“CAN YOU GET THE BLOOD OUT?” Reggie asked, unbuttoning the pinpoint oxford and handing it to his landlady.
Mrs. Pettygrove accepted the soiled shirt with a liver-spotted hand and an inquisitive glance. “Solid white is easy, dear. Lots of options. Don’t you worry, I’ll get it out. Leave your shoes too. They’ll be waiting for you in the morning.”
Reggie looked down to study his black wingtips in the dim glow of the Georgetown brownstone’s entryway light. “My shoes are fine. You shined them just two days ago.”
“Fine isn’t good enough.” Her singsong voice was tinged with excitement. “Not for you, and certainly not for the White House. I want them to be beautiful.”
Reggie slipped off his shoes — more to see the twinkle in those wizened blue eyes than for the service itself. “You’re too good to me.”
“Better than some people, apparently. Would you care to tell me whose blood you’re wearing?”
Reggie showed her some teeth. “Let’s just say it’s a lawyer’s.”
“Everyone in Washington’s a lawyer, dear.”
He winked and turned toward the stairs that led up to his room, knowing that no offense would be taken. She understood that discretion was his first duty. “Good night, Mrs. Pettygrove. Thanks again.”
Reggie served as President William Silver’s personal aide, or body man as most referred to him. It was a unique role. On the one hand, he was a servant, a valet. On the other, Reggie enjoyed virtually unparalleled intimacy with both the great man and the highest office. Only Brock Sparkman, the president’s new chief of staff, was as tapped into the psyche of the commander-in-chief.
Reggie went everywhere the president went, mentally two steps ahead while physically three steps behind. His job was to anticipate Silver’s personal needs and attend to them. With Reggie relieving him of petty problems and everyday worries, America’s chief executive was free to dedicate his big brain to the nation’s business.
Officially, Reggie knew little of import. Although he held a Top-Secret clearance, as everyone close to the president did, he didn’t have SCI clearance. He didn’t have access to the Sensitive Compartmented Information, the sexy stuff. Nevertheless, very little happened in the Oval Office or on Air Force One of which Reggie wasn’t aware.
He pieced together a few words here, and a few words there, when a door was left open or he was leaving a room. The subsequent amalgamation was unavoidable when one had a keen intellect and a curious mind. Sometimes it didn’t even take that much. Today in Cadillac One, for example, in between the president’s routine update with his chief of staff and a call with the governor of Wisconsin, the secretary of defense had phoned regarding an administrative matter but had ended up briefing the president on a space-based defense platform that was right out of the movies — except that apparently it wasn’t.
Of course, Reggie would never even hint at the knowledge he’d acquired, much less speak of it. His loyalty to his president was absolute. His patriotism emphatic and sincere. Still, late at night, when the president was finally tucked in and Reggie got to enjoy a few quiet moments before passing out on his pillow, he found pride in knowing as much about Silver’s social relationships as the first lady, as much about Silver’s congressional relationships as the minority whip, and as much about Silver’s foreign relationships as the director of the CIA. Not bad for a young man whose upbringing had been anything but privileged.
Pulling back the covers, Reggie found himself shaking his head as he reflected on his conversation with Mrs. Pettygrove. Can you get the blood out? In this town, that was a loaded question. Reggie’s conscience was clean, but he knew that many on Capitol Hill had souls resembling Lady Macbeth’s. How fortunate he was, to be working for the good guys.
As he drifted off, Reggie had no inkling of the remarkable revelation he’d overhear the next morning while in the presence of those good guys — or the colossal confrontation that would result.
Air Force One
PRESIDENT WILLIAM SILVER looked out the window to the left of his desk as Air Force One broke through the morning clouds. Funny how it was always sunny if you just climbed high enough. He tried to use that analogy as a guiding principle for his presidency — but Washington didn’t make it easy.
Today, however, he wouldn’t be rising above. Today, he would be diving down. He’d be sinking to the bottom of the barrel, taking the fight to the enemy.
Silver wasn’t entirely comfortable with that.
Without turning from the window, he said, “Reggie, I’m ready for Collins and Sparkman now.”
“Right away, Mr. President.”
Used to be you had to press an intercom button, Silver mused. Nowadays, all he had to do was begin speaking with a name and the walls somehow knew who to connect. It was convenient, and the Secret Service loved it, but Silver found it a bit creepy — if he thought about it. So he tried not to.
Collins and Sparkman arrived simultaneously, but not together. Senator Colleen Collins was still getting to know his new chief of staff. She was a Californian with 36 years of Capitol Hill experience — and the new chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. A grande dame as it were, with power, class, and a scintillating intellect. At seventy-something, she appeared early-fifties, with perfectly coiffed chestnut hair, glowing skin, and a perky disposition.
Brock Sparkman, on the other hand, was a behind-the-scenes bulldog of a guy. The Washington Beltway equivalent of a 4-star general. Lots of bark, lots of bite, and a reputation for sacrificing political correctness in favor of expediency. Having Sparkman prep the battlefields allowed Silver to drive hard bargains without sacrificing affability.
Both Collins and Sparkman were extremely effective, albeit in very different ways.
Standing before his desk, both were giving him a funny look, as though a big bug was nesting on his nose.
“Are you feeling well, Mr. President?” Collins asked.
She knew him too well. “I’ve been struggling with a special circumstance for some time now, and the accompanying decision. I finally made it, and it’s execution time, which is why you’re here.”
“Execution time?” Sparkman repeated, while he and Collins took seats in response to Silver’s gesture. “I haven’t heard you use that phrase before.”
Silver concurred with a nod, pleased with his chief of staff’s astute grasp of nuance. “How long do we go back, Brock?”
“All the way to freshman orientation, Mr. President.”
“Right. And in the forty years that have flown by since, have you ever known me to be vengeful?”
“No sir. You battled your way to the pinnacle of political power by never allowing rogue emotions to get the better of your fine mind.” Sparkman’s tone was analytical rather than obsequious.
Silver nodded in acknowledgment, and turned his attention to Senator Collins. “And you, Colleen. Have you ever known me to put the personal above the professional?”
“No, Mr. President, I have not.”
“Have you ever known me to be reckless with affairs of state?”
“And as the ranking elected official focused on intelligence affairs, have you ever known me to be daft, rash, or unreasonable?”
“No, sir. I’ve always been proud to have you as my president.”
Satisfied with the results of his verbal priming, Silver found the courage to proceed as planned. “I’ve asked you here to discuss a personal issue involving the Russian president. One which, as far as I know, has no precedent.”
Collins and Sparkman leaned closer, but kept quiet. Their eyes were locked on his, their expressions anxious.
President Silver mimicked their pose and lowered his voice. “The bottom line is this: I’ve decided to order President Korovin’s assassination.”
Air Force One
PRESIDENT SILVER studied the staring faces across the desk. Collins appeared relieved. Sparkman, by contrast, looked like his priest had just told him his mother was a Martian. He seemed to be waiting for a modifier that wasn’t going to come. Sparkman’s expression ran a gamut of emotions until at last he turned to Collins. When he saw the look on her face, he began shaking his head. Turning back to Silver he asked, “What am I missing? Is this some inside joke? Because with all due respect, Mr. President, you can’t seriously be considering an unprovoked attack on another nuclear power.”
“He’s dead serious, Brock.” Collins' tone bore no ambiguity.
Sparkman’s shoulders slumped. “We have an agenda. An agenda reflecting the promises made to the people that put you in The Oval. If you — I can’t believe I’m even uttering these words — if you send in the Special Forces to assassinate the president of Russia, word will leak and that will all be gone. Your entire second term will be tied up with just two things.” Sparkman held up a couple of fingers. “The desperate struggle to avoid nuclear war, and a fruitless endeavor to keep you out of jail.”
Silver sat silently, waiting for Sparkman’s analytical center to regain control.
Not there yet, Sparkman turned back to Collins. “I can’t believe you’re swallowing this without gagging, Colleen. What do you know that I don’t?”
Silver nodded at Collins, giving her approval.
Collins reached out to put a hand on Sparkman’s shoulder. Perhaps they were better acquainted than he’d realized, Silver thought. More likely it was just the reflexive move of a savvy politician. While Sparkman looked on with widening eyes, Collins began. “About three months ago, President Korovin launched an attack against President Silver using a customized bioweapon. But for the actions of a former CIA operative who stumbled across the plot, your boss would now be blind.”
Sparkman wouldn’t have looked more stunned if Collins had ripped off a mask to reveal a robotic face. “Blind! Customized bioweapon! What’s going on here? I feel like I just woke up in Bizarro World. Why am I only hearing about this now?”
“Containment? I’m the bloody White House Chief of Staff! I’m the one who does the containing!”
Collins kept her hand firmly in place. “You weren’t chief of staff at the time. You’re only hearing about it now for exactly the reasons you elucidated earlier. If word were to get out, geopolitical stability would be jeopardized. Stock markets would crash. The global economy would suffer. And everything else on the agenda would go out the window as we scrambled to avoid World War III.”
Sparkman flopped back in his chair. “You’re serious.” After a moment of silent reflection, he asked Silver, “What on earth was Korovin trying to accomplish?”
“He wanted to further his expansionist agenda by weakening the opposition,” the president replied.
“Surely Korovin couldn’t have expected to get away with it?”
“Actually, he almost did. His plan was ingenious. The blindness would have appeared entirely natural. He was exploiting a genetic predisposition.”
Sparkman’s face softened as his frustration gave way to empathy. “Why didn’t you tell me when I took the job?”
Silver met his eye. “The day I learned of the plot, I decided not to tell anyone. Not until I’d thought it through. And I haven’t told anyone. Not even the first lady. This news is simply too volatile to feed with any oxygen at all.”
“Senator Collins knows because she also got sucked up in the Korovin conspiracy. The only other people who know are our former ambassador to Russia, and the operative who uncovered and thwarted Korovin’s plot.”
“So what’s changed? Why the sudden decision to act?”
“The decision’s not sudden. Acutely aware of the potential consequences of rash action, I spent a few months reflecting, adding the objectivity that only time provides. I gave it a hundred days, and decided that I’ll never feel safe so long as Korovin is out there. I’ve also concluded that my G20 counterparts aren’t safe either. Not with Korovin still eager to implement his expansionist agenda.”
Sparkman took a deep breath. “Can I safely infer that during those hundred days you figured out how to eliminate Korovin without sparking World War III? Because in that regard, I don’t have a clue, Mr. President.”
“That’s precisely why we’re meeting today.” Silver redirected his gaze to Collins, who was waiting with a knowing twinkle in her blue eyes.
She spoke a single word. “Achilles?”
Silver’s lips spread in a shallow smile. “Achilles.”
Sparkman leaned forward. “Is that a code name?”
“It’s a last name,” Silver said. “Kyle Achilles was the operative who saved me from Korovin’s custom bioweapon.”
“Is he CIA?”
“Used to be. He’s been out for almost two years now.”
“Colleen, why don’t you field that question,” the president said.
Collins cleared her throat, buying a second to think. “Achilles has been doing some contemplating of his own. His life’s held a few disappointments. He was an Olympic biathlete until an injury ended his career. He then swapped sports, getting into competitive rock climbing until Garrison Granger recruited him for the CIA’s Special Operations Group. Achilles ended up as Granger’s go-to guy for top ops, but once Rider took the helm and forced Granger out, Achilles became frustrated and left. Since then, he’s been in a transitional period.”
A single knock interrupted their discussion, and Reggie Pepper slipped into the room.
President Silver held up an index finger, putting Reggie on pause while nodding to Collins to continue. He didn’t want to lose momentum with Sparkman. While his subordinate, and absolutely loyal, Sparkman was anything but a yes-man. It was important to Silver that his chief of staff buy in wholeheartedly, as this was a momentous decision.
Collins resumed. “After the CIA, Achilles returned to climbing until he got caught up in the Korovin conspiracy. It sucked up about seven months of his life, and now he’s climbing again.”
“You think he’ll want another crack at Korovin?”
“I know he does. President Silver left Achilles with the expectation that he might call on him from time to time if circumstances warranted an off-the-books, one-man op. I’m the designated intermediary, the firewall as you’d say, due to our mutual history with the Korovin conspiracy.”
Sparkman refocused on Silver. “So you did see this coming?”
“You know I like to be prepared.” Silver was glad to see Sparkman warming to the idea. Now that the fire was lit, he knew his chief of staff would shepherd it. He turned to face the door. “What is it?”
“Theresa May requested a call,” Reggie said, referencing the United Kingdom’s prime minister. “She says it’s urgent.”
“Thank you.” Silver nodded in dismissal.
“Was that wise?” Sparkman asked, once the door had closed.
“Reggie? His loyalty is absolute. He’d never breathe a word. I’d bet my life on that.”
“Speaking of placing bets,” Collins said. “What exactly is your plan for Achilles?”
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