Game Day minus 42 days
Blair Powell woke to the teasing scent of cherry blossoms and, remembering today was going to be a special day, turned onto her side with a smile. Eyes still closed, not quite ready to relinquish the seductive cocoon of almost-sleep, she reached out for Cam, patted the still warm sheets beside her, and murmured, “Where are you and why are you awake?”
“I thought I’d go for a run before we left for the airport,” Cam called from the bathroom.
Blair turned onto her back and squinted at the tiny ray of sunshine sneaking through the half-open blinds. Yes, cherry blossom season in DC was an international event, drawing hundreds of thousands to the city for those precious few weeks in April when the famed trees burst into color. Yes, their condo was perfectly situated to provide an exquisite sampling of the sight and smell of the glorious sprays of white and red blossoms. Hence the open window.
And nope, not ready to embrace even the most gorgeous of spring mornings just yet. She closed her eyes again. She was married to the sexiest, smartest, most amazing woman she’d ever met—but, hey, nothing was perfect, right? Her idea of a perfect morning was sleeping in until a decent hour, like, at least eight, reading the newspapers—something probably no one on the entire East Coast other than her and her father actually did any longer—and having lazy, long, multiorgasmic sex. Of course, that almost never happened, considering her wife’s annoying early-morning habits. Like running at the butt crack of dawn, heading out for the office before fifty percent of the world was even awake, and just being so damn…cheery. Yes, yes, she knew Cam had a lot on her mind being Advisor to the President on Counterterrorism and Homeland Security. There were dozens of others in as many agencies charged with counterterrorism, but Cam was the only one her father relied on when it really mattered. Cam was the only one she trusted to protect her father, no matter how much she respected the Secret Service agents on his detail. Cam was Cam. And that was, well, everything.
“Why couldn’t you have been a plumber? I like women who work with tools. Women wearing tool belts are hot.”
“I work with tools,” Cam said to the sound of dresser drawers opening and closing.
“That’s a gun, not a tool,” Blair muttered.
“Weapon. We call it a weapon. And it comes with a harness.”
Blair had a quick flash of an altogether different type of harness, and heat pooled between her thighs. “Are you naked?”
“If you couldn’t be a plumber, why couldn’t you at least be a wolf? Why did you have to be a lion?”
“Wolves—they like to sleep in and have sex in the morning. Lions have to start running around as soon as the sun comes up.”
“Okay. You’re really sexy in the morning.”
Blair snorted, pleased and a lot more awake. Cherry blossoms and Cam. Impossible to ignore.
“Besides”—Cam brushed a kiss over her forehead—“you can’t be cranky this morning. We’re going on vacation.”
Blair shot out a hand, gripped Cam’s T-shirt in her fist, and yanked her down for a proper kiss. When she was convinced she had Cam’s attention, she loosened her grip. “If today’s the first day of our vacation, why aren’t you in bed doing your duty?”
Cam grinned. “That’s on my agenda.”
Blair would’ve rolled her eyes, but it was hard to do that when Cam looked so good in her running clothes. Sleeveless tee over a stretchy hardly-there jog bra, black running shorts that stopped midway down her very excellent thighs, and broad bare shoulders with just the right amount of sculpted muscles to dig her fingers into. Best of all, that gleam in her storm-gray eyes said she’d be taking very good care of her agenda in the not-too-distant future.
“You know, you could come back to bed now and run on the beach in Maui tonight.”
“Maybe I’ve got other things on my agenda for this evening.” Cam absently pushed a shock of midnight black hair off her forehead and edged her hip onto the side of the bed.
Blair propped herself up on an elbow and stroked Cam’s bare thigh. “I thought you said that agenda item was scheduled for this morning.”
“I was planning on a repeat performance.”
“Oh. Well, then.” Blair glanced at her watch on the charger next to the bed. “It’s five thirty. In the a.m. We don’t have to be at the airport until eleven. Which means if you’re back here in an hour, you’ll have plenty of time to attend to everything on my list.”
“How about if I return with coffee, croissant, and purpose.”
Blair laughed. “I’ll take a double dose of purpose, please.”
Cam kissed her again. “As you wish.”
Blair cupped the back of Cam’s head and drew her down. She kissed her slowly, taking her time, reminding them both of everything that mattered. “Go on, then.”
“I won’t be long. I love you.”
“I love you too.” Blair settled down into the pillows, turned her back to the glorious late-April morning, and smiled. Seven days with nothing but blue waters, warm white sand, and Cam. She wouldn’t think about what waited for them when they got back. Six weeks until the convention. Six weeks, pushing 24 / 7 on the reelection campaign, speeches and dinners and reporters in a campaign that was going to get nasty.
Seven days before she had to think of that.
Old Executive Office Building (OEOB)
Oakes Weaver lunged for the ball, flicked her racket as her shoulder hit the floor, and watched the shot carom off the near side wall and rocket past Evyn Daniels to the front wall before she ducked, rolled, and came back up onto her feet. Evyn just managed to get her racket on it and sent it skidding onto the floor.
“Nice shot,” Evyn gasped as she dragged an arm across her forehead. “Game to you.”
“That makes us even,” Oakes said, lifting the hem of her shirt to wipe the sweat from her face.
Evyn Daniels trotted over to her. “On the day, maybe, but I think you’re still a game ahead of me on balance.”
Oakes grinned. “Two.”
Evyn snorted. “The first game didn’t count. I was going easy on you because you were a newbie.”
“And I was going easy on you because, well…you’re not.”
“Yeah, right. Forgot for a second you’re practically a preschooler.” Evyn grinned.
Oakes was used to being the youngest in just about every group and wasn’t bothered by the kidding. Less than a dozen years separated her and Evyn, and Oakes wasn’t the newbie on PPD any longer. Jonas Clark, the new guy, was twenty-four, a year younger than her. Funny how ten months on the president’s protection detail could make such a difference. Of course, a hell of a lot had happened during those ten months, including a terrorist attack on the president’s life.
“Yeah, yeah.” Oakes gathered up her gear. “Barney’s for breakfast?”
As they left the racquetball court and headed for the locker room, Evyn asked, “So, leading the advance team is pretty big-time. Nervous?”
“What? Nah,” Oakes said. “It’s not like I haven’t done an advance before.”
One of the first things Oakes had learned at FLETC was never to admit fear. Or that she wasn’t totally ready for whatever was coming. She trusted her training and believed in herself. Okay, maybe she was a little nervous about heading up the advance team for the president’s trip to his party’s national convention. But she knew what needed to be done. She’d been running the list in her head ever since Tom had told her she’d be heading up the preparations for POTUS’s arrival in Philadelphia. Secure and clear the airspace, map evac routes, identify safe houses, assess medical preparedness, review intelligence from the local FBI and police antiterrorist divisions, coordinate crowd control with local law enforcement, arrange surveillance of Class 3 threat individuals, establish the dog check zones, schedule highway closures for the motorcade…
“Running the list?” Evyn murmured, pushing open the door to the locker room.
Oakes laughed. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
Evyn smiled. “The first time I led the advance team, I’d wake up a couple times a night running everything through my head. Don’t worry—it’s not like you’re out there on your own.”
“Yeah,” Oakes said. “I know that. The first get-to-know-everybody trip last month went fine.”
“No griping over the feds moving in and bossing everyone around when a presidential visit’s involved,” Evyn said.
Oakes’s chest tightened. “After what happened on the train trip—”
“Which somehow the White House managed to keep off the air,” Evyn reminded her.
“True. But, man—I think about it. She’s still out there somewhere.”
“Her and probably a few thousand other loonies,” Evyn said. “So we all think about it every day. That’s the job, right?”
“Right.” The ball of nerves in Oakes’s middle unraveled. She wasn’t alone anymore. She had the team. She didn’t need much more than that. A couple of good friends, her parents, even though she hardly ever saw them anymore, and the team. Life was good. She didn’t have time for anything else. At least that’s what she told herself.
Across the Delaware River from Philadelphia
Camden, New Jersey
“New members are arriving soon,” the familiar voice said without preamble when Matthew Ford answered the phone. “We’ll need you to be ready.”
His contact—controller was a more honest term for the man who had determined his every move for the last fifteen months—didn’t bother to apologize for waking him up. Not that he had. Matthew had been awake most of the night. The bedroom, barely large enough for the double bed, had one narrow window through which a limp breeze barely managed to stir the stale air. The girl in his bed smelled of some too-sweet perfume and sex, and for some reason, her nearness made him want to pace. When he should have been thinking about fucking her, he was trying to shake off the antsy sensation of something being not quite right.
Maybe this call would finally change all that.
“We’ve been ready for more than two years. Ever since the rigged election threatened to bury our identity under an ocean of color,” Matthew answered, standing at the open window of the third-floor squat on Canal Street. Trash—plastic soda bottles, soggy bits of cardboard food containers, Styrofoam cups, and mountains of other unidentifiable garbage—floated up against the banks of the Delaware River below him. Philadelphia on the other side of the water rose out of a shroud of rain clouds. Rain again. He hated fucking spring and the constant drizzle. He was fucking sick of waiting too. Training and preparing so he could wait some more. He peered at the cloudy city skyline and tried to make out the Convention Center.
“Are you ready to stand up for our heritage?” his contact asked.
“We would have already if you’d given us the green light.”
“Your dedication to the cause is admirable, but we needed the right stage from which to be heard. Now we have it, and the plan is in motion.”
“And we are ready,” Matthew swore.
“You understand there will be obstacles. Sacrifice may be required.”
“Remember, trust only those who have proven themselves.”
“We’ll need intelligence, and with Gary—”
Matthew gritted his teeth. They knew his name, but he didn’t know his controller. Oh, he knew the supreme leader’s name—the whole world knew that. He even knew the names of some of central command. After all, their organization represented the real Americans, and the leaders, at least, spoke up for all the oppressed members of the white race. When he was recruited and sent to join the northeastern cell, however, they’d made it clear that his cell leader, as well as members of other cells, would remain anonymous. Security reasons. Made sense, but it also made him feel invisible. He didn’t want to be invisible any longer. He’d been invisible his entire life, growing up without, watching others make it because they were special. Special. Right. Some of them weren’t even Americans. When he’d discovered Identity America, with its platform of anti-immigration, anti-integration, and anti-welfare for the parasites who drained the country of resources and power, he knew he’d found his place. Now he’d have a chance to be seen.
“Timetables,” he snarled, “motorcade routes, personnel lists. How are we going to get them?”
“Let us worry about that,” responded the smooth baritone with just a hint of an unidentifiable accent. Matthew imagined the man to be from somewhere in the Midwest, where so many of the true believers originated.
“And what about the weapons?”
“Will be delivered in due time.” A pause. “Destroy your phone as usual.”
The line went dead, and Matthew threw the phone across the room. It crashed against the wall and splintered.
“I could have used that,” the girl in the bed said. She sat up against the pillows, her small bare breasts jutting out above the rumpled sheet draped across her waist.
“You know you can’t use it.”
“I could have sold it.”
“No, you couldn’t. Someone might trace it back to us. What do you need money for?”
She smiled. “A little blow would be nice.”
“No drugs, I told you that.”
She sighed and pushed the sheets aside, parting her legs. “Then maybe you can take my mind off my needs.”
With a sigh, he stripped off his boxers and climbed onto the bed. At least he could pass the time while he waited for the world to learn his name.
Newport, Rhode Island
Ari Rostof climbed down the boardwalk stairs from the rear of the house to the stretch of private beach on Newport Harbor. Across the way on the peninsula, the public marina bustled with boat launches as seasonal people returned. Her Jeanneau floated gently under the covered dock adjacent to the boathouse. The weather report called for highs near sixty. The water would be rough, and the sail probably cold, but she needed some time alone to recharge. Time on the water away from the phone calls, the maneuvering, the careful placement of players on the giant chessboard that was her life. Most of the time she enjoyed the game of politics, an ever-shifting battle of allegiances, of promises made and promises broken—or, more often, bent—and somewhere beneath it all, the fragility of purpose.
Staying true to purpose was always a challenge in any game where the primary goal was to win. Standing on the far end of the dock, watching the whitecaps slap against the pilings, she considered the cost of winning. Relationships were fleeting, principles more gray than black and white, and trust as transitory as the latest contract. An empty bed and contacts instead of friends were the result. So far, she’d been willing to pay the price.
“Are you thinking of going out today?” Paul called from behind her. She looked over her shoulder, smiled at their boat master. She’d known the short, square man with the weathered face and all-seeing eyes since she was a child. Sturdy, solid, unchanging, and unchangeable. Him she trusted. “Thought I would.”
He shook his head. “Going to be a rough ride. Another week or two, it really will be spring.”
“Another week or two, I’ll be in DC.”
“They got nice water down there, I hear.”
“They do.” And I’ll have no time to enjoy it once the race is on.
“Imagine you won’t have a lot of time,” Paul said, reading her thoughts. “Senator Martinez this time, isn’t it? Who you’re working for?”
“That’s the one,” Ari said.
“So you going to get her reelected?”
Ari smiled. “You bet I am.”
He nodded. “Well, I’ll get the boat ready for you, then.”
Ari glanced up at the house, saw her father watching her from the upper deck. She waved, and he nodded before turning back to the house. He’d expect her for breakfast.
“I’ll be down in an hour or so.”
Her solitude postponed, Ari climbed back up to the house. Her father was in the dining room, seated at his usual place at the far end of the table, wearing his at home clothes—a casual polo and dark pants. His back was to the french doors that led out onto the wraparound deck. Ignoring the view. She sat on his left and angled her chair so she could catch a glimpse of the water.
“Bill Bailey wants to interview Martinez,” he said as he added cream to his coffee. His game was golf, and his deep tan and faint crow’s feet spoke of his frequent trips to the Florida courses over the winter. Trips, Ari knew, that served a dual purpose. Florida was a favorite location for foreign travelers to mix business with pleasure.
“About the immigration bill?” Ari lifted the silver dome off the platter in the center of the table, speared a slice of french toast and several pieces of bacon.
“I imagine that will be part of it.”
“It’s a touchy issue right now. I’ll need to talk to him first, get a sense of where he’s going with it before I take it to the senator.”
“Give him a call, then. But if Martinez comes out strong—”
“Dad, I’ll need to talk to the senator first. You know I don’t discuss her policy platform with anyone outside the team.”
His mouth tightened. “And you think I can’t be trusted?”
She poured coffee into the china cup next to her plate. “I think you are a very astute businessman and that you have a great many interests, not all of which might be in line with those of my client.”
Ari met his gaze. Cool ice blue, like the ones she saw in the mirror every day. “I know that. Family is everything.”
USSS Command Central, OEOB
After a shower, a change of clothes, and a quick breakfast at Barney’s two blocks from the Old Executive Office Building, Oakes made it to the command center forty minutes before push. Half a dozen agents from the PPD plus surveillance and communications sat at workstations around the large room crowded with monitors, computers, and desks.
“Hey, did you bring me breakfast?” Fran Sanchez, part of the night working shift covering the president, called from across the room. Fran, straight dark hair swept back and trimmed at collar level, deep brown eyes perennially laughing, and a fast almost-always-amused smile, had been on the presidential detail a year longer than Oakes. If she minded Oakes being appointed lead on the advance to the convention, she didn’t show it.
“Course.” Oakes always checked who on the team had the overnight shift and brought in their breakfast orders. A little thing, but a surefire way to keep the unit tight. Food and drink were major currency in the USSS. She passed Fran the bag with a take-out egg-and-cheese burrito wrapped in aluminum foil. “The other one is for Kennedy.”
“Kennedy’s not here though, is he,” Fran said, taking them both out of the bag.
A deep voice announced from behind them, “Kennedy is right here. Kennedy knows all.”
Theodore Kennedy, tall, slim, with smooth light brown skin and starting to go gray early, close-cropped hair, glided between the forest of chairs with the graceful gait of the dancer he’d been before taking a right-hand turn into law enforcement.
Fran sniffed. “More like Kennedy has a nose like a bloodhound where food is concerned.”
Kennedy snagged the unopened burrito and carried it to a nearby desk. “Kennedy knows Oakes is a champion.”
Oakes grinned and slid into a chair at another station. Kennedy and Fran had been secretly dating for six months, a secret that everyone knew but didn’t mention. It wasn’t prohibited to date a colleague, but there was always the worry that personal relationships would become a distraction or a point of contention. No one doubted that either one would do their duty if called upon, but a team of a dozen or so people working together, sometimes 24 / 7 for weeks at a time, was pretty much the same as living in an extended family. Rivalries, bickering, and petty jealousies could make everyone’s day a chore. Oakes had to admit, though, as she fired up her computer, Fran and Kennedy seemed to make it work. She didn’t know a lot of people who could manage that. Her parents had been together forever, since right out of high school, and they seemed to have developed a kind of fond indifference, each living their own life in spheres that overlapped to some extent while going their own ways in many others. She wasn’t sure she actually saw the point. If friendship was the goal, she had plenty of that right here.
“Anything doing?” Oakes asked. She’d get the formal report at the push, but she liked to check in early in case something unexpected, like an OTR presidential trip for a burger or a jog around the National Mall, had been slipped into the schedule.
“Eagle is already in the castle,” Fran said.
Oakes scanned the rest of the morning schedule. POTUS wasn’t due to leave the White House until late morning for a meeting at the Justice Department. Tom Turner, the Special Agent in Charge of the Presidential Protection Division, had already detailed the agents for that trip. Oakes had an advance team meeting with transport midmorning. The rest of the day she’d be busy coordinating with the supervisors of the fifteen or so departments involved in the trip.
She pulled up the intelligence report summaries that funneled through in reams every day from various agencies, flagged items prioritized at the top. The vast majority of those would be updates on worldwide or domestic events that indicated any element of terrorist activity, from movements of suspected rebel camps half a world away to social media posts from homegrown right-wing neo-Nazis. One item halfway down the list caught her attention. Location: Philadelphia.
She clicked it open and scanned just as Evyn Daniels walked in looking like a recruiting poster in a sharply tailored blue suit, white shirt, and low-heeled ankle-high boots. She fit the image of her role as Assistant Special Agent in Charge without even trying. Oakes had to remember to pick up her own dry cleaning on a regular basis, although she’d finally caved and ordered bespoke suits. All the same, button-downs, a blazer, and dark pants were her usual working uniform.
“Morning, all,” Evyn said, carrying her coffee to a corner desk.
Fran and Kennedy mumbled hellos. The other agents who weren’t listening to audio feeds via headsets waved.
Oakes nodded absently. Someone at Homeland was working early. The timestamp on the forwarded message from Homeland read 4:48 a.m. The report would likely come in from other sources also. The tag Domestic Insurrectionist Org automatically routed such items to dozens of counterterrorism agencies as well as to analysts who’d enter keywords into the intelligence databases for cross-referencing the information.
A local law enforcement counterterrorism unit—at least that’s what she supposed High Profile Crimes Unit referred to—had reported a suspicious grouping of movements for individuals deemed low-level threats in the watch list database. The location changes seemed insignificant taken one by one, individuals relocating from a smattering of states all over the eastern seaboard over the last six months, and could easily be overlooked. The pattern was so subtle, even the analytic algorithms used to flag suspicious occurrences hadn’t picked it up yet. A map had been included with the report.
“Look at that,” Oakes murmured.
“What?” Evyn said.
Oakes motioned her over. “Take a look at this field report from the locals in Philadelphia.”
Coffee in hand, Evyn leaned over Oakes’s right shoulder and peered at the screen.
A series of red dots—eight of them—surrounded one central point in an arc. Lines had been drawn, all converging on the same city. Philadelphia.
“Huh,” she said. “Looks like an umbrella, doesn’t it.”
“Yeah, and according to the geoanalysis, each of those locations is within a sixty to seventy-five-minute drive of the city.”
“All identified threat targets?”
“Not all of them are in the database, but whoever did this”—she scanned down to the bottom of the report—“somebody by the name of Sloan, had access and clearance to run known associates, families, and backgrounds. There are enough connections to make a convincing pattern. She ought to be working for us somewhere. She’s sharp.”
“Let me check something.” Evyn returned to her computer, and a few minutes later announced, “Well, that explains it.”
“What?” Oakes looked up from running the searches on the names she’d set to alert for common previous addresses, work histories, family connections, criminal records, civil cases, known associates, memberships in activist organizations—anything and everything that might pinpoint connections to terrorist or seditious groups.
“This Sloan—it’s a JT Sloan, right?”
“Yeah,” Oakes said.
“From what I can get from the Philadelphia Police Department records, she used to be one of ours.”
“No, Justice, cyber division.”
Oakes frowned. “And now she’s local law in Philadelphia? That’s some change. Retirement gig?”
“Not according to what I can find—she’s only midthirties and most of her Justice records are redacted. Why she left is a mystery, but this HPCU she’s part of now—High Profile Crimes Unit—isn’t your normal bunch of LEOs. This group, as near as I can tell, has broken some major cases—internet porn, human trafficking, weapons—and Sloan was a big part of it.”
“Fran is the lead advance with the Philadelphia PD, and she didn’t mention this division in her first contact report,” Oakes said. “I would have remembered if she had, and Fran’s obsessive about details. You think they’re keeping this group under wraps for some reason?”
Evyn shrugged. “Could be.”
“I’ll inform Turner,” Oakes said, “but it looks like we’re going to need some up close and personal time with them.”
“Road trip,” Evyn said. “You’ll need company.”
“I’ll see if I can think of someone to drag along.” Oakes glanced around. Sometime in the last few minutes, Fran, Kennedy, and the agents on the day shift had disappeared. “Crap. We need to get going or we’ll be late for the push.”
Tom Turner was a stickler for punctuality. If you weren’t actively engaged standing post protecting POTUS at shift change, you were expected to attend the debriefing.
“We’re good,” Evyn said as they hurried down the hall.
Oakes slid into a seat at the long conference table a minute before seven, and thirty seconds later Tom Turner walked in. The Special Agent in Charge of the PPD was in his early forties, trim as a twenty-year-old, with dark skin and eyes and a perpetually serious expression. He’d been SAIC for all of Powell’s term and part of the previous president’s and had the confidence of every agent working shift.
He sat at his customary place at the head of the table, flipped open his iPad, and said, “Morning, everyone. Let’s start with today’s itinerary.”
“You mean we actually have one?” someone muttered, and everyone laughed.
Powell’s staffers were notorious for late delivery of the president’s itinerary or off-the-record jaunts that put the working shift at a disadvantage when it came to providing his protection. Even a trip to the reflecting pool so he could jog required a motorcade, clearance of the route by the local motorcycle police, and organizing the press and medical staff. Oakes tried hard not to think about what a nightmare Philadelphia was going be if the itinerary she still did not have took much longer in coming.
But then, that’s what she got paid for. To make it work—no matter the cost.
Rock Creek Park
Cam tapped the Bluetooth receiver to accept the incoming call and dodged a brunette in tights and a cropped pale pink tank jogging with a baby stroller. A black Lab loped beside the woman with the characteristic fumble-pawed gait of an exuberant puppy. The pup veered left and bounded after Cam, intent on making friends.
“Roberts,” Cam answered as the brunette yelled, “Hamlet! Get back here.”
The Lab galloped along beside Cam for a few more steps, teeth bared in a joyous grin, before dropping back to rejoin his family.
“Good morning, Commander.” Light laughter infused the familiar lilting soprano.
“Good morning, Isabel.” Cam turned down a path toward the duck pond. Cam’s assistant deputy was a morning person, like her, which was just one of the many reasons she valued Isabel Cortez. In addition to her unceasing energy, she was astute, a good manager, and a magician when it came to handling the bureaucratic quagmire of lobbyists, politicians, and competing agencies on the Hill. Her trust in Isabel to stand in for her as Advisor to the President on Counterterrorism and Homeland Security was the main reason Cam even considered a vacation six weeks before the national convention. That and knowing Blair needed it. Blair would never admit it, but the trauma of the attack during the campaign tour and the daily grind of being the de facto First Lady, with all the accompanying public appearances, interviews, and fund-raisers, was wearing her down. Andrew knew it, too, and had gently insisted. Cam probably needed the break just as much as Blair—she just had more trouble recognizing what she needed. All except for Blair—her need for Blair was a constant hunger.
“Anything of note this morning?” Cam asked as a mating pair of ducks flew up from the water’s edge as she passed.
“No red flags in the overnight reports,” Isabel said briskly. Isabel must have gotten in extra early to have reviewed the dailies from the FBI, CIA, and Homeland agencies already. Usually Cam covered that as soon as she reached her office. “Are you running?” Isabel asked.
“Why, do I sound short of breath?” Cam checked her heart rate as she sprinted up an incline. Top cardio range. Perfect.
Isabel laughed. “No, you sound suspiciously relaxed.”
“Just an easy jog this morning.”
“I’m sending over a report for you to take a look at that came out of Philadelphia last night,” Isabel said. “Not enough to tip a flag, but I thought considering the location, you’d want to see it.”
Cam’s antennae shot up at the mention of the city. “You’re right, as usual. Something to worry about?”
“On the surface,” Isabel said, “no. An interesting be aware report from the locals about increased movement from low-level targets on the watch list.”
“Who’s the local source? PPD antiterrorism?”
“Different division, it looks like—a High Profile Crimes Unit.”
“All right, thanks. Make sure the advance team leader gets it too.”
“Are you sure I shouldn’t just stay in Hawaii?” Cam cut left around a dog walker with half a dozen miniatures of various high-priced breeds spread out around him like a furry, yapping fan.
“Go enjoy your vacation, Commander.”
Cam smiled, thinking about exactly how she planned to start. She could scan the report from Isabel after she delivered the coffee and her promise to her wife. “Thanks, I will.”
“And turn off your damn phone.”
“Done.” Cam disconnected and headed back.
The bakery tucked into a side street around the corner from their building already had a short line when she arrived. The baristas knew her, and when she stepped up to the counter, her coffees were ready. She added a couple of croissants and, ten minutes later, let herself into the apartment. She carried her offerings through to the bedroom, planning exactly how she’d wake Blair. Quick sex, coffee, more sex, then croissants.
The bed was empty and the shower running in the adjoining bath. Okay, change of plans. She was nothing if not flexible—at least in some areas. She stripped off her clothes, tossed them in the laundry basket on the way past the walk-in closet, and grabbed the bakery bag off the dresser.
“Coffee out here,” she said as she set the tray on the bathroom counter.
Blair opened the shower door. “Something better in here.”
Cam climbed in, snaked her arms around Blair’s waist, and kissed her. “I thought you were sleeping in.”
“I was timing you,” Blair said. “You know how much I like to share the shower.”
“I seem to recall that.” Cam turned Blair until Blair’s back was against the shower wall. Leaning in to her, she traced the curves and slopes of her warm, water-slicked body. She never tired of touching her, never got over the wonder of her. She cupped a breast and lifted it to her mouth. Blair’s fingers speared through her hair, holding her there, her deep-throated murmur signaling her pleasure. Cam’s lower belly clenched at the feel of Blair’s nipple hardening against her lips.
“This will be quick if you keep that up,” Blair whispered through the rainfall of warm water. Blair slipped a thigh between Cam’s legs and dug her fingers into Cam’s hips, dragging her closer, pressing into her center.
Cam groaned softly, her senses in chaos. She wanted to hurry, wanted to take forever. Wanted all of Blair at once and longed to savor every tiny intake of breath, every faint gasp of pleasure, every tremor through the sleek taut muscles. When she knelt, her arms around Blair’s hips to support her, she had a fleeting thought of just how perfect the position. Blair was a miracle in every way—more than she’d ever dared dream.
“I love you,” Cam murmured as she took her.
Blair arched at the first touch of Cam’s mouth, held her breath for an instant, caught on the tight wire between unbearable pleasure and the almost painful need for release. Her skin pebbled as if chilled, but she was hot, so hot, so close. She’d quickened with anticipation waiting for Cam to come home, imagining her touch, but the reality was so much more. So sharp, a knife slash of pleasure cutting to the heart of her.
“Oh God,” Blair gasped.
One hand on Cam’s shoulder, the other on the back of her head, she pressed close as the pressure built, the breath in her chest stilling, her heart thundering, until the pleasure peaked and she burst.
Shuddering, she finally managed a breath. Her head was still swimming, blood thundering through her pounding heart. “Did you say coffee?”
Laughing, Cam rose and pulled her close. “I did. And croissants.”
Blair kissed her and rested her cheek on Cam’s shoulder. “Chocolate?”
Blair pushed her away. “I hate you.”
Cam kissed her throat, drawing a lazy line down Blair’s middle. “No, you don’t. And it’s chocolate.”
Blair traced the curve of Cam’s hip with her thumb, followed the tight line of her thigh to the delta at the base of her lean belly. Cam shook when Blair slipped her fingers between her legs. Oh yes—that’s what she wanted. The fragile moments Cam gave only to her. “Thanks for the coffee, baby.”
Cam pressed an arm against the wall and, head thrown back, closed her eyes and swallowed hard. “You’re welcome.”
Blair stroked her, her breath catching at the tremble in Cam’s thighs where they touched hers. So strong, so sure, so vulnerable in this moment. Hers, all hers.
“I love you.”
“Blair,” Cam whispered, a warning and a benediction. “You’re going to make me come.”
“Oh no, really?” Blair picked up her pace and Cam came, sharp and hard against her palm. Blair held her until Cam groaned in satisfaction and drew away.
“Better than a run, even,” Cam said, her voice a languid slur.
“Mm, better be.” Blair patted her butt and stepped dripping into the bathroom. “I want my coffee. Then I want to do that all over again.”
Cam braced both arms on the wall while water sluiced over her. “Sure thing.”
Blair snagged the coffee and took a long, luxurious sip. Just the right temperature. She dug her croissant out of the bag, and an instant later, Cam joined her. Blair handed the pastry bag to Cam and leaned against the counter, Cam beside her, their shoulders touching.
Blair licked a bit of chocolate off one finger. “You know, maybe this whole morning run thing isn’t such a bad idea.”
“You’re just deciding that now?”
“I forget how good the cooldown stage is.”
Laughing, Cam kissed her. “I’ll be sure to remind you every day we’re away.”
A burst of static, then a monotonal voice requested, “Commander Roberts, come in, over.”
Blair stilled. “Cam.”
Cam looked over at her radio. She’d left it on the counter before her run, and even though she wasn’t on duty—technically—she’d kept the Secret Service command channel open. She always did, until she was in the air—the only place she couldn’t be immediately reached.
“Sorry,” Cam muttered. In the other room, her phone rang.
“Answer it,” Blair said quietly.
“Roberts,” Cam said at the same time as a forceful knock sounded at the apartment door.
Blair grabbed a robe off the hook behind the bathroom door and hurried through the apartment to answer it. Paula Stark, the SAIC of Blair’s detail, stood outside with her game face on, accompanied by Secret Service Agent Will Sato, one of the recent additions to her detail who’d been standing post overnight. Blair’s stomach flipped. If Paula was delivering the message, the news was bad.
A steely chill spread through her, an old and welcome shield that pushed the panic down and prepared her to do whatever she must do. She’d been here before, countless times it seemed, with countless closed faces delivering crippling news. Or news that would have crippled her if she hadn’t learned survival at an early age and had the lesson repeated until she would not break. When her mother died, when Cam had been shot—the first time, when her father had come under attack in the White House, when Cam had gone missing, when Paula and other agents had been injured. Or killed.
A part of her was always waiting. Always preparing for the ultimate loss. Cam. Her father. Lucinda. Diane or Paula or any number of people she cared about, many of whom were in danger because they moved within her circle. That she had been drawn into the line of fire through no willful decision of her own no longer mattered. Her father was the president. And she was his daughter.
“What is it?” Blair said, hearing her own voice flat and empty.
“Ms. Powell,” Paula said, her practiced neutral tone betraying nothing, “we need to go to the White House immediately.”
Only Stark’s dark brown eyes, wide and troubled, gave away her turmoil.
From behind them, Cam said, “Give us a minute.”
“Of course, Commander,” Stark said. “Transport will be waiting.”
“Thank you, Chief. We’ll be right down.” Cam gently closed the door and said immediately, “It’s all right. It’s not your father.”
Even as a stunning wave of relief made her a little weak, Blair spun around and gripped the T-shirt Cam had donned on her way to the door. She’d even managed to find sweats in record time too. Always proper, her wife. “Then what?”
“That was Bennie Caruso,” Cam said, referring to the Deputy Chief of Staff. She cupped Blair’s jaw. “I don’t have any of the details yet. It’s Adam Eisley.”
“Adam?” Blair frowned. “Is he calling an emergency meeting?”
With the nominating convention bearing down on them, Adam Eisley, her father’s campaign manager, was one of the most important players on the national scene. Adam assured that everything from political strategy—which often shifted with the day’s events—to her father’s public persona, the messages coming out of the communication division, the information provided to the press corps, and the directives to regional and state campaign offices all adhered to the all-holy campaign plan. So close to the election, his role had amplified to the point where every event and decision that came in or out of the White House was reviewed and discussed with him. Every statement her father made had the potential to ignite a media frenzy that could swing voter opinion and, if not the party’s nomination, potentially the ultimate presidential election one way or the other. Adam’s job was to anticipate how the public would react and to shape the president’s message before a crisis ensued, all while ensuring the finance director and volunteer organizers were gathering the money and people they needed to bring in the votes.
Blair didn’t envy him the job, even when he was irritating her no end with his anal obsession over every word spoken by or about anyone from the president to the most naïve campaign volunteer. She had enough to handle with the constant presence of the press, the escalating threat of terrorism—abroad and at home—and the risks to the people she loved without having her every word subject to his approval.
She sighed. Another media snafu of some kind, most likely.
“He does know we’re about to leave for vacation, doesn’t he?” Blair’s heart rate settled down, but something still wasn’t making sense. Why send Stark and an escort? And for some reason, Cam looked worried. “What?”
Ready room, OEOB
“Let’s run down where we are with the Philadelphia advance now,” Tom Turner said after they’d reviewed the president’s itinerary and the accompanying working shift assignments. He focused on Oakes. “Weaver?”
“The division leads have completed preliminary assessments with main and backup airports, local police, and the Philadelphia field office,” Oakes said. “We still don’t have an itinerary beyond departure time, and the hotel vetting is still ongoing—so no motorcade routes.”
Turner’s brows flickered. He wasn’t happy and Oakes didn’t blame him. The greatest areas of risk for the president were along the motorcade route, where potential attack could come from buildings or intersections along the way, and the rope line, when he’d be exposed to crowds of people only a few feet away.
“Shift assignments?” Turner asked.
“Waiting to get a list of available agents from New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and DC.”
“We’ll want everyone in place two weeks before game time,” Turner said.
“Yes, sir.” Oakes knew this as well, as did every other agent in the room.
“What about the hotel?” Turner asked.
Oakes nodded to Luther Wisnicki, the agent taking the lead on securing accommodations for the president, his daughter, and the White House staffers and press. Wherever the president stayed would need to have two avenues of egress to major thoroughfares in case of immediate evacuation, and be large enough for the retinue to take over three floors, the elevators, and a major portion of the kitchen. Because of the gross disruption to business as usual, many hotels weren’t all that eager for the president to stay with them.
“We’re vetting five,” Luther Wisnicki said when Oakes gave him the go-ahead. “Two Marriotts, a Hilton, a Sheraton, and an Omni,” he said, referring to his iPad. “Security checks are completed on the Marriott and should be finished at the rest in a week. All five utilize day hires, and that’s slowing down the clearances.”
“The hotels that can’t do without short hires for the length of POTUS’s stay should move down the list,” Oakes said. “It’s too easy for someone to impersonate staff and go unnoticed among a lot of unfamiliar faces.”
“Agreed. Unfortunately, it’s pretty common in all of the hotels now.”
“Everyone will be wearing security-approved IDs,” another agent said, “and those won’t be released until twelve hours before game time.”
“Still plenty of time to have them duplicated,” Turner said. “Even with embedded code cards, everyone will need a facial ID before entering for work. Let’s nail down the hotel so we can get started on the database.”
“We’ve got a list of hotel guests checking in within two weeks prior to game day,” Oakes said. “So far, nothing rings a bell at any of the hotels.”
Evyn added, “We’re running advance reservations from airlines, train stations, and Ubers through the Terrorist Alert Database on a daily basis. Same for hotel reservations, although most don’t require ID to reserve.”
“Airbnb?” Turner asked.
Oakes shook her head. “There’s no central database. Anyone could be staying in an apartment across the street from the Convention Center, and we wouldn’t know it.”
“Let’s step up photo surveillance of pedestrian activity in the area and CCTV feeds of vehicles moving within midperimeter borders,” Turner said.
Oakes made a note. “Roger that.”
“All right,” Turner said. “Where are we with hospitals? We—” Frowning, he glanced down at his phone. “Hold on.”
“Turner,” he said sharply and listened for a second, his eyes hardening. “Copy that. Close the grounds to tours and evacuate any unauthorized, move CAT teams to the guard posts, put Andrews on ready alert. Bring the Beast to the south circle and alert Metro motor patrol we may need a route cleared for POTUS.”
Turner stood. “Weaver, Daniels, you’re with me. The rest of you stand by to evacuate.”
Oakes and Evyn hurried to join him as the other agents abruptly filed out to take their posts. Oakes’s pulse jumped and adrenaline sharpened her sight until every object jumped into gleaming relief. Game on.
Hands dropped onto Sloan’s shoulders and a soft voice murmured in her ear, “You didn’t come to bed last night.”
Sloan looked up from her monitors. Blue skies filled the tall windows at the far end of the loft. Huh. Morning already. A familiar scent of orange blossom shampoo and vanilla teased her. She tilted her head back and kissed her wife on the cheek. “Sorry. I just—”
“Got caught up,” Michael said, her full, sensual lips lifting as she smiled. She’d caught her long blond hair back in a careless ponytail and wore one of Sloan’s T-shirts with a pair of loose cotton drawstring pants. “I know.”
“Sorry.” Sloan spun around and pulled Michael down onto her lap. “How come you look so sexy in that shirt?”
“Eye of the beholder, lucky for me.” Michael threaded her arms around Sloan’s neck and twisted until she faced Sloan. The press of her breasts caught all of Sloan’s attention.
“What time are you due in this morning?” Sloan asked, nuzzling her neck.
Michael chuckled. “One of the perks of being the boss is I can make my own hours. Aren’t you tired?”
From behind them, the huge industrial elevator doors whooshed open, and a cacophony of voices quickly spread throughout the loft.
“Damn it,” Sloan muttered.
Michael sighed. “Whatever you were about to suggest is going to have to wait, I take it.”
“Let me just catch them up, and I’ll meet you upstairs.”
“I’ll take you up on that. Don’t be too long.”
Sloan grabbed Michael’s hand before she could get up and kissed her for a long, satisfying moment. Almost but not quite enough.
A whistle sounded from across the room.
Sloan opened an eye as Michael stepped away. The team had arrived, led by Sandy, followed close behind by Jason, Dell, Watts, and the lieutenant. Sandy Sullivan, the youngest on their team and Michael’s close friend, rolled her eyes good-naturedly in their direction.
Watts, slimmed down after his recent heart attack and looking a decade younger for it, still managed to look derelict in baggy pants and a rumpled white shirt. His grizzled unshaved jawline added to his jaded, burned-out cop look, a look that had fooled many a perp just before Watts turned the key on them and locked them away. “Some of us are planning to work today.”
“Good morning, Detective,” Michael said, and Watts blushed.
“Morning, Michael,” he said.
Michael had that effect on everyone, an involuntary rush of heat in the presence of someone so ethereally beautiful.
“I won’t be long,” Sloan said, rising as Michael stood.
“Do what you have to do,” Michael said. “I’ll be there.”
Sloan squeezed Michael’s hand. “Promise?”
Michael smiled again, but her eyes were dark, fathomless, endless. “Always.”
More energized by the exchange than eight hours of sleep and any sort of nourishment could provide, Sloan rose to join the others as they all trooped to the far end of the huge warehouse work area, wending their way between the myriad monitors, communication arrays, surveillance equipment, and other tools of the cybersecurity trade to the conference area in the back. Lieutenant Rebecca Frye walked out of the only private area in the loft, a ten by ten room with a row of waist-high windows facing into the loft that served as her office, with a cup of coffee in her hand.
Sloan frowned. “How long have you been here?”
“An hour or so,” Frye said, refilling her coffee mug from a big pot on a counter beside the table. Tall narrow windows afforded a view of the Delaware River and New Jersey on the far shore. Oil tankers and container ships floated at berth in the port or moved slowly past, heading south to the sea.
“Why didn’t I know that?” Sloan said.
“Because when I came in you were in the zone, and fortunately, I’m not a cat burglar.”
Sloan grinned. “I would have noticed if you’d started lifting my stuff.”
Frye, as glacially cool as ever, grinned for a millisecond. “We’ll have to test that out sometime. Got something?”
“Could be—still tugging threads,” Sloan said.
“Hey,” Jason said, dropping into a chair at the end of the table. “How come you didn’t call me if you were on to something?”
“Because you’re chronically sleep deprived. The baby business is killing you. Can’t believe you’ll have another one soon.”
Jason grinned. “Hey, they’re like puppies—two are no more trouble than one.” He smirked, and for just an instant, Jasmine peeked out from behind Jason’s preppy façade. “I could have been helpful last night, you know.”
Sloan lifted a brow. Her partner in the cybersecurity wing of the team, whom she worked with day and night, could move from his preppy male identity to a sultry, sexy female named Jasmine in a heartbeat. Sloan was never sure when Jasmine would appear to tease her in a way that always stirred something beyond Sloan’s control. Some primal response that intrigued and mystified. They both understood, with no words being spoken, that their bond would never extend beyond that silently acknowledged connection.
“And you shall be helpful,” Sloan said. “I want to run geographic demographics.”
“Mm,” Jasmine purred. “One of my favorite things.”
Sandy snorted. “You’re both sick.”
Sloan laughed. “Your point?”
In a tight pale green T-shirt with some kind of flower design and skinny jeans with holes in the knees, Sandy still didn’t look more than eighteen, which had been about the time Frye had pulled her out of the mire of the streets and turned her into a confidential informant. Reluctant at first, Sandy had eventually abandoned the streets and now was a cop. Falling in love with Dell Mitchell might have been partly responsible for her transformation, but her street smarts and toughness were what made her a key contact with any number of street people. Frye had made that argument when getting her transferred back to the team from Narco.
Frye said, “All right, people, let’s hear what we’ve got.”
Sloan filled them in on the patterns she’d pulled on threat subject movements. “It’s preliminary, but I’ve got a feeling.”
Frye grimaced. “Your feelings usually mean something. You and Jason chase it.”
Sloan felt the familiar rush of the hunt and nodded sharply. “We’re on it.”
Frye turned to Dell, who’d arrived in her usual black tee, black jeans, and biker boots. Her slicked-back jet hair and smoldering good looks completed her bad-boy look. “Dell?”
Dell had been assigned to the gang division as liaison ever since the uptick in street activity in the past six months. Dell’s gender-fluid undercover persona, Mitch, managed to move among the shifting ethos of sex clubs and drug rings where regular undercover cops could not.
“Territorial disputes per usual,” Dell said. “The Raptors are talking about getting into the gun trade.”
“Sources for that?” Frye said.
“There’s a pretty steady weapons train coming up from the south,” Dell said. “Mostly small batches in private cars. They’re looking for contacts.”
“What are they planning to use for cash?”
“Since we’ve cramped Colombian channels through the port, that might be difficult.”
“Which means more street-level competition for what’s getting through,” Dell said.
“All right, let’s follow the money,” Rebecca said. “If they want guns, they’ll need backing. Flag anything that smells like an alliance with right-wing groups. They’d make natural bedmates.”
“Got it,” Dell said.
Frye glanced at Sandy. “Anything heating up in that area?”
“About what we’ve been seeing. The white supremacist recruiters are hitting the college campuses pretty hard, and they seem to be getting some traction, especially with all the talk of cutting back on educational funding. The immigration and diversity funding proposals at the federal level are adding more fuel to that fire. A lot more heat being generated than a year or two ago.”
Rebecca rubbed her eyes. “We haven’t seen political unrest at the campus level like this since Vietnam.”
“Which you, of course, remember personally,” Sloan said.
Another flicker of a smile from Frye. Her cool elegant features and ice blue eyes, to someone who might not know her, suggested she was humorless and stiff-necked. Nothing could be further from the truth. What she was was absolutely solid and the bedrock of their entire team. She was also Sloan’s best friend.
“My mother,” Rebecca said dryly. “Big-time campus agitator. Got arrested a few times. Actually met my dad that way, who…” Frye looked away. “Well, he was a little more conventional.”
“Right, he was a cop,” Sloan said, giving Frye a second to regroup.
“Yeah,” Frye said briskly. “In the blood and all.”
“Any rate,” Sandy said smoothly, “we can expect substantial street protests in June.”
“Keep your files updated,” Frye said. “The feds will be around at some point. Watts—you can field their requests.”
Watts made a sour face. “Dandy. Probably another bunch of wet-behind-the-ears college kids with big”—he side-eyed Sandy—“guns.”
“Probably hear sooner,” Sloan cut in. “I sent my report to the Global Terrorist Database per protocol. Homeland will have it by now. So will the Secret Service.”
“All right everyone, let’s get to work,” Frye said.
As they filed out, Watts muttered, “Anyone want to put money down on how long it takes the suits to arrive?”
“I’m in,” a chorus of voices proclaimed.
Sloan looked over her shoulder and caught Frye’s smile. Then she slipped away to join Michael upstairs.