fuzzy brain or Im out of commission altogether. Theres no in-between. And the latter is not an option. I walk back to my car. The clouds are as bruised as the backs of my legs. No rain has fallen, but the smell of it is in the air. I pull my phone out of my pocket and call Dr. Lane as I walk. She wont recognize this phone number, but she answers anyway. Dr. Lane, its Jon Duncan. Mr. President? Ive been trying to reach you all afternoon. I know. Ive been busy. Your count is continuing to drop. Youre under sixteen thousand. Okay, Im doubling up on the steroids, like I promised. Its not enough. You need immediate treatment. I almost walk into oncoming traffic, not paying attention as I step into a crosswalk. An SUV driver lays on the horn, in case I hadnt noticed my mistake. Im not at ten thousand yet, I say to Dr. Lane. Thats a guideline. Everyone is different. You could be suffering internal bleeding as we speak. But thats unlikely, I say. The MRI was negative yesterday. Yesterday, yes. Today? Who knows? I reach the lot where my car is parked. I hand over my ticket and cash, and the attendant hands me the keys. Mr. President, youre surrounded by talented and capable people. Im sure they could keep on top of things for a few hours while you take a treatment. I thought presidents delegated. They do. Most of the time. But this I cant delegate. And I cant tell her, or anyone else, why. I hear everything youre saying, Deborah. I have to go now. Keep your phone handy. I punch out the phone, start up the car, and drive through thick traffic. Thinking about the girl in the Princeton T-shirtNina to my daughter. Thinking about Dark Ages. Thinking about my next meeting tonight, threats I can issue, offers I can make. A man holding a white sign that says PARKING waves me into a lot. I pay money and follow another mans directions to a spot. I keep my keys and walk for two blocks until I stop in front of a medium-rise apartment building bearing the name CAMDEN SOUTH CAPITOL over the entrance. Across the street, there is a roar from the crowd. I cross the boulevard, no easy task with the traffic. A man passes me saying, Who needs two? Who needs two? I remove the envelope Nina gave me and pull out the single colorful ticket to tonights game, the Nationals versus the Mets. At the left-field gate of Nationals Park, attendants are processing people through a metal detector, wanding people who dont pass the test, checking bags for weapons. I wait my place in line, but its a short wait. The game has already started. My seat is in section 104, nosebleed seats. Im accustomed to the best seats in the house, a skybox or behind home plate or right off the dugout on the third-base line. But I like this better, here in the left-field stands. My view isnt the greatest, but it feels more real. I look around, but theres no point. It will happen when it happens. My job is to sit here and wait. Ordinarily Id be like a kid in a candy store here. Id grab a Budweiser and a hot dog. You can shelve all those microbrews: at a ball game, there is no finer beverage than an ice-cold Bud. And no food ever tasted so good as a dog with mustard at a ball game, not even my mamas rib tips with vinegar sauce. Id kick back and remember those days hurling fastballs at UNC, dreams of a pro career when the Royals drafted me in the fourth round, my year in Double A with the Memphis Chicks, sweating on buses, icing my elbow at night in dive motels, playing before crowds numbering only in the hundreds, eating Big Macs and dipping Copenhagen. But no beer for me tonight. My stomach is already in turmoil as I wait for my visitor, the Princeton girls partner. My phone vibrates in the pocket of my jeans. The caller ID on the screen reads C Brock. Carolyn texts a single number: 3. I type back Wellman and hit Send. This is our code for a status update: so far so good. But Im not sure everything is so good so far. Im late to the ball game. Did he already come and go? Did I miss him? That couldnt be. But theres nothing I can do but sit here and wait and watch the game. The Mets pitcher has a live arm but overthrows his split-fingered fastball, which is why it wont drop. The Nationals leadoff hitter, a lefty, is in an obvious bunt situation with men on first and second and the third baseman staying back. The pitcher should throw high and inside, but he doesnt. He gets lucky when the batter cant get the bunt down either time he tries. Ultimately, with two strikes, the kid lofts a long fly ball to deep left field, toward me. Instinctively the crowd rises, but he got under it too much, and the Mets left fielder hauls it in short of the warning track. When we all sit back down, someone in my peripheral vision is still standing, angling down the row toward me. He is wearing a Nationals cap that looks brand-new, but otherwise he looks completely out of place at a baseball game. I know instantly that the seat hes going to take is the open one next to mine. This man is Ninas partner. Its time. Chapter 22 The assassin known as Bach closes the door, locking herself in the small bathroom. She draws a shaky breath, drops to her knees, and vomits into the toilet. When shes done, her eyes stinging, her stomach knotted up, she takes a breath and falls back on her haunches. This is no good. Unacceptable. When shes able to, she stands up, flushes the toilet, and uses Clorox wipes to thoroughly scrub the toilet, then flushes the wipes, too. No trace evidence, no DNA. That is the last time she will vomit tonight. Period. She checks herself in the dingy mirror above the sink. Her wig is blond, a bun. Her uniform is sky blue. Not optimal, but she didnt get to pick the outfits worn by the cleaning crew at the Camden South Capitol apartments. When she emerges from the bathroom into the maintenance room, the three men are still standing there, likewise dressed in light-blue shirts and dark trousers. One of the men is so muscular that his biceps and chest nearly bulge out of his shirt. She took an instant dislike to him when she met him earlier today. First because he stands out. Nobody in their profession should stand out. And second because he has probably relied too often on his brute strength and not enough on wits and skill and a nasty temperament. The other two are acceptable. Wiry and solid but not physically impressive. Homely, forgettable faces. Feeling better? the muscle-bound guy says. The other two react with a smile until they see the look on Bachs face. Better than youre going to feel, she says, if you ask me that again. Dont mess with a woman in her first trimester of pregnancy, with morning sickness that isnt limited, apparently, to the morning. Especially one who specializes in high-risk assassinations. She turns to the leader of the trio, a bald man with a glass eye. He raises his hands in apology. No disrespect, no disrespect, he says. His English is good, though heavily accentedthe Czech Republic, if shes guessing. She puts out her hand. The leader hands her an earbud. She fits it in her ear, and the man does the same. Status? she asks. Through her earbud comes the answer. He has arrived. Our team is ready. Then we will all take our positions, she says. With her weapon case and duffel bag in tow, Bach takes the freight elevator. While inside, she removes a black coat from her bag and puts it on. She removes her wig for the time being and puts on a black ski cap. She is now dressed from head to toe in black. She gets off the elevator at the top and climbs the stairs to the door to the roof. As promised, it is unlocked. The wind on the roof is swirling, but its nothing for which she cant adjust. She feels certain it will rain at some point. But at least it has held off until now. Had this silly sporting event been canceled altogether, her operation would have been aborted. So now she must be prepared for the rain interrupting this sports contest, forcing thousands of people out at once, hidden amid a sea of umbrellas. She once killed a Turkish ambassador by firing a bullet through an umbrella into his brain, but he was with only one other person on a quiet street. Her problem tonight will be acquiring her target in the first scenarioshould a mass of people move simultaneously through the exits. Thats what the ground teams are for. She opens her weapon case using the thumb recognition and assembles Anna Magdalena, her semiautomatic rifle, mounting the tactical scope, loading the magazine. She moves into place, crouching down under the cover of near darkness. The sun will set in less than twenty minutes, which will obscure her position on the roof all the more. She gets herself into position and focuses the scope. She finds the entrance shes looking for, the left-field gate. She will wait. It could be five minutes. It could be three hours. And then she will be called upon to act almost immediately with deadly precision. But this is what she does, and she has never failed. Oh, how she longs to put on her headphones and listen to a piano concerto! But every job is different, and for this one, she needs an advance team giving her prompts in her ear. They could come at any time, so instead of listening to Andrea Bacchetti playing Keyboard Concerto no. 4 at the Teatro Olimpico di Vicenza, she listens to automobile traffic, the cheers of a crowded stadium, blasts of organ music revving up the crowd, and occasional updates from the advance team. She breathes in, breathes out. Lets her pulse slow. Keeps her finger close to but free of the trigger. There is no point in impatience. The target will come to her, as always. And as always, she will not miss. Chapter 23 The man takes the seat next to me without a word, his head down as he moves past me and sits to my immediate left, settling in as if we are strangers who happened to get tickets for adjacent seats. We are, in fact, strangers. I know nothing about him. The unexpected is so common in my job as to be expected, but whenever something comes up, I have a team of advisers to help me analyze it, to collect everything we know and break it down, to impose some order amid the chaos. This time, Im alone and clueless. He could be nothing but a courier, delivering information that he may not even understand, impervious to interrogation because he has nothing of value to spill. If thats true, he was misrepresented to me, but its not as if I can trust the source, the woman known as Nina. He may be an assassin. This whole thing could be a ruse to get me alone and vulnerable. If so, my daughter will be without a living parent. And I will have tainted the office of the president by allowing myself to be suckered into a secret meeting by a simplistic ploy. But I had to take the chance, all because of those two words, Dark Ages. He turns and gets his first look at me up close, at the man he understands to be President Duncan but who, with the red beard and glasses and baseball cap, doesnt look much like the clean-shaven, suit-wearing commander in chief he sees in the media. He gives a slight nod of his head in approval, which I take to be approval not at my disguise per se but at the fact that Im wearing a disguise at all. It means Im playing alongso far, at least. Ive agreed to a secret meeting. Ive already acknowledged his importance. Its the last thing I wanted to concede, but I had to. As far as Im concerned, this man could be the most dangerous person in the world right now. I glance around us. No one sitting on either side of us, nobody directly behind us, either. Say the words, I tell the man. He is young, like his partner, Nina, maybe in his early twenties at most. Slim, like her. Bone structure suggesting eastern European, like hers. He is Caucasian, but with a darker complexion than his partner. Possibly a Mediterranean influence in his heritage, possibly Middle Eastern or African. His face is largely obscured by a long, ratty beard and thick, ropy hair that juts out from the baseball cap. His eyes are set deeply, as if bruised. His nose is long and crookedpossibly genetic, possibly the result of having been broken. He is wearing a solid black T-shirt, dark cargo pants, and running shoes. He brought nothing with him in terms of a bag or backpack. He doesnt have a gun. He wouldnt have made it past security. But there are plenty of things that can be weaponized. You can kill someone with a house key, a piece of wood, even a ballpoint pen if you insert it with surgical precision into your targets body. In Ranger training before I shipped out to Iraq, they showed us thingsself-defense tactics, opportunistic weaponsthat never would have occurred to me. One quick movement with a sharp edge into my carotid artery, and Id bleed out before medical help could arrive. I grab his arm, my hand wrapping completely around his bony limb. Say the words. Now. He is startled by the move. He looks down at my hand clutching his biceps, then back up at me. Startled, butI take careful notenot particularly shaken. Son, I say, reminding myself to keep my facial expression and voice volume in check, this is not a game. You have no idea who youre messing with. You have no idea how far in over your head you are. I wish my position was as strong as Im making it out to be. His eyes narrow before he decides to speak. What words would you like me to say? he asks. Armageddon? Nuclear holocaust? The same accent as his partner. But his command of English appears stronger. Last chance, I say. Youre not going to like what happens next. He breaks eye contact. You say these things as if I want something from you. Yet it is you who wants something from me. That last point is undeniable. My presence here confirms it. But the converse is also true. I dont know what it is he has to tell me. If its nothing more than information, he has a price. If its to communicate a threat, he wants a ransom. He didnt go through all this for nothing. I have something he wants, too. I just dont know what it is. I release the grip on his arm. You wont make it out of the stadium, I say, rising from my seat. Dark Ages, he hisses, as if hes uttered a curse word. On the field, Rendon bounces a high chopper that the shortstop has to catch and throw on the run for the out at first. I sit back down in my seat. Take a breath. What do I call you? I ask. You may call meAugie. The defiance, the sarcasm, is gone. A minor victory for me. His cards are probably better than mine, but hes a kid, and I play poker for a living. And whatshould I call you? he says, scarcely above a whisper. You call me Mr. President. I put my arm over his chair, as if we are old friends or family. Heres how this is going to work, I say. Youre going to tell me how you know those words. And youre going to tell me whatever else you came here to say. And then Im going to decide what to do. If you and I can work togetherif Im satisfied with our conversationthen this could turn out very well for you, Augie. I give that a moment to sink in, the light at the end of the tunnel for him. There has to be one in any negotiation. But if Im not satisfied, I continue, Ill do whatever is necessary to you, to your girlfriend, to anyone else you care about in this world, to protect my country. Theres nothing I cant do. Theres nothing I wont do. His mouth curls into a snarl. There is hatred in that expression, no doubt, hatred of me and everything I represent. But hes scared, too. Hes dealt with me thus far from a distance, using his partner to contact my daughter overseas, using his technology remotely, but now hes here, in person, with the president of the United States. Hes passed the point of no return. He leans forward, elbows on knees, an attempt to move away from me. Good. Hes rattled. You would like to know how I have come upon Dark Ages, he says, his voice less certain, shaky. You would also like to know why the electricity in the White House continues tofalter? I dont respond to that outwardly. Hes saying hes responsible for the flickering of the lights in the White House. A bluff? I try to remember if Nina saw them flicker while she was there. Is annoying, one would think, he says. Engaging in important matters of national security and economic policy and politicalmachinations in your Oval Office while the lights blink on and off as if you live in a shack in a third-world country. He draws a deep breath. Your technicians have no idea why, do they? Of course they do not. The confidence in his voice is restored. You have two minutes, kid. Starting now. If you dont talk to me, you will talk to people who work for me who will not be as friendly. He shakes his head, though its hard to tell whom hes trying to convince, me or himself. No, you came alone, he says, hope in his voice, not conviction. Did I? The crowd roars at the sound of a bat hitting a ball, the people around us getting to their feet and cheering, then fading out as the long fly ball veers foul. Augie does not move, still leaning forward, a hard look on his face as he stares into the back of the seat in front of him. One minute, thirty seconds, I say. In the game, the batter takes a called third strike, a slider that paints the corner, and the crowd hoots and hollers its reaction. I check my watch. One minute, I say. And then your life is over. Augie leans back to face me again. I keep my eyes on the field, dont accord him the respect of looking in his direction. But eventually I turn to him, as if Im now ready to hear what he has to say. His face is wearing a different expression now, intense and cold. Hes holding a handgun in his lap, trained on me. My life is over? he asks. Chapter 24 I focus on Augie, not the gun. He has it low in his lap, safe from detection by other ticket holders. I understand now why the seats on either side of us are empty, as are the four seats behind and in front of us. Augie bought them all to give us a semblance of privacy. From its boxy shape I can see its a Glock, a gun Ive never fired but a 9mm all the same, capable of firing a bullet into me at close range. Once upon a time, I might have stood a chance of disarming him without suffering a fatal shot. But the Rangers was a long time ago. Im fifty years old and rusty. Its not, by any means, the first time Ive had a gun pointed at me. When I was a prisoner of war, an Iraqi prison guard put a pistol to my head every day and pulled the trigger. But this is the first time in a long time, and its my first time as president. Through the pounding of my pulse, I think it through: he could already have pulled the trigger if his plan was to kill me. He didnt have to wait until I turned to look at him. He wanted me to see the gun. He wanted to alter the dynamic. I hope Im right about that. He doesnt look like someone with a lot of experience in handling a firearm. Im a nervous twitch away from a bullet in the ribs. You came here for a reason, I say. So put that gun away and tell me what it is. His lips purse. Perhaps I feel safer this way. I lean forward, lowering my voice. That gun makes you less safe. It makes my people nervous. It makes them want to put a bullet through your head right now, while youre sitting there in your seat. He blinks hard in response, his eyes moving about, trying to remain in control. The notion that someone is training a high-powered rifle on you can be unsettling on the nerves. You cant see them, Augie. But believe me, they can see you. There is risk in what Im doing. It might not be the wisest move to scare the hell out of a man with his finger on the trigger of a gun pointed at you. But I need him to put that gun away. And I will continue to make him believe that he is not dealing with one man but with a countryone with overwhelming force, shock-and-awe capabilities, and resources beyond his comprehension. Nobody wants to hurt you, Augie, I say. But if you pull that trigger, youll be dead in two seconds. No, he says. You came His voice fades out. What, I came alone? You dont really believe that. Youre too smart to believe that. So put the gun away and tell me why Im here. Otherwise I walk. The gun moves in his lap. His eyes narrow again. If you walk away, he says, you will not be able to stop what is going to happen. And youll never get what you want from me, whatever that is. He thinks about that. Its the smart thing for him to do, all things considered, but he wants it to be his idea, not mine. Finally he nods and hikes up his pants leg, holstering the gun. I release the breath Ive been holding. How the hell did you get that gun past the metal detectors? He slides down his pants leg. He looks as relieved as I am. A rudimentary machine, he says, knows only what it is told to know. It has no independent thought. If it is told it sees nothing, then it sees nothing. If it is told to close its eyes, it closes its eyes. Machines do not ask why. I think back to the metal detector as I went through it. There was no X-ray, as there is at an airport. It was just a doorway, and it either beeped or didnt beep as you passed through it, as the security guard stood by, waiting for an audible signal. He jammed it somehow. He disabled it while he passed through. He hacked into the electrical system at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He downed a helicopter in Dubai. And he knew Dark Ages. Here I am, Augie, I say. You got your meeting. Tell me how you know Dark Ages. His eyebrows rise. He almost smiles. Obtaining that code word is quite an achievement, and he knows it. Did you hack in somehow? I ask. Or Now he does smile. It is the or that concerns you. It concerns you so much that you cannot bring yourself to say the words. I dont argue the point. Hes right. Because if I was not able to obtain this remotely, he says, there is only one other way I could have obtained it. And you know what this means. If Augie didnt learn Dark Ages through a hackand its hard to see how he could havethen he got it from a human being, and the list of human beings with access to Dark Ages is very, very small. It is the reason you agreed to meet me, he says. You clearly understand thesignificance. I nod. It means theres a traitor in the White House, I say. Chapter 25 The crowd around us breaks into a cheer. An organ plays. The Nationals are running off the field. Someone inches down the row past us toward the aisle. I envy that person, whose greatest concern at this moment is taking a leak or heading to the concession stand to grab some nachos. My phone buzzes. I reach for it in my pocket, then realize a sudden movement could cause alarm. My phone, I explain. Its just my phone. A well-being check. Augies brow furrows. What is this? My chief of staff. Shes checking that Im okay. Nothing more. Augie draws back, suspicious. But I dont wait for his approval. If I dont respond to Carolyn, she will assume the worst. And there will be consequences. She will open that letter I gave her. The text message, again, is from C Brock. Again, just one number, this time, 4. I type back Stewart and send it. I put my phone away and say, So tell me. How do you know Dark Ages? He shakes his head. It wont be that easy. His partner wouldnt hand over that information, and neither will he. Not yet. Its part of his leverage. It might be his only leverage. I need to know, I say. No, you do not. You want to know. What you need to know is more important. Its hard to imagine anything more important than whether someone in my inner circle has betrayed our country. Then tell me what I need to know. He says, Your country will not survive. What does that mean? I ask. How? He shrugs. Truly, when one considers it, it is a simple inevitability. Do you think you can prevent forever a nuclear detonation in the United States? Have you read A Canticle for Leibowitz? I shake my head, searching my memory bank. Sounds familiar, high school English. Or The Fourth Turning? he says. A fascinating discussion of thecyclical nature of history. Mankind is predictable. Governments mistreat peopletheir own people and others. They always have, and they always will. So the people react. There is action and reaction. This is how history has progressed and how it always will. He wags his finger. Ah, but nownow technology allows even one man to inflict utter destruction. It alters the construct, does it not? Mutually assured destruction is no longer a deterrent. Recruiting thousands or millions to your cause is no longer necessary. No need for an army, for a movement. It takes only one man, willing to destroy it all, willing to die if necessary, who is not susceptible to coercion or negotiation. Overhead, the first sounds from a turbulent sky. Thunder but no lightning. No rain yet. The lights in the ballpark are already on, so the darkening of the sky has little effect. I lean into him, peering into his eyes. Is this a history lesson? Or are you telling me something is imminent? He blinks. Swallows hard, his Adams apple bobbing. Something is imminent, he says, his voice changing. How imminent? A matter of hours, he says. My blood goes cold. What are we talking about, exactly? I ask. You know this already. Of course I do. But I want to hear him say it. Im not giving anything away for free. Tell me, I say. The virus, he says. The one you saw for a momenthe snaps his fingersbefore it disappeared. The reason for your phone call to Suliman Cindoruk. The virus you have not been able to locate. The virus that has baffled your team of experts. The virus that terrifies you to the core. The virus you will never stop without us. I glance around, look for anyone paying close attention to us. Nobody. The Sons of Jihad is behind this? I whisper. Suliman Cindoruk? Yes. You were correct about that. I swallow over the lump forming in my throat. What does he want? Augie blinks hard, his expression changing, confusion. What does he want? Yes, I say. Suliman Cindoruk. What does he want? This I do not know. You dont I sit back in my seat. What is the point of a ransom demand if you dont know what youre demanding? Money, a prisoner release, a pardon, a change in foreign policysomething. He came here to threaten me, to get something, but he doesnt know what he wants? Maybe his job is to demonstrate the threat. Someone else, later, will make the demand. Possible, but it doesnt feel right to me. And then it comes to me. It was always a possibility, but as I contemplated the potential scenarios for tonight, it was never very high on my list. Youre not here representing Suliman Cindoruk, I say. He raises his shoulders. My interests are no longeraligned with Suli, that is true. They once were. You were part of the Sons of Jihad. A snarl curls his upper lip, color rising to his face, fire in his eyes. I was, he says. But no longer. His anger, that emotional responseresentment toward the SOJ or its leader, a power struggle, perhapsis something I tuck away for later, something I might be able to use. The crack of a bat on a ball. The crowd rises, cheers. Music plays from the speakers. Someone hit a home run. It feels like we are light-years removed from a baseball game right now. I open my hands. So tell me what you want. He shakes his head. Not yet, he says. No chet. The first sprinkle of rain hits my hand. Light, sporadic, nothing heavy, bringing groans from the crowd but no movement, no rush for shelter. We go now, says Augie. We? Yes, we. A shudder passes through me. But I assumed this encounter would eventually move to a different location. Its not safe, but neither was this meeting. Nothing about this is safe. Okay, I say and push myself out of the seat. Your phone, he says. Hold it in your hand. I look at him with a question. He stands up, too, and nods. You will understand why in a moment, he says. Chapter 26 Breathe. Relax. Aim. Squeeze. Bach lies on the rooftop, her breathing even, her nerves still, her eye looking through the scope of the rifle down at the baseball stadium, the left-field gate. Remembering the words of Ranko, her first teacher, the toothpick jutting out from the side of his mouth, his fiery red, stalklike haira scarecrow whose hair caught fire, as he once described himself. Align your body with the weapon. Think of the rifle as part of your body. Aim your body, not the weapon. You must remain steady. Choose your aiming point, not your target. Pull straight back on the trigger. Your index finger is separate from the rest of your hand. No, noyou jerked the weapon. Keep the rest of the hand still. Youre not breathing. Breathe normally. Breathe. Relax. Aim. Squeeze. The first drop of rain hits her neck. The rain could accelerate events rapidly. She moves her head away from the sniper scope and raises her binoculars to check on her teams. Team 1 to the north of the exit, three men huddled together, speaking and laughing, by all appearances nothing more than three friends meeting one another on the street and conversing. Team 2 to the south of the exit, doing the same thing. Immediately below her perch, across the street from the stadium, out of her sight, should be team 3, similarly huddled together, ready to stop any escape headed in their direction. The exit will be surrounded, the teams prepared to close in like a boa constrictor. He is leaving his seat. Her heart does a flip, adrenaline pumping through her, as the words spill from her earbud. Breathe. Relax. Everything slows to a crawl. Slow. Easy. It will not go perfectly as planned. It never does. A small part of her, the competitor in her, prefers it when it doesnt, when she has to make an on-the-spot adjustment. Headed for the exit, she hears through the earbud. Teams 1 and 2, go, she says. Team 3, hold ready. Team 1, thats a go, comes the response. Team 2, thats a go. Team 3 holding ready. She moves her eye up to the scope of her rifle. She breathes. She relaxes. She aims. She curls her finger around the trigger, ready to squeeze. Chapter 27 Augie and I move toward the exit, the left-field gate through which I entered, my smartphone in hand as instructed. A handful of people have already given up on the game with the first sprinkles of rain, but most of the thirty-some thousand are keeping the faith for the time being, so we are not leaving with a crowd. I would have preferred that. But its not my decision. The composure and confidence Augie has shown are gone. As we get closer to the exit, closer to whatever is coming next, he has grown more nervous, his eyes darting about, his fingers wiggling with no purpose. He checks his phone, maybe to see the time, maybe to look for a message, but I cant tell because his hands are cupped around it. We pass through the stadium gate. He stops while we are still inside the alcove, outside now, looking out at Capitol Street but still protected within the stadium walls. Leaving the stadium is meaningful to him. He must feel safe in a crowd. I look at the sky, now an endless black, a drop of rain on my cheek. Augie takes a breath and nods. Now, he says. He inches forward, passing beyond the alcoves walls onto the sidewalk. Some people are moving about, but the number is small. To our right, the north, a large utility truck is parked by the curb. Next to it, a couple of sweaty sanitation workers are taking a cigarette break under a streetlamp. To the south, our left, a DC Metro squad car is parked by the curb, nobody inside. Pulling up directly behind the squad car is a van, parking by the curb about ten yards away from us. Augie seems to be peering at it, trying to see the driver. I look, too. Hard to make out details, but the features are unmistakablethe skeletal outline of her shoulders, the sharp angles of her face. Augies partner, the Princeton woman, Nina. Seemingly in response, the van blinks its high beams twice. And then turns off its lights completely. Augies head drops down to his phone, lighting up in response to his fingers tapping. Then he stops, looks up, and waits. For a moment, he is still. Everything is still. Some kind of signal, I think to myself. Something is about to happen. My last thought before everything goes black. Chapter 28 I, Katherine Emerson Brandtdo solemnly swearthat I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United Statesand will, to the best of my abilitypreserve, protect, and defendthe Constitution of the United States. Kathy Brandt adjusts her jacket and nods at herself in the bathroom mirror inside the vice presidents private quarters. It hasnt been easy being vice president, though she is well aware that any number of people would trade places with her. But how many of those people came within a breath of winning the nomination only to see their dreams upended by a war hero with rugged good looks and a sharp sense of humor? She vowed to herself, on the night of Super Tuesday, when Texas and Georgia came in late for Duncan, that she wouldnt concede, that she wouldnt endorse him, thatGod help hershe wouldnt join his ticket. And then she did all those things. And now shes a parasite, living off her host. If he makes a mistake, she made the mistake. As if thats not bad enough, she has to defend the mistake as if it were her own. And if she doesnt, if she separates herself and criticizes the president, shes disloyal. The critics will lump her in with Duncan anyway, and her supporters will desert her for her failure to stand by her president. Its been a delicate dance. I, Katherine Emerson Brandtdo solemnly Her phone rings. Instinctively she reaches for the phone on the vanity, her work phone, even as she recognizes that the ringtone belongs to her other phone. Her personal phone. She walks into the bedroom and picks up the phone by the bedside. She sees the caller ID. A flutter passes through her. Here we go, she thinks to herself as she answers the call. Chapter 29 Black, nothing but black. Thirty thousand people roar in unison in the stadium behind me as everything plunges into darkness, streetlamps and buildings and traffic signals, all electricity dead for blocks. Headlights from car traffic on Capitol Street are halos of light as they pass, spotlights sweeping a stage, while smartphones are fireflies dancing about in the dark. Use your phone, says Augie, his voice frantic, hitting my arm. Come, hurry! We race in darkness toward Ninas van, our phones in front of us for faint illumination. A light goes on inside the van as the hydraulic side-panel door slides open for us. Now offset against the darkness around us, the Princeton womans features come into full relief, the sculpted waif-model face, her eyebrows knit tightly together in worry as she grips the steering wheel. She seems to be saying something, probably telling us to hurry just as the glass of the drivers-side window shatters and the left side of her face explodes, blood and tissue and brain matter spattering the windshield. Her head lolls to her right, the seat belt restraining her, her lips still pursed in midspeech, her doe eyes staring blankly beside a bloody crater on the left side of her skull. A scared, innocent child, abruptly, violently, suddenly no longer scared, now at peace If you are obliged to receive the enemys fire, fall or squat down til its over. Nnono! Augie shouts Augie. I snap into focus, grab him by the shoulders, and pull him downward, falling against the DC Metro squad car parked north of the van, landing on top of him on the sidewalk. Around us, the pavement erupts with tiny explosions as the air hisses with projectiles. The windows on the squad car shatter, raining glass down on us. The stadium wall spits stone and powder at us. The chaos of screams and cries, tires squealing, horns honking, all muffled by the percussion inside my head, the pounding of my pulse. The squad car slumps under the relentless barrage of bullets. I push Augie flat on the sidewalk and scramble to find his pants leg, the gun holstered at his ankle. Through the rush of adrenaline comes the dull pounding between my ears, ever present during combat. It never leaves a veteran. The Glock is lighter by a good measure than the Beretta I was trained on, with a better grip, and Ive heard its accurate, but weapons are like carsyou know they have standard stuff like lights and an ignition and windshield wipers, but it still takes a few seconds to figure them out when theyre unfamiliar. So I burn precious moments getting a feel for it before Im ready to point and shoot To the south, the light from the vans side door shines out onto the sidewalk. From the shadows, three men come into focus, running toward us. One of them, large and muscular, has the lead on the other two men, running toward me into the vans light, a gun held down with both hands. I fire the gun twice, aiming for center mass. He staggers and falls forward. The other two I dont see receding into the darknesswhere are theyhow many rounds do I haveare there others from the other sideis this a ten-round magwhere are the other two guys from the south? I turn to my left as the top of the squad car takes two bullets, thunk-thunk, and drape my body over Augies. I swivel my head to the left, to the right, to the left, searching through the darkness, more explosions from the sidewalk around us. The sniper is trying every angle to reach us but cant. As long as we hold our ground crouched behind the car, the sniper, wherever he is, cant hit us. But as long as we hold our ground, were sitting ducks. Augie pushes up. We have to run, we have to run Dont move! I shout, pressing down on him, keeping him flat. We run, we die. Augie holds still. So do I, in our cocoon of darkness. There is noise from the stadium, general chaos from the blackout, tires screeching, horns honkingbut no bullets pelting the squad car. Or the sidewalk around us. Or the stadium wall opposite us. The sniper stopped firing. He stopped firing because I spin back to my four oclock and see a man coming around the drivers side of the van, illuminated by the interior dome light, a weapon up at shoulder level. I pull the trigger once, twice, three times as light explodes from his weapon, too, bullets ricocheting off the hood of the squad car in an exchange of gunfire, but I have the advantage, crouched low in the dark while hes standing by light. I risk another glance over the hood, my pulse like a shock wave through my body. No sign of the shooter or of the third member of the south team. The sharp squealing of brakes, men shouting, voices I recognize, words I recognize Secret Service! Secret Service! I lower my gun and they are on me, surrounding me with automatic weapons trained in all directions while someone grabs me under the arms and lifts me, and Im trying to say sniper to them but Im not sure if it comes out, Im thinking it but I cant speak, and shouts of Go! Go! Go! as Im carried into a waiting vehicle, blanketed on all sides by people trained to sacrifice their lives for mine And then blinding light, a loud hum, everything lit up again, as bright as a spotlight in my face, electricity restored all around us. I hear myself say Augie and bring him and then the door is shut and Im lying in the car and Go! Go! Go! and we are speeding away, driving on uneven ground, the grassy median in the middle of Capitol Street. Are you hit? Are you hit? Alex Trimble frantically runs his hands over me, looking for any signs of wounds. No, I answer, but hes not taking my word for it, touching my chest and torso, forcibly turning me on my side to check my back, my neck, my head, then my legs. Hes not hit, Alex calls out. Augie, I say. Thekid. We have him, Mr. President. Hes in the car behind us. The girl who was shotget her, too. He lets out a breath, looking out the window behind him, adrenaline decelerating. DC Metro can handle No, Alex, no, I say. The girlshes deadget custody of herwhateverwhatever you have to tell DC Metro Yes, sir. Alex calls out to the driver. I try to process whats just happened. The dots are there, strewn about like stars in a galaxy, but I cant connect them, not right now. My phone buzzes. I find it in the footwell of the backseat. Carolyn. Can only be Carolyn. I needthe phone, I tell Alex. He reaches for it and puts it in my still-trembling hand. The number Carolyn texts me is 1. My thoughts are too scattered right now to remember the name of my first-grade teacher. I can picture her. She was tall, a big hook for a nose I need to remember it. I need to respond to her. If I dont Richards. No, Richardson, Mrs. Richardson. The phone pops out of my hand. Im shaking so hard I cant hold it, cant text on it. I tell Alex what to type into the phone, and he does it for me. I want to ridewith Augie, I say. Theman I was with. Well rendezvous at the White House, Mr. President, and we can No, I say. No. No what, sir? Were not going backto the White House, I say. Chapter 30 We dont stop until we make it to the highway, then I order Alex to take an exit. The skies have finally opened, a heavy rainfall punishing the windshield, the wipers flying back and forth, an urgent cadence in sync with the pounding of my pulse. Alex Trimble is barking at someone on the phone but keeping one eye on me, making sure Im not in shock. Shock is the wrong word. Adrenaline crashes through my body as I replay the events, then recedes with the knowledge that Im safe inside this armored SUV, then returns with still greater vengeance, as if my body is at high tide. Until Im dead, Im alive. It was my constant refrain when I was a POW, when days blurred into nights in my windowless cell, when theyd wrap the towel around my face and dump the water on, when theyd use the dogs, when theyd blindfold me and chant a prayer and press the gun against my temple. Im not barely alive. Im just alive, period, and more than ever, a euphoria that fills my body with electricity, every sense heightened, the smell of the leather seats, the taste of bile in my mouth, the feel of sweat slithering down my face. I cant tell you any more than that, Alex says into his phone to someone from the police department, pulling rankor trying to. It wont be easy. We have a lot of explaining to do. Capitol Street must look like a small war zone. A pockmarked sidewalk, one wall of Nationals Park battered, a DC Metro squad car riddled with bullets, shattered glass everywhere. And bodies, three of them at leastthe big guy who ran toward me, the other member of his team who tried to sneak around the van to get at us, and Nina. I grab Alexs tree limb of an arm. He turns to me, says into the phone, I have to call you back, and punches out his phone. How many dead? I ask, fearing the worst, that innocent people were caught in the snipers hail of bullets or the ground teams follow-up. Just the girl in the van, sir. What about the men? There were two of them. He shakes his head. Theyre gone, sir. Whoever was with them must have taken them away. That was a well-coordinated attack. No question. A sniper and at least one ground team. Yet Im still alive. We just removed the girl from the scene, sir. We told them it was a Secret Service counterfeiting investigation. That was smart. Its not an easy sella counterfeiting investigation ending in a bloody shoot-out outside a baseball stadiumbut Alex didnt have any other cards to play. I guess thats better than saying the president was sneaking out to a baseball game when someone tried to assassinate him. I had the same thought, sir, says Alex, deadpan. I meet his eyes. He is scolding me. He is saying, without saying it, that this is the kind of complication that results when a president sheds his security. The blackout helped, he says, letting me off the hook. And the stadium noise, too. It was pandemonium. And now its raining like hell, so thirty, forty thousand people are rushing out of the stadium while the police are trying to figure out what the hell just happened and while the rainfall washes away most of the forensic evidence. Hes right. Chaos, in this case, is good. There will be media all over this, but most of it happened in the pitch-dark, and Treasury will sweep the rest under the rug as an official investigation. Will it work? It better. You followed me, I say to him. He shrugs. Not exactly, sir. When the woman came to the White House, we had to search her. You scanned the envelope. As a matter of course, he says. Right. And it showed a ticket to tonights game at Nationals Park. My thoughts have been so scattered, I didnt even think of it. Alex looks at me, giving me the chance to reprimand him. But its hard to chew out the guy who just saved your life. Thank you, Alex, I say. Now, dont ever disobey me again. We are off the highway now, slowing into an open space, some massive parking lot empty at this time of night. I can barely see our second car through the sheets of rainfall. I can barely see anything. Get Augie in here with me, I say. Hes a threat, sir. No, hes not. Not in the way Alex means, at least. You dont know that, sir. His job couldve been to get you out of the stadium If I was the target, Alex, Id be dead. Augie himself could have killed me. And the sniper shot Nina first. I imagine that the second target was Augie, not me. Mr. President, my job is to assume that you were the target. Fine. Cuff him if you want to, I say. Put him in a goddamn straitjacket. But hes riding with me. Hes already cuffed, sir. Hes veryupset. Alex thinks for a moment. Sir, it might be best if I follow in the other car. I need to stay close to whats going on at the stadium. DC Metro wants answers. And only he can massage that situation. Only he would know what to say and what not to say. Jacobson will ride with you, sir. Fine, I say. Just get Augie in here. He speaks into the radio clipped to his jacket. A moment later, he opens the side door of the SUV with some effort as the violent wind hisses into the car, blowing in the rain that spares no one. The agents rearrange themselves. Jacobson, Alexs second in command, bounds into the car a moment later. Jacobson is smaller than Alex, hard and lean with an unrelenting intensity. He is soaked, droplets of rain flinging off his windbreaker as he takes the seat next to me. Mr. President, he says in his just-the-facts way, but with a sense of urgency, as he looks out the door, ready to pounce. A moment later, he does just that, coming forward to take the handoff from another agent. Augies head comes through the door, then the rest of him, as Jacobson pushes him violently into one of the seats across from me in the rear compartment. Augies hands are cuffed in front. His ropy hair hangs wet over his face. You sit there and dont move, understand? Jacobson barks at him. Understand? Augie thrashes about, pushing against the seat belt Jacobson has clipped over him. He understands, I say. Jacobson sits next to me, leaning forward on the balls of his feet. Augies eyes, as best I can see them through the hair hanging down to his cheeks, finally make contact with mine. He has probably been crying, though its impossible to see on his rain-slicked face. His eyes widen with fury. You killed her! he spits. You killed her! Augie, I say matter-of-factly, trying to calm him with my tone, that doesnt make any sense. This was your plan, not mine. His face contorts into a snarl, tears streaming, blubbering and sobbing. He could be an actor portraying an inmate in an asylum, thrashing about while restrained, moaning and cursing and crying out, except that his pain is real, not the product of a broken mind. Theres no point in my saying anything to him yet. He needs to get this out first. The car starts moving again, back toward the highway, to our destination. It will be a long trip before we get there. We ride in silence for some time, as Augie, shackled, mumbles in words that alternate between English and his native tongue, as he hiccups loud bellows of pain, as he struggles for breath through his sobs. I use the next few minutes to think things over, to sort out what just happened. Asking myself questions. Why am I alive? Why was the girl killed first? And who sent these people? Lost in these thoughts, I suddenly become aware of the silence in the car. Augie is watching me, waiting for me to notice. You expect me he says, his voice breaking, you expect me to help you after this? Chapter 31 Bach quietly leaves through the rear exit of the building, her trench coat buttoned to her chin, a bag over her shoulder, an umbrella concealing her face, taking on the rat-a-tat-tat of the pelting rain. She moves onto the street as police sirens blare, as law-enforcement vehicles race down the next street over, Capitol Street, toward the stadium. Ranko, her first mentor, the red-haired scarecrowthe Serbian soldier who took pity on her after what his men did to her father, who took her under his wing (and under his body)may have taught her how to shoot, but he never taught her extractions. A Serbian sniper had no need for one, never had to leave Trebevic Mountain, where he fired at will upon citizens and opposition military targets alike during the war as his army strangled Sarajevo like a python. No, she taught herself about extractions, planned escape routes and stealth movements when foraging for food in back alleys or in garbage cans at the market, dodging land mines, scanning for snipers and ambushes, listening for the ever-present threat of mortar fire or, at night, the drunken chatter of off-duty soldiers who respected no rules regarding young civilian Bosnian girls they found on the street. Sometimes, as she hunted for bread or rice or firewood, Bach was fast enough to get away from the soldiers. Sometimes she wasnt. We have two extra tickets, comes a mans voice through her earbud. Two ticketstwo men wounded. Can you bring them home? she asks. We do not have time, he says. Their medical conditions are urgent, he means. It will be fine at home, she says. Meet you at home. They should already know that the only option is the extraction point. They are panicking, losing focus. It was probably the arrival of the Secret Service that did it. Or maybe the blackout, which she must admit was an impressive tactical maneuver. She was ready, of course, to switch her scope to night-vision mode, but it clearly affected the ground teams. She removes her earbud and stuffs it into the right-hand pocket of her trench coat. She reaches into the left-hand pocket and places a different earbud into her ear. The game is not over, she says. They went north. Chapter 32 It wasyour people, Augie says, his chest heaving, his eyes so puffy and red from crying that he looks like a different person. He looks like a boy, which is exactly what he is. My people didnt shoot your friend, Augie, I say, trying to convey compassion but also, more than anything, calm and reason. Whoever shot her was shooting at us, too. My people are the reason were safe and sound in this SUV. It does nothing to stop his tears. I dont know his specific relationship with Nina, but its clear that his distress is more than just fear. Whoever she was, he cared deeply for her. Im sorry for his loss, but I dont have time to be sorry. I have to keep my eye on the prize. I have three hundred million people to protect. So my only question is how I can use his emotions to my advantage. Because this could go south on me quickly. If I believe what Nina told me in the Oval Office, she and Augie held different pieces of information, different parts of the puzzle. And now she is dead. If I lose Augie now, tooif he clams up on meI have nothing. The driver, Agent Davis, is quiet as he focuses on the road in the treacherous weather. The front-seat passenger, Agent Ontiveros, pulls the radio from the dashboard and speaks softly into it. Jacobson, next to me in the rear compartment, has a finger up to his earpiece, listening intently as he receives updates from Alex Trimble in the other car. Mr. President, says Jacobson. Weve impounded the van she was driving. So she and the van are both cleared of the scene. All thats left is a chopped-up sidewalk and a DC Metro squad car shot to hell. And a bunch of pissed-off cops, he adds. I lean over to Jacobson, so only he can hear me. Keep the womans body and the van under guard. Do we know how to hold a corpse? He nods briskly. Well figure it out, sir. This stays with Secret Service. Understood, sir. Now give me the key to Augies handcuffs. Jacobson draws back. Sir? I dont repeat myself. A president doesnt have to. I just meet his eyes. Jacobson was Special Forces, just as I was a long time ago, but thats where our similarities end. His intensity is not born of discipline or devotion to duty so much as it is a way of life. He doesnt seem to know another way. Hes the type who falls out of bed in the morning and bangs out a hundred push-ups and stomach crunches. He is a soldier looking for a war, a hero in search of a moment of heroism. He hands me the key. Mr. President, I suggest you let me do it. No. I show Augie the key, as I might extend a cautionary hand to a wounded animal to signal my approach. We have now shared a traumatic experience, but Augie is still a mystery to me. All I know is that he once was part of the Sons of Jihad and now is not. I dont know why. I dont know what he wants out of this. I just know that he isnt here for nothing. Nobody does anything for nothing. I move across the rear chamber of the SUV to his side, the smell of wet clothes and sweat and body odor. I lean around and fit the key into the handcuffs. Augie, I say into his ear, I know you cared about her. I loved her. Okay. I know what its like to lose someone you love. When I lost my wife, I had to go on without missing a beat. Thats what we have to do right now, you and me. There will be lots of time to grieve, but not now. You came to me for a reason. I dont know what that reason is, but it must have been important if you went to all this trouble and took this much risk. You trusted me before. Trust me now. I trusted you, and now she is dead, he whispers. And if you dont help me now, who are you helping? The people who just killed her, I say. The sound of his accelerated breathing is audible as I pull back from him, returning to my seat, the handcuffs dangling from my finger. Jacobson pulls out my shoulder restraint for me. I take it the rest of the way and fasten the seat belt. These guys really are full-service. Augie rubs his wrists and looks at me with something other than hatred. Curiosity. Wonder. He knows what Im saying makes sense. He knows how close he and I came to dying, that I could have him locked up, interrogated, even killedbut instead Ive done his bidding from the start. Where are we going? he asks, his voice without affect. Somewhere private, I say as we take the highway onto the bridge over the Potomac, crossing into Virginia. Somewhere we can be safe. Safe, Augie repeats, looking away. Whats that? snaps Davis, the driver. Bike path, two oclock What the Before Agent Ontiveros can finish his sentence, something hits the center of the windshield with a thunderous splat, blanketing it in darkness. The SUV fishtails as bursts of fire erupt from our right, bullets pelting the right side of our armored vehicle, thunk-thunk-thunk. Get us out of here! Jacobson shouts as I crash into him, as he fumbles for his weapon, as our vehicle spins out of control on the rain-slick 14th Street Bridge under hostile fire. Chapter 33 Bach angles the umbrella to hold off the rain, blown sideways by the relentless wind, forcing her to walk in a more plodding fashion than she would prefer. It rained like this the first time the soldiers came. She remembers the pelting of the rain on the roof. The darkness of her house, after electricity had been cut for weeks in the neighborhood. The warmth of the fire in the family room. The burst of cold air as the front door to their house flew open, her initial thought being that it was caused by the gusty wind. Then the shouts of the soldiers, the gunfire, dishes crashing in the kitchen, her fathers angry protests as they dragged him from the house. It was the last time she ever heard his voice. Finally she reaches the warehouse and enters through the rear door, fitting her umbrella behind her through the door and placing it open, upside down, on the concrete floor. She hears the men near the front of the open-air space, where they are tending to the wounded, shouting at one another, blaming one another in a language she doesnt understand. But she understands panic in any tongue. She lets her heels click loudly enough for them to hear her coming. She didnt want to preannounce her arrival lest there be an ambush awaiting herold habits die hardbut likewise she finds no advantage in startling a group of heavily armed, violent men. The men turn to the sound of her heels echoing off the high ceiling of the warehouse, two of the nine instinctively reaching for their weapons before relaxing. He got away, says the team leader, the bald man, still in his powder-blue shirt and dark trousers, as she approaches. The men part, clearing a path for her as she finds two men leaning up against crates. One is the bodybuilder, the one she never liked, eyes squeezed shut, grimacing and moaning, his shirt removed and a makeshift gauze-and-tape bandage near his right shoulder. Probably a clean through-and-through, she imagines, plenty of muscle and tissue but no bone. The second one is also shirtless, breathing with difficulty, his eyes listless, his color waning, as another man presses a bloody rag against the left side of his chest. Wheres the medical help? asks another man. She did not select this team. She was assured it contained some of the best operatives in the world. Given that they hired her, and given what they paid her, she assumed they were sparing no expense in obtaining the best nine operatives available for this part of the mission. From the pocket of her trench coat she removes her handgun, the suppressor already attached, and fires a bullet through the temple of the bodybuilder, then another through the skull of the second one. Now seven of the best operatives available. The other men step back, stunned into silence by the rapid thwip-thwip that ended the lives of two of their partners. None of them, she notes, reaches for a weapon. She makes eye contact with each of them, settling the are-we-going-to-have-a-problem question with each one to her satisfaction. They cant be surprised. The one with the chest wound was going to die anyway. The bodybuilder, absent an infection, could have made it, but hed turned from an asset into a liability. These are zero-sum games they play. And the game isnt over. The final man she seeks out is the bald man, the team leader. You will dispose of these bodies, she says. He nods. You know where to relocate? He nods again. She walks over to him. Do you have any further questions of me? He shakes his head, an emphatic no. Chapter 34 We are under attack, repeat, we are under attack Our SUV veering wildly, rapid bursts of fire coming from one side of the bridge, the sickening, helpless feeling of hydroplaning as Agent Davis furiously struggles to regain control. The three of us in the backseat are jerked like human pinballs, straining against our seat belts, Jacobson and I crashing into each other as we lurch from one side to the other. A car slams into us from behind, spinning our SUV across traffic, then another collision from the right, the headlights only inches from Jacobsons face, the impact felt in my teeth, my neck, as I hurl to my left. Everything in a spin, everyone shouting, bullets pummeling the armor of our vehicle, left and right, north and south indistinguishable The rear of our SUV crashes against the concrete barrier, and we are suddenly at rest, spun around in the wrong direction on the 14th Street Bridge, facing north in southbound traffic. The explosion of fire from automatic weapons comes from our left now, relentless, some of the bullets bouncing off, some of them embedding in the armor and bulletproof glass. Get us an exit! Jacobson shouts. The first order of businessfind a route of escape for the president and extract him. Augie, I whisper. He is slung against his seat belt, conscious and unharmed but dazed, trying to gather his bearings, trying to catch his breath. The thought flickers through my head: you could almost see the White House from this bridge, facing this direction. A score of agents, a SWAT team, only six blocks away yet as useless as if they were on the other side of the planet. Agent Davis cursing as he struggles to change gears, as the windshield clears enough to see in front of us, southbound. Gunfire erupting not only from the pedestrian path but also from our backup car, Alex Trimble and his team firing at our attackers. How do we get out? Were trapped. We have to make a run for it Go! Go! Go! Jacobson yells in that practiced cadence, as he remains restrained by his seat belt but holds his automatic weapon at the ready. Davis finally gets the car in reverse using the dashboard radar, and after the tires grip the slick pavement we hurtle backward, the firefight in front of us shrinking from view and then disappearing altogether as another vehicle comes into our lane, bigger than our Suburbans. A truck, bearing down on us at twice our speed. We race and slide backward, Davis trying to pick up speed as best he can but no match for the truck closing the distance quickly from the front. I steel myself for the impact as the grille of the truck is the only thing visible through the windshield. Davis, his hands at nine and three on the wheel, whips his right hand over to nine, his left to three, and spins the car into an evasive J-turn. I plow into Jacobson as the rear fishtails to the right again, the car now profiled in the path of the oncoming truck, turned sideways in the lane at the moment of impact. The concussive whump of the impact knocks the breath from me, sends stars dancing before my eyes and a shock wave through my body. The grille of the truck caves in the front passenger side, flinging Ontiveros into the driver, Davis, like a floppy doll, the back end of the SUV twisting right at a sixty-degree angle while the front end stays locked to the grille of the truck in a crunch of whining armor. Hot wet air invades the rear compartment as the SUV desperately tries to hold itself together in one piece. Jacobson somehow manages to roll the window down, firing his MP5 submachine gun up at the cab of the truck as hot wind and rain pummel us. The vehicles, joined together, come to a halt. Jacobson fires relentlessly as the backup car approaches, Alex and his team already shooting at the truck from their SUVs side windows. Get Augie out. Augie, I say, releasing my seat belt. Dont move, Mr. President! Jacobson yells as the hood of our SUV bursts into a ball of orange flame. Augie, his face white with terror, unhooks his seat belt. I open the left passenger door, pulling Augie by the wrist. Stay low! I shout as we run along the back of the SUV, shielding us from the cab of the truck, then run toward Alexs car in the thrashing rain, removing any angle the shooters in the trucks cab would have on usif they survive Jacobsons merciless assault. Mr. President, get in the car! Alex shouts from the middle of the bridge as we approach. By now, he and the two other agents have left the second SUV and are pounding the truck with machine-gun fire. Augie and I race to the second vehicle. Behind that SUV, a pileup of cars on the bridge, turned in all directions. Get in the back! I shout at him, rain smacking my face. I take the drivers seat. I put the car in gear and floor the accelerator. The rear of the vehicle is damaged, but the cars still operable, still enough to get us out of here. I dont like leaving my men behind. It goes against everything I learned in the service. But I have no weapon, so Im no help. And I am protecting the most important assetAugie. The inevitable second explosion comes as we cross the bridge into Virginia, with more questions than ever before and not a single answer. But until were dead, were alive. Chapter 35 My hands tremble as I grip the steering wheel, my heart races as I peer through a windshield pockmarked with bullets, splattered by rain, wipers flailing furiously back and forth. Sweat dripping down my face, a fire blazing in my chest, wishing I could adjust the temperature but afraid to take my eyes off the road, afraid to stop the SUV or even slow down, checking the rearview mirror only for signs of another vehicle following me. There is damage to the rear of this SUV, the sound of metal scraping on a tire, a slight hitch as we drive. I cant drive it much longer. Augie, I say. Augie! Surprised at the rage, the frustration in my voice. My mysterious companion sits up in the backseat but doesnt speak. He looks utterly shell-shocked, overwhelmed, staring off into the distance, his mouth open slightly in a small O, wincing at every bolt of lightning or bump on the road. People are dying, Augie. Whatever you know, you better damn well tell me, and tell me now! But I dont even know if I can trust him yet. Since I met him, with his cryptic references to Armageddon at the ballpark, weve spent every moment just trying to stay alive. I dont know if hes friend or foe, hero or operative. Only one thing is for surehes important. Hes a threat to someone. None of this would be happening otherwise. The more they try to stop us, the more his significance grows. Augie! I shout. Damn it, kid, snap out of it! Dont go into shock on me. We dont have time for shock right My phone buzzes in my pocket. I reach for it with my right hand, struggling to free it from my pocket before it goes to voice mail. Mr. President, youre okay, says Carolyn Brock, the relief evident in her voice. Was that you on the 14th Street Bridge? Not surprising shed already know. It wouldnt take but a minute for something like that to reach the White House, less than a mile away. There would be immediate concerns about terrorism, a strike on the capital. Lock down the White House, Carrie, I say as I follow the road, the overhead lights a blur of color against the wet windshield. Just as a Its already locked down, sir. And secure The vice president is already secured in the operations center, sir. I take a breath. God, do I need a port in the storm like Carolyn right now, anticipating my moves and even improving on them. I explain to her, in as few words as possible, trying not to ramble, struggling to remain calm, that yes, what happened on the bridge, what happened at Nationals Park, involved me. Are you with Secret Service right now, sir? No. Just me and Augie. His name is Augie? And the girl The girl is dead. Dead? What happened? At the baseball stadium. Someone shot her. Augie and I got away. Listen, I have to get off the road, Carrie. Im headed to the Blue House. Im sorry, but I dont have a choice. Of course, sir, of course. And I need Greenfield on the phone right now. You have her on your phone, sir, unless you want me to patch you through. Right, thats right. Carolyn put Liz Greenfields number into this phone. Got it. Talk soon, I say. Mr. President! Are you there? The words, Alexs voice, squawk through the dashboard. I drop my phone on the passenger seat and pull the radio from the dash, press the button with my right thumb to speak. Alex, Im fine. Im just driving on the highway. Talk to me. I release my thumb. Theyre neutralized, sir. Four dead on the pedestrian path. The truck blew. No idea how many casualties inside the truck, but definitely no survivors. A truck bomb? No, sir. They werent suicide bombers. If they were, none of us would still be alive. We penetrated the gas tank and caused a gasoline fire. No other explosives on board. No civilian casualties. That tells us something, at least. They werent true believers, not radicals. This wasnt ISIS or Al Qaeda or any of their cancerous branches. They were mercenaries for hire. I take a breath and ask the question Ive dreaded. What about our people, Alex? A silent prayer as I wait for the answer. We lost Davis and Ontiveros, sir. I slam my fist against the wheel. The vehicle swerves, and I quickly adjust, instantly reminding me that I cant let go of my obligations for even one second. If I do, then my men just gave their lives in vain. Im sorry, Alex, I say into the radio. Im so sorry. Yes sir, he says, all business. Mr. President, its a shitstorm here right now. Fire trucks. DC Metro and Arlington PD. Everyones trying to figure out what the hell happened and whos in charge. Right. Of course. An explosion on a bridge between Washington and Virginia, a jurisdictional nightmare. Mass confusion. Make it clear that youre in charge, I tell him. Just say federal investigation for now. Help is on the way. Yes, sir. Sir, stay on the highway. Well track you on GPS and have vehicles surrounding you soon. Stay in that vehicle, sir. Its the safest place you can be until we can get you back to the White House. Im not going back to the White House, Alex. And I dont want a convoy. One vehicle. One. Sir, whatever this is, or was, the circumstances have changed. They have intelligence and technology and manpower and weapons. They knew where youd be. We dont know that, I say. They couldve set up multiple ambush points. They were probably ready for us if we went to the White House, too, or if we headed south from the stadium. Hell, they were probably hoping wed cross the bridge over the Potomac. We dont know, Mr. President, thats the point One vehicle, Alex. Thats a direct order. I click off and find my phone on the passenger seat. I find the number on my phone for FBI Liz and dial it. Hello, Mr. President, says the acting FBI director, Elizabeth Greenfield. Youre aware of the bridge explosion? Liz, how long have you been acting director? Ten days, sir. Well, Madam Director, I say, its time to take off the training wheels. Chapter 36 Next house down, sir. Jacobsons voice squawks through my dashboard, as if I didnt already recognize the house. I pull the Suburban up to the curb, relieved that I made it this far. These Secret Service vehicles are battleships, but I wasnt sure how long I could drive with the rear-end damage. Jacobsons vehicle pulls up behind me. He caught up to me on the highway and used GPS to guide me here. Ive been to the house many times but never paid much attention to the various roads that got me here. I put the car in Park and kill the ignition. When I do so, I feel the tidal-wave rush, as I knew I wouldthe shakes, the post-adrenaline, post-traumatic physical reaction. Until this moment, I had to keep control to get Augie and myself out of harms way. My work is far from overmore complicated than ever, in factbut I allow myself this brief respite, taking a few deep breaths, trying to get past the life-or-death crises, trying to empty out all the panic and anger bottled up inside me. You have to keep it together, I whisper to myself, trembling. If you dont, nobody else will, either. I treat it like any other decision, like its something I can completely control, willing myself to stop shaking. Jacobson jogs over and opens my car door. I dont need help getting out of the vehicle, but he helps me anyway. Some cuts and dirt on his face aside, he looks generally intact. Standing, I feel momentary wooziness, unsure of my legs. Dr. Lane would not be happy with me right now. You okay? I ask Jacobson. Am I okay? Im fine. How are you, sir? Fine. You saved my life, I say to him. Davis saved your life, sir. Thats also true. The evasive-driving maneuver, the J-turn that spun our vehicle perpendicular to the oncoming truck, was Daviss way of taking the brunt of the impact so I wouldnt, in the rear. It was a brilliant bit of driving by a well-trained agent. And Jacobson was no slouch, either, firing on the cab of the truck before the two intertwined vehicles had even stopped. Augie and I couldnt have escaped without that cover. Secret Service agents never get the credit they deserve for what they do every day to keep me safe, to trade their own lives for mine, to do what no sane person would ever willingly dostep in front of a bullet, not away from it. Every now and then, an agent does something stupid on the taxpayers dime, and thats all anybody remembers. The ninety-nine times out of a hundred they perform their jobs perfectly never get mentioned. Davis had a wife and little boy, didnt he? I ask. Had I known the Secret Service was going to track me tonight, I would have done what I always do when I visit one of the hot spots around the world, one of the places where the Service is most insecure about my safetyPakistan or Bangladesh or Afghanistan: I would have insisted that nobody with young children accompany me. Comes with the job, says Jacobson. Tell that to his wife and son. And Ontiveros? Sir, he says, shaking his head curtly. Hes right. It will matter down the road. I will make sure that we dont forget Daviss family and whatever family Ontiveros left behind. That is my personal vow. But I cant deal with it right now, not tonight. Mourn your losses later, after the fights over, Sergeant Melton used to say. When youre in the fight, fight. Augie gets out of the Suburban on shaky legs, too, planting his foot in a puddle on the road. Its stopped raining, leaving an earthy, fresh smell in its wake on this sleepy, dark residential street, as if Mother Nature is telling us, You made it to the other side, a fresh start. I hope thats true, but it doesnt feel that way. Augie looks at me like a lost puppy, in a foreign place with no partner anymore, nothing to call his own except his smartphone. The house before us is a stucco-and-brick Victorian with a manicured lawn, a driveway leading up to a two-car garage, and a lamp that lights the walkway to the front porchthe only light that appears to be on past ten oclock in the evening. The stucco is painted a soft blue, the origin of the nickname the Blue House. Augie and Jacobson follow me up the driveway. The door opens before we reach it. Carolyn Brocks husband was expecting us. Chapter 37 Greg Morton, Carolyn Brocks husband, is wearing an oxford-cloth shirt and blue jeans with sandals on his feet, waving us in. Sorry to come here, Morty, I say. Not at all, not at all. Morty and Carolyn celebrated fifteen years of marriage this yearthough given her role as chief of staff to the president, the celebration, as I recall, was just a long weekend on Marthas Vineyard. Morty, age fifty-two, retired after a lucrative career as a trial lawyer that ended with a heart attack in a Cuyahoga County courtroom as he stood before a jury. His second child, James, was less than a year old at the time. He wanted to see his children grow up, and he couldnt spend all the money hed already made, so he hung up the boxing gloves. These days, he makes documentary short films and stays home with the two kids. He looks us over, me and my ragtag crew. I had forgotten that Id gone to such lengths to disguise my appearancethe beard nobodys ever seen, my casual, rain-soaked clothes, my hair still dripping rainwater into my face. Then theres Augie, already shaggy before the rain did its work on him. At least Jacobson looks the part of the Secret Service agent. It sounds like you have quite a story to tell, says Morty in the baritone voice that swayed many a juror over the years. But Ill never hear a word of it. We step inside. Halfway down the winding staircase that ends in the foyer, the two kids sit and stare at us through the balusterssix-year-old James, in Batman pajamas, hair standing on end, and ten-year-old Jennifer, her mothers face staring back at me. Im nothing new to them at this point, but I dont usually look like something the cat dragged in from the garbage. If I had any ability to control the minions, says Morty, theyd be in bed right now. You have a red beard, says Jennifer, wrinkling her nose. You dont look like a president. Grant had a beard. Coolidge had red hair. Who? asks James. They were presidents, genius, his sister tells him with a swat in his direction. Like, a really long time ago. Like, when Mom and Dad were little. Whoahow old do you think I am? says Morty. Youre fifty-two, says Jennifer. But were aging you prematurely. You got that right. Morty turns to me. Carrie said the basement office, Mr. President. Is that what you want? Thats great. You know the way. Ill get you some towels. And my kids are going to bed, arent you, children? Awwww Enough with the sound effects. Bed! Carolyn had the basement finished as an elaborate office, complete with secure lines of telecommunication, allowing her to work in the late evenings from home. Jacobson goes first, taking the stairs down and clearing the area before giving me a thumbs-up. Augie and I head down. The basement is neat and well-appointed, as one would expect in Carolyns home. There is a large open playroom furnished with beanbag chairs as well as a desk and chair and couch; there is also a TV mounted on the wall, a wine cellar, a movie room with a projection screen and deep, lush seats, a full bathroom in the hallway, a bedroom, and Carolyns office in the back. Her office contains a horseshoe-shaped desk topped with multiple computers, a large corkboard on the wall, several file cabinets, and a large flat-screen TV. Here you guys go. Morty hands each of us a towel. Are you ready for Carrie, Mr. President? Just tap this button right here. He points at a mouse by the computer. One second. Is there someplace my friend could go? I ask, meaning Augie. I havent introduced him to Morty, and Morty hasnt asked for an introduction. He knows better. The rec room, says Morty. The large open space by the stairs. Great. Go with him, I say to Jacobson. The two of them leave the room. Morty nods to me. Carrie said youd want a change of clothes. That would be great. The bag Id carried with me, including clothes for Saturday, was left behind in the car Id parked in the baseball stadium lot. Will do. Well, Ill leave you to it. Ill be praying for you, Mr. President. I look at him questioningly. Those are strong words. This has been unorthodox, no doubt, my showing up incognito this way. Hes a bright guy, but I know Carolyn doesnt share classified information with him. He leans into me. Ive known Carrie for eighteen years, he says. Ive seen her lose a congressional election. Ive seen her when she miscarried, when I nearly died from a myocardial infarction, and when we lost Jenny in a shopping mall in Alexandria for two hours. Ive seen her with her back against the wall; Ive seen her concerned; Ive seen her worried. But before tonight, Ive never seen her terrified. I dont say anything to that. I cant. He knows that. He extends his hand. Whatever it is, Im betting on the two of you. I shake his hand. All the same, I say, go ahead and say those prayers. Chapter 38 I close the door to Carolyns basement office, enclosing myself in soundproofed walls, and sit at the desk. I pick up the computer mouse. When I do, the computer changes from a black screen to fuzz, then a somewhat clear screen split in two. Hello, Mr. President, says Carolyn Brock, speaking from the White House. Hello, Mr. President, says Elizabeth Greenfield, acting FBI director, on the second half of the split screen. Liz became the acting director after her predecessor died in office ten days ago from an aneurysm. Ive nominated her for the permanent position, too. By every measure, shes the best person for the jobformer agent, federal prosecutor, head of the criminal division at Justice, respected by everyone as nonpartisan and a straight arrow. The strike against her, which I dont consider a strike at all, is that more than a decade ago, she joined protests against the invasion of Iraq, so some of the hawks in the Senate have suggested she lacks patriotism, presumably forgetting that peaceful protest is one of the most admirable forms of patriotism. They also said I just wanted to be the first president to appoint an African American woman to run the FBI. Tell me about the bridge, I say, and Nationals Park. We have very, very little from the ballpark. Its early, of course, but the blackout erased any visuals, and the rain has washed away most of the forensics. If men were killed outside the stadium, we have no trace of it. If they left behind any forensic evidence of their existence, it might be days before we find it. And the likelihood is low. And the sniper? The sniper. The vehicle was removed by Secret Service, but we have the bullets fired into the sidewalk and the stadium wall, so we can make out a decent angle. From what we can gather, it looks like the sniper was shooting from the roof of an apartment building across the street from the stadium, a building called the Camden South Capitol. We didnt find anyone up there, of course, but the problem is we didnt find anything, period. So the sniper did a good job of cleaning up. And of course theres the rain. Right. Mr. President, if they set up in that building, we will figure out who they are. It would have required advance planning. Access. Stolen uniforms, probably. Internal cameras. Facial recognition. We have ways. But youre telling me theres no time. Not much, no. Were working as quickly as we can, sir. I just cant promise you well have answers within hours. Try. And the woman? I ask, referring to Augies partner. Nina, yes. The Secret Service just turned over the vehicle and the body. Well have her fingerprints and DNA within minutes, and well run them. Well trace the car, everything. Good. What about the bridge? asks Carolyn. The bridge is still a work in progress, says Liz. The fire is out. Weve removed the four dead subjects from the pedestrian path and are running their vitals through the database. The ones inside the truck will be harder, but were working on it. But Mr. President, even if we can learn their identities, whoever hired these people wouldnt leave a trail behind. There will be cutouts. Intermediaries. We can probably trace it back eventually, but not, I dont think Not within a matter of hours. I understand. Its still worth the effort. And do it discreetly. You want me to keep Secretary Haber in the dark about this? Liz is still new to the job, so she doesnt consider herself on a first-name basis with the other members of my national security team, including Sam Haber, from Homeland Security. Sam can know that youre tracking these people. Hed expect that, at any rate. But dont report your findings to anybody but me or Carolyn. If he asksif anyone else asksyour answer is, We dont have anything yet. Okay? Mr. President, may I speak freely? Always, Liz. Id be upset with you if you didnt. There is nothing I value more in subordinates than their willingness to tell me Im wrong, to challenge me, to sharpen my decision making. Surrounding yourself with sycophants and bootlickers is the surest route to failure. Why, sir? Why wouldnt we coordinate this as openly as possible? Were more effective if one hand talks to the other. If 9/11 taught us anything, its that. I look at Carolyns face on the split screen. She shrugs in response, agreeing with me that its worth telling the acting director. The code word Dark Ages, Liz. Only eight people in the world know that code word besides me. Its never been written down, on my order. Its never been repeated, outside our circle, on my order. Right? Yes, of course, sir. Even the task force of technicians trying to locate and neutralize the virus, the Imminent Threat Response Teamnot even they know Dark Ages, right? Correct, sir. Only the eight of us and you. One of those eight people leaked it to the Sons of Jihad, I say. A pause as the acting director takes that in. Which means, I say, that the person did more than leak. Yes, sir. Four days ago, I say, Monday, a woman whispered those words into my daughters ear in Paris, to relay to me. That woman is Ninathe one shot at the stadium by the sniper. My God. She approached my daughter and told her to say Dark Ages to me and to tell me that I was running out of time and that shed meet me Friday night. The acting directors chin rises slightly as she processes the information. Mr. PresidentIm one of those eight, she says. How do you rule me out? Good for her. Before I tapped you as acting director, ten days ago, you werent in the loop. Whatever outside actor is doing this to us, whoever among our eight is helping themthis would have taken time to develop. It wouldnt happen overnight. So Im not the traitor, she says, because I wouldnt have had time. The timing rules you out, yes. So besides you, Carolyn, and me, that leaves six people, Liz. Six people who could be our Benedict Arnold. Have you considered that one of those six might have told a spouse or friend who sold the information? Theyd be violating your directive of confidentiality, but still I have considered that, yes. But whoevers betraying us did more than leak a code word. Theyre a part of this. Nobodys spouse or friend would have the kind of access and resources to do that. Theyd need the government official. So its one of our six. Its one of our six, I say in agreement. So you understand, Liz, that youre the only one we can fully trust. Chapter 39 When I finish with Acting Director Greenfield, Carolyn tells me my next call is ready. A moment later, after some fuzz and screen garble, the image of a man, thick-necked and deadly serious, with a manicured beard and bald head, comes onto the screen. The bags underneath his eyes are a testament not to his age but to the week hes had. Mr.President, he says. His English is perfect, his foreign accent almost imperceptible. David, good to see you. Its good to see you as well, Mr. President. Given the events of the last few hours, that statement is more than a mere pleasantry. True enough. The woman is dead, David. Did you know that? It is what we assumed. But the man is with me, I say. He calls himself Augie. He told you his name is Augie? He did. Is that the truth? Did you get a shot of his face? After I received the ticket to the Nationals game from Nina, I called David and told him where Id be sitting in the left-field stands. He had to scramble, but his team got tickets to the game and positioned themselves so they could get an image of Augies face that they could run through facial-recognition software. We were able to get a reliable image, yes, in spite of the baseball cap he wore. We believe that the person sitting next to you at the baseball game is Augustas Koslenko. Born in 1996 in Sloviansk, in the Donetsk province, in eastern Ukraine. Donetsk? Thats interesting. We thought so as well. His mother is Lithuanian. His father is Ukrainian, a laborer in a machine factory. No political affiliation or activism that we know of. What about Augie himself? He left Ukraine in middle school. He was a mathematics prodigy, a genius. He attended boarding school in eastern Turkey on a scholarship. We believewe assume that this is where he met Suliman Cindoruk. Before then, we know of nothing he did or said in the way of activism of any kind. But hes the real article, youre saying. He was part of the Sons of Jihad. Yes, Mr. President. But I am not confident I would use the past tense. Im not, either. Im not confident of anything when it comes to Augie. I dont know what he wants or why hes doing this. Now, at least, I know he gave me his real name, but if hes as smart as we think he is, he probably figured Id learn his identity anyway. And if his whole basis for legitimacy is that he was affiliated with the Sons of Jihad, hed want me to know his name, hed want me to confirm that fact. So Im no further than I was before with Augie. He said he had a falling-out with the SOJ. He said. Youve obviously considered the possibility that he is still in their employ? That he is doing their bidding? I shrug. Sure, of course, butto what end? He could have killed me at the stadium. True. And somebody wants him dead. Apparently so. Or they want you to believe that, Mr. President. Well, Davidif thats a fake, its a pretty damn good fake. I dont know how much your people saw outside the stadium, and I assume you didnt see anything on the bridge. They werent pretending. We could have easily died either time. I do not doubt what you are saying, Mr. President. I only offer the thought that you should remain open to other possibilities. In my experience, these individuals are brilliant tacticians. We must constantly reassess our position and thinking. Its a good reminder. Tell me what youre hearing out there, I say. David is quiet for a moment, measuring his words. We are hearing talk of America being brought to its knees. We are hearing doomsday prophecies. The end of days. We often hear such things in generic chatter from the jihadists, of coursethat the Great Satans day will come, the time is nearbut But what? But we have never heard a firm date placed on such things. And what we are hearing now is that it will happen tomorrow. Saturday, they are saying. I take a breath. Saturday is less than two hours away. Whos behind this, David? I ask. We cannot know for sure, Mr. President. Suliman Cindoruk answers to no official state actor, as you know. We are hearing a multitude of suspects. The usual suspects, I suppose you would say. ISIS. North Korea. China. My country. Even your countrythey say the event will be propaganda, a self-created crisis to justify military retaliation, typical conspiracy-theory nonsense. Your best guess? I say. But Im relatively sure I know the answer. The tactical spread of chatter, the communication of clandestine information that in fact was intended all along to be overheard by intelligence intercepts. Counterespionage at its most devious, tradecraft at its finest. It bears the mark of one country over all others. David Guralnick, the director of Israels Institute for Intelligence and Special OperationsMossadtakes a deep breath. For dramatic measure, the screen cuts in and out before his face becomes clear again. Our best guess is Russia, he says. Chapter 40 I click off the transmission with the director of Mossad and gather my thoughts before I talk to Augie. There are many ways to play this, but I have no time for subtlety. Saturday, David said. Ninety minutes away. I push myself out of the chair and turn for the door when a wave of vertigo strikes me, like someone is playing spin the bottle with my internal compass. I grab hold of the desk for balance and measure my breaths. I reach into my pocket for my pills. I need my pills. But my pills are gone. There are no more in my pocket, and the rest were left behind in the bag, in the sedan in the stadium parking lot. Damn it. I dial Carolyn on my phone. Carrie, I need more steroids. I dont have any more at the White House, and I lost the bottle I had. Call Dr. Lane. Maybe she has some ex Ill make it happen, Mr. President. Great. I click off and leave the soundproofed office, walking carefully down the hall toward the rec room, near the staircase. Augie is sitting on the couch, looking to all appearances like an ordinary scraggly teenager lounging in front of the television. But hes neither a teenager nor ordinary. The mounted television hes watching is set to cable news, coverage of the assassination attempt on King Saad ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia and the growing unrest in Honduras. Augie, I say. Stand up. He does what I ask, facing me. Who attacked us? I ask. He pushes his hair out of his face, shrugs. I do not know. Do better than that. Lets start with who sent you. You said you no longer see eye to eye with Suliman Cindoruk and the Sons of Jihad. Yes, that is true. I do not. So who sent you? Nobody sent us. We came of our own will. Why? Is it not obvious? I grab a fistful of his shirt. Augie, a lot of people died tonight. Including someone you cared about and two Secret Service agents I cared about, men who left young families behind. So start answering my We came to stop it, he says, breaking free of my grip. To stop Dark Ages? Butwhy? He shakes his head, hiccups a bitter chuckle. Do you mean, what do I stand to gain? What isin it for me? Thats what I mean, I say. You didnt want to tell me before. Tell me now. What does a kid from Donetsk want from the United States? Augie draws back, surprised for only a moment. Not that surprised at all, really. That did not take long. Are you part of the pro-Russian camp or the pro-Ukraine camp? They have lots of both in Donetsk, last I checked. Yes? And when was the last time you checked, Mr. President? His face changing color, fuming. When it suited your purposes, thats when. This, he says, shaking his finger at me, this is the difference between you and me. I want nothing from you, thats what I want. I wantto not destroy a nation full of millions of people. Is that not enough? Is it that simple? That Augie and his partner were simply trying to do the right thing? These days, its never your first instinct to believe that. Im not sure I do now, either. I dont know what to believe. But you created Dark Ages, I say. He shakes his head. Suli, Nina, and I created it. But Nina was the real inspiration, the driving force. Without her, we never could have created it. I helped with the coding and particularly with the implementation. Nina? Thats her real name? Yes. They created it, and you infiltrated our systems. More or less, yes. And you can stop it? He shrugs. This I do not know. What? I grab him by the shoulder, as if shaking him will produce a different answer. You said you could, Augie. You said that before. I did, yes. He nods, looks at me with shiny eyes. Nina was alive before. I release him, walk over to the wall, and pound my fist against it. Its always one step forward, two steps back. I take a deep breath. What Augies saying makes sense. Nina was the superstar. Thats why she was the snipers first target. From a practical standpoint, it would have made more sense to shoot Augie first, because he was mobile, and then go for Nina, who was seated in a parked car. Nina was clearly the highest priority. I will do my best to help, he says. Okay, well, who attacked us? I ask for the second time. Can you at least help me with that? Mr. President, he says, the Sons of Jihad is not ademocracy. This kind of information Suli would not have shared with me. I can only tell you two things. One, obviously, is that Suli knows that Nina and I broke away from him, and he clearly tracked us somehow to the United States. Obviously, I say. And the second thing, he says, is that as far as I am aware, Sulis capabilities are limited to computers. He is formidable. He can do considerable damage, as you well know. But he does not have at his disposal trained mercenaries. I put my hand against the wall. Meaning Meaning he is working with someone else, says Augie. A nation-state, some country that wishes to bring the United States to its knees. And one that compromised someone in my inner circle, I add. Chapter 41 Okay, Augie, next question, I say. What does Suliman want? He must want something. Or theywhoevers working with him. What do they want? Augie cocks his head. Why do you say this? Why do I say that? Well, why else would they have shown us the virus in advance? I put out my hand. Augie, two weeks ago, a virus suddenly popped up on our systems inside the Pentagon. It appeared, then it disappeared. You know this. You said it to me yourself at the baseball stadium. It suddenly appeared and then just as suddenly disappearedI snap my fingerslike that. A peekaboo. A peekaboo, yes, thats what my experts called it. A peekaboo. Without any warning, without triggering any of our state-of-the-art security alerts, suddenly this virus flashed all over our internal Defense Department systems then disappeared just as quickly, without a trace. Thats how this whole thing started. We called it Dark Ages and formed a task force. Our best cyberspecialists have been working around the clock trying to find it, trying to stop it, but they cant. Augie nods. And it terrifies you. Of course it does. Because it infiltrated your system without any warning and evaporated into thin air just as quickly. You realize that it might come back again, or it might never have left. And you have no idea what its capable of doing to your systems. All those things, yes, I say. But there was a reason for this sneak preview, this peekaboo. If whoever did this simply wanted to take down our systems, they wouldve just done it. They wouldnt have warned us first. You only warn someone first if you want something, if youre going to make a ransom demand. Ransomware, he says. Yes, I understand your reasoning. When you saw the warning, you expected it to be followed by a demand of some kind. Right. Ah, so thisthis is why you made that phone call to Suli. Augie nods. To ask him what his demand was. Yes. He was trying to get my attention. So I let him know he did. I wanted to hear his demand without directly asking him for it, without intimating that the United States would give in to blackmail. But he did not give you a demand. No, he didnt, I say. He played coy. He seemedat a loss for words. Like he hadnt expected my call. Oh, he made disparaging comments about my country, the usual type of stuffbut no demand. No acknowledgment of the peekaboo. So all I could do was threaten him. I told him that if his virus hurt our country, Id come after him with every resource I could muster. It must have seemed likean odd conversation. It was, I said in agreement. My tech people were certain this was the work of the SOJ. And they said the peekaboo was no glitch; it was intentional. So where was the ransom demand? Why would he go to the trouble of the peekaboo without demanding anything? Augie nods. And then Nina came along. You thought she was going to deliver the ransom demand. I did. You or Nina. So? I throw up my hands, exasperation getting the better of me. Where the hell is the goddamn ransom demand? Augie draws a deep breath. There is not going to be a ransom demand, he says. Thereswhy not? Then whyd they send the warning? Mr. President, the Sons of Jihad did not send that peekaboo, he says. And whoever may be sponsoring the Sons of Jihad did not send it, either. I stare at him. It takes me a moment. Eventually I get there. You sent it, I say. Nina and I, yes. To warn you, he says. So you could start preparing mitigation protocols. And so that when Nina and I contacted you, you would take us seriously. Suliman knew nothing of this. The last thing he would ever do is give you an early warning of this virus. I work this over. Augie and Nina sent the early warning to us two weeks ago. And then, more than a week later, Nina found Lilly in Paris and whispered the magic words to her. They came to warn me. To help me. Thats the good news. The bad news? That means that Suliman Cindoruk and the foreign agent who is behind him never wanted the United States to know about it in advance. They arent going to ask for something. They arent seeking a change in our foreign policy. They dont want prisoners released. They dont want money. They arent going to demand a ransom at all. Theyre just going to detonate the virus. They want to destroy us.

  • Pale Horse Coming /      (by Stephen Hunter, 2001) -   Pale Horse Coming /
  • A Christmas Carol /    (by Charles Dickens, 1997) -    A Christmas Carol /
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  •    1 . . (2004, 22) +mp3 1 2004,
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