The 747 pitched and rocked, sending several carry-on bags flying. Some of the passengers cried out while others clutched their armrests, but Zoey merely shook her head and methodically clipped her seat belt in place. The flight attendant in first class urged everyone to remain calm, but when she almost fell forward into the seat in front of her while delivering the admonition, her words did little to calm the passengers.
Zoey turned to her seatmate whose face had taken on a gray tinge. “It’s just turbulence. We’ll probably be through it soon.” He grimaced his reply, and Zoey offered an encouraging smile.
The flight attendant clapped her on the shoulder. “Thanks for the assist, Major. If only everyone had your stomach for rough flying.”
Zoey smiled. “This is nothing compared to hitching a ride in a C-17 into Kandahar.”
“You’re made of tougher stuff than most.” She stuck out her hand. “Karen Birch. Thanks for your service.”
“My pleasure.” The words were rote, but she meant them. Zoey grasped Karen’s hand, taking note she held on for a few seconds past casual. When Karen left to take her seat, Zoey relaxed into the cushioned first class seat, as much as possible in her stiff Army blues. It wasn’t customary to dress out for commercial flights, but her orders had been clear, and now she was thankful her uniform had garnered the upgrade. The pallor of the guy in the window seat next to her finally returned to normal, and he pulled his laptop from a bag under the seat along with a stack of folders. When he bumped into her arm, he apologized.
“I have a meeting with Senator Barstow as soon as this flight lands,” he said. “Better start preparing for it.”
Zoey nodded, her thoughts already focused on her own meeting in the hours ahead. She’d been summoned from her base in Texas, but her orders said only to report to General Bloomfield at the Pentagon. She’d known better than to ask for details from her commanding officer. He’d been only too glad to be rid of her after the events of the last few months. Frankly, she’d been relieved to get away from the toxic atmosphere at her base, but feared she might be headed to stormier waters.
Deep in thought, she barely noticed when Mr. Window Seat tapped her shoulder. She turned toward him, and her gaze followed his finger, pointed at the screen of his laptop. “Hey, isn’t that you?”
She stared at the official press photo, which reflected a younger looking, more naive version of the soldier she was now, and forced herself to remain calm as she read the caption. Whistleblower Major Zoey Granger, USA, is scheduled to testify before Congress next week regarding pay to play scandal involving Nine Tech Inc.
There was more, a lot more. The guy scrolled down the page, gulping in all the information—some fact, some fiction—but all of it life-altering, not only for her, but also for the dozen soldiers who’d been implicated in the scheme along with their civilian cohorts. They were all facing dishonorable discharge, prison, or both, while she’d simply been ostracized and forced to shoulder the weight of choosing between country and her fellow soldiers. The last few months had been hell. She’d been called back to Fort Hood to face her superiors and submit to endless interviews that felt more like interrogations, and now she was being summoned by both the Pentagon brass and the Senate Committee on Armed Services.
She shouldn’t be surprised to be recognized, even here at forty thousand feet. Her CO had pointed out, in extremely colorful language, that as a result of her disloyalty, she could expect the spotlight of attention and scrutiny for the rest of her military career, however long that may be. His implication was far from subtle, but she had no intention of seeking a discharge, especially when she’d only been doing her job. The contractors who’d bribed her peers and the soldiers who’d compromised their mission were the ones who should pay, and if she went down with them, then it would have to be because she was forced out. She’d started her career with the end goal of retiring as one of a few female generals. If the Army wanted to kill her dreams, she’d fight them every step of the way.
The turbulence finally abated and the plane settled into a comfortable cruising altitude toward DC. The flight attendant, Karen, who’d been strapped in during the worst of it, walked back down the aisle encouraging passengers to keep their seat belts fastened should the winds kick up again. She stopped by Zoey’s seat and bent down close. “Major, may I buy you a drink?”
Zoey recognized the subtle flirtation and shook her head. “Besides, I thought drinks in first class were on the house.”
“They are, but I wasn’t talking about right now.” With the ease of a practiced flirt, Karen slipped a small folded piece of paper into Zoey’s seat back pocket. “I’ll be in town for a couple of days.” She straightened. “I meant what I said earlier. Your service is much appreciated. And thanks for standing up for what’s right.”
Zoey nodded her response, noting several other passengers had perked up at the attendant’s last words and wishing she could melt into the seat. She’d have plenty of attention focused on her over the next few weeks, but right now she craved the peace and solitude of this cross-country flight.
When Karen moved on to check on the remaining first class passengers, Zoey pulled a book from her small carry-on and pretended to read as a way of cutting off questions and conversation, but the attendant’s words nagged at her. Standing up for what’s right. That was exactly what she’d done, but nothing about the fallout had reinforced her expectation that honor was an act to be rewarded. As the words on the page blurred, her mind drifted to the paper Karen had tucked into the seat back pocket. In what she hoped was a subtle maneuver, Zoey retrieved the paper, and using it as a pseudo bookmark, read the message inviting her for “a drink or whatever.” Signed simply Karen, followed by a phone number. She should crumple the paper and dispose of it discreetly, but instead she tucked it into her book. Maybe a drink and “whatever” would be the perfect remedy to the clusterfuck she was about to endure.
Rook Daniels stood in the middle of Reagan National Airport and stared at the screen above her head, willing the information to change. Unfortunately, her superpowers weren’t up to the task today. Her flight to New York was delayed, and the airlines hadn’t posted a new time. The desk agent had ducked out within seconds of changing the flight status at the gate, and Rook had yet to find anyone who could answer her question about the reason for the delay. The limbo drove her crazy. If the wait was only an hour she’d be fine, but if it was more than that she might be better off abandoning the flight for another form of transportation. She pulled out her cell phone and speed-dialed her office.
“Daniels’s Agency, how may I assist you?” The familiar, pleasant voice answered on the first ring.
“Lacy, it’s Rook. I made the wrong call booking commercial. The flight’s delayed and I can’t get an update on the new schedule. Ask Ben to see what he can find out. I need to know ASAP if we need to delay the press conference.”
“On it. Anything else?”
“I guess you better start looking for another way to get me to New York. And, Lacy?”
“Delaying the press conference has to be the last resort. Understood?”
“Got it, boss. I’ll be in touch soon.”
Rook kept her phone in her hand and maintained her vigilant stalking of the gate, but after a few minutes, decided she needed a distraction or she’d come unhinged. She plowed her way through the milling crowds of passengers swarming the gates and took a seat at the bar where patrons were glued to several television sets broadcasting the NCAA basketball tournament. She wanted a drink but ordered a club soda and lime to keep her head clear, tipping the bartender generously to compensate for taking up a seat for a two-buck beverage. A few minutes in, she got a text from Lacy. Engine trouble. Looking for another plane. Should know more soon.
Encouraged by the fact she finally had some information, Rook settled back in her chair. The roar of the crowd in the bar pulled her out of her thoughts, and she looked around to check the source of the commotion and saw the team from UNC celebrating on the big screen. She joined in with the cheers and almost missed the buzz of her phone.
Not looking good. Will have another solution ASAP.
Rook started to type a reply, but another commotion distracted her. This time the noise was coming from outside the bar, and she spotted a small band of cameramen lunging toward a gate agent across the way with shouted questions. Instinct forced her out of her chair, but before she could take a step toward the scene playing out across the way, a hand on her arm stilled her progress.
“Please stay. If you move, they’ll spot me for sure.”
Rook turned at the sound of the strong, sure voice and locked eyes with a tall, slender woman in a dress blue uniform. She catalogued her findings: Army officer, commissioned. She took note of the gold leaf on her shoulder and added major to the list of things she could file away as knowns. Rook slid back onto the bar stool and motioned for the major to sit next to her. Rook pointed at the disturbance across the way. “Is that about you?”
The major nodded, but her face remained otherwise stoic. Rook took a moment to assess the situation which included running through the list of stories she’d read in the Post and Times earlier in the day. She didn’t recall any news that would have the press barreling through the airport looking for a victim, but maybe this was breaking news. “Is it chase down the military day and I almost missed it?” She stuck out her hand. “Rook Daniels.”
A hint of a grin showed in the woman’s deep brown eyes, but her expression remained impassive. “Zoey Granger.”
Rook made a mental note that Zoey wasn’t loose with the pleasantries and took it as a challenge to get her to say more. Granger, Granger. She rolled the name over in her mind a few times until the slots fell into place. Major Zoey Granger. US Army. She’d exposed a massive fraud scheme between a group of soldiers and Nine Tech Inc., one of the nation’s largest defense contractors. The story had dominated the news on and off for the past few months, and Rook recalled reading yesterday that Granger would be testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week. She started to acknowledge Zoey’s act of patriotism, but Zoey’s guarded manner prompted her to decide against it. “Nice to meet you, Major,” she said, opting for the subtle reference to Zoey’s rank to convey her inside knowledge. She jerked her chin at the reporters across the way. “They’re going to get restless eventually and start fanning out, especially if they’re certain you were on that plane.”
“How in the world did they even get past TSA?” Zoey murmured, as if talking to herself.
“Wouldn’t be the first time the cable news outlets bought plane tickets to get a scoop. Small price to pay for first crack at a big story.” Rook stood. “Come with me.”
Zoey’s eyes narrowed. “Excuse me?”
“You want to get out of here, right?” Rook reached out a hand. “Trust me. I got this.” She cast a look over her shoulder at the gaggle of press who, as she predicted, had started to spread out in search of their prey. Zoey followed her gaze, sighed, and placed her hand in Rook’s, following her to the ladies’ room. Rook glanced under the stalls and then pulled off her suit jacket. “Here, put this on.”
“I can’t take your clothes.”
Rook grinned. “Well, that’s moving a little fast, even for me.” She cleared her throat while Zoey glared. “I was only offering my jacket. The other stuff will have to wait until our second date.”
“You’re hilarious,” Zoey said, her tone flat.
“I get that all the time. Now, put it on.”
Rook checked her phone. Right on time, Lacy had texted her own escape route. Get to private terminal. SkyLight Helo standing by. You’ll be on time.
She typed a quick response. Thx. She shoved her phone back in her pocket and shook her jacket in Zoey’s direction. “Come on. We’ve got to get moving.”
Zoey tugged on the jacket, and Rook admired the way it fit over her uniform. It wasn’t a perfect disguise, but it might work. “Now, let down your hair. Literally. Shake it out and we’ll be ready to go.”
She watched while Zoey looked in the mirror, grimaced, pulled off her beret, and reached a hand up to loosen the pins holding her hair in place. When the auburn waves tumbled down onto Zoey’s shoulder, Rook swallowed a gasp. The major was a stunning beauty despite the perpetual frown. “Much better. Now plaster a smile on your face and stay close.”
She didn’t wait for an answer. A quick peek out the door revealed the path was clear for the moment. She motioned for Zoey to follow her and dashed down the hall, away from the churning crowds arriving and departing at the cluster of gates.
“Where are we going?”
Rook placed a finger against her lips and kept moving. A turn to the right and then left and then they were standing in front of a door that blared Airport Security in big red letters. Rook rapped a hand on the glass, but Zoey started edging away.
“What are you doing?”
Rook ignored the question and waved at the short man who appeared on the other side of the door. He shook his head as if resigned and cracked the door. “Daniels, you’re killing me.”
“Sorry, Gary. I’d say it’s the last time, but…” She raised her shoulders. “If it makes you feel any better, you’d be serving your country with this one.” She pointed back toward Zoey. “The major here has an important meeting at the Capitol, but there’s a crowd that won’t let her through. If you can get us both to the private terminal, I’d owe you big time.” While she waited for his answer, she typed a quick text to Lacy.
“I have a big box of your IOUs.” He wagged a finger at her. “Watch out. Someday I’m going to cash in. Come on.”
He motioned them forward, and Rook glanced back at Zoey who still looked hesitant about forging ahead. Rook could hardly blame her since essentially they were strangers. She’d gotten used to clients following her instructions over the years, especially since she made strict adherence to her directives a condition of employment. She couldn’t help but wonder if Zoey’s decision to obey her instructions was because she followed orders for a living, but her thoughts quickly devolved into how sexy Zoey looked in her uniform. The reporters at the gate would’ve had a field day with her.
Not if I can help it. She started to grab Zoey’s hand again, but opted to be more discreet, nodding for Zoey to go with Gary through the network of halls off limits to the general public, until they reached a door leading outside. Gary held it open. “I’ve got to get back, but you can find your way from here,” he said, pointing at a hangar about a hundred yards away. “Good luck.”
Rook thanked him as the door closed and checked her phone while Zoey looked at the closed door and then back at her. “What’s the plan now?” she asked.
“We hike over to the hangar and catch a ride.”
“I’m not getting back on a plane.” Zoey placed her hands on her hips as if to emphasize her defiance.
“Who said anything about a plane? You’ll have a car and a driver who will take you anywhere in the city you need to go. No questions asked.”
“As much as I wish I could accompany you on this little adventure, I have a meeting I need to get to.” She looked into Zoey’s eyes and thought she spotted the tiniest tinge of regret. Rook wanted to act on it, but there wasn’t time. “Come on.”
A few minutes later, they were in the hangar reserved for charter flights. Rook gave her name at the desk, and the woman pointed outside to the helicopter on the pad. Before she could ask about the car, she spotted the familiar vehicle. She told the woman she’d board in just a second and walked back to Zoey.
“Your car is ready.”
Zoey followed her gaze. “Are you going back to the main terminal?”
“Nope. That’s my ride.” Rook pointed at the helicopter as she escorted Zoey to the car. “It’s been fun tearing through the airport with you.” They were steps away from the car, and now that it was time to part ways, Rook wished she hadn’t had to rush. She started to ask for Zoey’s number, but the driver’s side window lowered and her driver, George, peered out. She resigned herself to handing Zoey’s care over to him. “Major Zoey Granger, meet George Olson. George will take good care of you.”
Zoey looked between them and then, apparently satisfied there was no danger in accepting the favor, shrugged out of Rook’s jacket, handed it over, and stepped into the car while Rook held the door. She wanted to say more, ask how long Zoey would be in town, ask if she could see her again under different circumstances, but her strict rule about not getting involved with clients stopped her despite the fact Zoey wasn’t an official client, but more of a pro bono on the fly rescue case. Still, she had a press conference to get to, and the sooner Zoey cleared the airport, the better off she’d be. She squeezed Zoey’s hand, stepped back, and shut the door on this fun little chapter. Time to go to New York and straighten out someone else’s mess.
Zoey watched through the car window as Rook climbed aboard the helicopter. Rook was rakish, dashing, and devilishly handsome, and Zoey shook her head at her good fortune at running into her. But now that Rook was gone and Zoey was in a car with a stranger, she questioned her lack of discretion. For all she knew, Rook Daniels was an opportunist, exactly like the reporters who’d been chasing her through the airport in an attempt to turn her life into a front-page story.
“Where to, ma’am?”
She looked at the driver, George, surprised at the soft, quiet tone of his voice. She made a split-second decision that he seemed harmless enough despite his hulking frame. “The Pentagon.”
“Excellent.” He took a moment to consult his phone. “Traffic is light. We should arrive in about thirty minutes.” He pulled out of the parking lot, and Zoey watched the helicopter carry Rook into the sky as they drove away. Resigned to her decision to let this scenario play out, she leaned back into the cushioned leather seat and tried to relax.
The summons from General Bloomfield had come with very little information, which wasn’t in itself unusual, but the timing—so close to her testimony before Congress—was suspect. She’d been trained not to question orders, but now that she was within a half hour of obtaining more detail, she couldn’t help but wonder if the summons was a not-so-subtle means of dismissal.
Whistleblower laws were designed to keep people in her position safe, but that was the law, not the reality. She’d heard anecdotes of people in her position leaving quietly, choosing to resign their commissions rather than fight the system and potentially lose the benefits they’d worked so hard to guarantee. She didn’t want to fight, but she’d already decided she would if it came down to it. Maybe the hearings would buy her a little time since she doubted the brass wanted her appearing in front of Congress with a discharge fresh on the books.
She pulled out her phone and glanced at the screen, just then realizing she’d forgotten to take it off airplane mode in the flurry back at the terminal. When she switched it back on, the screen blew up with alerts. She skimmed the texts from General Bloomfield’s assistant, and her apprehension grew.
Corporal Stine will pick you up. He’ll meet you at baggage claim. Text him when you land. A number followed. The next text read: All bags claimed and you’re nowhere in sight. Report.
Twenty minutes later: Flight manifest says you were on board. Is disappearing one of your special skills?
She punched the number for Stine. “Stine, it’s Granger. Stand down. I didn’t get the message you’d be picking me up until just now, and I had to duck a gaggle of reporters at the airport. I’m en route to the Pentagon. I’ll call and let the office know I’m on the way.”
“Better let me call, Major. No need in you taking more of a beating than you have been.”
Zoey breathed a sigh of relief at the friendly overture. “Thanks. Much appreciated. Sorry you had to make a wasted trip.”
“Not a problem. Drive safe.”
If George’s calculations were correct, they’d arrive at the Pentagon in twenty minutes and she could do with a dose of non-military conversation before being submersed again. Fact was, her mind kept wandering back to Rook, and curiosity won out over duty.
“George, how well do you know Rook Daniels?”
He flicked a glance at her in the rearview mirror, and Zoey sensed she was being sized up. “I’ve known Ms. Daniels ever since she came to DC. I used to drive for her father.”
Cagey answer since Zoey would need a few extra pieces of information for his comment to make sense. She wanted to know more, but sensed George either wasn’t able or willing to indulge her curiosity, so she just nodded and moved on. “I’ll be here for about a week. Anything special I should do or see?”
“First time in the capital?”
“Do a nighttime tour of the monuments. Weather’s perfect for it this time of year. Bus will take you around to most of them over about three hours and stop long enough for you to walk around and check them out. When they’re all lit up, there’s nothing else like it.”
“Sounds perfect. Thanks for the tip.”
Zoey settled in for the rest of the ride, and for just a few minutes, let herself imagine being dressed in plainclothes, riding around the city with Rook Daniels at her side. Completely improbable on so many levels, but that’s what fantasies were supposed to be, right?
Zoey took pride in her ability to walk fast, but the Marine escorting her through the Pentagon was next level. Of course, he wasn’t wearing heels and a skirt, so there was that. “Where exactly are we going and will we still be in country when we get there?” she asked.
The sergeant laughed. “First time at the Puzzle Palace?”
“It’s a little overwhelming until you get used to it. End to end, the building will hold the Statue of Liberty, but you can move between any two places within ten minutes. We don’t have time today, but grab one of the honor guards and get the nickel tour when you have a chance.”
Zoey nodded but figured that wouldn’t be happening. Once she got her in-person scolding for violating code and testified before the Senate, she’d probably be shipped off to serve out the rest of her career in some remote outpost. In the meantime, she drank in every detail she could about the enormous building. They’d passed a row of shops that carried goods ranging from fancy candy to jewelry and a food court with every unhealthy fast food option imaginable, and she was beginning to feel like she was at a shopping mall instead of a military complex.
“Here’s your stop, Major.”
Zoey glanced at the door and back to the Marine waiting to be dismissed. She nodded, squared her shoulders, and pushed through. “Major Granger, reporting to see General Bloomfield,” she announced to the soldier manning the desk.
“Good afternoon, Major.” He pointed at the door behind him. “Go on in, the generals are expecting you.”
Generals. Zoey wondered if she’d misheard the plural, but didn’t bother asking since she’d find out soon enough. She rapped on the door to signal her entry and the door swung wide. “General Sharp!”
She immediately regretted the exclamation, but it had been years since she’d seen her first CO and she didn’t expect him to be here. David Sharp had been her champion from the moment she’d graduated from boot camp, and she took some measure of comfort at the sight of a familiar face.
“Major, good to see you,” he said. “Come on in.” He swept an arm toward a couple of chairs in the center of the room, and she did a quick recon to see if there were any other surprises waiting, but there was only one other person in the room who she assumed was Bloomfield. After Sharp sat, she followed suit.
“Major Granger, I’m General Bloomfield. I appreciate you getting here so quickly. The Armed Services Committee is about to chew their own arms off if they don’t get a uniform in the hot seat on this Nine Tech crap. I’m afraid you’ll be raw meat to the hungry beast, but it can’t be helped. The first hearing is tomorrow afternoon, and you’ll meet with counsel’s office to prepare. Tell the truth, nothing more, nothing less. Sharp has volunteered to make sure you’re situated and to escort you to the Capitol. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Zoey hesitated for just a second as she spoke the words. She was relieved to know she’d have a friendly face with her at the hearing tomorrow, but she’d expected a little more of a dressing down about dragging half a platoon through this ordeal.
“I heard a but, Major. You have something to get off your chest?”
Zoey resisted the urge to glance at Sharp for guidance. For the first half of her career, he’d been a careful mentor, guiding her in and around bureaucratic minefields as she escalated up the ranks to achieve her own command. Much of the way she exerted authority was based on the lessons she’d learned from him. Relying on everything she’d learned under his command, she took a page from his book and asked what she really wanted to know. “Permission to speak freely?”
“Say what’s on your mind.”
“I fully expected a chewing out and a little more ‘here’s what we want you to say…’” She paused. “I understand the issue with Nine Tech is likely to cause a lot of problems with the Senate, especially with regard to budget.”
“Are you asking for a script, Major?”
Bloomfield’s tone was gruff, but his eyes were kind, urging her to get it all out. “No, sir. Just letting you know I understand how difficult this situation has become. I assure you I didn’t have a choice.”
“You always have a choice, soldier, but in this case, you made the right one.” He jabbed a finger in Sharp’s direction. “I’ve known that man since he was a ninety-day wonder, still wet behind the ears,” he said, referring to Sharp’s stint in Officer Candidate School. “If Sharp says you’re a good soldier, I trust him. Don’t get me wrong, you created a shit storm, but you’re going to help us find our way out of it. Understood?”
She nodded even though she knew he expected a verbal reply. He was out of his seat and the implication was clear—she was dismissed. Sharp motioned for her to follow him, and a few minutes later, they were walking back through the building on a different concourse than the one the Marine had led her in on.
“Are you hungry?” Sharp asked as they passed by a Pizza Hut.
The idea of a greasy slice of pizza twisted her stomach in knots. “A little, but after airplane food, I could use something with at least the appearance of green. I can wait if there are meetings scheduled this afternoon.”
“One this afternoon with staff counsel, and one in the morning with some stiffs from the White House. Lawyers,” he said with disdain, “even when they aren’t billing by the hour, they’re looking for an angle. If you want to push through today, I’ll get you out of here in time for dinner. We’ve got you set up at a hotel in Alexandria. There’s a decent restaurant there.”
“I can wait.”
“There’s that ‘but’ again.”
She considered her next words carefully. “I’m just wondering why they have you escorting me around. Seems a little beneath your rank.”
“It is,” he said, “but I volunteered.” He slowed his brisk walk and turned to face her. “We all got the reports, and I know you’ve been taking a lot of flack out there for blowing the lid off this thing. Least I can do is make sure you scoot through this part of the process unscathed.”
She should be grateful Sharp was still taking a personal interest in her career, but a small part of her was offended at the idea she needed protection from the fallout of her decision to report members of her platoon when she learned of the scheme they were running under her command. “I expected pushback at the base, but even here?”
He nodded. “Bloomfield’s the exception. There are a few of the top brass who wish you’d gone through back channels to report what you found.”
“And you?” She asked the question before she thought it through, and once the words were out, she braced for his answer. If her mentor said she should have kept quiet, she wasn’t sure she could ever recover her respect for him.
“You did the right thing, no question. But you had to know there would be fallout.”
“What did you teach me? It’s a bureaucracy. There’s always fallout.”
“Fair enough.” He started walking again, double time. “Come on, soldier. The lawyers are waiting.”
Later that evening, Zoey emerged from a steaming shower, slipped into the courtesy robe, and contemplated the room service menu. After a grueling afternoon answering dozens of practice questions, all she wanted was some real food, a stiff drink, and solitude. She placed her order and turned on the TV, hoping to escape into a mindless comedy or a thrilling adventure movie. She clicked quickly past the local channels and the Home Shopping Network, but when she landed on MSNBC, she froze. The screen filled with the image of her savior from the airport, Rook Daniels, standing next to a handsome couple at a podium, fielding questions from reporters. Based on the time, Zoey figured the news conference had taken place a few hours ago. New York City. So, that’s where Rook had been headed when she’d boarded the helo in the private terminal at National. Zoey turned up the volume.
“Well-known DC fixer Rook Daniels appeared with her client, US Representative Buster Jenkins and his wife, Farah Hamil, to answer questions about the breaking news that lewd photos of Jenkins showed up in an online chat room. We have a panel assembled to discuss the fallout, but first let’s go to our New York affiliate for the highlights of the press conference.”
The screen changed to show a tall blond reporter standing outside the St. Regis in downtown New York. Zoey had never been there, but she recognized the iconic building from movies.
“Good evening, Chris,” the reporter said. “The press conference was what we’ve come to expect from Daniels. She put her clients front and center for the camera at a distinguished locale and let them speak directly to the press, but there was no doubt they’d been well-prepped to field any questions lobbed their way. Jenkins denied the charges. Hamil stood by her man. No surprises here.”
“There’s been speculation that Farah Hamil has been planning to launch her own campaign for mayor of New York. Any word on that and whether her husband’s troubles will have an impact on her political future?”
“The question definitely came up, and I have a clip to show how it went down.”
Zoey turned the volume up, her gaze riveted on Rook who leaned into the microphone at the podium and called on a reporter from the New York Times.
“What impact will the pending charges have on Councilwoman Hamil’s expected announcement for the mayoral run?”
“Clever, Charlie,” Rook said with an engaging smile. “First of all, there are no pending charges, merely an investigation. Second, the only expectation Farah Hamil has right now is that you will report fairly and objectively about her husband’s case and give their family the space to deal with these troubling accusations. One more question,” Rook said, turning her attention to the other reporters in the crowd.
Zoey smiled at the screen, both charmed and annoyed by Rook’s evasive, yet telling doublespeak. If she were inclined to gamble, she’d lay odds that Farah Hamil would be divorced and running for mayor of New York within the year. But what really captured her attention about the coverage on TV was Rook. If possible, she looked even more handsome than she had at the airport. Clearly comfortable in front of the cameras, she assumed her role of “fixer” with ease. While normally Zoey would find the moniker abhorrent, Rook had certainly fixed things for her when she’d needed help, so she really couldn’t judge. Besides, even if she didn’t care for Rook’s chosen profession, she couldn’t deny Rook looked good doing it, and she certainly couldn’t deny she enjoyed watching the show.
Rook stood at the podium, well practiced at not blinking at the prolonged burst of shutter flashes or the onslaught of prurient questions about the naked photos of the congressman. Eyes focused on the press crowded in front of her, Rook still felt the palpable discomfort of her client, US Representative Buster Jenkins who was posed ramrod straight next to his steely-eyed wife. Rook had coached them well in the time they’d had since her helicopter had landed, but she still would have preferred better casting for this press conference. Unfortunately, while she was very selective about whom she chose to represent, her clients rarely came from central casting.
She’d first met Buster years ago, before he’d started his political career, when he married noted lawyer Farah Hamil. Farah was a long time acquaintance from law school, but the wedding invitation was the first time Rook had heard from her since their graduation. Rook attended the wedding, more for the opportunity to see other friends from their class than because she was invested in the couple’s future happiness, and she’d sensed from the beginning Buster and Farah were a typical power couple, destined to either promote or implode each other’s success. Like similar couples before them, they appeared to have entered a tacit agreement to escalate Buster’s political ambitions first, but the political gossip mill was already churning about Farah’s expected announcement to run for mayor of New York.
Until this week, when the pictures were splashed on the front page of the Enquirer, showing Buster in a compromising position with another woman, a much younger woman. Panicked about her own political future, Farah had contacted Rook’s office and implored her to do her magic to make it all go away as quickly as possible. After an in-depth conversation with Farah about the potential options and an intensive video conference with the couple last night, they’d agreed to a press conference to get in front of the story.
So far the questions had been probing, but Rook handled them with ease, deflecting where necessary and hitting the issue of privacy hard, but it was time to wrap this circus up. “One more question,” Rook said, pointing to the political reporter from Vanity Fair. “Diane?”
“Is there any evidence the photos have been tampered with in any way, so they are not what they appear to be?”
Rook nodded. “I’m not at liberty to share any such evidence with you at this time, but it’s clear someone is trying to impugn Congressman Jenkins’s excellent reputation for good character. I will say this.” She paused and met several key sets of eyes in the crowd of reporters. “Anyone can make anything look real on the Internet.” She glanced back at the troubled couple. “On behalf of Congressman Jenkins and his wife, I’d like to thank you all for being here. They are both anxious to put this nightmare behind them and return to serving the citizens of New York. You may contact my office for updates.” Rook ignored the continued chorus of shouted questions and walked away from the cameras. She placed an arm around Buster and escorted him and Farah through the private exit at the back of the hotel ballroom that had been designated for their use. The getaway plan brought up memories of rushing through the back halls of the airport with Zoey Granger at her side, and she wished she were with Zoey pursuing that chase instead of this one.
When Rook was certain they were alone, she motioned for the couple to stop.
“That was brilliant,” Buster said, “Ending with the assertion the photos are fake. That’s going to be the lead.”
“Except for one thing,” Rook said. She turned to Farah and fixed her with a stare. “Do you want to tell him or should I?”
“What?” Buster asked, looking furtively between the two of them.
Farah cleared her throat. “The photos aren’t fake and anyone with half a brain can figure that out.”
“Well,” Buster stretched out the word. “At least the assertion buys us some time to come up with a new defense.” He play-punched Rook on the shoulder. “Isn’t that why we’re paying you the big bucks?”
Rook shook her head. “There’s not enough money in the world to create fact out of fiction. Delay is all you get, but you’re right, I tossed out the idea to give Farah time to decide what she wants to do, and I think there’s something she wants to tell you.” She watched as Buster’s expression spun through a list of emotions, from surprise to shock, finally landing on denial.
“You can’t leave me,” he said to Farah. “Not now. Hell, you’re about to announce.”
“Rook thinks I’ll make a much more sympathetic candidate as the spurned, but strong wife who chose not to stand by her man, especially if it means I lose the baggage of an adulterer.”
Rook winced at the attribution. She’d merely pointed out the options and let Farah choose her future. She wholeheartedly agreed with the choice, but she’d have found a way to make other options work if Farah decided to salvage her marriage. She might choose her clients, but she was being paid to get the outcome of their choice, and no one was better at arguing both sides.
An hour later, Rook was back in her room at the Peninsula Hotel, lying back on the bed, contemplating the room service menu. Farah had invited her to dinner at Gramercy Tavern, but Rook knew no matter how well intentioned, downtime would quickly turn into more conversation about Farah’s marital woes and political prospects. Rook had had enough rescuing damsels in distress for the day, although she hardly considered Major Zoey Granger a damsel in distress. No, Zoey had been more like a soldier out of her battle zone. Rook closed her eyes and played back portions of the afternoon at the airport, running slow motion past the part where Zoey tugged her hair out of the tight bun and her auburn waves cascaded onto the shoulders of her crisp uniform. Uniforms were usually a no-go for Rook, but the sharp contrast of Zoey’s vulnerability with the hard edge of her insignias intrigued her, and she was in no hurry to brush Zoey Granger to the back of her mind.
Her phone rang and she glanced at the caller ID, instantly recognizing the White House exchange. She answered with a mock stern tone. “Tell the president I’m not interested,” Rook said.
“That’s what I used to say, but look at me now.”
Rook laughed at the sound of her old friend Julia Scott’s voice. They’d had a running joke since Julia had accepted the president’s offer to become his chief of staff. Julia had tried, on many occasions, to get Rook to join the administration as an advisor on strategy, but Rook had made it clear she wasn’t interested. “You whisper into the ear of the most powerful man in the free world,” Rook said. “Of course you had to say yes to the job. I, on the other hand, like being my own boss.”
“Keep telling yourself that. Pretty sure whoever pays you owns you.”
“The truth hurts.”
“Maybe so, but I’m still not coming to work for you or your guy.”
“‘My guy,’ she says. Whatever. I didn’t call to pressure you this time. I called to invite you to a party.”
“What? Are you finally making an honest woman out of Addison? Beltway rumors say you’ve been essentially shacking up for the last six months.”
“Between you and me, the rumors are true, but it’s been a little complicated trying to balance our jobs and our love life.”
Rook had no doubt it was true. The mix of president’s chief of staff with the chief justice of the United States resulted in a relationship fraught with trip lines. “I can see the headlines now. DC power couple tipping the balance of power. Couldn’t you find a nice nobody to fall in love with?”
“When you find someone and settle down, then you can tease me about my love life. Until then, button it up.”
“Fair enough. So what’s the occasion if not a wedding?”
“It’s Addison’s birthday. I’m having a thing. It’s kind of gotten out of hand, and now there are going to be way too many people coming, half of whom I barely know. Promise you’ll show up and keep me sane?”
“You know you can count on me even if I won’t be your White House lackey.”
“Someday, Daniels, someday. By the way, nice job with the press conference tonight. When is Farah going to divorce the creep?”
“No comment, even for you. You’ll have to hear about any fallout in the gossip columns just like everyone else.” Rook decided to fish for a little gossip of her own. “Hey, what do you know about the Senate hearing on Nine Tech?”
“Plenty. Why? Something specific you’re after?”
Rook started to tell Julia about meeting Zoey at the airport but hesitated. It had been a chance meeting and she’d done a good deed, but it was nothing more than that. Telling Julia felt like she was making more out of it. “Nothing. I saw an article in the paper this morning. Just curious.”
“I think it’s all in the dustup phase now. The hearings are just a way for the senators to show their constituents they’re guarding the coffers. They’ll grill the girl, shake a stick at the Joint Chiefs, and move onto the next drama du jour.”
“You were talking about the major who exposed the corruption and you said girl. Besides, shouldn’t you be calling her soldier or some other military thing? The patriarchy you’re part of is rubbing off on you.”
“Look who’s talking. Pretty sure you just stuck up for a man-creep of the highest order while making his wife stand at his side for the camera. If you want me to turn in my feminist card, you’re going to have to go first, my friend.”
“Touché.” Rook heard a knock at the door. “As fun as this little catch-up has been, my dinner just showed up and I’m starving. Count me in for Addison’s party and I’ll see you soon.” She hung up and answered the door to usher in the room service waiter impatiently waiting while he arranged the table with a T-bone, loaded baked potato, and a salad with more toppings than greens. When he started fiddling with the bottle of Cabernet, she shoved a twenty in his hand and told him to leave the bottle opener. Solitude, food, and the better part of a bottle of very expensive wine were the only things she wanted right now. As she settled in to enjoy them all, she wondered if Zoey was tucked away in a DC hotel room doing the same thing.
Zoey reached for the pitcher and filled her water glass with deliberate slowness. She was on her fifth day of Senate hearings with no end in sight. She’d repeated, numerous times, the full details of how she’d discovered that managers at Nine Tech were bribing soldiers under her command to requisition munitions and other equipment in exchange for kickbacks, including how she’d uncovered that the soldier who ran the scheme on the Army end was also selling the excess equipment on the black market and double dipping from the already profitable enterprise.
She’d taken no glory from her findings. These men and women had been under her command, and their crimes reflected on her abilities. Her superiors had suggested to her more than once that she keep the disciplinary action in-house to save face, but she’d ignored the well-intentioned advice. If Nine Tech was bribing soldiers in her unit, chances were good they were making similar deals with other military bases as well. Not coming forward simply wasn’t an option. Not one she could live with anyway.
“Major, please describe for us again how you were able to detect the discrepancies?” the senior senator from Texas, Connie Armstrong, asked. Before Zoey could answer, the senator added, “I’m interested because I think your methods should probably be implemented system-wide if we want to prevent this kind of large-scale looting of our limited military coffers in the future.”
Zoey cleared her throat, pushing down her first response that questioned if it was a good use of taxpayer dollars to keep her away from her command to answer the same questions, over and over. But Senator Armstrong had lobbed her a softball, designed to help her look like a hero instead of a failed commander, so she set aside her frustration and repeated the information she’d relayed no less than a dozen times in the past few days.
Two hours later, the committee chair thanked her for her time and service, excused her from her subpoena, and adjourned the committee for the day. Zoey turned to the Pentagon lawyer beside her. “Is it over?”
“For now, for you, yes,” he said as he packed up his briefcase. “They’ll start on the not so friendly witnesses next. Are you headed back to your base? I’ll need to be able to get in touch with you in case the committee has any follow-up questions about the documents we provided.”
Zoey had wondered several times over the past week what her future would hold, but she hadn’t let herself dwell on it. But now that he’d asked, she realized she didn’t have a clue. She fudged. “I’m supposed to check in with General Sharp as soon as we’re done here to get my orders. I’ll get you my updated contact info as soon as I know.”
She tucked away his card, hoping she never saw him again, and left the building. It was just after three on Friday afternoon and the mass exodus of legislators was in full swing. She should probably head back to the Pentagon right away, but it was a gorgeous spring day and she hadn’t had an opportunity to experience anything in the city so she lingered for a moment. The hearings had taken place in the Hart Building, a couple of blocks from the Capitol, and she started out in that direction, determined to at least capture a couple of pictures to send to her mother back home. As she walked onto Constitution Avenue, she was surrounded by history with the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress to her right and the Capitol building to her left. She walked by a group of tourists posing for pictures with the statues in front of the Library of Congress and wished she were here under different circumstances, dressed in jeans, T-shirt, and sandals with no agenda other than to soak up some history.
The buzz of her phone rousted her out of her daydreams. “Granger,” she answered the unknown caller.
“Major, I hear it went well.”
She recognized David Sharp’s voice and seized on the lifeline since he was likely to have answers about her future within the service. “Glad that’s what you heard, although that’s a little spooky since we just finished up. I guess it went okay, but it’s kind of hard to tell when you’re being chewed up and spit out over and over again.”
Sharp laughed. “Been there. Trust me, it doesn’t get any easier. Happy you survived.”
She waited, wondering if he’d called just to check in or if he had something definitive to tell her about her future. He rambled a bit longer about his own experience testifying before Congress, and when he paused to draw a breath, she seized the opportunity. “When should I report back to base?”
“We should talk about that. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I called. Take the rest of the afternoon off but plan on sticking around for a few days. There’s a function tomorrow night and I’d like you to go with me. Service dress. I’ll pick you up at your hotel at seven sharp. Let me know if you need anything between now and then.”
His conclusory tone didn’t invite any questions, but she had plenty. Why was she sticking around? What was this function? Did she still have a future with the Army or was he taking a little extra time to let her down easy? “Will do,” she said, but he’d already clicked off the call. Resigned to waiting until the next day to learn her fate, she focused on the right now. If she hurried, maybe she could fit in a tour or two before they shut down for the day. Her mind drifted to Rook Daniels and the way she’d effortlessly guided her through the airport. No doubt as a DC insider, she’d know exactly where to go and what to do in the capital. But Rook wasn’t here now and she was on her own. Zoey pulled up the camera on her phone and snapped a few photos of the buildings lining Constitution Avenue, and then made her way to the tall columns of the Supreme Court building. She might not be from a big city and she definitely wasn’t an insider, but she’d do just fine on her own.
Rook swung through the door to her office suite and waved at Ben, the receptionist.
“Jenkins’s office has phoned exactly seven times in the last fifteen minutes,” he called out cheerfully as she walked briskly down the hall.
“On it.” She stopped in front of her assistant’s desk and waited impatiently for her to finish her call.
“That’s right,” Lacy said into the phone. “We’ll have a full statement within the hour.” She shook her head. “No advance copies, for anyone. Thanks for—” she stopped abruptly and then muttered “asshole” as she hung up. “That little jerk from Fox thinks he’s entitled to the inside scoop. He’ll get his copy of the press release exactly five minutes after everyone else.”
Rook waved a hand in front of her face. “Earth to Lacy.”
“Hey, Rook. About time you got here. Everyone’s in the conference room. They should have a draft ready for you.”
“Maybe you could lead with that next time. Any messages not about this case?”
“Several, but they can all wait.” Lacy flicked her hands at Rook. “Go, now.”
“Trying to remember why I hired the bossiest assistant in the history of assistants,” Rook said as she walked toward her firm’s conference room.
“Ignoring you,” Lacy yelled back.
Rook pushed through the conference room door and took a second to watch her team at work. Images projected onto a light box on the wall captured the most important aspects of the Buster Jenkins case including the bombshell that had interrupted her afternoon meeting with a high level executive from Diamond Credit who wanted advice about dealing with a recent hacking scandal that had resulted in the exposure of their clients’ private information.
Buster’s case had taken a wicked turn. What had started as an embarrassing case of infidelity had turned criminal this afternoon when FBI agents showed up at his DC office with a search warrant. Rook’s phone had started blowing up during her Diamond Credit meeting and hadn’t stopped since. Lacy had George on standby to drive her back to the office, and on the way Rook had contacted one of her sources at the US Attorney’s office to see what she could find out. What she’d learned had been shocking, and her first call was to Farah to see if she was still hired to work the case. To her surprise, Farah had told her to fix it and money was no object. With her full team assembled, she planned to do just that.
“Talk to me,” she said to the room, before turning to her senior associate, Blake Wyatt. “What do we have so far?”
“The FBI showed up at three o’clock,” Blake said, reading from the notes in her right hand, while she ran her other hand through her short blond hair. “They had the Capitol Police with them and carted out a couple of boxes and four computers from Jenkins’s office. As of right now, Jenkins has not been arrested.”
“Is he going to be?” Rook asked.
“Too soon to tell,” Harry Etheridge, her other associate, said. “We have a copy of the warrant but not the underlying affidavit, so nobody knows what the allegations are yet.”
Rook’s phone pinged and she glanced at the screen. “Well, we know now.” She tossed her phone at the man seated to her right, Eric Pryor, their resident computer expert. “The affidavit is attached to that email. It’ll be encrypted.”
“Gimme just a sec,” Eric said as he typed on her phone, and then his computer. A moment later, he pointed at the front of the room. “There you go.”
Rook digested the words on the screen and waited for the rest of her team to catch up. The affidavit to the search warrant accused Buster of texting nude photos of himself to an underage girl he’d met in an online chat room. Suddenly, his marital infidelity and reelection prospects were the least of his worries since he was looking at possible prison time and sex offender registration.
“Holy shit,” said Harry. “Did anyone else see this coming?”
“Sure,” Blake, the always skeptical former CIA agent, said. “I always thought he was a little skeevy, but I figured if Farah was married to him, then he must have some redeeming quality. Guess I was wrong.”
“We need to get out in front of this. Harry, get Paul Hanson on the phone,” she said, referring to the managing partner at one of the top law firms in DC. “Tell him we want a female partner assigned to the case. Get whoever it is a copy of this affidavit and tell her all statements need to be vetted by us before they go public.” She turned to Eric. “You cloned Buster’s computer, didn’t you?”
“I did, but only his personal one and the one he uses at his office. From what we can tell, the feds seized several others.”
“Those probably belonged to his staff. Someone needs to talk to them as soon as possible. Blake?”
“On it. I’ve got their names and addresses, and I’ll head out as soon as we craft the statement.”
“Go now.” Rook pointed at her head. “I already know what we’re going to say. Senator Jenkins is fully cooperating with law enforcement, and he trusts in the criminal justice system to ensure justice is done. No press conference, just issue the statement through the usual channels.”
“Doesn’t sound like a very vigorous defense to me,” Harry said. “You sure we want to be that blasé about these allegations?”
“I’m certain we don’t want to overstate our case. I don’t expect we’re going to be on this one much longer, and I don’t want to put Hanson’s firm in a box by promising something no one’s going to be able to deliver. Farah’s exact words were ‘do no harm.’ She’s telling us she’s ready to move on from the not-so-honorable Buster Jenkins. We’re here for triage and that’s it.”
“Such a shame,” Harry said. “I love a good kiddie porn case, said no one ever.”
“Once the statement’s out, let’s go full tilt on opposition research for Farah,” Rook said. “I want to know every little, itty, bitty thing anyone has on her. We’ve got one month before she has to file and our job is to clear a path. Understood?”
The three of them nodded, and she knew she could count on them to make miracles happen. “Eric, can I see you in my office in five?”
She left the group to their work and walked back to her office, waving off Lacy who tried to waylay her at the door. “I need a few minutes alone. Let Eric in in five.”
Lacy looked at her watch and nodded.
Rook shut the door and paced in front of the windows that looked out over the courtyard in the center of her building. The offices of the Daniels’s Agency occupied the entire three floors of the historic New Orleans style brownstone, choice real estate she’d purchased several years ago. She and her team didn’t need an entire building, but she’d steadfastly refused to parcel out the spacious offices despite the enormous financial benefit she could reap from renting out the extra space. Her clients expected privacy, and being the only occupant of the building afforded them that. Besides, she was a firm believer that the appearance of success attracted more of it. Since they’d relocated from their smaller offices in Arlington, the caliber of their clientele had grown exponentially.
Farah had been one of her first clients, and her needs had been simple back then. Opposition research to help Farah’s young, handsome, but not the brightest guy, husband get elected to the House of Representatives. Rook had found a few murmurs of office flings, but nothing anyone was willing to substantiate at the time. She’d given all the information to Farah and let her and Buster make the call about whether to risk the rumors turning into prime time news stories. One woman came forward and told her local news affiliate she’d slept with Buster in exchange for promises of career advancement, but she quickly retracted her story when Rook visited her to discuss her frequent use of cocaine at campaign parties, a tale her associates had been only too happy to tell. Rook hadn’t threatened or bribed. She’d merely pointed out that if Jenkins really was a philanderer, the news outlets would find out as easily as she had been able to find out about the woman’s drug use. She wasn’t particularly proud of the method, but in the end she figured she saved the woman from an embarrassing public ordeal.
“Eric’s at the door,” Lacy’s voice boomed through the intercom. “You ready?”
“Yes, send him in.”
Eric, dressed in skinny jeans, a tweed vest, and a vintage tie with a full Windsor, was not your typical Mountain Dew sipping, basement dwelling hacker, but no one was better at busting through secure systems than he was.
“Diamond Credit,” Rook said without preamble. “I met with their president today.”
“Last I heard, almost a quarter of a million accounts compromised.”
“They think it might be twice that. The FDIC is all over them, and they need some cover. Only thing I can think of is to find out who did the hacking so we can start pointing fingers in their direction. Maybe even file a lawsuit.”
“I’m no lawyer, but I don’t think you’re going to get anywhere with that. Whoever did it is probably sipping ice cold shots of vodka and posting videos of a shirtless Putin on the dark net.”
“Exactly. We don’t want or need a real lawsuit. That’ll just drag things out forever and the only people who’ll win are the thousand-dollar-an-hour lawyers. We just need someone to blame who isn’t our guy.” She handed him a jump drive. “Here’s your front door access to their system. Get in the back door and see whose trail you’re following. Can you do that?”
He laughed. “You’re kidding, right? I’ll get right on it. Anything else?”
“Not right now, but stay close. I don’t know what else might blow up on this Jenkins thing.”
“Can I just say how much I hate these cases? We need a juicy political scandal, not more of these ‘who cheated on who’ deals.”
Rook laughed. “When the guy who cheats is a congressman, it is a political scandal.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do and I totally agree, but these things are our bread and butter. I promise I’ll do some networking and see if I can drum up something more to your liking.”
“That’s why you’re the boss.” Eric started toward the door. “I’ll call you when I find something.”
Rook sank into her desk chair. She hated domestics as much as Eric, but when you specialized in the people business, they couldn’t be helped. The Diamond Credit thing was more up her alley—much easier to advise a corporate entity devoid of emotion than two individuals watching their relationship destruct, especially when one of them turns out to be a sex offender.
But working with people sometimes had its benefits. Her mind wandered back to earlier in the week when she’d helped Zoey Granger escape the clutches of the press. The brass at the Pentagon should have taken better care of their star witness—at the very minimum making sure she got off the plane without being mobbed—and if she’d been advising them she would’ve told them so. Rook had caught some of the coverage of the hearings, and although Zoey was generally unflappable, it was clear from her occasional expressions of shock when asked a probing personal question that had nothing to do with the investigation, this was her first time being caught in the cross fire between the military might and the elected officials that funded them. The paper said her testimony was wrapping up today, and Rook wondered if she was headed back to her base. Images of Zoey’s long, sculpted legs appeared in her head, and Rook knew her musings were about more than Zoey’s case.
Lacy’s voice buzzed through the intercom. “Lyra’s school play is tonight so I’m headed out for the day. I bought that crazy expensive bottle of Scotch for you to take to Addison Riley’s birthday party and it’s on your bar along with the invite. You need anything else?”
“No, I’m good. Tell Lyra to break a leg.”
Rook looked over at the Scotch. She hadn’t talked to Julia all week and she’d already forgotten about the party. After a week in the public eye, she’d rather spend the weekend in the office, catching up on work, but maybe a little socializing would be good for business. An image of Zoey Granger’s legs popped into her head again. Maybe good for some relaxation too.