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Memorial day, p.22
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       Memorial Day, p.22

         Part #7 of Mitch Rapp series by Vince Flynn
 

  The helicopter banked hard and everyone in back reached for their armrests. Kennedy looked up at Warch, who was sitting in a jump seat by the cockpit. Like most Secret Service agents he tended to carry himself in a very stoic manner, but Kennedy knew him well enough to elicit from him a roll of the eyes and a crooked frown. Warch was not in the least bit happy with the president's decision to come back to the White House.

  Gripping his leather armrests the president leaned out into the aisle and said, "Jack, are you trying to punish me?"

  "Wouldn't think of it, Mr. President. Just trying to make sure we get you back to the White House without getting you shot out of the sky."

  Hayes looked over at Kennedy and flashed her one of his engaging smiles. For the second time this morning he said to her, "Great job, Irene. I don't know what I'd do without you."

  "Thank you, Mr. President," Kennedy allowed herself a smile, "but it's Mitch who you should be thanking."

  "Don't worry, I plan on it."

  He reached out and grabbed her hand with almost boyish enthusiasm and said, "We stopped the bastards, Irene! We stopped them cold. They took their best shot at us and we stopped them."

  Kennedy's smile grew. "Yes we did, sir. Yes we did."

  The director of the CIA was not one to gloat, but it was hard to suppress the heady, almost intoxicating feeling of having just foiled a terrorist attack that would have destroyed Washington, D.C.

  THE MOTORCADE STEADILYpushed its way through the heavy downtown traffic; three big black Chevy Suburbans with government plates, lights flashing, sirens whooping, and no police escort. When the vehicles pulled through the heavy black gate of the White House, the pack of reporters standing on the north lawn dropped everything and ran to get into position. It was rather comical watching the pencil-thin TV journalists jostle with the more sturdy photographers and cameramen. Normally there was a pecking order, and reporters who had the most seniority in covering the White House were politely allowed to the front, but not this morning. The pressure was on. Producers were barking over ear pieces and editors were screaming into mobile phones. The rumor mill was in overdrive, and a scoop mentality was driving the pack.

  The dark tinted windows of the trucks frustrated even the brightest flashes of the cameras as the photographers tried to get a glimpse of who was inside the middle vehicle. Through experience they all knew to disregard the first and last truck, which would only contain burly men in suits, with short haircuts and guns. If you hung out in Washington, let alone at the White House, this type of setup was common place. Important people being driven about in dark vehicles, with dark windows and bodyguards, was very Washington.

  To these savvy reporters, such a sight would normally elicit no more than a passing curiosity, but not this morning. The lack of information or usable footage of anyone either entering or leaving the White House drove the reporters, photographers, and cameramen into a paparazzi-like frenzy.

  The doors to the first and third vehicle sprang open and a group of men wearing lapel pins, sunglasses, and flesh-colored earpieces stepped onto the curb and made a path for their boss. Attorney General Stokes got out of the backseat of the middle vehicle with Peggy Stealey on his heels.

  Reporters began shouting questions, photographers snapped photos, and cameramen jostled everyone in an attempt to get more than one second of unobscured footage.

  Stokes strode through the phalanx without flinching. He been through this enough times to know it was important to stand tall, maintain a neutral expression, and ignore the cameras. Shielding your eyes from the flashes only made you look like you were trying to hide something.

  "Attorney General Stokes!" one of the reporters shouted. "Is it true the president was evacuated from the White House last night?"

  "Where is the president right now?" another reporter shouted.

  Stokes stayed the course. His years of lawyering had taught him to usually ignore such questions, but this morning, after what they had just been through, he decided to have a little fun. "I'm headed inside to meet with him."

  The attorney general and the tall blonde entered the building, and left the press looking at each other skeptically. They'd been on the White House press secretary all morning demanding to know where the president was, and they'd gotten nowhere. The fact that the press secretary refused to answer their questions was proof that the president wasn't where he was supposed to be.

  A few reporters continued to shout questions after Stokes had entered the building, but stopped as soon as the heavy white doors were closed. When the din of griping had died down they grew aware of another noise. A noise they were all familiar with. They ran northward, away from the building, and began searching the sky. The distinctive thumping was that of a helicopter, and there was only one helicopter in the world that was allowed to penetrate the airspace around the White House.

  One by one they began cursing Tim Webber for not allowing them to cover the arrival of the president from wherever the hell it was that he'd been.

  * * *

  Forty-Eight

  Peggy Stealey was more than aware that this was her first time in the Oval Office, and she wished her appearance matched the occasion. She found her hair, makeup, and choice of clothes severely wanting. As always, Attorney General Stokes was dressed impeccably in one of his three-button Hugo Boss suits. Stealey was sure one of his people had gone over to his house where Martin's perfect little wife had everything packed in the attorney general's Orvis garment bag.

  Stealey didn't have people, not yet anyway, so she was still stuck in the boring gray Talbots pantsuit that she'd thrown on in the middle of the night. The outfit was to women's clothing what vanilla was to ice cream. There was absolutely nothing exciting or memorable about it, and if that wasn't bad enough she didn't even have anything to dress it up with. No necklace, no earrings, not even a bracelet, a watch, or be-jeweled hair clip. She was stuck with a plain elastic band to hold her signature blond hair back and a nondescript pair of black Jill St. John flats on her feet.

  Stealey had been in the White House dozens of times to meet with other senior administration officials, and had even sat in the back row of a few cabinet meetings. But on those occasions she was just one face among dozens. This morning was different in so many ways. This was history in the making, and Stealey was planning on helping shape it. Stokes had told her about his rebuke of the vice president and the approving look he'd received from the president. The opportunity was there. All they had to do was take it, and Stealey had a plan that would suit everyone's needs.

  President Hayes entered the Oval Office with a spring in his step. Jones and Kennedy followed a few steps behind. Stealey felt a little better upon noticing that the president was in a pair of khaki pants and a white button-down shirt. That brief reprieve vanished a second later as a diminutive man in a starched white jacket whisked into the room from the opposite direction. He was holding a dark blue suit, pressed shirt, tie, and a pair of shiny dress shoes.

  The president ignored his two guests and said, "Carl, you're the best."

  With a beaming smile the president's Navy steward, who had stood his post for twenty-two years, said, "It's nice to have you back at the White House, sir."

  Hayes had no doubt that Carl knew more about what had transpired over the last twelve hours than all but his top advisors. "Thank you, Carl. Would you please hang that stuff in my bathroom and bring us some coffee?"

  "Absolutely, sir."

  Hayes turned to face Stokes and Stealey, who were standing by the fireplace. He glanced at Stealey, and she noticed the brief questioning look as he tried to place her. The look was very subtle. He tried to mask it with a smile, and then his eyes moved quickly to Stokes. Stealey guessed miserably that given her appearance, it was likely that the president thought her a member of the attorney general's security detail and not one of his top lawyers.

  The president clapped his hands together and said, "Martin, you and your people did a phenomenal job this
morning."

  "Thank you, Mr. President. It was a great team effort."

  "It sure was."

  "Mr. President," called out Kennedy as she walked behind the president's desk, "would you mind if I used your phone to contact General Flood?"

  "Of course not."

  There was a knock on the door and this time a woman entered carrying a garment bag. "Excuse me, Mr. President." The young woman immediately turned her attention to the president's chief of staff who was in the corner talking on her cell phone. "Val, I've got your stuff."

  Jones covered the phone. "Put it in my office."

  Stealey made a mental note to pack that "go bag" the first chance she got. Never again would she be caught so utterly unprepared.

  "Mr. President," said Stokes, "I'd like to introduce you to my deputy assistant attorney general in charge of counterterrorism, Peggy Stealey."

  Hayes smiled as he walked across the office, his right hand extended. "I think we've met before, haven't we?"

  "More or less yes, sir."

  "Peggy," said Stokes, "was a big part of what went down this morning. She was the one bringing everything together on the domestic front."

  "Well then you have my gratitude and my thanks." The president clasped her hand with both of his.

  Her boss had just exaggerated quite a bit, but Stealey wasn't about to argue with him. If they wanted to give her credit, who was she to argue? "Thank you, sir."

  Kennedy hung up with General Flood and joined the group. "Hello, Peggy."

  "Good morning, Doctor Kennedy." Stealey was surprised that Kennedy had remembered her name. They had met only twice before, and both times in a large group.

  "General Flood says SEAL Team Six found a sizable amount of molded C-4 plastique explosives. Based on the initial estimate they are guessing that the explosive charge was designed to be placed around the bomb's physics package we found in Charleston."

  "An implosion device."

  "Exactly."

  "What about the other two ships?" asked the president.

  "The search is underway, but nothing so far."

  "We're not thinking a second bomb at this point, are we?" asked Hayes.

  "It's too early to rule that out completely, but based on the pattern we're seeing my guess is we're going to find other key components used to assemble a full-up nuclear weapon."

  "How far are the other two ships from the coast?"

  "Over sixty miles. The Coast Guard is handling the situation with the Navy providing backup."

  "When can we expect an answer?"

  "Within the hour. The initial sweep on each vessel came up negative for nuclear material. Now they're moving cargo around to get at the specific containers."

  "Let me know as soon as we find anything out."

  "I will." Kennedy checked her watch. "If it's all right with you, sir, I'd like to go down to the Situation Room, and get caught up on the complete picture."

  "By all means. I'll join you in a little bit."

  Kennedy left, and Jones came over to the group, a look of exasperation on her face. "The press I swear there are times when I think the Communists had the right idea."

  Everyone laughed.

  "What's the problem now?" asked Hayes.

  "Nothing. At least nothing I need to concern you with at the moment."

  "You sure?"

  Jones hesitated. "I've called a strategy meeting in thirty minutes. It can wait until then. The simple fact that you're physically here at the White House has taken the wind out of their sails for the moment." The chief of staff ran a hand through her tousled hair.

  "Val," said Stokes, "I'd like you to meet Peggy Stealey, my deputy assistant attorney general in charge of counterterrorism."

  Stealey shook Jones's hand and noted the dark circles under the chief of staff's eyes. Suddenly, she didn't feel so bad about her appearance.

  "Peggy Stealey," Jones repeated the name as if she'd heard it before. There was a spark of recognition in her eyes and she said, "Pat Holmes."

  "Yes." Stealey smiled. "Pat says you're the sharpest person in town."

  Jones nodded in agreement and gave the president a little backhanded pat to the stomach. "Did you hear that?"

  "You don't hear me arguing, do you?" Hayes threw up his hands.

  "You'd better not." She turned her attention back to Stealey. "You and I need to talk. Pat told me about your dinner the other night, and I couldn't agree more."

  Hayes ebbed and flowed on the issue of wanting to know what his political handlers were up to. Often, their preparation and strategizing were nothing more than background noise, but there were times when their thirst for victory turned to outright foolish scheming.

  As he looked back and forth at Jones and this striking Stealey woman, Hayes decided he wanted to know what the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and these two women were up to. "What are you plotting behind my back now?"

  Stealey was a perfectionist who fretted about details only up to a point. It was all part of her constant quest for victory. The details mattered in preparation, but once the trial or debate started she focused on the big picture and took charge.

  Stealey didn't wait for Jones to field the question. "There's a consensus over at Justice, sir, that the Patriot Act is too big a reach. We've got some landmark cases working their way through the system toward the Supreme Court. The way the calendar looks right now those decisions will be handed down late summer through early fall."

  "In the final months of your reelection campaign," Jones added.

  "The consensus, sir," Stealey said, "is that the court is going to embarrass us. And not just once. We're looking at a series of stunning defeats."

  The president thought that after what had almost happened this morning, the Patriot Act should, if anything, be strengthened. "Your timing on this isn't so hot." Hayes fired his rebuke with a stern frown on his face. "I don't know if either of you noticed, but a group of terrorists just came awfully close to sneaking a nuclear weapon into our country."

  Stealey stood tall, fixed Hayes with a look, and said, "Mr. President, I respectfully disagree. The timing couldn't be better to address this issue."

  Attorney General Stokes took a half step back and watched his old lover go to work. Stokes noted that she was hiding her tendency to condescend. Her words were firm but respectful. Pleading, but not desperate. She piled up fact after fact and in the end brought in the political angle in a very deft manner. Stokes had seen her do it before, and he knew the president well enough to understand that he stood no chance. Stokes and Jones exchanged a quick look, and the president's chief of staff raised an impressed eyebrow. Stokes allowed himself to think about the Democratic National Convention this summer. He pictured himself making one of the key primetime speeches, and then he pictured the president announcing to the fevered crowd his new running mate. It was all there for him to grab.

  * * *

  Forty-Nine

  ALABAMA-GEORGIA STATE LINE

  Manny Gomez felt like he was coming down with something. One minute he was sweating, then the next minute he was freezing. He tried to remember if he'd drunk anything while in Mexico, but he could have sworn he hadn't. He was always careful to bring his own water. He hadn't even stayed the night. He'd simply crossed over the border at Laredo, picked up his load, and then crossed right back.

  He now found himself going 80 mph down Interstate 20 with Alabama in his rearview mirror, Georgia dead ahead, and a general discomfort all over. He'd been behind the wheel for nearly fifteen hours, and if he was going to make it back to his son's baseball game, he would have to dump his load, get out to the distribution center in Forest Park, pick up the new load for the trip back to Texas, and then get out of the city before the afternoon rush hour started.

  He had it all figured out. He'd made the trip along I-20 enough times to know where the troopers set their speed traps, where the good food was, where to stop for sleep, and even more importantly where not to s
top. There was a nice little truck stop outside Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he could eat, shower, and grab four to five hours of sleep before he made the big push across Louisiana and Texas the next day. He'd deliver his load in San Antonio and be home to Laredo in time to pack the cooler and maybe even play a little catch with his son before the game.

  Tomorrow night was the first round of the big Memorial Day weekend baseball tournament. His son, Manny Jr., was to take the mound at 9:00 p.m. for a classic Southwest Texas baseball game under the lights. His wife and daughter were almost as excited as the boys were. A baseball nut since he was a kid, Gomez had never bought into the line that football was the heart of Texas. Anyone who thought that should get out and drive around Laredo on a summer night. You could scarcely make it a mile without coming across an illuminated ball field, occupied by players ranging in age from four to sixty. From little league to senior league, baseball ruled in Texas.

  Gomez took a drink of water and mopped his brow with a bandana he'd dug out of the center console. He was sweating again. He shook it off and told himself that it was passing-that he'd be fine once he got the rig pointed west again and back toward home. The road sign on the interstate told him his exit was just ahead. Gomez grabbed the map he'd printed off the internet and checked the directions one more time.

  He took the exit ramp and turned onto the country road. A mile and half down he turned again and saw the construction site just up ahead. There was a big yellow tractor and a grader parked in an area of cleared trees, next to a construction trailer. Before turning in, Gomez surveyed the area to make sure he could get back out. The ground looked fairly dry and they'd been smart enough to lay down some gravel. He swung the big rig into the semi-narrow lane and pulled to a stop in front of the construction trailer.

  Two men appeared from the trailer almost immediately. Gomez climbed down from the cab with paperwork in hand and was relieved that his slight nausea had passed.

  "How ya'all doing?" asked Gomez.

 
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