Authors: Stuart Woods
Bess had been told by Sykes at breakfast that she was traveling with him to New York within the hour.
“For how long?” she asked.
“Don’t get nosy,” he replied.
“A girl has to know what to pack.”
“What have you got here?” he asked.
“Clothes for a couple of days.”
“Then that will have to do you. We’re not making any stops. You can shop in New York, if you need more.”
“Where are we staying?”
“You and I will be at the Lowell, on East Sixty-third, on Madison Avenue. The others will be nearby.”
“I don’t know the Lowell.”
“It’s enough that I do,” he said. “Ask Elroy to fix us some
sandwiches. I’d like a ham on rye. You and the others can tell him what you want.”
After breakfast she walked into the kitchen. Elroy was making his daily biscuits. He walked to the sink, beckoned to her, and turned on the water, the force of which made a drumming noise when it struck the steel sink. He leaned in to her ear.
“I know who you are, Ms. Potter, and that Tom Blake sent you here. I’m CIA. I thought you should know.”
She was not stunned. “We’re going to New York today, and we’ll need to pack a lunch: the colonel wants a ham on rye, and I’d like chicken on whole grain, with mayo.”
Elroy nodded. “I know what the others will want. I’ll bring it out to you at the car; fifteen minutes.”
Bess went up to her room and packed the things she had just unpacked. She took her bag downstairs and found Elroy waiting for her with two bags. “Don’t talk,” he said, handing her a bag.
“Okay, thanks for the sandwiches.”
She put her bag in the luggage compartment and the lunch on the floor of the rear seat, where she could reach it.
Sykes came out of the house, motioned her into the Explorer, and got in behind the wheel. Four others were getting into the van. Eugene and Earl were among them. The other two were Rod and Jimmy, to whom she had barely spoken.
Sykes drove away in silence. Soon they were on the interstate, driving north.
“You know,” Bess said, “when you invited me aboard I thought that you had some respect for my intelligence.”
“What makes you think I don’t?” Sykes asked.
“Your reluctance to confide the details of what we’re doing. I don’t like working in the dark.”
“You should know by now that I’m very security-conscious.”
“Obviously. Are the others better informed than I?”
“I inform whoever, whenever I think they need to know. You and I aren’t there yet, but will be fairly soon, I suspect.”
Bess thought it was time to press the point. “I just want you to know that I’m through taking blind orders. If you don’t feel you can confide in me, then just drop me at the nearest place I can get a cab or a bus, and I won’t trouble you further. You needn’t be concerned about me talking, since I don’t know anything.”
There was a long silence. “Fair enough,” he said finally.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Finally, she would make some progress.
“There’s a rest stop a couple of miles up the road. I’ll drop you there, and you can call a cab.”
“As you wish,” she said, steadying her voice so as not to sound disappointed.
He pulled into the rest stop and parked. “Go use the ladies’ room. When you come back, I’ll brief you. Take ten minutes. I want to talk to the lads.”
“Shall I take my luggage?”
“You can leave it here. I trust you, Bess.”
“Thank you.” She got out of the Explorer and went into
the ladies’ side of the restroom. She checked all the booths, then locked herself into the one farthest from the sink, got out her burner phone, and called Tom Blake’s burner.
“It’s me,” she said.
“I’m relieved to hear it.”
“Listen. I’m going to talk fast because I may be interrupted.”
“I know you’re at a rest stop.”
“Right. I had forgotten. We’re headed for New York. Sykes and I are staying at the Lowell on East Sixty-third Street. He wouldn’t tell me what he’s planning, so I said if he didn’t trust me I wanted out. Now he says he does. Elroy, the cook, told me he’s with another agency. Do you know if that’s true?”
“It is. His name is Leroy Collins, and he’s CIA.”
“Good. We didn’t have a chance to talk further.”
“Why are you going to New York?”
“Sykes relented and said he would brief me when I get back into the car. Should I continue?”
“Yes. I’ve no reason to believe you’re in danger. I’m in New York. When you learn your room number at the Lowell, leave a message for me, and I’ll send you some things.”
She checked her watch. “I have to go now.”
“Right. I’ll try to arrange a meeting.”
“Okay.” She hung up and tucked the phone in the lining of her handbag, then she flushed the toilet and left the booth. There was one elderly woman in the restroom, washing her hands.
Tom made a phone call. “Sykes and Bess will be staying at the Lowell Hotel, Sixty-third and Madison. I want the manager visited personally by a senior agent, who should work to gain the cooperation of that person to the extent of getting video and audio equipment installed. He should also rent an adjoining room or suite or, if one is not available, urge the transfer of another guest. That failing, take the nearest space available. Apply for a search warrant immediately. You have less than two hours before their arrival.” He hung up.
Sykes had the motor running when she got back to the car. In a minute, they were back on the interstate, with the van following. “Did you talk to the boys?” she asked.
“What did you tell them?”
“I told them that I trust you and that you are an equal member of our team.”
“To whom does the team report?”
“And to whom do you report?”
He hesitated for a moment. “I report directly to God,” he said, finally.
“Oh, good. I’d like to sit in on your next meeting.”
“Trust me, he wouldn’t like you.”
“Because I’m a lesbian?”
“Among other things.”
“What are the other things?”
“Mainly, your tendency to ask too many questions,” he said firmly.
They drove on in silence.
Stone was still meeting with Tom Blake and Bill Wright when a small, red light blinked over the door that led to the garage. “She’s here,” Stone said.
They all got to their feet a second before Holly bustled in, carrying shopping bags. “Evening, all,” she said. “Who do I have to beat up to get a drink around here?”
“That would be me,” Stone said, moving to the bar. “But be gentle.”
“Some of that filthy bourbon you drink,” she said.
Stone poured them both one.
“Gentlemen,” Holly said, “I command you to drink an alcoholic beverage.”
“As long as you put it that way,” Tom said. “I’ll try your bourbon, too, Stone.”
“As will I,” Bill said.
The door opened and Claire Dunn entered, carrying more shopping bags. She had become the de facto bodyguard for Holly.
“You’re drinking, too, Claire,” Holly said.
“It’s an order from the top,” Bill said.
Claire dropped her bags. “Can you make a martini, Stone?”
“It’s one of my many virtues,” Stone replied, then reached into a freezer drawer for a bottle he had premixed and poured her one. He dropped two olives stuffed with anchovies into the glass and handed it to her.
Bill raised his glass. “The next administration,” he said, and they all drank.
Holly took the chair next to Stone’s. “If we’re going to talk shop, we’d better do it before the booze kicks in,” she said.
“Tom,” Bill said, “you’re here to fill us in on your end.”
“Fortunately, I have more to report than I would have had a few hours ago,” Tom said. “To sum it up, we’re dealing with a five-man unit of domestic terrorists who have apparently been organized for the express purpose of preventing the president-elect from becoming president. Their leader is a retired Army colonel, Wade Sykes, who resigned from the service under a cloud when he was found to be distributing white-supremacist literature among some of his command. There are four other members residing at his compound in Virginia. We have first names only: Eugene, Earl, Rod, and Jimmy. There are also two others who are not
residents there but visit regularly. One of them, unbeknownst to Sykes, is a female special agent of the FBI; the other is an African-American who cooks at the compound and is a member of the CIA.”
“What interest does the CIA have in all this?” Bill asked. “They’re off their turf, aren’t they?”
“I had lunch today with Lance Cabot to ask him just that, but I failed in my mission when lunch was cut short.”
“As lunch with Lance often is,” Stone remarked.
“Since Stone is a special advisor to Lance,” Tom said, “I will ask him to get us an answer to that question.”
“I’ll do my best,” Stone said.
“Thus far, there have been three attempts on the president-elect’s life. All, I’m glad to say, have been unsuccessful. You all know about the Maine incident and last week’s shooting of the dummy in the family quarters of the White House.”
There was a murmur of assent.
“There was also a failed attempt at Ms. Barker’s Georgetown residence, in which our female agent took part as the getaway driver.”
“What have the two operatives at the compound learned?”
“Elizabeth Potter, who is known as Bess Potts at the compound, gleaned sufficient knowledge to foil the Georgetown and White House attacks, but she was not yet a member of the group at the time of the Maine incident. We have not yet had a report from the cook, Leroy Collins, known at the compound as Elroy Hubbard. Sykes does not trust him,
apparently because he’s black, but fortunately, he likes the man’s cooking.
“As we speak, Sykes, Bess, and the four other members are on their way to New York, apparently for another attempt. This time, we hope we will have enough intelligence to bag them all. We are helped by the fact that Bess has managed to plant trackers on both the vehicles they are traveling in: a Ford Explorer and a van.” He turned his laptop around so that they could see the screen. “As you can see, they’re in New Jersey now.
“Sykes and Bess are staying at the Lowell Hotel on East Sixty-third at Madison. We hope to penetrate their quarters. We’re seeking a search warrant now. That’s about it.”
“All that is encouraging,” Bill said, “but we still don’t have enough evidence to arrest them for anything.”
“I know, and that’s discouraging,” Tom replied.
Stone spoke up. “A question that hasn’t been asked or answered is whether this is a small band of people working on their own, or are they part of a larger group?”
“I’m afraid none of us has anything on that,” Bill said.
Holly spoke up. “Gentlemen—and Claire—do any of you have an opinion of the group’s chances of succeeding?”
There was dead silence for a count of about ten while each of the participants hoped someone else would say it, then Stone spoke up. “A president, I think Harry Truman, said that anyone could kill a president, as long as he was willing to die himself.”
“I think that’s close to being the truth,” Bill said. “But certain precautions can make a difference. For example, ma’am, at every rally you’ve attended while under our protection, from the beginning of your campaign until the present, all the people in the first three rows of the crowd have been prescreened. Most of them were campaign workers or volunteers known to the local organizers. We’ve collected the names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers of all the others and run them through a computer program designed to reveal if any of them have been treated for a serious mental condition, or is known to have committed a violent crime, including domestic violence, or has threatened the life of a president. By thus cleansing the first three rows of such people, attempts on the principal’s life has been sharply reduced, as long—and this is essential—as the principal does not penetrate the crowds.
“A training film exists of a campaign appearance by former Alabama governor George Wallace, in which he ignores that stricture and spontaneously plunges into the crowd, shaking their outstretched hands. Just beyond the third row he encounters one Arthur Bremer, who shoots him five times before our people can reach him, thereby instantly turning Mr. Wallace into a paraplegic, wheelchair bound for the remainder of his life.”
“I’ve seen that film,” Holly said, “and it put the fear of God into me—or, at least, the fear of crowds.”
“I’m very glad to hear that, ma’am, because that fear may save your life.”
“I think the real moral of that story,” Stone said, “is listen to and obey the Secret Service.”
“I shall endeavor to do so,” Holly replied. “Up to a point.”
“Ah,” Bill Wright said. “That point where you are, however briefly, on your own.”
Tom Blake was shown to his room and, before showering and changing, made a call. “What is your progress?” he asked.
“The manager at the hotel declined to cooperate until shown a search warrant,” the agent said. “It arrived ten minutes ago, and we are now in the suite.”
“How much time do you need?”
“Fifty minutes,” he said.
“Call the superintendent of the New Jersey state police, describe the two vehicles, and ask him to have his people stop and inspect half a dozen vehicles, among them the suspects’. Tell him this is at the request of the director and the attorney general.”
“Is that a fact, sir?”
“It will be by the time they are stopped. Goodbye.”
Tom called the director, made his case, got his approval, then asked him to call and alert the attorney general. He phoned his agent again. “You are now officially authorized. What is your progress?”
“We need another forty minutes,” the man replied. “Our equipment shows the vehicles twelve minutes out from the Lincoln Tunnel.”
“You’ll make it. You know, of course, that if Sykes twigs to your installation, you’ll be taken out and shot.”
“Of course, sir. If I fail, I’ll look forward to that.”
The group gathered downstairs for dinner in the dining room, prepared by Stone’s cook, Helene, and served by her husband, Fred.
“What news, Tom?” Bill Wright asked.
Tom looked at his watch. “Our suspect vehicles were delayed at the New Jersey end of the Lincoln Tunnel, where a number of cars were stopped and inspected. It cost them twenty minutes of travel time, so they should be arriving at the Lowell just about now.”
Bess was impressed that they were met at curbside by not just a bellman but the hotel manager, who greeted Sykes by name and rank. “We have a very nice suite for you,” he said, “and the young lady is nearby. We need ten minutes for the maids to finish. May I get you some refreshment?”
Bess asked for iced tea, and the colonel, bourbon, and they were steered to a seating area.
“I don’t like the delay,” Sykes said.
“Who does? This happens to me at least half the time when I’m traveling.”
“Well, it doesn’t happen to me,” Sykes said, sourly.
After five minutes the manager returned and walked them to the elevator and all the way to their accommodations.
Bess was put into a small double room next door to Sykes’s suite, with instructions to go there for a drink at seven. They would go out to dinner after that.
As soon as the bellman and the manager left, she began unpacking. There was a light rap on the door. She opened it to find an empty hallway, then she heard the rap again. She closed the door and went to another door, from whence the rapping was coming. She unlocked it, and the door was opened by a tall man in a dark suit.
“Ah, Special Agent Potter,” he said, pulling her into his room and closing the door behind her. “I’m Fisk.”
“Bess Potts, from here on,” she said, shaking his hand. “What preparations have you made?”
“His suite is wired to the gills, and shortly, so will you be.”
“You expect me to wear a wire?”
“No, I expect you to wear a string of pearls,” he said, opening a jewelry box and removing it. “They were your grandmother’s, except one is a microphone and quite undetectable. The antenna is what the pearls are strung on, and the receiver and transmitter are in the clasp.”
“How do I turn it on?” she asked.
He opened another box. “By squeezing an earring,” he said, showing her a pair, “in your right earlobe. Your grandmother’s, too.” He showed her the clasp of the necklace, and she put it on, then the earrings, each a pearl. “Try it.”
She squeezed the right earring and was surprised that it gave to her touch.
“Up and running,” another agent said, consulting his computer.
“How long are they good for?”
“Three to four hours,” he said, turning the gear off for her. “If he leaves you for a few minutes, turn it off and save the juice, but don’t forget to turn it back on.”
“Got it. I’ve got to get dressed.” She went back to her room and locked the door behind her. She heard it lock again from the other room.
She got into the only dress she had, changed her shoes, brushed her hair, and applied makeup lightly, then she put on the pearls and earrings. She turned them on and then presented herself at the door next to hers, using the knocker at seven sharp.
Sykes was wearing a suit when he admitted her. “How lovely you look,” he said. “And pearls!”
“They were my grandmother’s,” she said. “I wear them occasionally.”
One of Sykes’s men, Jimmy, stepped in from another room.
“Okay, Bess,” Sykes said. “Strip off.”
She returned a level gaze. “What did you say to me?”
“I said, take your clothes off. Jimmy’s got to check you for a wire.”
“You first,” she said, firmly. “Jimmy, too.”
Sykes glared at her. “Do as I say.”
“No,” she replied. “I don’t strip on any man’s command.”
“I can use the wand,” Jimmy said.
“All right,” Sykes replied, “use the wand.”
Bess pretended to scratch her ear and squeezed the right earring, turning off the receiver/transmitter. She spread her arms wide and allowed Jimmy to pass the wand over her entire body, including her crotch, then she put her hands down. “You’re done,” she said.
“Just your shoes to go,” he replied.
She held up each shoe for him to check. “Now,” she said, “who do I have to kill to get a drink?” Sykes turned toward the bar tray, and she squeezed the earring again, turning the wire back on. Her blood pressure was up, and she was panting slightly. She sat down and took a few slow, deep breaths, then resumed breathing normally. “So,” she said, “what does the evening hold for us?”
“Not much,” Sykes said. “Just changing American history.”
“Oh, I want to hear all about that,” she said cheerfully.