“Because we are a nation of laws, Susan Hopkins must vacate the office of President this very day, and leave the White House. The Washington, DC, metro police and the medical examiner have done their jobs – they have determined that Patrick Norman did not kill himself. And now I call on the Justice Department and the FBI to do their jobs – and investigate President Hopkins for murder.”
11:45 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time
The Situation Room
The White House, Washington DC
“Is it a warrant for my arrest?” Susan Hopkins said. “Is that what they’ve issued?”
Kurt Kimball turned the sound down on the video monitor. They had just watched Jefferson Monroe’s speech again – Luke had seen it three times now.
Although there were other festivities at Monroe’s rally earlier this morning, it didn’t matter what else came after that. A minor country music star had taken the stage and tried to entertain the crowd with a song about America, but within seconds people were already drifting away.
They hadn’t come for music – they had come for a public lynching, which was pretty close to what they had gotten.
Now Luke glanced around the Situation Room, watching the reactions. It was a packed house, a gathering of the tribes. People from the election campaign, Secret Service, Susan’s people, the Vice President’s people, some people from the Democratic Party. Luke didn’t see a lot of fight in the eyes of these people. Some of them were obviously monitoring the proceedings in search of a good time to jump ship before it sank to the bottom of the ocean.
Scenes like this were not Luke’s normal environment. He felt out of place, and even more than that. He recognized that a group of people were trying to make difficult decisions, but he didn’t have a lot of patience for the process. His typical response to a problem had always been to think of something, then act on it. Meanwhile, Kurt Kimball seemed confused. Kat Lopez seemed stricken. Only Susan seemed calm.
Luke watched Susan closely, looking for signs of collapse. It was a habit he had picked up in war zones, especially during downtime between battles – he would become acutely aware of how much the people around him had left in the tank. Stress took its toll, and people were worn down by it. Sometimes it happened gradually, and sometimes it happened instantly. But either way, there came a time when all but the most hardcore fighters would fold under pressure. Then they would cease to function.
But Susan didn’t seem to have reached that place yet. Her voice was steady. Her eyes were hard and unflinching. She was in a bad place, but she was still fighting. Luke was glad about that. It would make it easier to fight alongside her.
Kurt, at the front of the room near the big projection screen, shook his perfectly bald head. “No. You are a person of interest in the case, but not a suspect. The Washington, DC, Metro Police, specifically the Homicide Division, have simply made a request for an interview. They would like you to come in to their headquarters. You would have your legal counsel with you, and available at all times. That said, if you grant them the interview, you could become a suspect during the course of it. At which point, you could be arrested.”
Kurt glanced at the White House legal counsel, a straight-laced man in a three-piece suit, and a mop of sandy hair on top of his head. He had two aides with him.
“Would you say that’s right, Howard?” Kurt said.
Howard nodded. “I would not grant them an interview at this time, and certainly not an in-person interview. Not here, and under no circumstances at one of their facilities. You could go in and have a hard time getting out again, especially in the current climate. If they want to do an interview, it should be over the telephone or maybe a video conference. You’re busy, Susan. You’re President of the United States. You want to meet your responsibilities in this case, but you also have a lot of other things to do.”
“Doesn’t that make Susan look guilty?” a young guy in a blue suit and a crew cut said. He sat directly across the conference table from Luke. He looked like he was nineteen years old – in the sense that a lot of nineteen-year-olds still look like they are twelve. “I mean, we have nothing to hide here. I’m very confident of that.”
“Agent Stone,” Susan said. “Do you know my campaign manager, Tim Rutledge?”
Luke shook his head. “Haven’t had the pleasure.”
They reached across the table and shook hands. Rutledge had a firm grip, overly firm, like he had read in a book somewhere that a firm grip was important.
Rutledge looked at Luke. “And what is your role here, Agent Stone?”
Luke stared at him. He figured the best way to answer was honestly.
“I don’t know.”
“Agent Stone is a special operative. He has saved my life on more than one occasion, as well as my daughter’s life. He’s probably saved everyone in this room’s life at one point or another.”
“Who do you work for?” Rutledge said.
Luke shrugged. “I work for the President.” He didn’t see any need to go into his past, the Special Response Team, Delta Force, any of it. If this guy wanted to know that stuff, he could find it all out. The truth was, Luke felt strangely disconnected from that person, the person he had once been. He wasn’t sure what good he could do here.
“Well, I work for the President, too,” Rutledge said. “And I can tell you that these allegations, or whatever they are, are not true. Not one word of it. Susan had nothing to do with this man’s murder, nor did the campaign, nor did Pierre. There’s been no corruption. There’s been no pay to play with Pierre’s charities. I know this because we dug deep at the start of the campaign to see where the vulnerabilities were, to find any skeletons. Financially, there were basically none. I know there have been some personal issues, and it’s possible they played a role in the outcome of the election, but Pierre is about the squeakiest clean businessman I’ve ever run across.”
“Did you know the dead man at all?” Kurt said.
Rutledge shrugged. “Know him? No. I knew of him. I never met him or spoke to him. Pierre’s security director alerted the campaign to the guy’s existence probably nine months ago. There had been a number of attempted hacks into company databases, all leading back to Norman’s investigation agency. Pretty amateurish stuff. From there, Pierre’s people determined that Norman was working for Monroe, but no one worried about it too much. And we certainly weren’t going to murder him. As I indicated, there was nothing for him to find. You have to remember that all of this was in the context of last summer, when we all knew the people were never going to vote in a crazy person like Jefferson Monroe as President of the United States.”
Three people over from Rutledge, a man raised his hand. He was a weak-looking middle-aged man with thinning hair. He had a long nose and no chin to speak of. His body was thin and utterly without muscle tone. He wore an ill-fitting gray suit that he seemed to swim inside of. But he had hard, hard eyes. Here was one person in the room who was definitely not afraid.
Oddly, he wore a Hello, my name is sticker on the front of his suit. It said, in thick scribbled black magic marker, Brent Staples.
Luke knew the name. He was an old-school campaign strategist and public relations man. Luke thought he and Susan had had a falling out at one point, but they must have patched things up for the campaign. A lot of good that had done Susan.
“I hate to say this,” he said, and Luke could tell he actually relished saying it, whatever came next. “But Jefferson Monroe is looking less and less crazy, while the people in this room are looking more and more so.”
“What are you trying to say, Brent?” Susan said.
“I’m saying that you’re out on a limb again, Susan. You are all by yourself in a very awkward place. I’m telling you that you are becoming isolated from the American people. From a regular person’s perspective, you lost the election, and that hurts. There might have even been some malfeasance on your opponent’s part. But nobody knows if that’s really true, and if it is true, nobody knows what kind of impact it had on the outcome. Meanwhile, you’re saying you won’t step down. Also, a man has been murdered who was investigating you. And it seems you’re leaning toward saying you won’t give the police an interview. My question to you is: who’s starting to look like the criminal here? Who is starting to look like the crazy person?”
Kat Lopez stood in the corner of the room. She shook her head and glared at Brent Staples. “Brent, that’s out of line. You know Susan didn’t murder anyone. You know that this is a dog-and-pony show dreamed up by Monroe and his hitman Gerry O’Brien.”
“I’m telling you what it looks like,” Staples said. “Not what it is. I don’t know what it is, and that doesn’t really matter anyway. What it looks like is everything.”
He gazed around the room, hard eyes taking everyone in, daring them to tell him otherwise.
Young Tim Rutledge took up the challenge. “It looks to me like they murdered the investigator so they could pin it on Susan,” he said. “It looks to me like they stole the election through voter fraud and by tampering with the machinery. That’s what it looks like to me.”
Luke finally decided to chime in with something. Now he realized what was wrong with this entire meeting, and since he did, he might as well point it out. Maybe it could help them.
“It seems to me,” he said slowly, “that you need to take back the initiative.”
Throughout the room, all eyes slowly turned to him.
“Think of this as combat, a battle. They have you on the run. They have you in disarray. They do something, and you react. By the time you react, they’re already doing something else. They are on the attack, and you are in a disorganized retreat. You have to come up with some way to attack them, set them on their back foot, and retake the initiative.”
“Like what?” Brent Staples said.
Luke shrugged. “I don’t know. Isn’t that your job?”
For several minutes, Kurt Kimball had been huddled in a corner with two of his aides. Something had clearly distracted him. Now he turned back to the room.
“I like your idea, Stone. But it’s going to be hard to retake the initiative at this moment.”
Stone raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Why’s that?”
“We just learned that at least a hundred West Virginia state troopers, and Wheeling metropolitan police, are en route to Washington in a long convoy. They intend to come directly here to the White House, take Susan into custody, and bring her to the DC Metropolitan police headquarters themselves.”
“They have no jurisdiction,” the White House counsel, Howard, said. “Have they lost their minds?”
“It seems that everyone has lost their minds today,” Kurt said. “And they have a claim to jurisdiction, however slight.”
“What is it?”
“Both police forces, along with a dozen others from nearby states, are routinely deputized as auxiliary Washington, DC, cops to provide overflow security for the Presidential inauguration events every four years. They claim that renders them permanent deputies.”
Howard shook his head. “It won’t hold up in court. It’s silly.”
Kurt put his hands in the air, as if Howard had pulled a gun on him. “Whether it will hold up or not, they’re on their way here. Apparently, they think they’re going to walk in here, take Susan, and walk back out of here with her.”
There was a long pause. No one in the room spoke. The silence spun out as each face looked from one to the other.
“They’ll be here in thirty minutes,” Kurt said.
12:14 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time
Outside the White House
“No one gets inside,” the tall man said into his walkie-talkie. “Are we clear? I want personnel centered at the gatehouse, but I also want eyes in the sky watching every possible point of entry. Shooters on the roof.”
“Roger that,” a voice squawked from the handset.
“Tell those shooters use of deadly force is green light. Repeat, green light on deadly force, but only if necessary.”
“On whose authority?”
“Mine,” the man said. “My authority.”
“Copy,” the voice said.
The tall man’s name was Charles “Chuck” Berg.
He was forty years old, and had been in the Secret Service for nearly fifteen years. He had been the head of the President’s home security detail for more than two years. It had come about by accident, the result of a disaster. He had been on her personal security detail the evening of the Mount Weather attack, when she was the Vice President. He had almost certainly saved her life. Everyone else on the team had been killed.
He had changed that night. He only saw it in retrospect. He had already been thirty-seven years old, in a job with a high level of responsibility, and married with two children – but in a sense, that was the night he became a man. He became who he was supposed to be. Before then? He was just a big kid with a job that let him carry a gun.
Susan trusted him after that night. And he trusted her. More than that – he felt protective of her – and not just because it was his job to feel that way. He was younger than her by a decade, and yet he felt almost like he was her big brother.
Survival – saving someone’s life – is an intimate thing.
He knew there was nothing to these corruption charges, or this murder charge. And he’d be dipped if he was going to allow anyone in to take the President of the United States into custody – especially not a bunch of yahoos wielding a fake bench warrant from far outside any reasonable claim to jurisdiction.
He had just done a perimeter check on foot. He was moving up the driveway, back toward the White House. Just ahead of him, a dozen heavily armed men in business suits moved briskly along the road. It was a sunny day, and cold. The shadows of the men on the ground showed sharp, high-powered rifles and shotguns poking from their sides.
The guardhouse was just up ahead. It was protected by concrete barriers. There was both a STOP sign and a DO NOT ENTER sign on the fence. More men in suits stood by the entrance. The body language of the men was alert, tense. They had the overstuffed look of men wearing bullet-proof vests or armor under their clothes.
Construction vehicles were setting down taller, thicker, and heavier barriers in front of the existing ones. They were just putting the finishing touches on the barriers now. The new barriers created a narrow chute, which was also a Byzantine maze of sharp right and left turns. It would force any vehicle to slow to a crawl. Wider vehicles, like trucks or Humvees, wouldn’t be able to pass through it at all.
NOTICE, a sign read. RESTRICTED AREA. 100 % ID CHECK.
There weren’t going to be any ID checks today. No one was going in or out.
In the near distance, perhaps two hundred yards away, men in black uniforms moved into position on the roof of the White House. Those guys were the real deal, Berg knew. The shooters. Secret Service snipers, any one of whom could easily put a bullet through his heart from this distance.
A Black Hawk helicopter took off from a helipad behind a copse of trees on the White House grounds. It headed east, then banked lazily to the north. Snipers lounged in the open bay doors.
This was just the visible defense. There were more than a hundred men and women guarding the perimeter of the White House grounds, including military units. No inch of the fencing or the walls around the property was not under surveillance at this moment. In addition to the circling Black Hawks, there were three Apache helicopter gunships hovering out over the Potomac River. Those Apaches could take out the entire approaching line of police vehicles in seconds.
It was the mismatch of all mismatches. The NBA champions versus the local junior high school B team.
Chuck pulled out his cell phone. He had this crazy sheriff from Wheeling, West Virginia, on speed dial. Was the man on a suicide mission? Chuck was about to find out.
The phone rang three times.
“Paxton,” the man said. His deep, gravelly voice had a slight drawl to it. You wouldn’t necessarily call it Southern. You might say it was Appalachian hillbilly.
Chuck pictured him in his mind. He had requested a research brief on the sheriff when he first heard they were coming. Bobby Paxton was a broad man in his fifties, an ex-Marine who still sported a flattop haircut. He was known as a no-nonsense, law and order type. More than that – for years, his department had been dogged by police brutality complaints, especially against young black males in custody.
Paxton himself was also on the record as flirting with any number of cockamamie conspiracy theories, up to and including the idea that elements of the federal government were cooperating with a race of seven-foot-tall aliens from outer space, who had given the American military advanced technologies like particle beam weaponry and anti-gravity flying machines.
It was possible that Paxton was insane. And if so, this could turn into a long day.
“Sheriff,” Chuck said. “Where are you now?”
“We are two minutes from your location. You should get a visual on us shortly.”
“Sir, I’ve said this to you before, and I’m going to say it one last time. Any message you have for the President is one I will accept from you at the front gate. Neither you, nor any of your personnel, will enter the White House grounds. There is no way – a zero percent chance – that you will take the President into custody today. You have no jurisdiction on federal property, nor within the city of Washington – ”
“We do have jurisdiction,” Paxton said. “My entire force has been – ”
Chuck continued without missing a beat. “And the department with jurisdiction, the Washington, DC, Metro Police, has declined to enforce the warrant that you carry.”
But Paxton didn’t stop either. “…deputized as auxiliary police officers of the city of Washington, DC.”
“Sir, you are on a fool’s errand, and a dangerous one at that. I’m concerned that someone is going to get hurt out here today. And I can tell you that it won’t be any of my people.”
“Son,” Paxton said, “you are on the wrong side of history. If you have any sense, you will step aside and let me do my job. We are coming in, regardless of what you decide.”
Chuck Berg’s shoulders slumped. He sighed heavily. This was how the man was going to ride this? Straight into a brick wall? So be it.
“Sheriff, we have helicopters in the air. We have marksmen on the roof. You are already in our crosshairs. You must know that. Please also know that five minutes ago, I authorized the use of deadly force to maintain the integrity of the security zone around the White House and its grounds. I urge you to leave your paperwork with me at the guardhouse. If you, or any of your men, attempt to go any further than that, you will be responsible for the consequences. If you, or any of your men, draw a weapon, you will also – ”
“And you will be a murderer shoring up the dying rule of a despot,” Paxton said. “Is that the legacy you want? Is that how your children and grandchildren will remember you?”
“Sheriff – ”
“The Nazis were just doing their jobs, son.”
“Please don’t get anyone killed out here, okay?” Chuck said. “It’s not worth it.”
“Good day, Mr. Berg.”
Chuck was about to say something more, but the line had already gone dead. He shook his head and switched back to his walkie-talkie.
“Is everything ready?”
“All units are in position. Choppers are following the motorcade, which is about seventy vehicles long, a line of motorcycles in front. It’s going to be a traffic jam when they reach those barriers.”
Chuck nodded. “Good. I want your men prepared to fire. We aren’t playing games. I’m going to be standing out front, and I don’t want to take a bullet over this nonsense.”
“Do you have a visual on Sheriff Paxton?”
“We do. He’s leading the pack. The very first motorcycle.”
“When he dismounts, give me a laser sight in the middle of his chest. A big red dot right on his heart. I want him to know we mean business.”
“And you know what? Also give me a slow flyover by one of the Apaches. But no matter what happens, I want no engagement from them. Be very clear: no engagement. It’s just for show. I don’t want a bloodbath on my hands.”
Chuck handed the walkie-talkie to the agent nearest him. He slid his phone in his pocket. Then he walked up to the barrier. It was higher than his navel, and he stood nearly six feet, five inches tall. He took a deep breath. He should see them any second, and sure enough, he did.
The first bike appeared over a low rise – it was a big police highway cruiser, with a large rounded windshield. It slowed as it reached the barriers, executed a turn, then continued, going slower and slower as it navigated the switchbacks. The bikes behind it did the same. A couple of cars followed. Within seconds, the whole thing was moving at a crawl – half the speed of a funeral procession.
What did they think was going to happen? They were going to storm the place? Not likely. Two choppers flanked the procession, guns in the doorways trained on the motorcycle cops.
The first bike stopped about twenty yards away. The man on it removed his helmet and stepped off the bike. He bent and removed something from one of his saddlebags.
“Watch him!” someone said. “Eyes sharp.”
Chuck glanced to his left and right. Along the barrier was a line of men, guns mounted on tripods and trained on the newcomers.
Berg recognized the man from his photo. It was Bobby Paxton, and what he had removed from his bag was some kind of ledger or booklet. More motorcycles pulled up and he waited for his officers to dismount. Once half a dozen had gathered, Paxton and his men approached the barrier.
Paxton had a big chest and shoulders. He was good-looking in the sense of a model from an old cigarette advertisement. He was broader than Chuck by a lot, but several inches shorter. The concrete barrier came nearly to chest height on him. He glared at Chuck. His eyes were narrow and hard. Crow’s feet made deep lines at the edges. His men spread out behind him in a wedge shape.
Chuck noticed that Paxton was wearing medals on his chest. Combat ribbons. A purple heart.
Suddenly a red dot appeared among the medals – the laser sight he had asked for. Another one appeared right at the man’s hairline. Chuck nearly laughed at that one – clearly it was meant as a gift for him, an inside joke.
“Sheriff,” Chuck said across the barrier, “I’m Agent Chuck Berg of the Secret Service. I’m head of security for the White House.”
Paxton simply stared at Chuck for another moment.
Chuck indicated Paxton’s chest, as if he had soiled his shirt with a spot of spaghetti sauce from lunch. “You’ve got a little something there.”
Paxton glanced down and saw the laser sight.
“You won’t be able to see this, but there’s another one on your forehead. You are one second away from seeing the man upstairs.”
In person, the sheriff was a man of few words. Either that, or the situation had rendered him tongue-tied.
Chuck suddenly felt light, and loose. This crazy motorcade, more than 100 cops from West Virginia riding two hours to the White House, only to be stopped dead in their tracks at the entrance. It was a farce. It was a bad comedy skit.
“Agent Berg,” Paxton said, “I have here a warrant for the arrest of Susan Hopkins.” He indicated the bound document in his hands. The paperwork itself was hidden inside some kind of thick cover. “I demand that you allow me to pass and take Ms. Hopkins into custody.”
Chuck shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, as we’ve already discussed. But if you’d like to give that paperwork to me, I will make certain that it finds its way to the appropriate place.”
Paxton seemed to consider what to do. Chuck wondered if the man was so slow he simply couldn’t come up with an adequate response. Chuck could almost smell the wires burning inside the sheriff’s brain.
As they stared across the barrier at each other, the ground began to rumble beneath their feet. A shadow passed across the sun. Berg, the sheriff, and all the sheriff’s men glanced up as a US Army Apache helicopter flew slowly above their heads. The chopper was bristling with weaponry. Paxton would know, as well as or better than anyone here, that his people had no way to respond against that thing. Never mind a response – if it attacked them, they would have precious little hope of survival.
Gradually, the rumble subsided as the chopper dwindled into the distance.
Chuck looked at Paxton. “Still think you’re coming inside?”
Paxton’s eyes were hard. “Is that an attempt to intimidate me?”
Chuck shrugged. “It’s a clear communication, showing everyone where they stand. We don’t want any casualties today, do we, Sheriff?”
There were no choices here. There was no way inside. There was no way to continue. One suspicious move and the shooting would start. Paxton himself, laser sights on his head and chest, would be the first one to die.
Finally, the sheriff seemed to grasp this. He stepped to the barrier.
“Inside this cover is the complaint against Hopkins filed by my office, and the warrant, signed this morning by Judge Phillip Broley.”
Chuck took the booklet the man handed him. His hands ran over the soft, rich cover.
“Is this real leather?”
Paxton nodded. He gestured at the booklet with his chin. “Those are historical documents, and they need to be protected. They have original signatures. One day, they will be displayed in museums, as much as the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address.”
Chuck held the booklet in his hands for a moment. “Oh my,” he said. “Historical documents. I promise we will safeguard them. I even promise you this – President Hopkins herself will review them.”
Then he handed the booklet to the agent next to him.
He extended a hand across the barrier. “Sheriff Paxton, it was a pleasure to meet you today, sir.”
Paxton reached across and also shook. It seemed a reluctant gesture on his part.
“Agent Berg, this isn’t the last you’ll be hearing from me.”
“I’m certain of that,” Berg said.
The handshake ended. Paxton, with nothing left to do, turned as if to go. To Paxton’s right, in the phalanx of cops spread out behind him, was a young state trooper. Suddenly, the kid was in motion.
“Is that it?” the young trooper said. His face was angry, incredulous.
“That’s it,” Chuck said.
“You son of a bitch,” the kid said. He stepped toward Chuck, pulling his gun as he did so. He was a fast draw. He had the gun out lightning quick.
“Don’t – ” was all Chuck managed to say.
A single gunshot rang out. The effect of it was odd – the bullet found its mark before Chuck heard the shot. It had come from somewhere behind him, a sniper’s supersonic round. The sound of it echoed across the White House grounds and the city streets.
The kid didn’t dance. He didn’t jitter. The shot entered through his left temple and blew out the back of his head. He was dead before he hit the ground, less than a second later. He dropped bonelessly, like a rag doll.
All around Chuck, guns were trained on the cops across the barrier. Chuck himself hadn’t moved. Nor had Paxton.
“DOWN!” Secret Service agents screamed. “GET DOWN!”
Behind Paxton, the rest of the cops were dropping to the tarmac. Paxton alone did not move. He looked to his right and behind at the dead cop. The kid’s body was oddly askew on the ground – its legs jutting out at odd angles that never would have been possible during life.
Chuck couldn’t take his eyes off of it.
“That’s the legacy of tyranny, and of treason,” Paxton said.
He paused for full effect.
“That’s your legacy, son.”