July 25, 9:34 P.M.
Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C.
David Spangler waited outside the Oval Office. All around him, even at this late hour, the West Wing of the White House bustled with aides, underlings, and messengers. This current turmoil was not localized just to Pennsylvania Avenue. The entire Beltway remained in high gear: countless press conferences were convened, repeated emergency meetings atop Capitol Hill took place, and an endless amount of petty backdoor bickering occurred throughout the halls.
All the pandemonium over the loss of a single man—President Bishop.
David himself had been specially flown in this morning from Turkey. He and his ops team had been called back early from a mission along the Iraq border, but he had yet to be told why.
“Coffee, sir?” An aide approached David with a tray of mugs.
He gave the tiny-breasted girl the barest shake of his head.
Seated stiffly in an upholstered chair, David continued to study the room, not moving, just picking up everything around him: the casual banter, the half jokes, the faint scent of perfume. He breathed deeply. Opportunity was in the air.
His own boss, CIA Director Nicolas Ruzickov, was in conference with the new leader of the United States, Vice President Lawrence Nafe.
Each of Bishop’s former Cabinet members was meeting in private with Nafe. Who would be axed? Who would retain their job? Rumors spread like wildfire through government halls. It was well-known that a deep political gulf separated the former President from his running mate. Nafe had been named to the ticket only as a ploy to gain the South; since then, their two offices often found themselves in conflict. Today, David suspected Nafe had been getting his ass kissed like it had never been before—but not from the CIA director. Nafe and Ruzickov had always been close friends, fellow students at Yale and fellow ideologues when it came to dealing with foreign aggression.
David had once shaken Nafe’s hand at a White House function. He’d found the man as weak and dishonest as the next politician, all fake smiles and perpetual condescending air, but in his opinion Nafe was at least better than the former occupant of the White House. President Bishop had been too much of a dove, coddling the Chinese, while Nafe was willing to take a more hard-line stance.
Nafe’s secretary typed at her computer, a dictation device hooked to one ear. As David waited for the conference to end, he caught her glancing in his direction, smiling shyly when she was caught looking. He was accustomed to this reaction from women. He was tall, his shoulders broad and muscular, his blond hair cropped to tight angles about his hard features, his skin tanned by years under the sun of many foreign lands. Prior to the aborted mission in Turkey, his last assignment had been to Lebanon, where he and his ops team had dispatched a Lebanese terrorist with the usual economy, taking out the man’s family and fire-bombing the hotel, erasing all evidence of the assassination. It had been a clean operation.
Pride for his team fired his blood. They were men he had trained from the start. Handpicked. He knew each of them would die for him. They were one of the most successful covert ops teams, with a body count numbering over a thousand.
The phone at the secretary’s desk buzzed. David’s gaze twitched in her direction. She picked up the receiver. “Yes, sir. Immediately, sir.” She put down the phone and turned to face David. “The President—” She blushed at her mistake. Nafe had not been formally sworn in yet, not without more concrete evidence of Bishop’s demise. “The Vice President requests you join Mr. Ruzickov in the Oval Office.”
David stood smoothly, a single line on his forehead marking his surprise at the invitation.
The secretary waved him toward the door, then returned to her typing. He crossed the room, unsure why he was being called into this conference. The door was opened by a Secret Service agent, whom David did not even acknowledge.
He took three steps inside, then snapped to attention at the edge of the circular rug bearing the presidential seal. The eagle icon on the carpet seemed to stare at him, as did the two occupants in the room. His boss sat in an armchair. The former Marine, though gray-haired and edging toward sixty, was as lithe and wiry as when on duty. As usual, his hard blue eyes remained unreadable. David respected Ruzickov deeply.
“Commander Spangler, please come join us,” the Vice President said, waving him in as the door shut with a click behind David. Lawrence Nafe stood, leaning on the edge of the wide desk. In appearance, he was the opposite of the CIA director. His features were soft: thick lips, a hint of a double chin, cow eyes. His belly bulged slightly over his belt, and the dung-brown color of his hair, what remained of it, clearly came from a bottle. “Please take a seat.”
Nodding curtly, David strode into the room, maintaining a stiff posture.
The Vice President came around the desk and settled easily into the chair, as if he had done so a thousand times before. The man nudged a folder on his desk. “Mr. Ruzickov has been telling me much about your team’s exploits.” His eyes rose to study David, who was still standing. “Please take a seat,” Nafe repeated, with a trace of irritation.
David glanced to the CIA director, who gestured to a neighboring chair. He sank into the seat, spine straight, not leaning back. Suspicious, alert.
Nafe continued, “Omega team has served our country well, whether the public knows this fact or not.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Nafe leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers over his belly. “I’ve read the report on Somalia. Fine job. We could not have a Communist newspaper starting in that volatile region.”
David nodded. Fourteen deaths, staged like a mass suicide. It was artfully done, discrediting the Communist insurgents while ending their threat. Besides Omega team, only two other people knew the truth, and they sat in this room now.
“We have been discussing another mission for your team. We believe you and your men are ideally suited.” The silent question hung in the air.
David answered it. “Anything, sir.”
His response raised a small smile from Nafe, again with an icy hint of condescension. “Excellent.” Nafe sat up straighter again, grabbed a folder and passed it to the CIA director. “Your orders and details are in here.”
In turn, Nicolas Ruzickov passed the folder to David, maintaining the chain of command in these matters. If anything went wrong, David could honestly say the order came from the CIA director, not from the Vice President.
David placed the folder on his lap.
His boss spoke for the first time, outlining the mission, while Nafe sat silently, leaning back, hands over his belly again. “As you know, the Chinese have been a thorn in our side for decades. While we’ve helped drag them into the twenty-first century with aid and favorable trade status, they in turn have grown more belligerent and inflexible.”
“Biting the hand that feeds them,” Nafe interjected.
“Exactly. While our government has kowtowed to these Communist leaders, the Chinese have grown stronger—increasing their nuclear arsenal, stealing the secrets for intercontinental ballistics, growing and spreading their naval presence. In just ten years they’ve grown from a Communist nuisance to a global threat. This tide must be stopped.”
David found his fingers tightening on the arms of his chair. No truer words had been spoken. He nodded, hard. “Yes, sir.”
Ruzickov’s eyes flicked to Nafe, then back to David. “But public sentiment does not favor such action. The average American is more interested in the value of his stock portfolio and what’s on TV at night. Confrontation with China is not a priority. If anything, the opposite is true. We have grown complacent. If we are to stem this rising tide of communism, then this sentiment must be changed also.”
David nodded his understanding.
Ruzickov studied him, then spoke again. “You know of the mobilization to recover Air Force One.”
David didn’t answer; the CIA director’s words were not a question. Of course he knew of the mobilization. It was in the news. The entire world had turned its eyes to an empty stretch of ocean. Still, his nostrils flared. He almost smelled his boss’s discomfort.
“We believe this is an opportunity not to be missed. A chance to gain some value for the loss of President Bishop.”
“How so?” David asked, intrigued.
“You are to join the NTSB’s go-team at the crash site.”
David’s left eye twitched in surprise. “To help in the recovery?”
“Yes…but also to help ensure that the information that comes from the crash site serves our end.”
“I don’t understand.”
Nafe clarified. “We want the crash to be blamed on the Chinese.”
“Whether the facts substantiate this claim or not,” the director finished.
Both of David’s brows rose.
Nicolas Ruzickov stood up. “With the Chinese blamed for the assassination of the President, there will be a public outcry for retribution.”
“And we will answer it,” Nafe added.
David appreciated the plan. With the world already in turmoil after the Pacificwide disasters, the moment was ripe for such a change.
“Does Omega accept this mission?” Ruzickov asked formally.
David stood. “Yes, sir, without question.”
Nafe cleared his throat, drawing both their attention. “One other thing, Commander Spangler. It seems that a colleague of yours is already on site. A fellow SEAL…someone you once worked alongside.”
Again David sensed a bomb was about to be dropped. “Who?”
A gasp escaped David’s throat. He barely heard the Vice President’s next few words. His vision grew black at the edges.
“We know you still blame the man for the Atlantis accident. The entire country mourned the death of your younger sister.”
“Jennifer,” David mumbled. He pictured the girl’s face full of pride on the day of the launch, her first mission with NASA—at her side, Jack Kirkland, her teammate, wearing a shit-eating grin. Jack had won the shuttle’s military seat over David; both men had been up for the mission. But NASA had not wanted two siblings going up on the same mission—in case something happened. David closed his eyes. Jennifer’s body had never been found.