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An extract

 

The Past

 

 

 

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

 

- from the Presidential Oath of Office.

 

______________________________________________________________________

 

11 months ago, 02:08 hours,

outside Las Vegas, Nevada

 

Seventy-six kills. Seventy-six. If circumstances were different, he’d rank amongst the most prolific serial killers of the twenty-first century. Taking another life, another human life, carves a piece out of your soul. That’s what the popular writers would have you believe. Anson Moore knew otherwise. Forty-seven of those deaths, deaths up close and personal, had given him… what? Pleasure? No, not pleasure. Something else. Something… a sense of doing what was right, what was needed? Perhaps…

Moore knew what he felt. The emptiness he carried inside, filled, a little, by a new victim. Some in his business, kept a record. A small notebook, coded notations; who, how, when, where, never why… and, above all, the Number, worn as an invisible testament to their efficiency. Moore didn’t bother with such details. He felt the number; felt the emptiness remaining. She would have been thirty-nine today, two years younger than him. He had failed, not kept his promise, not been there when needed. Failed!

He shifted position in the car. The seat bottom, too short for comfort, had tried to cut off the circulation in his legs hours ago. His shallow, measured breath streamed through the small window opening into the cool night air. His hands were thrust into opposing armpits, deep under his jacket. He hated the cold; too many bad memories associated with the cold. Too many missions in the cold. Too many deaths. Seventy-six; an old hand; a Pro. Yet this one was different. The man was innocent. Just some misguided tech who thought he was doing the right thing. Just like Moore. Only difference was, the guy’s actions had stirred-up some serious concern; so serious they had sent him to eliminate the problem.

Moore knew this was a test. The make or break for him. He knew the mission came first, and an innocent life could not stand in the way. Quietly, he swallowed, clearing the bile at the back of his throat; something he had never experienced before on the job. This wasn’t a kill. It was murder, plain and simple. Easy for the General to say it’s justified; if Moore didn’t do it, someone else would. Then they would eliminate him. End of mission. End of months living on the edge. End of the deceit. End of his emptiness.

Four hundred yards away a light blinked off. At last, thought Moore. He would wait another fifteen minutes before leaving the car, just to make sure. He raised a warm hand to rub tired eyes. His mind drifted. Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Hong Kong, India, and many more. All the exotic stamps in so many false passports. This was the first one on home soil. Not the first time he had killed a fellow American though. There was that bastard in Karachi, selling troop details to Al-Qaeda. Then the guy in Madrid; more terrorist connections. Even the rogue CIA agent in Liege. All sanctioned, all approved, all justified. This guy? He’d done a phone-in on a live radio program for conspiracy nuts. That’s what would get him killed; a damn phone call.

His left hand left its warmth, the ghostly glow of a watch face telling him what he needed to know. Can’t put it off any longer. The emptiness surfaced. And something else. A tension, a sixth sense. He knew they were watching. He had tried, all the way from L.A., to spot the tail. They were good, very good, and he felt tired. Two days without sleep now. Not good for reflexes. He reached across to the passenger seat and picked up the .22LR Sig Mosquito pistol, the suppressor already screwed in place. The familiar tactile sensations calmed his mind.

Anson Moore went into Psychopath Mode.

At least that’s what the Base shrinks had called it. No emotion. No feelings. Detached. So they said. They were wrong. The emptiness was always there. More so tonight. “Forgive me, Jen,” he said quietly as he opened the car door.

The walk to the house was circuitous. The target’s bedroom was at the back. His plan was to approach from the desert. Recon showed no dogs, either at the target or at the neighbours. He slipped between the houses. No lights anywhere. The neighbours on the left were home, but had gone to bed three hours earlier. Those on the right were celebrating their anniversary in Hawaii, not due back for five days. So far he was just a prowler; not too serious.

As he neared the corner of the target’s house, a sound froze his advance. An empty can hitting dirt; bouncing against a stone. The target was awake. The target was outside, fewer than ten feet away.

Moore crouched slowly. He leaned forward, his left eye clearing the side wall.

There was an old wicker lounger on the porch, its back to Moore. It creaked as the target reached down to grab another beer. The moon, high in the clear sky, briefly highlighted a young profile, about Jen’s age. Moore felt his throat constrict, his mouth became an extension of the desert. He fought the urge to cough, to yell even. “Run, dammit! Get the hell away from here! Get the hell away from me!”

Psychopath Mode triumphed, slowly.

Moore raised himself in silence; a snake uncoiling. He extended his right foot half a pace, placing it, heel first, with care on the dirt floor. Weight transferred, his left leg crossed over, foot at ninety degrees. The action repeated. Mae Aruki, a stealth walk, taught to him many eons ago… by a gardener! Moore’s right arm extended, the muzzle of the silencer unwavering on the back of the chair. Seven feet… six… five.

The man stood.

He turned, seemingly ever so slow. In his right hand, a can of beer dribbled its contents to the earth. In his left, a big revolver, pointed down. The target’s mouth opened. No sound came forth. His brain must be refusing to process the nightmare before him, thought Moore.

Moore stared at the target, unblinking.

“Sorry.” A one-word expiation. The pistol bucked. Again. The blood rushed through his head dulling his senses. No sound perceived. The target crumpled onto the chair, tipping it sideways. All silent, like some old Chaplin film. A moment passed; then two.

Moore forced himself to advance. He knelt and checked the carotid. A clean kill. No, just a kill. The emptiness unsatisfied this time. Moore felt bile bursting from within. He clamped his left hand over his mouth. Can’t leave DNA! His nostrils flared, trying to force air into desperate lungs. He ripped off his jacket, formed a makeshift bowl, ejecting the acid vitriol. He collected the spent cartridges, on autopilot. Business as usual.

Moore regained the relative calm of the car. He dumped the balled-up jacket on the passenger side floor, and slid behind the wheel. No, this one was different. No Psychopath Mode now.


 

9 months ago, the Oval Office,

Washington D.C.

 

 

The President’s hand came crashing down on the desk. The report echoed briefly around the curved walls and the room’s other occupier flinched. On the President’s left, a door edged open and the concerned face of a Secret Service agent poked in.

“It’s okay, Evan. No problem.” said President Tyler. The agent withdrew, closing the door with exaggerated slowness. When they were alone again, the President turned back to his visitor.

“Hell, no, it’s not okay! It’s far from okay! Who the hell do you think you are talking to?” The object of the question paled.

“Mr President, Sir, I meant…”

“I don’t give a damn what you meant.” He stopped, abruptly aware that his tirade would not help the matter. Time for a change of tactics. After a short pause, he continued, his tone much calmer.

“Let’s see if I understand this situation. I am the President of the United States. You are my National Security Adviser.” So far, so good. “I gave you a direct, legitimate order which you refuse to carry out.”

The National Security Adviser swallowed hard. He could see where this was going; did not like it one bit.

“It’s not that I refuse, Mr President…”

Again the President interrupted the man. Speaking now in the low, quiet voice all his aides knew meant ‘no bullshit’.

“What is the problem here?”

“It’s a question of security clearances, Sir.”

“I say again, in case you are a little hard of hearing. I am the President. You are an adviser. I’m not asking for advice here. I’m giving you a direct order. So again, what’s the problem?”

“The material you ask for is classified above Top Secret. It’s compartmentalised on a need-to-know basis. Even I don’t have access…”

The President interrupted again.

“I am the highest elected official in this nation. I am expected to run this country to the best of my abilities. No, even better than that. How do you expect me to do the job if the penny-ante, power-hungry, secret-keepers won’t collaborate?”

“I…” began the other man.

“Just make it happen. Now! I want a complete, uncensored presentation on this matter by the end of THIS week. Tell my staff just how much time you will need, but no later than Friday afternoon, I want to see you, and whoever you need to do this briefing, in here. Is that understood?”

“Yes Sir. There are many issues with this subject, Sir, far-reaching issues. Some of them will cause major unrest. I’ll…”

Tyler crossed the distance between them in two long strides. He forcibly took the arm of the National Security Adviser and half-dragged him to the opposite end of the Oval Office. Standing with their backs to the unlit fireplace, the President pointed down to the wheat-coloured carpet at their feet.

“Do you see that? Read it. Aloud.”

The Adviser looked down. He stepped back so the text woven into the edge of the carpet was clearly visible. He cleared his throat, swallowed a couple of times and started reading.

“No Problem of Human Destiny is Beyond Human Beings,” he said quietly.

“Do you know who said that?” demanded the President.

“I believe it was President Kennedy, Sir.”

“Damn right. Now, just to make this absolutely clear to you. If you were military, you’d be on your way to a full court martial now. But as you’re not, my options are more flexible. I’m thinking along the lines of doing what many White House staffers have done in the past; a quick, anonymous phone call to some hack on the Post. Then I’ll follow that by an Official Press Release announcing your immediate dismissal.” The President paused, letting the significance of the last word sink in. “Yeah, I said dismissal; there will be no politically-correct “resignation” here. Hell, man, the way this city works, before the day’s out you’ll need to move to Idaho to find someone who’ll talk to you. Now get out and do the job I’ve given you.”

The National Security Adviser moved toward the door on his right. He took several steps backwards, as though leaving the presence of royalty, or maybe subconsciously reacting to a primitive instinct to safeguard his own rear.

As the door closed, President Tyler took in a deep breath, forcing it out with a strident sigh. He walked back to the burnished timbers of the large desk near the southern end of the office. His fingers stroked the elegant wood, seeking communion with the sentiments the desk represented. The origin of the wood was HMS Resolute; he needed resolve above all now. He looked down at the edge of the carpet behind the desk. Perhaps I should have shown him this quotation instead, he thought. With the sole of his shoe he caressed FDR’s words, curved upside down, at his feet.

 

* * * * *

 

Outside, walking briskly down the corridor, trying to put distance between himself and the Oval Office’s occupier, the National Security Adviser took out his Sat-phone. He dialled a number from memory. Instead of a ringing tone, he heard a single click. He nervously typed in a seven-digit code, invoking high-level encryption software. More clicks followed. Then, he spoke.

“We have a problem. I need to see you now.”

“Come.”

The Sat-phone clicked once. The National Security Adviser pocketed the device, muttering under his breath.

“Shit, Shit, Shit!”

 

 

8 months ago, Washington, D.C.

 

 

The Secret Service agent introduced the key card in the hotel room lock. The mechanism emitted a harsh click, and the door swung inward a couple of inches. His hand went to his right hip, seeking the familiar comfort of the Glock's grip. He pushed the door with his foot. As it opened, he scanned the room. All seemed in order. Before advancing inside, he swivelled his head from side to side, taking in the hallway. No one had seen his entry to the room. The security camera system was disabled; the hotel still waiting on a call-out to the support people. All as planned.

Secret Service agent Crawford slipped inside the room and, pocketing the key card, quietly closed the door. His training took over as he meticulously checked the bathroom and bedroom for anything unexpected. Satisfied all was as it should be, his attention centred on the male figure lying alongside the double bed. The man was unbound, but drugged; no ligature marks for forensics. The agent bent down and felt the man's carotid artery with two fingers of his left hand, his right still gripping the Glock in its holster. A strong pulse, good. The agent pried up an eyelid. The pupil reacted slowly to the change in light. He glanced at his wristwatch; an hour remained.

On top of the bed was a plastic shopping bag. The Secret Service man upended its contents. Five objects: a pistol and suppressor, a pair of black, heavy-duty latex gloves and a small roll of plastic wrap. He quickly snapped on the gloves. Next, the suppressor and the Beretta. He screwed the silencer onto the barrel of the automatic and dropped out the magazine. Deftly he flipped the cartridges out of the clip. He bent and, with some difficulty, used the unconscious man's left thumb and forefinger to reload the clip. He clicked off the safety and pulled back the slide, also using the man's fingers. For extra measure, he placed the suppressor in the man's right hand and wrapped his fingers around it. Now he carefully folded the left hand around the pistol’s grip.

Agent Crawford thought about firing the weapon now, but decided to hold off until later. Too many Crime Scene shows on TV - you never know if someone will smell the barrel or check its heat. The acrid smell would still linger, but the metal would have cooled; inconsistent with the desired effect. He dropped the gun on to the bed.

Crawford turned his attention to the other unusual objects in the room: the Javelin Anti-Armour Missile. Unassembled, as requested. He took hold of one of the two missile tubes and, using the drugged man's hands, left suitable fingerprints and DNA in the places where such trace evidence would be expected. He repeated the actions with the second missile tube. He lay this down on the floor and turned to the CLU. The stubby Command Launch Unit was easier to handle and placing more trace on the device was easier. Carefully he positioned fingerprints in the area where the CLU clipped onto the missile tube and then rubbed this area on the bedspread, relying on Locard's Exchange Principle to transfer minute fibres between the bed and the CLU. Any Doubting Thomas, in the resulting investigation, would be convinced the man on the floor had assembled this weapon in this room.

The Secret Service man glanced at his wristwatch again. Only forty-three minutes. He raised his left fist to his mouth and keyed his communicator.

"Position West Nineteen. Position West Nineteen to Control. All quiet and secure. Continuing area sweep."

"Copy that, West Nineteen. POTUS party will leave on schedule. Check again in fifteen," the tinny voice of the Secret Service Mobile Control Unit echoed in his left ear.

"Copy, check in fifteen. Out."

The agent sat on the floor, in the middle of the room, and started to assemble the missile.

 

 

* * * * *

 

Today had been a great day! A normal father, perhaps, would not have been so enthusiastic. He had joined his daughter at her school, met her classmates, spoken about his job for half an hour, then handled the barrage of questions that had followed. His people had wanted the whole visit to be a media circus; a Photo Op for the early evening news. He had been emphatic. This was private, something he wanted to do as a father, an attempt at normalcy in his daughter's life. No cameras or reporters. If the kids, or their teachers, wanted to take some cell phone shots, then that was okay, but nothing professional. His aides had baulked, but he pulled rank and his wishes triumphed.

He had prepared his talk himself, writing a brief script on a single 3x5 card. This was just to keep him on track; after all he only had thirty minutes. The fourteen year olds that made up the class hung on his every word. He had been serious and funny. He talked about responsibility, long hours, and pressure, relating a counterpoint of small anecdotes the kids had not heard previously on the TV news.

When the questions came, they were incisive, clever, informed. Don't let anyone underestimate the intellect of a motivated, twenty-first century fourteen year old. He had tried to be as succinct and honest as possible with his answers; succinct, to allow all the kids a chance at asking their question, and honest, because that was his signature trademark.

He understood today would be important for these kids too. At some point in the future they may remember this brief meeting with hope or anger. He felt it was his task today to make it the former. He was a pragmatist above all else, and he accepted his job, and the decisions he took, would never please all the people, all the time. That is the nature of the role. Tough decisions formed part of all of his waking hours, and not a few of his nightmares.

His mind flashed to Friday of next week. That day would be part of history, forever. When people hundreds of years hence read his name in the history books, it would be in the context of next Friday's events. The weight of the seemingly million secret meetings, preparing for that day, made his shoulders sag. He mentally shrugged-off the gloom, donned a broad smile and extended his hand to the School's Principal. He spoke, sincerely, about how much he enjoyed the visit and how he hoped the kids had a good time also. He congratulated the teaching staff on their skills as shown by the questions the kids showered on him. Yes, he thought as he took his daughter's arm and headed for the school's main entrance, this afternoon had been fun.

 

* * * * *

 

 

The Secret Service agent was ready. He had primed the missile and placed a square of plastic wrap over the CLU's monitor to keep traces of his DNA off the unit. After the shot, he would use the wrap to make a package with the gloves and room key card for quick disposal. 

"Control to all stations. POTUS exit in 1 minute. Repeat. POTUS exit in 1."

He keyed his mike as acknowledgment that all was in order. And, in a twisted way, all was in order; just not the order his Secret Service colleagues expected.

He picked up the Beretta and bent over the prone figure on the floor. He placed the pistol in the man's hand, remembering he was a leftie. A low moan escaped the unconscious form as the agent dragged the man to a sitting position. Gripping the man's left hand and the pistol butt together, he aimed the long snout of the suppressor at the room's doorway. He fired twice; the first slug sending splinters flying from the door frame at head height, the second impacting the wall alongside. He knew he was now at the point of no-return. It was just possible some worried guest heard the shots, and was, at this same moment, making a white-knuckle call to Reception. The agent took the pistol from the man's hand, eliciting another groan as he dropped him onto the floor. Won't be long now, he thought, the drug's effects are wearing off.

He swapped the pistol to his own left hand as he knelt and, with an often-practiced movement, swung the almost fifty pounds of missile assembly on to his right shoulder. The unit was already powered-up. He could feel the subtle vibrations of the CLU's refrigeration unit through his adrenalin-enhanced fingers as he pointed the missile at the closed window.

The agent pressed his face against the plastic wrap. The screen showed the four times magnification Day Field Of View image. He could see the target almost at the maximum range of the missile. As he worked to slow his breathing, he clicked the Sight Select Switch on the left handgrip. The Beretta, and the sweat gathering under the latex glove, made this action more difficult than it should have been. However, several hours of practice in the previous two weeks helped Crawford achieve his goal.

In the CLU's display, the Narrow Field Of View icon, just to the right of top centre, flared green. The target, now magnified nine times, filled much more of the display. The sudden nearness reminded him of a predator, seconds before the final deadly leap. His pounding heart and heaving lungs made the target bobble in the NFOV's sighting reticules. He took a few seconds, concentrating on his breathing. This was not the same as using a sniper rifle, he knew, but everything helped.

He depressed the Sight Select Switch again. In the display, the SEEK icon showed green and track gates appeared at the four corners of the image. The agent steadied the missile on his shoulder as he released his hand from the left grip. He raised the Beretta and fired four times in rapid succession. The windowpane came crashing down. He threw the pistol toward the prone man. Quickly he grabbed the left grip again. Positioning the mass of the target in the flashing crosshairs of the display, the agent squeezed the SEEKER trigger with his left forefinger. He held the trigger; one second, two; the crosshairs stopped flashing, signalling the missile was now locked-on.

He took another deep breath and exhaled slowly. His right index finger contacted the FIRE trigger, slowly pulling back. The launch motor kicked in, spewing the missile from the tube, through the window frame. A high-pitched siren started as the back-blast activated the room's fire detector. Good, saved him time doing it manually.

As he lowered the weapon, automatically going through the sequence to discard the spent tube, he glanced through the shattered window. The missile’s tail and body fins had deployed. The launch motor's job done, the main propellant took over, rocketing the warhead toward its target.

The agent turned his attention to the CLU. With practiced hands he connected the second missile tube and readied the weapon. He carefully removed the plastic wrap, slipping it into his jacket pocket, dropping the assembled weapon on to the downed man. Briefly a louder cry drowned out the fire alarm.

He looked around the room, running a mental checklist. Nothing left to chance. In three strides he was at the door. Now for the next phase, he thought, tearing-off the latex gloves as the door closed behind him.

The shrill cry of the fire alarm was louder in the hallway. Crawford ran to the fire door at the end. He met no one. A non-existent Gospel Choir, not due to arrive until late evening, had booked the rooms on this floor, so all were empty.

He pushed on the release bar and the door swung out on to a metal fire escape. The agent had no intention of using the stairs. A Marlow Fast Rope descent line was ready, prepared by a colleague half an hour before. He swiftly climbed over the guardrail and grabbed the descent control grip. The agent launched himself down the rope as fast as he could, braking sharply as his feet came level with the head of his colleague below. He dropped to the ground. He was in an otherwise empty side street.

Without a word he handed the plastic wrap, gloves and key card to the man, turned and ran for the hotel's main entrance. His colleague would now dismantle the descent line and disappear.

As he ran, he could hear all hell breaking loose in his earpiece. Cries of "POTUS is down!" mingled with demands for ambulances. Control tried to impose order on the melee, attempting to contact the Close Protection Detail, but no one answered. They tried the driver of the Presidential Limo; a piercing scream of electronic feedback flooded the airwaves.

He keyed his mike as he ran.

"West Nineteen. Shooter at Bryce Hotel. M and 15th. Send backup."

"Repeat that, West Nineteen."

He yelled his message again, in the knowledge he would be first on the scene. As he approached the hotel's entrance, people were massing outside in response to the fire alarm. He drew his weapon and brusquely pushed his way through.

"Secret Service. Secret Service. Get out of the way."

Inside, the lobby was sparsely populated. He spotted a Secret Service badge on the lapel of a young, dark-suited man, dragging another older guy by the arm. He identified himself. The younger agent spoke:

"I was just outside. Heard your call. This is the manager."

Crawford yelled at the manager.  "Keep everyone here. Nobody leaves, understood?" The older man nodded, unsure why the Secret Service was responding to a fire alarm.

The agent turned to his younger counterpart.

"The shot came from the third or fourth floor. Disable the elevators. Take the fourth. I'm taking the stairs to the third. I think it was the sixth window, west end, at the back. Go!"

He ran to the back of the lobby and bounded up the stairs. Over the earpiece he could hear the confirmations of backup agents nearing. They were fewer than two minutes away.

Breaching the third floor hallway, he ran right. He stopped before the door to the room adjacent to where he had been, only minutes before. He keyed his mike, leaving the channel open.

"Secret Service, Secret Service." He kicked-in the door. As expected, no one was present in the room. Rapidly he exited and repeated his yell as he stamped his full weight just above the lock on the room next door.

Inside, the drugged man had regained consciousness only moments before. He was half kneeling, steadying himself on the charred back of a chair. His eyes stared uncomprehending at the agent.

The Secret Service man fired his pistol. Five loud detonations resounded in the room and over the open mike. The agent looked at the other man. Three shots had hit mid-chest, and the remaining two had reduced his head to a pulp.

"The shooter is down. Repeat. The shooter is down."

 

* * * * *

 

 The Beast, as the Presidential Limo is known to the Secret Service, was in position. An agent of the Close Protection Detail stood by the open rear door, awaiting the approach of POTUS and his daughter. He watched as President Tyler stopped thirty feet away to chat briefly with someone from the school. He saw the President laugh at something the teacher said. The President spoke again and shook hands with the woman. The agent had been on this detail for over a year and he reflected how happy the Boss looked. He could not remember when he had last seen POTUS so relaxed.

 

* * * * *

The President said his goodbyes to the school’s Principal and turned toward the limo. He took his daughter's arm again and started to ask her for her take on the visit. Something flicked near his feet and he looked down. One of his daughter's shoelaces was undone, flapping about with wild abandon. He stopped.

"Hold up, honey. You have a flat."

He bent to retie the lace. The Close Protection agents huddled closer. Perhaps this instinctive gesture dictated the outcome of the day. Perhaps Destiny decided to take a hand. At just that moment, a piercing yell came from the Secret Service agent by the limo's door.

"INCOMING!"

The agent had turned his head. An unusual sound had filtered through to his brain. He could have sworn he heard a dull explosion. As his eyes traversed to his right, he caught the plume of smoke as the main propellant of the missile ignited. He yelled his warning, raising a pointing arm.

The Close Protection agents between POTUS and the Beast reacted on pure instinct. Almost as one, four agents reached forward, half-pushing, half-grabbing the President, inching him back inside the school. Unfortunately for all, the President was in a semi-crouch, his attention fixed on the shoelace. The inertia from the agents only served to push him all the way to the ground, bringing three of the agents with him. The fourth agent grabbed the President's daughter and swung her around, placing his bulk between her and the limo, as he tried to lift her toward the school.

The Javelin Anti-Armour Missile has two attack modes. The Direct Attack Mode is usually employed against bunkers, other buildings, and occasionally helicopters. But as a tank-killer, the default Top Attack Mode is the preferred option. The Beast, with five inches of ballistic armour under its skin, was definitely classed as a tank. When launched from the tube, the main propellant powers the missile at an angle of eighteen degrees upward to reach its maximum altitude of just under five hundred and twenty-five feet. The missile holds at this height until directly above its target, then plummets down. Two High Explosive charges work together, to first destroy the initial reactive tank armour, then kill the enemy.

As the agent's cry rent the air, both the limo's driver and an agent in one of the accompanying vehicles reacted. The escort vehicle agent threw switches and launched Softkill Electronic Countermeasures designed to interfere with the missile's functioning. The limo's driver activated the Beast's on-board countermeasures which combined both electronic jamming and chaff-like projectiles. He also kicked down on the pedal, trying to move the Beast away from the President.

The six and a half-litre GM heavy-duty truck engine under the Cadillac's hood strained to crank the car up to its top speed of sixty. But the seven-ton limo needed fifteen seconds to achieve that speed; fifteen seconds too many. It barely moved twenty feet before the missile struck.

The two HE charges detonated; their explosions sounding as one. The blast lifted the Beast three feet in the air. Its open rear door, torn off by the explosion, frisbeed toward the school's entrance. The eight-inch thick door bisected the body of the agent protecting the President's daughter. She was luckier; relatively. The top of the doorframe sliced into her back, severing her spinal column and condemning her young life to a wheelchair.

The blast ejected shrapnel in all directions. Secret Service agents, school personnel, Press and public alike became instant victims.

The agents from the escort vehicles ran toward the bloody mass where the President had last been seen. The first agent to arrive grabbed the arm of one of his downed colleagues and pulled. The arm came away in his hands. The agent stood, ashen-faced, still clutching the limb. Another Secret Service agent shouldered him to the side and reached under the body. He saw the President's back and grabbed POTUS' waist. He pulled with all his might and raised the limp form from the bodies of his Close Protection Detail. He glanced at the Boss. He was unconscious, a deep cut running from just above his left ear down to his jaw. The agent could see the creamy-white of bone beneath the bloody jawline. He turned his head and yelled with tears in his eyes:

"MEDIC!"

 

 

6 days ago, 03:37 hours,

 

South-west Texas

 

The craft clove through the calm night air. Warm up-currents, evidence of the preceding late-summer day, occasionally buffeted its fuselage but made little difference to its flight path. Its progress was inexorable; its destination below, still unseen.

Had someone been out at this late hour, they would have heard nothing. The craft's propulsion system was all but silent; a slight humming in the air, perceptible if the observer was close, but not here at seven thousand feet. Had the same observer scanned the clear, moonless sky, they would have seen nothing; at this height the craft was but a small, dark dot against the star-filled canopy.

That was about to change.

The leading edge of the craft dipped; a sharp movement, no hesitation. The angle toward the ground below now acute; the craft's speed picking-up as gravity's pull sought to dominate. A light vapour trail caressed the fuselage, leaving an unwelcome trace in the air. The craft's nose rose a few degrees, the trajectory corrected, the vapour trail quickly disappeared. Stealth was all-important to the mission.

Below, the brown hues of the desert landscape suddenly ceded to a dusty, black stripe, as the craft crossed the Freeway. A long-haul truck traversed its path, but the sleep-deprived driver had his eyes fixed on the blacktop unfolding in his beams. He was unaware of the craft's flight.

The entrance to the valley was immediately ahead. Mountainous terrain framed the flat desert land, broken only by the broad, single-lane road meandering its way into the distance. The craft locked on to the road's path and, descending below the mountain's height, surged forward. It scanned the road ahead as it advanced. It would not be good to be seen now. Stealth was a major mission parameter; in and out, no witnesses.

Mile after mile, the road led its unseen passenger toward the end of the valley. The mountains pressed in, hugging the road, threatening to bring it to an abrupt end. Still the craft did not waver; its objective still out of sight... yet near. Sensing its closeness, the craft's angle of attack changed again, now causing the fuselage to rise steeply, running parallel with the mountain sides. It broached the peaks, skimming over the ridgeline, still on a precipitous climb.

At 2,000 feet it levelled-off, assuming a broad circular route. Beneath, a couple of miles away to the west, the streetlights of a small town spattered pale yellow in the dark. The craft paused, stalking its prey before the rush, an action all predators share. The town was dormant. No moving light disturbed its inertness; no one out in those early hours. No witnesses, as called for by the mission brief. Only a barely-noticeable buzz from the sodium streetlights penetrated the quiet.

Pent-up energy exploded silently. The craft lunged on the target. Small panels slid up in the fuselage allowing narrow tubes to emerge, whistling in the rushing airstream. From their nozzles, an invisible torrent insidiously mingled with the warm air. The craft began a meticulous crisscross above the buildings below. Every living creature: men, women, children, dogs, cats, birds, snakes, insects; all breathed-in the tainted air and slipped into unnatural inertia.

The nozzles coughed the last of their brume, sliding into the fuselage, disappearing behind the descending panels. The craft banked sharply at the end of Main Street and, with a burst of speed, rose soundlessly into the blackness above.

The first part of the mission, completed with success. No witnesses.

 

6 days ago, 04:50 hours,

South-west Texas

 

There was a density to the air; the sort felt after a heavy snowfall. Through the deathly quiet streets, in and out of the buildings, silver-clad forms moved. Locked doors were no obstacle; the technology they brought made entry a task of seconds. They were many, over twenty-five in total. Some performed their individual assignments quickly, repeating their actions again and again. Others needed more diligence, more time.

Time was the keyword for this part of the mission. Gone was stealth, at least as their prime concern; now it was the clock they battled. Every ten minutes a communication sent to the headsets they wore: a single ping, two pings every half hour, three on the hour. Their sense of urgency upheld. Everything done swiftly, untraceably. Stealth? Yes; but fast stealth.

Alongside the town square, really a lopsided triangle, an off-white flagpole stood naked, its daily load hoisted at eight a.m. sharp. Now it had to support another, heavier burden.

Whilst two of the silvery shapes held fast onto the pole, a third, smaller and lighter, far more agile, scurried up to unscrew the spun aluminium ball serving as its finial. This came crashing to the ground. From a backpack, the silver-monkey took out an almost identical ball. The difference was the three foot-long tube protruding from the bottom. With care, silver-monkey slid the tube inside the hollow flagpole and screwed the ball in place. Now it had a far more useful function. One of the ground-based figures took out a small, rectangular device and tapped buttons on its side. A screen lit up showing a blinking red light. More tapping, the light turned blue. The figure raised an arm, signalling the others. Deftly, silver-monkey slithered down the pole. Job done. Now back to the transport.

Three miles upwind to the east, a lone Silver Suit walked furtively through the desert brush. Ahead, a couple of run-down shacks, one considerably larger than the other. A large dump truck and a dirt-laden pickup were haphazardly parked nearby. No lights shone here, but the occupiers were supposed to be in residence. Silver Suit extracted a small cylinder from a backpack. As the rear of the smaller shack loomed, Silver Suit depressed a lever on the cylinder and held the apparatus at arm's length. A faint hiss, heard despite the enclosed headset.

The door was not locked, but it was old. It made enough noise to wake the dead as the figure slowly opened it wide. The cylinder went in first, held in place for a full thirty seconds before Silver Suit followed. The cylinder continued to hiss as Silver Suit paraded it through the four rooms beyond. A sleeping form was unwittingly immersed in intense slumbers.

The cylinder sputtered its final contents and was replaced in the backpack. Other devices were extracted, and the main objective of the mission began.

A few minutes later, Silver Suit departed. Outside the shack, the silver figure moved cautiously. There should have been two. One more was around, somewhere. No gas left; Plan B called for a pneumatic dart. Silver Suit took a thick-barrelled pistol from a waist-holster and advanced. A quick peek into the larger shack showed it to be an equipment room. None of the machines it housed were in use.  A new-looking Harley Davidson motorbike was parked just inside the door, although its engine was cold to the touch. Silver Suit searched the shack diligently but no trace of the missing person could be found.

As Silver Suit exited the building, a dim light flashed for a brief moment, sixty feet away, inside the entrance to the mine. Silver Suit froze, the pistol raised, at this distance an accurate shot inconceivable. The silver figure approached the mine slowly, the success rate for the shot increasing with every step. The light flash did not repeat. Soon Silver Suit was fewer than five paces from the mine's access.

A sound ripped through the gentle night air. A warning sound, a deadly sound; all too familiar around these parts. The dry rattle saying ‘leave me alone, go away!’ Silver Suit froze. The rattle stopped. A step back; the rattle resumed. Three quick steps, then a half-run, as much as the suit allowed.

Now, back alongside the larger shack, the dominant sound was a pounding heart; the demand valve on the suit under pressure, as forced inhalations fought to return composure. A couple of minutes passed. Four pings sounded in the headset. Withdraw.

Glancing at the mine's entrance every few steps, Silver Suit retraced the route back to the access road. An electric-powered Segway waited there, personal conveyance back to the town and the rendezvous point. As the Segway hummed along the road, Silver Suit debated whether to report the missing person, or simply stick to "Mission Accomplished".

 

 

4 days ago, the Oval Office,

Washington D.C.

 

President Tyler sprawled on the sofa, his right hand supporting a large mug of dark black coffee, too hot to gulp down.

“Mike, I know you personally vouch for the man, but just how good is this asset of yours?”

On the opposing sofa, his formal uniform unbuttoned, a small gesture his longtime friend allowed when they were alone, sat the Joint Chief. He’d known the man behind the title of President of the United States since he’d had him assigned as a rookie officer, way back when. It was unusual for his friend to be so edgy.

“You know his record. Almost a hundred covert missions, about a third of them without any immediate support teams. He’s intelligent, thinks on his feet, and won’t hesitate to pull the trigger if necessary. Hell, we wouldn’t have got this close if not for his work so far.” The Joint Chief hesitated for a couple of seconds. In a lower voice, he continued, “He’s also deniable… if everything goes FUBAR.”

The President was silent, serious. His forefinger ran down the ugly scar along his jawline, a frequent gesture these days, remembering the stakes, the price already paid.

“Deniable.” The word, hardly a whisper. Not a question.

“Yes Sir. He’s the only link between the Op and this office. So if it became expedient…”  The rest of the sentence hanging heavy in the still air.

“Mike, if this doesn’t work, we…, you, me, this country, we’re all screwed!”

“Yes Sir.” Unsure what to say.

The President took a sip of the scalding liquid from the mug.

“Most advanced nation on earth, yet we can’t even serve a coffee that doesn’t sear your lips off.” A smile flashed. Tyler slowly closed his eyes; a long pause; a low sigh and a decision made.

“Okay, Mike, the final phase’s a green light. Let’s go make history.”

 


My Watermann Edson Fountain Pen

The scene is set!

The novel touches on something that could happen tomorrow
(it will probably be on a Friday).

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