Pt. 13: Another Tuesday In Another Coffee Shop

Thought: I’m going to need a different title for this. Let me know if you have any ideas.

Caveat: This is the shortest entry to date. I’ve been too sick this week to concentrate on writing. Please accept my apologies.

If you’re just now joining us, you may want to click here to start at the beginning. Or not. Some people enjoy starting stories in the middle I suppose.

In Case There Is A Future

Toma and Gloria stepped out onto the balcony and closed the glass door behind them. The damn, humid air was far from comfortable and the combined stench of sewage mixed with every other form of debris served as a persistent and painful reminder of how desperate their situation was. Neither said anything as they stood at the railing, not sure exactly what it was they were supposed to find but nonetheless searching the blank nothingness in an effort to find it.

From their vantage point, they had seen the flotilla coming before Natalie and Darrell had but the lack of noise coming from the group was enough to keep either woman from calling out to them. Instead, they looked at each other, shrugged, and watched as they silently passed by on their rafts, proceeding with relative calm to their doom. 

Only after they were out of sight did Toma finally speak. “You know, you don’t look all that much different than some of the faces that just passed. We’ve got some time out here if you want to talk.”

Gloria looked over at her and smiled. “I’m sorry, I’m just having trouble with losing Mom. I can’t help but think of how she didn’t even have a chance to fight. That guy went down and boom, she was gone. She didn’t see it coming. No one had a chance to help her. She was there and then she wasn’t.” The young woman paused for a moment as Toma walked over and put her arm around Gloria’s waist. 

“How long does it take a person to drown?” Gloria asked. “Did she have time to be scared or was it so quick she didn’t have time to respond? Where are all the bodies going? Are they piling up somewhere, all bunched together like logs caught in the water? Will I ever have a chance to see her again, to say goodbye?”

Toma knew the questions where rhetorical at this point. The anguished look on Gloria’s face was enough to tell her that her friend had been going over these same questions in her mind for the past few hours. Toma pulled her closer and asked, “What answers do you want? Whatever you want to believe, whatever you need to believe, that’s what we’ll go with.”

A tear slowly ran down Gloria’s face, her throat tightening and she tried to not let the emotions she was feeling overtake her yet again. “I want to believe that none of this is happening, that it’s all just a bad dream and I’m going to wake up and you and I are going to the coffee shop in the morning and meeting Mom and Nana, and they’re going to love you and then we’ll all go out for a nice lunch where Nana complains about the cucumbers in the salad being too soggy.”

“Hannah does still love you, you know,” Toma said, leaning her head on Gloria’s shoulder. “You both lost someone really special today.”

Gloria sobbed. “I know, and I’m sorry I can’t be more comforting to her right now, but I see her and I feel like she’s blaming me, blaming us, for the whole situation. If we hadn’t fallen in love, if we hadn’t given in to the ‘sin’ she thinks our love is, then maybe this whole thing wouldn’t have happened.”

“Did she say that?” Toma asked.

“Of course not,” Gloria answered. “At least, not in so many words. It’s in little quips like, ‘If I survive this I’d better get great-grandchildren,” and ‘be sure, your sins will find you out,’ and all the other churchy little things she’s always saying. I love my Nana but she has always used Jesus as an excuse to judge everyone else on the planet. No one lives up to her expectations. She even badmouths her preacher. But then she goes out in public and is always so sweet, so very condescendingly sweet. I grew up thinking she was wonderful until I got old enough she’d talk about my own mother with me sitting there in the room. Now … I’m sure she blames me for all this.”

“Nothing she feels is your fault,” Toma said. “We’ve talked about this before. You are not responsible for other people’s opinions. It’s not your place to correct anyone else’s biases. If people have a problem with you it’s because they have a problem with themselves that they don’t know how to fix or don’t want to fix. Please don’t let Hannah rope you into taking on her feelings of guilt. Our love did not cause this. All the gays on the planet did not cause this. Shit happens, you know? We all live at the bottom of a cosmic toilet and that means we all get shit on. Being gay or religious or young or old or anything else changes what ultimately happens.”

“Yeah, but …” Gloria started.

“No, no ‘buts’ in this conversation,” Toma corrected. “You know that’s a blocking mechanism. You are better at calling people on it than anyone. What Hannah is doing only works if you give in and respond. Your response, regardless of what it is, becomes her validation for thinking the way she does. So, let’s think of a better way to react and go forward. We don’t have to acknowledge anything that isn’t true. We can express our grief over the loss of your mother in ways that work for us and it’s not our problem if she wants to express her grief differently. You stay in control of you. Don’t give it away.”

Gloria sighed. “I hate this entire fucking day.”

“It has been a bitch, for sure,” Toma agreed. “I’m looking at it this way: I got to actually meet your mom this morning, and for a while, she was happy. She was happy for us, she was happy with us. Remember the conversation we had in the car on the way to the coffee shop this morning? All the ‘what ifs’ and contingency plans for what to do if it didn’t go well? We didn’t need any of those. Her response was lovely! She was lovely!” Toma paused and looked out over the railing. “And then things went sideways. There was no way we could have seen that coming—any of us. At least we’re still here. I don’t know what all will happen after the water goes down and the power is back on, but I do know we’ll get through it together and we’ll make plans and go forward knowing that your mom loved us, that she loved you.”

A light rain began to fall, nothing too hard, no indication of being long or vicious, just the sort of rain that on any other summer evening would have been welcomed as a refreshing shower that watered everyone’s lawn. Yet, for this evening, in these circumstances, the mere sight of another raindrop felt as though nature was pouring salt on an open wound. Each drop hurt, a reminder of someone lost, an exclamation to the point that life on this planet had changed. While no one yet had any sense of the enormity of the tragedy from a global perspective, the gargantuan impact on personal levels couldn’t have been any more significant had the country finally experienced the nuclear holocaust that everyone had worried about for the past 80 years. There was no one who had not lost something or someone. Some, like Miranda, had lost everything. Many, like Amanda, still didn’t know how much they’d lost but feared the worst. 

Even those like Natalie whose personal loss perhaps wasn’t as severe as it was for everyone else in the apartment, the feeling of safety, security, the sanctity of existence had been violated. No place felt safe now. There was an overwhelming sense that at any moment what little was left could suddenly be yanked away. While some might question what they had done to deserve this tragedy in their lives, there were many who inherently understood. Nature had finally taken revenge on the centuries of abuse that humans had imposed upon the planet. All the strip mining, the cutting of rain forests, the destruction of native habitats, the pollution of both air and water, and the overpopulation that no one wanted to address. Nature found the solution humans were not brave enough to accost. 

What many were asking was “why now?” What was it about today that caused everything to fall apart all at once? Many blamed the phone call that everyone had received. Conspiracy theorists were already having a field day with that fodder, even though they didn’t yet have the ability to spread their gossip. Many others were trying to make a religious connection with the tragedy, though anyone who genuinely understood the religious documents knew this didn’t match up with any prophecy from any time period. 

Back in the tiny Midwestern apartment, though, there was one person who knew exactly why today and why now. He had seen this day coming for the past two months and had attempted to warn the people who might have stopped it, or at least delayed it. Had he not been delayed at an airport in Milwaukee, he might have been able to stop everything, including that damn phone call. Carson paced barefoot back and forth in the small apartment. There was nothing he could do now. They had fired him before he had a chance to warn anyone. The rain, the tornado, the earthquakes, everything that had happened around the globe had given off warning signs for the past several months. The only thing that had caught him by surprise was the phone call, the one he hadn’t received because he had just smashed his cell phone.

He slipped his hand into the pocket of the pants he was trying to keep up around his waist and fingered the sim chip he had saved. Access to his text conversations would be on that chip. When the time came to lay blame for this tragedy, he would be able to show exactly who was responsible. Not that they would pay any more than they already had. The bare horizon to the West assured him that the company’s entire campus had been wiped off the planet. Nothing that had happened today was an accident. Nature knew what she was doing. The question bothering Carson now was whether he had tried enough to stop it—and would anyone survive what was coming next. He heard the rain start outside and choked back a tear. So many people. So many lives. Carson had broken a young woman’s nose in an effort to warn the people who could have stopped it all but in the end, he had failed. 

Keeping The Service Secret

Adrian Campbell had been a distinguished member of the Secret Service for over 30 years. Achieving the position as head of the President’s personal detail was his crowning achievement. Up until a few weeks ago, he had been looking forward to retiring at the end of President Blackstone’s first term. Whether Blackstone was re-elected or not was none of his concern. Personally, he didn’t like the man and at times didn’t especially want to keep him out of harm’s way. It was his duty to the office of President, however, that kept him working tirelessly to make sure one of the most hated Presidents in United States’ history was kept safe, no matter who was sitting in that seat. Now, everything was up in the air.

Among all the subjects swimming in his head, Adrian knew that there would soon be a meeting at the headquarters of the Secret Service in the Treasury building where he would be re-assigned, most likely to a position not in the White House. A sitting president had died on his watch and while there seemed to have been nothing he nor any other agent could have done to stop the brain hemorrhage from happening, there was still the fact that someone connected to the First Lady had, somehow, attempted to poison the president and been marginally successful. Regardless of what details might be discovered in the inevitable investigation, he was responsible. Someone had slipped through their net.

Then, there was the matter of the active shooter apparently still at the White House, keeping everyone there on their toes as he had followed the president to the hospital. The possibility that one of his own people could be responsible was like a kick in the gut. He had hand-picked the White House team. Every person, including those assigned to ancillary staff such as Roger, had gone through rigorous vetting before the president took office. As a candidate, Blackstone’s behavior on the campaign trail had signaled the difficulty they would have keeping this president safe and he had gone to extraordinary measures, including interviews with every living relative of every agent, before making any assignments. Still, there seemed to be a traitor in the midst. Whether that person had acted of their own volition or in conjunction with some larger cause was, for him, irrelevant. Again, someone had slipped through the net on Adrian’s watch. 

Adrian’s record and years of service would be enough to keep him from being fired. Morale would take a hit throughout the service if he were unceremoniously dumped so close to retirement. He would likely be assigned to a non-DC unit somewhere in the MIdwest where he would work quietly, out of the way, until he was eligible for retirement. There would be a cake and a lapel pin, and then he would quietly retire to a cabin in the woods, as had his predecessors, well away from the press so as to avoid any temptation to consider questions whose answers were classified. Today’s events alone were enough to generate considerable notoriety if he were to talk, but with that notoriety would also come a visit to his home that he didn’t want. They would offer to give him a shot injecting a fast-acting cancer agent into his bloodstream. He would have six months to get his affairs and papers “in order,” which meant destroying everything remotely sensitive. He was expected to take his secrets to the grave.

Dr. Zinky provided Adrian with the necessary preliminary death certificate and he dispatched two agents to notify the Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region of the president’s death. He and the remainder of the agents currently on duty would stay until the military detail arrived from joint Base Andrews. Unfortunately, that would delay him from being able to address matters back at the White House. With all communications down, Adrian had no idea what was going on, whether the person had been found, or if they had possibly managed to escape without being noticed. Despite the “lockdown” notice given to White House staff members, it was never actually possible to lock down the building and prevent the coming and going of various members of the government. The fact that the nation was in the midst of an active crisis only made their job that much more difficult. There were easily several dozen places to hide and change clothes. There should be video surveillance tapes for every room in the White House but Adrian knew that on any given day there were at least a half-dozen cameras not working. All agents assigned to the White House were given an updated list each day as to where the dead cameras were, the concept being that agents, specifically White House Police, would patrol the “dead” areas more often. He didn’t know whether the Vice President and General Lang had been shot in one of those dead zones or not, but he was certain that Tony Briscane had. Adrian was curious as to what the FBI agent knew that had gotten him killed. From the agent’s perspective, someone was trying to manipulate the Constitution in an effort to overthrow the government. Who, how, or why were critical questions he couldn’t answer, though, and he knew he wouldn’t find those answers standing around here at the hospital. 

Yellow caution tape had been stretched across the hallway outside the room where President Blackstone’s body still laid, waiting to be taken to the morgue for an autopsy. Hospital staff had been instructed to avoid the hallway, navigating around the area so as to not interfere with the moving of the President. Everything was to be kept well out of the view of the press. Fortunately, thinking that this portion of the crisis was over, the press outside was growing bored and not paying any attention to the number of non-recognizable Secret Service agents leaving and arriving at the hospital. It would only be the arrive of the military detail that would signal something had gone wrong.

Several minutes had passed before a junior field agent, Garret Simmons, walked briskly into the hallway and handed Adrien a hand-written note from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The message contained two orders: first, that the Secret Service immediately conduct a full investigation with the assistance of medical staff, collecting evidence pertaining to any obvious or potential tampering with the President’s body prior to his death; and second, as part of that investigation, that any autopsy be postponed until the proper investigative personnel were present.

Agent Simmons held out a legal pad and a pen. “I assume you’ll want to send some messages of your own, sir,” he said. 

Adrian took the pen and pad and started scribbling. The first note was in response to the Chief Justice: “Autopsy not yet started. Will make appropriate arrangements. Please inform as to chain of command.” He ripped the paper from the pad, folded it, and handed it back to Agent Simmons. “That one goes to the Chief Justice, ASAP,” he said. 

The agent folded the note again and tucked it into the breast pocket of his jacket.

“Who’s in charge back at the Nest?” Adrian asked.

“It’s been a rotating position,” Simmons answered. “Carlisle took command when you left, like normal, but then he stepped aside for Phelps when Lady Bird was sworn in. But then Phelps had to join Lady Bird on the trip to the Capitol, so that left Hammond in charge of everything.”

Adrian nodded. He quickly wrote out another note: “Delayed at the hospital. Focus on finding the shooter while Lady Bird is out of the Nest. Inspect every weapon for residue.” As he folded this note, he said to the agent, “Let me save you some trouble. Let me see your service weapon, please.”

Simmons complied, understanding that at this point a check of every agent in the White House was the only way to have any chance of capturing the shooter.

Adrian stepped inside the examining room and found a cotton swab. He then took an alcohol patch and rubbed it around the swab before then swabbing the barrel of the gun. The swab was still clean. Adrian returned the weapon. “Not that I was worried, but you understand the procedure.”

“Yes, sir,” the agent responded.

“How many were on the team going to The Hill?” Adrian asked. 

Simmons shrugged. “I’m not sure. Phelps was having a rough time adjusting to how quickly things were moving. I assume he’s using the standard Hill team plus maybe four or five of Lady Bird’s close team?”

Adrian nodded. Something didn’t feel right but he couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. “You say he left Hammond in charge? Where were Riggens and Harper? They both have seniority.”

“Phelps took them on the Hill team,” Simmons said. 

“Does that seem unusual to you, Agent Simmons?” Adrian asked. “Lady Bird already had eight on her close team. Why would he take the two senior agents from the Nest if he didn’t need them? He knows the protocol.”

Simmons looked blank, surprised by the line of questioning. “I don’t know, sir. What are you implying?”

Adrian thumped the pen on the pad for a second. “Everyone there knows the protocol. One senior agent is left in the Nest at all times. If Phelps needed extra manpower, he would have taken Harper and Hammond, not Riggens.”

“Riggens has been on Lady Bird’s team before,” Simmons answered. “Perhaps Phelps thought that familiarity would be beneficial.”

“Possible,” Adrian agreed. “Still, it doesn’t feel right. Hand me that note back.”

Simmons reached in his pocket and gave the note to Hammond back to Adrian who tore it into several pieces before shoving it into the side pocket on his suit coat. 

Adrian then penned another quick note. “Nest not secure. Send replacement team. +10 agents only.” He then folded the note twice before handing it to Agent Simmons. “Deliver that one first to Treasury. Make sure they understand to only send senior agents. Everyone still at the Nest needs to be relieved and their weapons checked. Now.”

Agent Simmons took the note and nodded. “Anything else, sir?”

Adrian shook his head. “Return here when you’re done. Don’t go to the Nest whatever you do.”

Agent Simmons considered the unusual order but knew better than to challenge a senior agent without cause. He nodded and trotted back to his car.

Adrian watched Agent Simmons leave then turned to the four agents remaining outside the examination room. “Who here was at the Nest this morning?”

All four spoke up at the same time, confirming they had been at the White House.

“I’ll need your service weapons, please,” Adrian said. He knew two of the agents had been with him the entire time but he couldn’t take any chances at this point. He wasn’t sure who to trust. What he knew was that attempts on the President’s life were never individual efforts. He had studied all the conspiracies from President Lincoln forward and the pattern was clear: there was always a group and the core conspirator was almost never the one to carry out the plan. If the shooter at the White House was indeed a rogue agent, they were almost certainly taking orders from someone. Adrian needed to find out who that person was.

Unraveling The Chaos

Deep in the basement of the White House sits a nondescript office whose door tag only says, “Comms. Authorized Personnel Only.” Emphasizing the need for authorization is a rectangular box capable of reading a person’s entire palm print. The machine as programmed to only unlock the door for ten people, eight of whom were Secret Service agents. The president was the ninth and Roger Mukaski was the tenth. 

Roger had retreated to his office while the others had worked out who needed to go to the Capitol. Naturally, everyone wanted to be there for the history-making event, but Roger had other concerns on his mind at the moment. The Chief Justice had just raised the possibility that the late President Blackstone might possibly have intentionally interrupted the phone call that morning with the intent of setting off a chain of breakdowns that would allow him to cement an irrevocable authority that included the ability to cancel elections. As long as the country was in a state of perceived crisis, Rudy could have been president forever. He understood why the Chief Justice would be suspicious.

What bothered Roger was that such a move would have required Rudy to have more advanced information than Roger knew. No one got to see the President without going through him. No one. Every person who even got an official glimpse of the President, whether in the Oval Office or the residence, was logged and vetted before they ever walked into the building. Roger knew Blackstone to be too easily swayed off course and off mission to allow just any random person to spend any private time with him at all. That was why Tony had been the only person allowed to update the President on the test. Tony had been thoroughly vetted, understood the limitations of the President’s attention span and his lack of understanding regarding technology. Roger had been present for each of the informational updates and had not picked up on anything that might have hinted at any collusion. Still, there was only one way to be certain, and that was to check the tapes.

Waiting until everyone had left for the Capitol gave Roger the relative freedom to roam through the White House without any interference. Even the number of Secret Service agents was about half what it normally would have been. At this point, Roger wasn’t even thinking about the fact that a murderer was still on the loose. Several hours had passed now with no additional deaths, at least none that had been made public. There were too many other transitional activities taking place for anyone to worry about a threat that was currently invisible. He grabbed his daytimer and headed toward the basement. As he left the office he gave Tina the instruction she knew had been coming. “Send for packing boxes. Lots and lots of packing boxes. We’ve got to move.”

He didn’t see the tears in her eyes. At this point, he didn’t care. He had given years of loyalty to Rudy Blackstone. If he had turned out to be a traitor he wanted to make sure there was nothing that would implicate him by association.

Placing his hand on the scanner, Roger heard the metal click of the lock and pushed the door open. The three Secret Service agents seated at the terminals didn’t seem the least bit surprised by his presence. Waiting until he heard the door click behind him, Roger began, “Gentlemen, we need to look over some tapes. Let’s start with everything just before Tony Briscane arrived this morning.”

The agents looked at each other before one of them spoke. “I’m sorry, sir, but all our cameras have been dead since 20 minutes after the episode this morning. We thought Agent Hammond had notified you. He left here right after it happened and he hasn’t been back since.”

Roger was so startled that he took a step back. He hadn’t thought about the fact that the interruption in electrical power would have taken down the security cameras as well. They were supposed to be independently powered. “Okay,” he said after a moment. “What about audio? What do we have there?”

“There’s a seven-second delay in all recordings during the power transfer, but no indication that any significant conversations were missed,” a different agent answered.

Roger sighed heavily. “Okay, can you at least show me what you have right up to the point of the blackout?”

The agent keyed in the details for the digitalized recording. “When would you like to start, sir?” he asked.

“Let’s start at where Agent Briscoe arrives, please,” Roger responded.

A few more keystrokes and the video popped up on the observation monitor. The group watched as Tony came through the guest door, shook the requisite hands, and was then shown to a table where he was to set up the gear for the phone call. Setting up had taken almost 30 minutes during which Tony is largely left to himself while other conversations largely centered around current Middle Eastern concerns took place on the opposite side of the Oval Office. Roger was impressed with how clearly the hidden microphones in the office had picked up every tidbit of conversation and how accurately subtitles were added to the digital recording. He had known from day one that the recordings existed. The whole Nixon Watergate scandal had made Oval Office recordings a priority. Control had been moved to this office in the 1980s so that even the President couldn’t “accidentally” pause or delete part of the recording. By the mid-2000s, the recording had been digitized with automatic backups sent to multiple locations in an effort to make sure they could not be compromised. The only catch was the White House had to have power and Internet access for the system to work correctly.

After Tony finished setting up the table for the phone call, he could be seen walking over to the President, waiting for a gap in the conversation, and then saying, “Mr. President, I need to go over some instructions with you before we run the test.”

Rudy had smiled and responded, “Sure, just a second,” before returning to a conversation with White House foreign affairs analyst Benjamin Kausterman. Tony waited patiently until the President turned to him and said, “Okay, Tony, what have we got going here? This thing’s going to be great, right?”

“We certainly hope so, Mr. President,” Tony had answered. “There are a few rules before we get started, though.”

The President rolled his eyes. “Sure, Tony, there are always rules, aren’t there? I can’t even eat dinner without someone telling me the rules. So, what are they?

Tony pulled a small notepad from his jacket pocket and started, “We have to start the test precisely at 10:15, no delays. The program is designed to work with a specific geosynchronous alignment of communication satellites to make sure we reach even the most remote parts of the country.”

The President nodded. “10:15. No problem.”

Tony continued, “Once we start, it will take exactly 20 seconds to broadcast the message.” He paused and showed the President a piece of paper on which the message was written. “This is the message we’re sending. We’ve rehearsed it so that it fits precisely within the 20-second window.”

Rudy looked over the message and said, “This looks rather dry, Tony. Can we spice it up a bit, maybe add something about how the greatest country in the world is making advances for the security and benefit of its people?”

“No sir, we cannot,” Tony said. “We have to keep the message simple so that translation services don’t miss anything. We need to make sure as many people as possible can understand what we’re saying.”

“That’s why everyone needs to speak goddamn English,” the President groused. “This is America. I don’t care how many other languages people speak, everyone should be able to speak English or they shouldn’t be allowed to stay. I don’t understand why that isn’t already a law.”

Tony tried to smooth over the topic. “Yes, Mr. President, but as you know there are hundreds of visitors and tourists at any given time across the United States. We need to make sure everyone gets the message. We don’t want to be blamed if, for example, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia gets hurt because his translation service didn’t understand the warning.”

The President nodded. “Go on.”

“Once we start the broadcast, there can be no other noise in the room, this is critical,” Tony said. He looked around the room at everyone listening. “We would normally do this is a sound-proof facility to make sure there is no background noise. We’ve already made arrangements to make sure the air conditioning is off for those 20 seconds. What I need from everyone in this room is an effort to make no noise of any kind. No coughing, no sneezing, nothing. The microphone we’re using is extremely sensitive and any transient noise could be misinterpreted by the satellites and cause the test to fail. Does everyone understand?”

Everyone around the room nodded and most voiced their agreement. 20 seconds should be easy. No problem.

“One more thing,” Tony said. “I need for everyone who is going to be in this room during the test to remove their cell phones and place them in this lead box which we will set in a separate office. You’ll get them back immediately after the test, but we can’t have your own phones going off when the call starts. That would ruin everything before we even get started.” He then held the black box and passed it around to take everyone’s cell phone. 

Naturally, the President objected. “I guess this means I can’t ‘live tweet’ the whole test thing, huh? Seems like an opportunity wasted. People want to know, you know.”

Tony, who seemed to be getting more agitated every time the President said something, tried to explain. “Mr. President, live-tweeting the test wouldn’t do any good. We’re taking over everyone’s phone. No one’s going to be watching social media for at least 26 seconds. We’ll be watching IP connections just to make sure, but if this test is successful, all mobile communications should be locked on a single source during this test.”

After gathering everyone’s phone, Tony handed the box to a Secret Service agent who removed them from the room. Tony looked at his watch and announced, “We have four minutes before the test. Please finish any necessary conversations in the next three minutes so that we have a sufficient buffer on either side of the call.”

Roger and the agents watched as conversations continued. Kausterman and a couple of other analysts left the room, Roger watched as he saw himself enter from his private door. Then, just before Tony motioned for everyone to be quiet, a Secret Service agent walks over and whispers something in the President’s ear. 

“Wait, stop,” Roger ordered. “What was that? I didn’t hear what he told the President. Back that up, please.”

An agent entered a few keystrokes and reversed the recording by a few seconds. “I’ll punch the volume as much as we can, but whispers can be difficult to make out.”

Roger nodded. “Understandable. Go ahead.”

The recording continued with only a few words audible enough to hear. “ … quickly … not too soft … satellites … failure assured.”

That was enough. Roger didn’t need any more detail. “Who is that agent?” he demanded. 

“That’s Agent Hammonds,” another agent replied. “He’s on the President’s secondary detail with residential access.”

Roger flipped backward through his daytimer. “Okay, how far back can you go without Internet access?”

“Five years at all times,” replied the first agent. “When we have Internet access, offsite backups happen consistently every 30 seconds but we always maintain a five-year record here in the office.”

“Wonderful. Check an Oval Office conversation on March 23, 12:15 PM,” Roger said.

The agent entered the necessary commands and the recording of the Oval Office on that date popped onto the observation monitor. 

“Let it run a few seconds,” Roger instructed. “I want to see who all is in the room when Agent Briscane delivers his last update before the test.”

The agent started the recording and four seconds in stated, “There’s Agent Hammond, right there to the President’s left.”

“Fast forward to where Agent Briscane leaves the room,” Roger said.

The recording sped forward 12 minutes and then stopped. They all watched as Tony left the room and almost immediately Agent Hammond walked up to the President. The agent at the console didn’t need to be asked to boost the volume.

“… arrangements … your order … our people … bunker …” was all they could hear clearly.

Roger was mentally kicking himself. Agents leaned in and whispered security instructions to the President all the time. No one ever questioned anything they might say because they were presumed to be loyal and professional at all times. Secret Service agents on the presidential detail had experience proving them above reproach. There was never any consideration that one of them, or more, might betray the country. He flipped back through his daytimer some more. “I need a piece of paper, please,” Roger said.

The agent seated at the table behind him handed Roger a thin pad of adhesive notes. 

Roger quickly scribbled down the dates and times when Agent Briscane had given the President updates on the project and handed the paper to the agent in charge of the recordings. “Let’s look at these. I want to see if the same agent is present at each one and if he speaks to the president each time.”

Quickly, the agent brought up one recording after the other, quickly zeroing in on the precise moment when Tony left the room. Each time, Agent Hammond had walked over and whispered something brief to the President. Each time, the President smiled and nodded.

At the end of the last recording, Roger sighed heavily and looked around the room at the expressionless faces of the three agents sitting there. They had just witnessed one of their trusted colleagues, for all appearances, committing treason. That the President had likely colluded with the agent made it all the more shocking. “What do you think we do?” Roger asked them. 

Without hesitation, the lead agent said, “We need to find Agent Hammond and make sure he is taken off duty.”

“Is he still in the White House?” Roger asked.

The agents looked at each other. Normally, they would have had video feed that would have confirmed the location of almost anyone in the White House, but not now.

“Most likely he is, sir,” the lead agent said. “I cannot confirm his exact location, though.”

Roger thought for a moment and then said, “There weren’t any other agents that appeared to be compromised. I’ll find a couple and have them arrest Agent Hammond.”

The agents exchanged glances. “Be careful, sir. Agent Hammond is possibly the best shot in the Service and everyone knows it.”

Roger nodded. “Of course. That’s why he shot the agent behind the Vice President. He was recognized.” His stomach churned as he realized what had happened and that it had happened right under his nose. A conspiracy so dark that the President had told no one in his inner circle. Or had he? At this moment, Roger was no longer certain of anyone’s loyalty to the President or the country. “I’ll take appropriate precautions,” he said. “Any chance you can get those cameras back up any time soon?”

The second agent shook his head. “They’ll all need batteries replaced before they can be brought back online. Take roughly two days to get them all.”

Roger nodded. “Of course.” He thought for a moment then added, “Too bad we don’t have tapes of the residence.”

“Well, that’s not entirely true, sir,” the lead agent said. “The residence is wired, we just don’t record the first family’s private moments. Any time they have an external guest, we tape those conversations.”

Roger quickly reopened his daytimer and hastily wrote down a series of dates. “Listen for any conversations between the First Lady and Gloria Fastbaum. I’m not sure exactly what you’re looking for, but somehow they poisoned the President. We need to know what they were up to.” He handed the lead agent the notepad then added. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. We’ve got to figure this mess out before it gets any worse.” He opened the door and left the small office. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to do, but he knew he didn’t have much time to get something done.

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