Too Many Long Boxes!

End of Summer

The Human Target:
Five Hours to Kill

"You have to be discreet. No one must find out about this."

"Of course."

"We can't afford even the smallest rumors of a charade. It's a matter of--"

"--National Security. I already know that, Mr. President," I said.

"Do you?" General Johnson, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sounded skeptical.

"If you didn't think I was the man for the job, General, you wouldn't have approached me. I think my reputation speaks for itself."

"Just so we understand each other, Mr. Chance," the President of the United States said.

"I think we understand each other perfectly, Mr. President." I gave him my most boyish grin. Men hated it when I did that. The President gave me a fierce look.

Unperturbed, I turned to General Johnson and included him in my umbrella of sunshiny charm. Men in uniform especially hated it when I did that. They probably assumed that I was making a pass at them, or something. Uptight brass mentality, I suppose.

The general glowered at me. I smirked. Uptight, all right.

They both glared at me.

"So, do I have to swear allegiance to the flag or the Constitution of the United States?"

Johnson stood up abruptly, ending the meeting. The President turned to some Very Important Papers that were waiting for him on his desk. Spotting a pen with a presidential seal, I palmed it. No reason. Just because I could.

The general scowled at me. He wasn't pleased with the President's decision, this being a matter of 'National Security' and all.

"This way, Chance," he growled.

"That's Mr. President to you," I said smugly.

"We're doing this against my recommendations, Chance," he shot back. "The only reason you're here is because you come highly recommended."

I already knew that, of course. President Ryder happened to know a friend of one of my clients--in this case, a client that would have been dead, but for my professional assistance.

And my client's friend's name? All I can tell you is that he's a reporter for a famous metropolitan newspaper. I'm afraid that the rest is confidential. Besides, he has the uncanny ability to 'see through' any of my disguises.

Anyway, as the President said, this was a matter of National Security.

As I walked out of the Oval Office, could you blame me for feeling just a little excited about the assignment? This sure beat impersonating that ham actor from my previous job who thought he was the next John Barrymore.

The would-be thespian came to me, because he suspected that he was being stalked by some crazed fan (or the jealous husband of a former lover). I took the job reluctantly, thinking that if someone wanted to vent the guy, they probably had good cause.

Still, I accepted it, since he could pay my considerable fee. (Did I mention that his bank account matched his huge ego?) And to my amazed delight, I soon discovered that the short gig came with some substantial perks--booze and women galore.

In the end, Barrymore's 'stalker' turned out to be nothing more than an overzealous fan trying to get close to the object of his obsession. I allowed him to have his photo taken with me and signed his autograph book. He went away happy.

I smiled at the pretty young thing that was still lounging by the pool, and sort of forgot to inform Barrymore that the case was closed. But only for a couple of days…

I looked askance at Johnson. Little chance of getting anything past Smiley here.

Still--the President of the United States! And this President was a widower--a real babe magnet. Speaking of which--!

A stunning brunette was walking towards me, a sculpted vision of shapely legs in designer clothes. She smiled at Johnson, and he in turn nodded politely.

"Good day, Ms. Morgan," he said.

"Is he in?" she asked. The general nodded.

"Thanks, Jay," she called back good-naturedly. "And smile! The Cold War's over."

Claire Morgan, I thought, following her with my eyes, my tongue mentally hanging out. The President's 'girlfriend.' I felt the general's eyes boring into me. I turned and locked amused eyes with his.

"General, this is gonna be kick."

The President's motorcade seemed to stretch out for at least a mile. The black limousine with the familiar red, white, and blue flags wended its way through the heavy late-evening rush hour traffic. The police escort cleared the roads several blocks ahead, stopping cross traffic at the intersections.

Impatient motorists honked their displeasure or stewed in silence inside their cars, depending on their party affiliation. The President was enjoying his highest approval ratings since taking office eighteen months ago. Of course, the fact that he was dating supermodel Claire Morgan didn't hurt either.

At this moment, Claire was currently sitting next to the most powerful man in the world, and I was wondering what I'd gotten myself into.

"Terence, it's not a good idea. The Secret Service told you that the threats are real. These people have targeted you. If you appear tonight, you could be killed."

"We've gone over this already, Claire," I explained for the umpteenth time. "The President of the United States doesn't hide from terrorists. I'm making this appearance and this speech. End of discussion."

I sighed. Claire had made her worry naggingly clear since we'd pulled out of the White House driveway. Dear Lord, deliver me from talkative women!

I gave Claire an appreciative glance. Well, maybe not too soon, I amended hurriedly.

"Mr. President."

I turned to General Johnson. Now that I was playing his boss, I enjoyed rubbing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs' nose in it now and then.

"What is it, Jay?" I asked. "Want me to press any red buttons? Order an airborne attack on Iraq? How about Libya? They've been a little quiet lately. Think we should do something to stir them up? What do you say?"

"Terence!" Claire exclaimed, shocked. I patted her thigh suggestively, smiling into her eyes. Oh, the things I could get away.

"I was just joking, sweetheart," I assured her. "You know. A little Presidential humor." She gave me an uncertain look. I grimaced slightly. "Okay, I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being a little nervous. There, feel better?"

Okay, the last was a cheap shot, but really, she was getting on my nerves. Why couldn't women be beautiful, intelligent, and quiet?

"Mr. President," Johnson began again. "We've received word that two known international terrorists were just spotted crossing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge into Washington, DC. Avedis Khodijian and Lufti Ben Rakin."

"They're suspected in the bombing of a passenger bus in Tel Aviv last year, aren't they?" I asked. Johnson gave me a brief look of respect, which he quickly covered. I guess the general didn't think I'd do my homework.

"Yes, sir. The DCPD has a put out an APB on the car. A dark blue, late model Ford Explorer."

"Well, Jay, that's just HD," I quipped. At his look, I explained, "Hunky-dory."

"Terence, let's turn back," Claire pleaded. I turned to her. She had lovely dark brown eyes, and a long mane of sable hair. Her high cheekbones and pouting, kissable lips graced the covers of over a dozen fashion magazines. Her body was nature's perfection and begged to be touched. Something I'd secretly been looking forward to, I'll admit.

Taking her hand in mine, I brought it up to my lips, the picture of an adoring, understanding lover. I wanted to break it.

What did Terry-boy see in her anyway? I mean, besides the obvious. Terence Ryder was a decorated ex-fighter pilot. He didn't strike me as the kind of man who'd be attracted to a whiny female. And it's not that she was expressing natural worry. That I could understand. It's that she wouldn't let it go.

I didn't break her perfectly manicured hand. Instead, I gently placed it down on her lap. She grasped it nervously with her other one. I looked curiously at her nails. A strange line near the cuticle of her right thumb caught my eye.

She was wearing false nails. I thought back to her dossier. Granted the President's 'girlfriend's' fingernails was hardly a topic for a dossier, but this was Claire Morgan, voted Model of the Year by the International Organization of Magazine Writers.

I looked away, deep in thought. Something in her dossier…?

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States!" The place erupted in wild cheers and applause. Talk about a rush!

"Okay, Chance," I muttered, "you're only playacting. This is not for keeps." I walked out into the hot, glaring lights, my arms spread up overhead, acknowledging the cheers. "Yeah, yeah," I said dismissively. "But a guy can enjoy himself, can't he?"

Cries of "Way to go, Terence!" greeted me as I crossed the stage. Signs with 'President Ryder, USA' and 'God Bless America!' fluttered in the sea of faces before me. A feeling of overwhelming pride swelled within me. For a moment, I was President Terence T. Ryder, USA.

"You're here to work, Chance," I nagged between gritted teeth, smile in place. "So, stop preening and keep your mind on the job."

I continued to wave, smiling broadly to my public. I mimicked the President's familiar walk, an exuberant stride that showed the American public their leader's self-assurance.

I slowly made my way to the podium, Secret Service Agents to my right and left, before me and behind. At the last moment, I changed the script. I turned back suddenly, and grabbed Claire, dragging her out into the lights with me.

The crowd went crazy! Claire was their girl. They loved her and loved the fact that their President had bestowed his eye upon her.

"Don't make a move, or I'll break your arm," I said through the side of my mouth.

"Terence, what are you doing?" she asked, struggling weakly in my strong grip. "You're not following the script. Your Press Secretary is going to be upset. So's the Chief of Staff."

I grinned, pulling her along with me to the podium. "That's the advantage of being the President," I told her. "I can do things my way. And unless you want to be a Human Target, my dear, you'll point out the sniper's position to me before I get to the podium." I held her in place, waving at the crowd.

"Terence! I don't know what you're--" she protested.

"--Smile at the crowd, sweetheart," I interrupted. "We're announcing our engagement tonight. And unless you want it to end in tragedy on national television, you'll tell me the sniper's location now."

"Please, Terence," she pleaded, struggling to break my hold. "You're hurting me!"

"My dear, I'll be killing you soon if you don't start talking. Two weeks ago, you spent five hours during a flight layover in Dhahran. Five hours that you've yet to account for."

"Terence, I already told you. I went shopping in the open market. I had five hours to kill and I didn't want to spend them in the airport. I know I should've reported it to your people, but it seemed so unimportant!"

"Funny you should phrase it that way, my love," I said smiling dangerously. "'Five hours to kill,' I mean." I leaned in close and whispered in her ear. She looked at me, her eyes wide with shock.

To the television cameras and convention crowds it looked like a lover whispering naughty endearments to his beloved. Again, we were met with enthusiastic cheers and several wolf-calls from the audience. I waved amiably at the crowd. Actually, I'd just described what a 10mm Glock at close range could do the human skull.

"They'll kill me," she begged. I smiled.

"Not if I kill you first."

The podium loomed closer. It was now or never. We stepped up to it and once again waved at the audience. The crowd handlers were indicating that it was time for the audience to sit and quiet down.

I smiled out at the crowd and began to speak.

"My fellow Americans. I know that tonight I'm supposed to talk about the situation in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe. I'm also supposed to talk about our own domestic economic situation and what, if anything, the Congress--currently controlled by the opposing party--" This last was greeted with a short laugh. "--and I are doing about it."

I paused and hugged Claire in close to me. When next I spoke, I spoke directly into her eyes. From her expression, she wasn't too happy with what she must've seen in mine.

"But before I delve into matters of national security, I wish to talk to you about something personal."

The convention center went still. In fact, the place was so quiet that I could hear the whirring of the air-conditioning unit overhead.

"Tonight, this young lady, Ms. Claire Morgan, has consented to do me the honor of--" I paused, gauging the crowd's reaction. "--but, no, first, I should tell you about the national security prob--"

The crowd erupted in playful boos and laughter. A chant was suddenly taken up by a group somewhere in the center, and it was quickly picked up by everyone.

"Tell us! Tell us! Tell us!" and "We want Claire for First Lady! We want Claire for First Lady!"

I smiled down at Claire and kissed her on national television. It took the crowd controllers a full eight minutes to finally quiet down the nearly rioting audience.

"Ladies and Gentlemen…the lady said ' Yes '!" I cried out, closed fist raised in triumph.

Claire stared at me, stunned.

"How could you?" she whispered. "It's not true."

"No, but now when you die, you'll die as a martyr and not as a traitor."

"What?" she looked at me shocked. Of course, the audience in the arena and on national television thought that she was acting like any newly engaged girl who was embarrassed at being caught unawares.

"Ready to tell me where the assassin is located?" I asked, holding her close to me. "As long as you're next to me, you're in as much danger as I am," I reminded her.

"The box seats," she whispered. "He's in the box seats."

At the same moment, I caught the distinct flash of a rifle barrel. I instantly pushed Claire down. Several shots rang out at the same moment.

"Gun!" the Secret Service agents shouted, immediately springing into action, pushing me down to protect me. Annoyed as hell, I punched up, freeing myself from the 'Agent Sworn to Protect Me.' I cringed every time I thought of it. Can you believe that this country actually trains brave and intelligent young men and women to take a bullet for a guy who, if things had worked out differently, could've been nothing more than a shoe salesman in Biloxi?

I thought about what I did for a living. Not the same thing, I told myself. My fee is a helluva lot higher than these guys' annual salary.

Anyway, while the patriotic men in black were tripping over themselves trying to protect me, I slipped away from them and began running at a crouch towards the area where I'd seen the rifle barrel. I found a ladder leading up to the rafters immediately above me. A catwalk holding lights, weights, and other backstage paraphernalia, and started climbing.

My dear and lovely fiancee of about two minutes had lied to me. The assassin was located almost directly above the stage, not in the box seats as she'd claimed.

"I'll deal with you later, sweetheart," I promised as I climbed.

"Where's the President?"

"The President!"

I closed my ears to the panicked voices below me. I only had eyes and ears for the assassin who was somewhere up here, hidden among the shadows.

The sound of a firing bolt being locked back was the only warning I had.

Time seemed to slow down…

Leaping out into space, I aimed blindly, firing the semi-automatic Glock at whatever shadow I'd seen move in the dark. The shadow fell forward, revealing a dark-haired, swarthy man, holding his hands over his heart, his expression shocked.

I caught a momentary glimpse of a red stain as he suddenly toppled over the catwalk's railing and fell to the stage below…

From somewhere far away, I heard the audience screaming in terror, but I had a more immediate problem. Namely, I'd just jumped off the catwalk to escape being shot, and I guess that I must've forgotten my Captain Stupid Anti-Gravity Belt in my other pants.

Time commenced its steady flow.

"Brilliant move, Chance," I muttered, as I completed the high arc from my powerful leap. Gravity suddenly took over, and I found myself rushing towards the floorboards below.

Thoughts of "I'm gonna die!" zipped rather fatalistically through my mind, but I refused to give in. After all, Batman did this sort of thing all the time just for warm-up. While these rather flippant ideas flashed through my head at lightning speed, my hands were busy trying to save my butt.

And my death loomed a little closer.

As I fell, I hastily pulled out a wire hidden within a compartment in my belt. I quickly pushed the hooked-end into the muzzle of the Glock and fired. A thin line shot out towards the rafters I'd just (in hindsight) foolishly leaped off of, and to my intense relief, wound itself around the metal railing. I instantly pressed a button on my belt buckle, which locked the wire in place. I came to an abrupt and back-jarring stop.

"How does Batman do this every night?" I muttered. I held on tightly as I swung back and forth, taking in the ensuing silence from within the auditorium. Someone had had the foresight to close the curtains; therefore, President Ryder's quite un-Presidential actions had been blacked out from the national viewing audience.

Looking down, I saw the assassin lying at an odd angle below.

One down.

I pressed the hidden button on my belt buckle, and the safety line paid out until I reached the stage. Secret Service Agents instantly besieged me, hustling me off the stage and out of the convention center.

I looked around for Claire. That girl had a lot of explaining to do. And I knew a few not-so-nice methods to get others to do a lot of explaining, methods I'd picked up during my misspent youth playing covert games with the CBI.

"Where's Claire?" I shouted at my number one protector, Tom.

"I'm sorry, Mr. President! We have to get you out of here!" The army of Secret Service Agents kept pushing me along. I felt my fury growing, finally I stopped, refusing to be hustled any further.

"Where's Claire?" I shouted again. "And don't give me any crap about protecting me! Where is she?"

"She was taken by ambulance, sir," Tom replied.

"She was shot?" My shock must've been evident. I thought that I'd protected her.

"I'm sorry, sir," Tom said. "We pulled her out as soon as possible. The EMTs said--" he paused, glancing at the other agents.

"What?" I urged impatiently.

"That the sooner they got her to DC General, the better," he said.

"The hospital!" I ordered.

"But, sir! Your safety--!"

"The hospital!" I repeated, my tone refusing to accept 'no' for an answer.

We burst through the hospital emergency entrance, startling nurses, doctors and patients, scattering reporters, cameramen, and anyone else who stood in our way. I have to admit the agents knew their job. They cleared a pathway so fast that, if I'd been a religious man, I'd have sworn Moses was standing nearby waving his staff.

"Claire Morgan!" Tom said without preamble. "Where is she?" The admitting nurse gaped at me, unable to answer. "Where--?"

"Please," I interrupted quietly, coming up to the counter. "Ms. Morgan. Where is she?" I noted the nurse's nametag--Stephens. "Nurse Stephens, I'm sorry about the invasion, but my fiancee. I must know whether she's--"

"--She's fine, Mr. President," Nurse Stephens finally managed. "She's currently in ICU--!"

I took off before she was finished, running hurriedly through the corridors, almost leaving my bodyguards behind.

"Mr. President!" Tom protested, wheezing beside me, grabbing me by the sleeve. "Please, sir! You have to let us do our jobs!" His desperate words cut through the red haze in my brain. Of course, they had to do their job. It wouldn't be easy to explain to the nation that their President was killed because his Secret Service agents couldn't keep up with him.

I nodded and allowed the young, thirty-something agents to catch up to us. They all looked rather sheepish at having their much older President out-race them. Tom sent a couple on ahead to scout the ICU for us. I sighed in exasperation, visions of heavily armed doctors and nurses dancing in my head.

When we arrived at the ICU, the doctor in charge was already walking towards us.

"President Ryder," he called, his hand out. Before he could approach me, however, a team of agents was on him, shaking him down. I rolled my eyes. Really, these guys could be a little anal. The doctor withstood their ministrations calmly, arms spread out.

A young agent nodded the all clear. I shook hands with the doctor.

"I'm sorry about this," I said in a low voice.

"That's quite all right, sir," the doctor assured me. "Please, Mr. President, this way. Ms. Morgan is resting. I'm Dr. Matthews, by the way."

"How is she?" I asked. We stopped outside her door. I could see her through the plate glass window, surrounded by tubes and machinery. A hospital was the great equalizer, I thought. The stunning beauty of less than an hour ago was reduced to a 'thing' attached to other mechanical 'things' that were keeping her alive.

"Not as bad as she looks," Matthews quickly reassured me. "The bullet missed any vital organs. It went in and out cleanly. She's lost a lot of blood, but we got to her on time." He smiled benignly. "You may see her, sir. But only for a few minutes."

I nodded and looked at her once more. This was entirely my fault and I knew it. Never mind that she was somehow involved in the plot to assassinate the President. She wouldn't have been shot if I hadn't placed her in harm's way. I swallowed the guilt that threatened to consume me, and taking a deep breath, reached to open the door.

Tom's hand was instantly on my wrist, stopping me. I froze. The guilt that was tearing at me instantly turned into rage at the man's audacity. I whirled on him, slipping out of his grasp and turning the tables on him.

Before he knew what was happening, I had him pressed against the wall, his arm locked behind him.

"I'm beginning to get just a little tired of you, Tom," I said softly in his ear. "Now, I'm walking in there. And I'm going to talk to my fiancee. And you and the other little kiddies are going to stay out here. Do you understand?"

Tom shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mr. President!" he gasped, enunciating each word carefully. "It's my duty to--" I twisted his arm a little tighter and he gasped in pain. "--to protect you! Sir!"

Feeling a black fury threaten to engulf me, I suddenly realized who I was, or rather, who I was supposed to be. I released Tom, feeling like a complete SOB. The kid was just doing his job. I clapped my hand on his shoulder, unable to look him in the eyes.

"I was out of line, Tom. I'm sorry."

Tom nodded and moved away from the door. "We'll wait out here, sir."

I looked at him, startled. He steadily held my eyes. Finally, I smiled and nodded my thanks.

I walked inside. The sounds of beeps and the whoosh of air greeted me. The antiseptic hospital smells seemed even more prevalent in here. I stood for a moment, staring at the girl who such a short time ago had 'wowed' the convention center crowd with her beauty and grace.

I made my way slowly to her bedside. Her eyes were closed. I watched her for a minute longer, and then leaned down and lightly touched her pale cheek.

She gasped at the touch, her eyes snapping open.

"Hey, shhhhhh…" I said quietly, taking her hand in mine. "Claire, I'm sorry. I didn't intend for you to get hurt."

She stared at me, her dark eyes frightened. She quickly turned her face away from me, a lone tear trickling down her cheek.

"Hey, none of that," I soothed. "You're going to be all right."

She shook her head, sobbing softly.

"I'm sorry, Terence," she whispered. She looked up at me. "How did you know? How long--?"

"Not long," I said. "That's not what's important, Claire. What is important is the location of the second assassin. Please. I need your help. Where is the second hit going to take place?"

She shook her head. "I don't know," she sobbed. "I really don't know. Oh, Terence…they said that if I didn't help them they'd kill my mother and my little sister. I didn't know what to do."

I wracked my brains. When was the last time the President had seen Claire's family? Right before she'd gone on that world tour promoting the new line of cosmetics for which she was spokes-model. The same tour that had her stopping for five-unaccounted hours in Dhahran.

"Claire, are they holding your family hostage?" I asked evenly. She nodded, her face showing her heartbreak. "Why didn't you tell me?" I asked, taking her into my arms.

"I'm so ashamed," she whispered. I held her tightly for a moment longer, and then, kissing her gently on the forehead, lay her back down again. I caressed her cheek and smoothed back her hair. Smiling, I took her hand in mine.

As I did, Claire's eyes inadvertently flitted to her hand. I went suddenly still and took a closer look at her hand. Eyes narrowed, I again noted the perfect manicure, and the false thumbnail.

Claire saw what I was doing and began to struggle weakly. I firmly held her hand by the wrist. She tried to form a fist, but I easily countered her move. Very carefully, using thumb and forefinger I gently pulled off the false nail. I held it up to my nose, and quickly jerked it away. It had the distinct smell of almonds--cyanide.

"Poison?" I hissed, glaring at her. She'd been willing to poison herself?

"Terence--they have my mother and my sister. I had no choice." Tears streaming down her face, her eyes pleaded for understanding. I looked at her for a long time, remembering the countless times on the way to the convention center that she'd asked me to turn back. Her eyes told of the horror that she'd suffered for the past few weeks.

Claire had been forced to choose between her family and the man she loved. If I'd been in her place, I don't know what I would've done.

No, that wasn't true. I did know.

I recalled my father's murder in a dark alley all those years ago. He was an example to others who'd welched on a loan. The hired killer laughed at me, telling me that I was safe to go home, because he was only being paid to kill my father and not me.

I recalled my father on his knees, pleading for his life, begging not to be killed, to be given another chance. Most of all, I recalled the shame and fear I'd felt, seeing my father debased in front of me.

I remembered the gun as it was being aimed at my father's head. I once again felt the same cold hand grip my guts at the memory of that cold muzzle being placed within inches of my father's forehead. I'd been frozen in place, unable to move, when suddenly I'd jumped between my father and that ugly black muzzle, instinctively attempting to take the bullet that was meant for him.

Laughing in genuine amusement, his killer easily pushed me to the side and blew away my father's brains. I'd failed my father and the guilt has haunted me to this day.

Gazing into Claire's warm, brown eyes, I nodded in understanding. However, this didn't solve my problem. Now, I didn't just have the President to save, I had Claire's mother and sister, as well.

"Claire, I promise you, that I'll do everything in my power to ensure that no harm comes to your family."

"The dead assassin's name is Lufti Ben Rakin," Johnson reported. "He gained entry to the convention center on a press pass. The FBI sweep found the real reporter, Raefaello Baldovino, a member of the Italian press corps, stuffed into a locker. His throat cut."

I nodded. "I'd like to send my personal condolences to his family," I said. "Make sure that the body is returned to his home with full honors." Jenny Sullivan, the Press Secretary, nodded.

"I'll take care of all the arrangements, sir," she said.

"Okay, peeps, I want to talk to Jay, Tom, and Mike alone, please." The others nodded and quickly left the room.

I looked at the three remaining men. Of the three only Jay was in on my masquerade, but the other two's loyalty to the President was unquestioned. Tom had a sworn duty to protect the President at all costs, even taking a bullet for him if necessary. Mike was Michael J. Hunter, Director of the FBI, and one of the President's closest friends.

"Gentlemen, please take a seat," I said indicating the small sitting area within the Oval Office. All three quickly took a seat. "We're rapidly running out of time and options. Therefore, I'm going to tell you what we're going to do and hopefully we'll be able to bring this thing to a close."

"Mr. President," Tom began. "With all due respect, sir. But I hardly think that you're qualified in matters of personal security."

"On the contrary, Tom," I replied. "I am extremely qualified. Especially when it comes to matters of personal security. First, I want a twenty-four/seven guard on my fiancee," I said addressing Tom directly.

"Already taken care of, sir," he said.

"That's good. I want everything and everyone that goes into Claire's hospital room to be escorted with an agent. No nurse, no doctor, no orderly--no one!--goes in unescorted. Furthermore, I want a very short list of authorized medical personnel who will be allowed to go in and treat her."

Tom nodded. "Consider it done, sir."

"At the earliest possible, I want her transferred to Bethesda Naval Hospital," I added.

"Mr. President, I don't believe that that will be possible," Johnson said. "Ms. Morgan is a civilian. Since she's not yet the First Lady we have no authorization to be able to treat her in a military hospital."

"I've thought of that," I said. "In certain cases of extreme national security, the President of the United States is authorized granting civilians asylum within government property. I am so authorizing Ms. Morgan. She's been targeted by terrorists--known enemies of the state. Therefore, I am granting her asylum within the confines of Bethesda Naval Medical Center."

I held their eyes steadily. "Besides, I seriously doubt that the American public is going to deny me this one small indiscretion."

Johnson gave me that same look of respect that had been forced out of him earlier in the limo. I'd best be careful. If I continued surprising him, Johnson might actually start to hold me in high esteem. I don't think either of us would enjoy that very much.

"Sir, I've ordered the city locked down," Mike reported. "Checkpoints in and out at all the major arteries, Reagan International, Union Station--you name it. We're increasing security awareness around the Mall--"

"No," I said flatly.

Tom and Mike looked at me in surprise. "Sir--!" Tom began. "You have to let us do our job. We know that Ben Rakin's partner, Avedis Khodijian, is in the area. Mike's following standard procedure--"

"I said, 'no.'" I glared at both of my law enforcement officers. I hated their not being in the loop, but my contract specified that no one except Johnson would be let in on the masquerade.

"This is how it's going to go down," I began. "And if it all goes according to plan, we'll all be home in time for dinner tomorrow night."

I made my way down the carpeted West Wing corridor towards the Oval Office. As I walked, I was greeted by the staff's subdued "Good morning, Mr. President." I gave everyone a distracted nod, my nose stuck in the morning's Washington Post .

The headlines cried in outrage over the assassination attempt and Claire's subsequent wounding. When I entered the President's inner sanctum, I was met by more papers and more banner headlines. Jenny was waiting for me.

"Good morning, sir," she said, standing up from where she'd been having morning coffee and going over that morning's press briefing. "I have a few notes prepared for the morning press conference. All of the major networks and print media are clamoring for a statement from you, sir. Is there anything you wish to say?"

I glanced at a National Enquirer banner headline: Space Aliens Plan to Abduct President!

I glared pointedly at Jenny. She became suddenly flustered. "I'm sorry, sir. Must be some of the boys in White House Communications idea of humor. I'll take care of it," she said picking up the paper. I stayed her hand and took the paper from her.

Reading the irreverent headlines, I allowed myself a small smile. "It's okay, Jenny," I reassured her. "Sometimes gallows humor is the only way we can stay sane. I'm sure if Claire were here, she'd probably get a smile out of this, too."

I threw the paper back on the pile with the rest of them and headed towards my desk.

"Tell them that today is business as usual. That the United States government will not be held hostage to terrorists. And that the President will stick to his schedule as planned."

Jenny nodded, writing as quickly as I spoke. When I finished, she looked up at me, her eyes shining.

"I'll be proud to pass your message on to the American people, sir." Without waiting for further comment, she turned and left. I guess I was getting better at this job than I thought I'd be.

The rest of the day went as planned. I followed President Ryder's schedule of meetings, public relations photo-shoots, hand-shaking, bill-signing, and baby-kissing. I waved at cameras, smiled at silver-haired ladies, accepted a box of cookies from the Girl Scouts, and even won the football office pool, having bet on the Gotham Knights over the Washington Redskins.

At exactly 4:30 pm, in the middle of the rush hour from Hell (if you've never lived in DC, you can't begin to imagine its traffic), my limo arrived to take me to the Kennedy Center.

Tom's expression was impassive. He kept speaking/listening into his hidden mike. Because of the assassination attempt, he'd ordered a last-minute change to our convoy route. This, of course, caused the DCPD to jump through a complicated set of hoops, and ended with the expected gridlock--inside the 3rd Street tunnel.

I sat back feeling quite smug. If my assassin wants me, I thought, here I am. Actually, except for the Presidential convoy vehicles, the tunnel was empty. The rush hour gridlock, forced by a multiple vehicle rear-end pileup, was about two miles further ahead of us.

This made Tom very nervous. While rear-end collisions were a daily occurrence inside the Beltway, the fact that this happened at just the time that we entered the tunnel, and were now literally sitting ducks, was just too much of a coincidence.

Which is exactly as I'd wanted it.

I checked my watch. We'd now been sitting here, for almost two minutes. It was time to spring into action. I turned to Johnson.


Johnson looked at me with a single, raised eyebrow and nodded curtly. He, too, had been discreetly listening into an earpiece. Without another word, he opened the passenger door and stepped out, with me closely following.

"Mr. President!" Tom shouted, caught off guard. He and the rest of the Secret Service Agents immediately flanked me as we hurried towards the maintenance exit. "Mr. President!" Tom called again. "What are you doing ? Sir?!"

"Going for a walk, Tom," I said coolly. "You know what a 'walk' is, don't you?" Without waiting for a reply, I continued, "Truman used to do it all the time. You have heard about Truman, haven't you?"

I trailed Johnson up a short flight of stairs to a door labeled 'Maintenance Exit.' Without hesitation, Johnson turned the knob and pushed the door open. Two agents went in ahead of us. Within moments, they gave the all-clear, and we went through the door. It opened into another stairwell.

Tom tried to go through the door shoulder to shoulder with me. I gave him a wry look, and then relented at his worried look.

"Don't worry, Tom. Everything's under control--"

The shots rang out immediately above and behind us.

I hope, I added silently.

Automatic fire--Uzi's, I quickly identified. The agents around me quickly assumed defensive postures, coolly professional. Tom instantly grabbed me, intending to hustle me to safety. I didn't cooperate, easily slipping from his grasp and hurrying upstairs.

"Mr. President!" Tom yelled in exasperation.

"No questions, Tom!" Johnson replied. He was close behind me. "Just follow along and do your best to protect the President!"

"But General--!"

"Just do your best!" Johnson said, cutting him off sharply. Meanwhile, I'd reached the opening to the street level. The sounds of car horns and panicked screams resounded in the late evening, punctuated by the brief staccato of gunfire.

There were at least two gunmen, I knew. One on street level, one located somewhere in the tunnel below. However, FBI sources reported that Khodijian and Ben Rakin had a well-entrenched terrorist cell assisting them, a cell whose members were believed to be naturalized US citizens. They probably held US passports for ease of movement around the world as well as the country.

Furthermore, the terrorist cell was currently holding Claire's mother and sister hostage. I swallowed, feeling suddenly afraid. What if I lost control of the situation and Claire's family was murdered? Would I be able to live with myself knowing that their death was entirely my fault?

Not for the first time, I wondered if I'd bitten off more than I could chew. These were not your run of the mill gangster thugs with a grudge against some big-money guy who'd failed to play ball. These were international terrorists who'd previously held entire countries by the throat. And Terence Ryder wasn't some second-rate company executive--he was the leader of free world, the President of the United States. My President.

Hell, I'd even voted for the guy.

These thoughts and others zipped through my head as I surveyed the surrounding area. The late evening visibility was making a search difficult. As streetlights automatically came on, vehicle headlights lined for several miles in the gridlocked traffic added to the overall confusion.

The skyscrapers overlooking the 3rd Street tunnel rose up like well-lit sentinels, adding to the overall surreal effect.

I looked at Johnson. He was again listening intently into his earpiece. Finally, he looked up, a feral grin crossing his features.

"It's a go, sir! The extraction team has them! They're returning to base!"

Claire's mother and sister were now in friendly hands. "Thank God," I whispered fervently.

However, the relief I felt was short-lived. As if in retaliation for Johnson's report, explosions at either ends of the tunnel reverberated in the descending darkness. Pandemonium seemed to explode from the already panicked commuters as they abandoned their vehicles in place, and ran helter-skelter to whatever safe haven they could find.

"Now!" I shouted. Johnson spoke briefly into his mouthpiece. Within minutes, the sky was covered with black helicopters hovering over pre-selected targets in a quarter-mile radius around the tunnel. Heavily armed, blackened silhouettes silently rappelled from the dark interiors of the armored aircraft.

They ran towards their planned objectives, taking up positions in smooth and rapid movements.

Tom looked at me and then at Johnson, his eyes expressing anger and surprise at the unexpected turn of events.

"Sorry, Tom," I apologized, actually meaning it. "But the General, here, called in the Cavalry." I pointed at a squad of soldiers who were quickly occupying a building that held one of the snipers. Meanwhile, another helicopter was dropping off another group on the building's rooftop.

Everywhere we looked, heavily armed assault troops were taking out terrorist targets. I noticed that the soldiers were using minimum force, but were nevertheless working with amazing rapidity. Of course, the fact that the Army Rangers' Quick Reaction Force outnumbered the terrorist cell by about 100 to one might have had something to do with it.

"But, sir," Tom protested. "This the United States. We don't use armed soldiers for police actions in our own country--and not in District!"

I looked at Tom, then at Johnson. Johnson looked studiously away. We'd discussed this at length with the Army Chief of Staff. I hadn't liked it, but they'd convinced me. When push came to shove, General Johnson, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had almost absolute control over the US Armed Forces.

And whereas the effort needed to coordinate the different federal law enforcement agencies to work together in a single mission might have lost us the advantage of surprise, the Rangers were trained to react decisively with exactly the lightning swift strike needed to crush the terrorists.

For the first time since taking the assignment, I could feel the weight of the Office of the President on my shoulders.

"I know, Tom," I said, looking away. "God help me. I know."

The spin-doctors worked late into the night and for several days on end. Eventually, the American public believed--or at least accepted the explanation--that the armed troops they'd seen were just well trained, federal assault teams from the FBI, DEA, CBI, and even the DCPD.

Unfortunately, the man sitting in front of me didn't have the usual grateful look in his eyes that I'd come to expect from clients whose lives I'd just saved. He hadn't even thanked me for saving Claire's family, either.

So much for a Presidential Citation, I sighed ironically. I further noted that the look Ryder was giving Johnson didn't portend goodwill for the general.

"…And I'd like to add that the idea of bringing in the Army Rangers QRF was my idea, Mr. President," I said smoothly. "You gave me full powers to act as necessary, and I felt that the Rangers were the best way to bring a quick and efficient end to the matter."

I glanced over at Johnson who gave me a slight smile. Gee, I think he really likes me, I quipped.

"Mrs. Camilla Morgan and her younger daughter, Caitlin Morgan, were safely extracted from their kidnappers, with no loss of life. The kidnappers were rounded up and turned over to the proper authorities. Furthermore, Avedis Khodijian is now under FBI custody and his terrorist cell has been effectively broken up."

I waited expectantly.

I didn't hear any fife and drums. And there was a distinct lack of fireworks in the background. I think the President was unhappy.

"You called in armed troops, Mr. Chance," President Ryder said.

Definitely unhappy.

"On US soil."

Downright PO'd.

"Americans don't like that, Mr. Chance. In fact, I think that I can go out on a limb and state unequivocally that Americans hate the idea of the use of federal troops on US soil. Makes them feel downright suspicious about their government. Starts all kinds of militia movements out west in Montana and Texas."

He locked his steely blue gaze on mine.

"That puts me in a very uncomfortable position, Mr. Chance. Very uncomfortable indeed."

I calmly returned his glare without flinching. I didn't give a damn about his feelings. He still hadn't paid me. And angry or not, not even the President of the United States was going to welsh on my fee.

"Thanks for the Civics lesson, Mr. President. Now about my fee--"

The President leaned back on his leather desk chair, giving Johnson an imperceptible raise of his eyebrow. Johnson stood momentarily uncertain, glancing from his boss to me. Reaching a decision, he straightened to his full height, and then turned to the door. He opened it, curtly waving in two men whom I'd never seen before.

"I'm afraid, Mr. Chance, that there will be no remittance for your services." I turned towards the speaker, one of the newcomers. They didn't introduce themselves, so I automatically christened them, Gray Suit and Blue Suit. Gray Suit did the talking.

"Under a little known provision of the National Securities Act, Mr. Chance, you were legally drafted into the service of your country. As such, upon undertaking the mission of protecting the President of United States, you tacitly agreed to maintain the secrecy of said mission."

"What?" I admit it--I was shocked. "Drafted? I wasn't drafted--!"

"Violation of the National Securities Act, Mr. Chance, will automatically place you in contempt and subject to immediate imprisonment for treason against--"

" Treason --!?" Change that to flabbergasted. The SOB was going to welsh on my fee. "This is outrageous! We had a contract!"

Blue Suit held up a piece of paper--my contract--and without hesitation lit a match to it. Stunned, I watched my fee literally go up in smoke. Enraged, I made a move towards him, but was blocked by Johnson.

"Chris, be reasonable," he began. I whirled on him, about to harangue him about my idea of treason--'Friends' who turned on me, 'friends' on whom I couldn't count. The look on his face stopped me.

Unlike me, Johnson had sworn allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. He was first and foremost a soldier, and Ryder was his Commander-in-Chief. Johnson's hands were tied.

I stared into his eyes long and hard, and then nodding, I turned to face the Most Powerful Cheapskate in the Free World.

"Okay, Terry," I said, a smirk determinedly pasted on. "I'll play ball."

"Remember, that's the President of the United States you're addressing," Gray Suit snapped.

"Yeah…more so's the pity," I replied. Gray Suit took a threatening step in my direction, but Ryder stopped him.

"That's enough, Ray," Ryder said. He looked at me. "You'll be compensated for your work, Mr. Chance. The US Government doesn't kidnap its citizens and force them to work against their will. You will be paid in accordance with the usual consulting fee as set forth by the General Accounting Office."

I smiled benignly.

"Mr. President," I said distinctly. "You can take your government consulting fee and you can--" I stopped. What was the use? Insults made at the heat of the moment might make me feel better for the short while, but in the long run, it was just a sign of their victory.

No, better to bow out gracefully. And never accept another (frigging) referral for a high-profile government job. I laughed softly to myself. And I'd wondered what Ryder saw in Claire. Hell, she was too good for him. Shaking my head in disgust, I strode out of the Oval Office with my head held high…

Later, as I climbed into my late model BMW, slamming the driver's side door against the muggy, Washington, DC summer, I again shook my head in self-disgust. Each move punctuating my intense antipathy, the gears protested as I jerked them into Drive, and the tires screeched as I pressed my foot on the gas.

As I pulled into Constitution Avenue, sunlight reflecting off the dashboard caught my attention. Glancing over, I saw a silver pen with the distinctive Presidential Seal stamped on it. Making an illegal turn, I double-parked across from the Lincoln Memorial, just off the reflecting pool.

I leaned over and picked up the pen, holding it carefully between my thumb and forefinger. Moving the pen this way and that, I admired how the sunlight seemed to a cast a shimmering halo around it.

Abruptly, I flung the pen out as hard as I could, but felt no satisfaction when it ~plopped~ into the still waters of the reflecting pool. I roared off, wanting only to see the Capital City in my rearview mirror.

"And I voted for the guy!"

The End

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