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Authors: Sam Bourne

The Chosen One

BOOK: The Chosen One
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The Chosen One
Sam Bourne

For Fiona, my sister – and a true heroine


New Orleans, March 21, 23.35

He didn’t choose her, she chose him. At least that’s how it seemed. Though maybe that was part of her skill, the performer’s art.

He hadn’t stared at her, hadn’t fixed her with that steady gaze he knew freaked the girls out. He didn’t want to make anyone uneasy. So he pretended to be like those out-of-town guys, cool and unbothered. On a business trip, only visiting a strip club so they could say they had tasted the true New Orleans experience – letting their hair down, sampling a little sin. The city didn’t mind those guys. Hell, New Orleans had made a living out of them: sleaze tourism, nicely packaged.

So he did his best to act uninterested, even glancing down at his BlackBerry, only occasionally stealing a look at the stage. Not that that was the right word. Too big. The ‘performing area’ was little more than a jetty pushed out among the low-lit tables, a few square feet with barely enough room for a girl to peel off her bikini top, jiggle the silicone on her chest, bend over and show her g-stringed ass before blowing a few kisses to the men who had slotted a twenty under her garter belt.

The thrill of these places should have faded long ago, but somehow he kept coming back: this spot had been a fixture, every Wednesday night, for years. It wasn’t really about the sex. It was the dark he liked, the anonymity. He would get the odd greeting and smile of recognition from behind the bar, but that was it. Men here avoided one another’s gaze: if your eyes met, it was in your mutual interest to look away.

Still, he took no chances. He didn’t want any strangers recognizing him, not with everything that had happened. He didn’t want to chat. He needed to think.

Be calm, he told himself. Things are on track. He had dropped the bait and they had picked it up. So what if there was no word yet? He should give it time.

The amber pool of bourbon at the bottom of his glass was inviting. He stared into it, raised it to his lips and knocked it back in one sharp swallow. It burned.

He glanced back to the stage. A new girl, one he’d not seen before. Her hair was longer, her skin somehow not quite as plucked and smooth as the others’. Her breasts looked real.

He was guarding himself against giving her the Stare but it was too late. She was looking directly at him. And not the blank, dosed-up gaze of the girls who called themselves ‘Savannah’ and ‘Mystery’ either. She was seeing him, seeing right through to him. Had she recognized him, perhaps from the TV?

He fiddled with the BlackBerry again, the device slick from the moisture in his palm. He fought the urge to look up, only to surrender a few seconds later. When he did, she was still holding him in that steady gaze. Not the fake leer perfected by the girls who know how to kid a bald, drunk guy that he’s hot. This was something more genuine; friendly, almost.

Her spot was over and she was gone, ending with the
obligatory shake of the rear. Even that seemed aimed in his direction.

To his relief, the machine vibrated in his hand, forcing him to be busy with something else. A new message. He scanned the first line. Another media request. Not what he was waiting for. He scrolled through the rest of the day’s email, pretending to read.

‘You know what they say: all work and no play—’

‘Makes Jack a dull boy.’

He interrupted her even before he had seen her face. She had pulled up a chair at the small, dark-wood table he had made his own. Even though he had never heard her speak, he knew from the first syllable that it was her.

‘You don’t look like a dull boy.’

‘And you don’t look like a stripper.’

‘Oh, really? You don’t think I’ve got the goods for—’

‘I wasn’t saying that. I was saying—’

She placed her hand on his, to silence him. The warmth he had seen in her eyes on stage was still there. Her hair hung loose, falling onto her shoulders. She could have been no more than twenty-five – nearly half his age – and yet she exuded a strange…what was it? Maturity. Or something like that, something you rarely saw in this sort of place. Alongside him, his hands clammy, stabbing at his email, she was a statue of calm. He signalled to the waitress to bring them a drink.

Then, in an accent that was not Southern, perhaps Midwest, maybe California: ‘So what kind of work do you do?’

The question brought a warm wave of relief. It meant she didn’t recognize him. He felt the muscles in his back relax. ‘I’m kind of a consultant. I advise—’

‘You know what,’ she said, her hand still on his, her eyes searching for the door. ‘It’s too stuffy in here. Let’s walk.’

He said nothing as she led him out onto Claiborne Avenue,
the traffic still heavy even at this late hour. He wondered if she could feel, just through his hand, that his pulse was racing.

Finally, they turned down a side street. It was unlit. She walked a few yards, turning left into an alley. It ran along the back of a bar, one of the few around here that had survived Katrina. He could hear a party inside, the sound of a toast delivered through a muffled loudspeaker.

She stopped and turned to face him, stretching up on her tiptoes to whisper into his ear. ‘I like it outside.’

Long before he had absorbed and understood her words, the blood was surging towards his groin. The sensation of her voice, her breath in his ear, flooded him with desire.

He pressed her hard against the wall, reaching immediately for her skirt. She pushed her mouth against his, kissing him enthusiastically. Her teeth bit into his lower lip.

The skirt was up and he began working at his belt. She pulled away from his mouth, offering him her neck instead. His tongue fell on it instantly, taking in the scent of her for the first time. It was familiar – and intoxicating.

Her hands ignored his unbuckled belt and moved upward, heading for his face. She was touching him, her fingers gentle. They moved down to his neck and suddenly pressed on it hard.

‘You like it rough,’ he murmured.

‘Oh yes,’ she said, the index- and forefingers of her right hand now firmly on his windpipe.

He wanted to pull down her underwear, but she suddenly seemed to be further away from him, her crotch no longer tight against his. He heard himself rasping.

He tried to prise her fingers off his throat, but there was no budging them. She was remarkably strong.

‘Look, I can’t breathe—’ he gasped. He caught a glimpse of her eyes, two bright beads in the night. No warmth now.

‘I know,’ she said, her left hand joining her right in fully circling his throat.

There was no coughing or spluttering, just a slow wilting in her hands, as she choked the life out of him. He fell quietly, any noise drowned out by the drunken chorus of
Happy Birthday
coming from the bar.

She straightened her skirt, reached down to remove the BlackBerry from the man’s jacket pocket, and headed off into the night, her scent still lingering in the Louisiana air.


The previous day

Washington, DC, Monday March 20, 07.21

‘Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks. Crap and bollocks.’

First she’d been thinking it, now she was saying it out loud, the words carried off in the onrush of wind.

Maggie Costello twisted her wrist to get another look at her watch, the fifth time in three minutes. No getting away from it. 7.21am: she was going to be late. But that was OK. It was only a one-to-one meeting with the White House Chief-of-bloody-Staff.

She pedalled furiously, feeling the strain in her calves and the heaving pressure on her lungs. No one had said cycling was going to be this hard. It was the cigarettes she blamed: she was fitter when she smoked.

So much for the fresh start. New job, new regime, she had told herself. Healthy eating; more exercise; quit the fags; no more late nights. If there was a plus to finding herself suddenly single, it was surely that she could now start each morning bright and early. And not just normal-human-being early, which 7.21am certainly counted as in Maggie’s book. No, she would start her day Washington early, so that a meeting at 7.30am
would not feel like bumping into someone in the middle of the night. To the new Maggie, 7.30 would feel like an ordin ary moment in the heart of the working day.

That had been the plan, at any rate. Maybe it was because she had been born and raised in Dublin, only coming to America as an adult, that she didn’t fit. Whatever the explanation, Maggie was fast coming to the conclusion that she was innately out-of-sync with all these bright, shiny Washingtonians, with their polished shoes and impeccable self-discipline, because no matter how hard she tried to embrace the DC lifestyle, getting up at the crack of dawn still felt like cruel and unusual punishment.

So here she was, late again, whistling down Connecticut Avenue at a lethal speed, willing Dupont Circle to come into view but knowing that, even when it did, she would still be at least three to five minutes away from the White House and that was before she had chained up the bike, cleared security by putting her bag and BlackBerry onto the conveyor belt that fed the giant scanning machine, dashed into the ladies’ bathroom, torn off her T-shirt and cycle-clips, swabbed her armpits, used the hand-dryer to restyle her hair, wrestled her still-sweating body into her much-loathed regulation Washington uniform, a barely more feminine version of a man’s suit and shirt – and somehow altered her appearance from under-slept scarecrow to member of the National Security Council and trusted Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of the United States.

It was 7.37am by the time she stood, panting and still red-faced, before Patricia, secretary to Magnus Longley. She had been with Longley for more than forty years, they said; rumour was, he had scooped her out of the typing pool on his very first day of work at his father’s law firm. The pair of them had been around forever, he a monument in permanent Washington, she his stone base.

It had been Patricia who had summoned Maggie to this meeting, in a telephone message that had woken her blearily at 6.29am, only for her to fall back into a fatal doze that lasted another twenty-five minutes.

‘He’s waiting for you,’ Patricia said, peering above her glasses – attached by a string around her neck – just long enough to convey a sharp look of disapproval, for her lateness, of course; but for other more important reasons, too. That cold, lizard’s blink of a glance had taken in Maggie’s appearance from top to toe and found it sadly wanting. Maggie looked down and realized with some horror that her trousers, ironed so carefully last night in preparation for the next day but thrown on in haste this morning, were now unacceptably creased and marked at the ankles by a line of cycle grease. And then there was her autumn-red hair which, in a gesture of personal rebellion, she kept long and tousled in a town where women tended to keep it short and businesslike. Patricia’s expression conveyed more clearly than any words that no self-respecting young lady would have gone to work dressed like that in her day. And in the White House, too!

Maggie passed her hand through her hair one more time, in a futile bid to impose some order, and stepped inside.

Magnus Longley was a veteran Mr Fix-it who had served either in the House, Senate or the White House since the Carter era. He was the requisite greybeard appointed to balance out – and allay any anxieties over – the President’s youth and lack of Washington experience. ‘He knows where the bodies are buried,’ was what everyone said about him. ‘And he knows how to bury any new ones.’

His thin, aged head was down when she came in, poring over a neatly-squared pile of papers, a pen in his hand. He scrawled a comment in the margin before looking up, revealing a face whose features remained always neat and
impassive. He still had all his hair which, now white, was combed perfectly into a parting.

‘Mr Longley,’ Maggie said, extending a hand. ‘I’m sorry I’m late, I was—’

‘So you think the Secretary of Defense is an asshole, is that right, Miss Costello?’

Maggie, parched already from the breakneck cycle ride, felt her throat run dry. Her hand, still outstretched and ignored, came down and reached shakily for the back of the chair facing Longley’s desk.

‘Shall I repeat my question?’ The voice was deep and strong, surprising from a man of his age, the accent creaking with old money and Park Avenue breeding. Longley was a New York aristocrat; his father had been a pal of FDR’s. He spoke the way Americans talked in 1940s movies, an accent halfway across the Atlantic to England.

‘I heard the question. But I don’t understand it. I never called the—’

‘No time for games, Miss Costello. Not in this office, not in this building. And no time for such infantile behaviour as
—’ the word punctuated with a loud flick of the fingers against a single sheet of paper.

Maggie tried to peer at the upside-down paper, suddenly full of dread. ‘What is that?’

‘It is an email you wrote to one of your colleagues at the State Department.’

Slowly a memory began to form. Two nights ago, she had worked late. She had written to Rob, over on the South Asia desk at State. He was one of the few familiar faces around; like her a veteran of pressure groups, aid organizations and eventually UN peace missions in horrible, forgotten corners of the world.

‘Shall I read the relevant paragraph, so that we’re clear?’

Maggie nodded, the recollection growing ever less hazy.

Longley cleared his throat, theatrically. ‘“Intel on AfPak suggests close collaboration with Islamabad”, et cetera, et cetera, “none of which seems to be getting through to the assholes at the Pentagon”—’

She had a nasty inkling of what was coming…

‘“—especially the chief asshole, Dr Anthony Asshole himself”.’ He placed the paper back on the desk and looked up at her, his gaze icy.

Now she remembered it all. Maggie’s heart fell with a sudden swoop into the pit of her stomach.

‘As you can imagine, the Defense Secretary is not too happy to be described in these terms by an official of the White House.’

‘But how on earth did he—’

‘Because—’ Magnus Longley leaned forward and across his desk, enabling Maggie to see the first signs of liver spots on his cheeks. ‘Because, Miss Costello, your friend at State is not quite as brilliant as you evidently think he is. He forwarded your proposal regarding intelligence co-operation with Pakistan to colleagues at the Pentagon. But he forgot to use the most important button on these goddamned machines.’ He gestured vaguely in the direction of his desktop computer, whose screen, Maggie noticed, was dark and very possibly coated with dust. ‘The delete key.’

‘No.’ The horrified response came out as a whisper.

‘Oh yes. The entire thread of messages.’ He handed her the print-out.

She took one look, noting the list of senior Pentagon officials who had been cc’d at the top of the email – including the handpicked, ultra-loyal advisors to the Defense Secretary – and felt the blood drain from her face. She stared down at the paper again, willing it to be untrue. But there it was in black-and-white:
How on earth could Rob have made such an elementary mistake? How could she?

‘Any case for the defence you’d like to make?’

‘Are you certain he knows?’ she asked feebly.

He gave her the first movement of a sneer.

‘Maybe his aides didn’t pass it on, maybe it hasn’t reached him.’ She could hear the desperation in her own voice.

Longley raised his eyebrows, as if to ask if she really wanted to pursue this line of argument. ‘He’s the one who raised it with me. Personally, this morning. He wants you gone immediately.’

‘It was just one word in one email. For Christ’s sake—’

‘Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.’

‘It’s just office banter. It was one remark—’

‘Do you even read the newspapers, Miss Costello? Or perhaps you are more of a
reader?’ He said the word as if he had just caught a whiff of a soiled dishcloth. ‘Twitter maybe?’

Maggie decided this was part of Longley’s shtick, playing the old fart: he couldn’t be as out of touch as he liked to pretend, not when he had stayed on top in Washington for so long. She remembered the Style section interview she had read, in which Longley had claimed the last time he had stepped inside a movie theatre was to see Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in
From Here to Eternity
. ‘Have I missed much since then?’ he had asked languidly.

Now he was sitting back in his chair, relaxed. ‘Because you may have picked up that our Defense Secretary is – how can we put this? – not one of the President’s obvious loyalists.’

‘Of course I know that. Adams ran against him for the nomination.’

up-to-date. Yes. He may even run against him again.’

‘A primary challenge?’

‘Not inconceivable. The President has assembled what is
admiringly referred to as “a team of rivals”. But as Lincoln understood, it may be a team, but they’re still rivals.’

‘So he—’

‘So he’s not going to let this go. Dr Adams wants to flex his muscles, show that his reach extends beyond the Pentagon.’

‘Which means he wants me out.’

The Chief of Staff stood up. Maggie wasn’t sure if the creak she heard was the chair or Longley’s knees.

‘That’s where we are. The final decision is not Dr Adams’s, of course. It rests in this building.’

What the hell did that mean?
This building
. Did Longley mean he would decide – or that whether Maggie kept her job or not would be settled by the President himself?

Longley had pulled his shoulders back, so that he could deliver his final remarks. ‘Miss Costello, I fear you forgot Longley’s First Rule of Politics. Don’t write so much as a note to the milkman in this town that you wouldn’t mind seeing on the front page of the
Washington Post
. Above the fold.’

‘You think Adams would leak it.’

‘Wouldn’t you? Revive stories about the Baker-Adams rift, implicitly putting himself on a par with the President? No thank you. The reason he’s inside the tent is so that he can piss out, not all over the Oval Office carpet.’

‘Does the President know about this?’

‘You seem to have forgotten that Stephen Baker is the President of the United States of America. He is not a
human resources
manager.’ His mouth seemed to recoil from the phrase, as if uttering such an absurd, new-fangled term might stain his lips. ‘I don’t want to be unkind, Miss Costello. But there are hundreds of people who work for the President. You are not of a rank at which your employment would be of concern to him. Unless there is a reason
you think otherwise, in which case perhaps you would be so good as to disclose that to me.’

So that meant the final decision rested with Longley. She was finished. Maggie balled her hands into fists as two instincts warred inside her: fight and flight. She certainly wanted to hit this sanctimonious prick, who appeared to be enjoying the situation far too much; at the same time she wanted to run home and throw herself under the duvet. Doing her best to control herself, she bit her lower lip, hard enough to get the zinc taste of blood.

Longley glanced casually at his watch, a vintage Patek Philippe, elegant, unfussy; unashamedly analog. ‘I have someone waiting for me, Miss Costello. No doubt we will speak again soon.’ She was dismissed.

Maggie passed Patricia on the way out who, she noticed, did not so much as look up, let alone make eye contact. No doubt a gesture of discretion she had learned in many long years of serving Magnus Longley, who had probably sacked enough people over the years to fill RFK Stadium.

She waited till she was in her own rabbit-hutch of an office, an eighth the square footage of the Chief of Staff’s, before she would even breathe out properly.

Once she was sure the door was closed, she used her forearm to sweep everything – two tottering piles of classified documents, magazines, paper bags from the deli, chewed pens and other assorted detritus – off her desk and onto the floor. The gesture made her feel good for about three-fifths of a second. She fell into her chair.

Was this going to be the story of this year, having a magical opportunity in her hands, only to screw it up royally? Forget this year, was this going to be the story of her bloody life? And all for the sake of one supremely stupid moment of unguarded honesty. Not that Adams wasn’t an arsehole: he was,
First Class. But it was absurdly naïve to put it in an email. How old was she? Nearly forty, for God’s sake. When would she learn? For a woman who’d made her name as a skilled diplomat, a peace negotiator for Christ’s sake – with all the sensitivity, discretion and sureness of touch that required – she really was an idiot.
, she could almost hear her sister Liz teasing her in fake bog-Irish.

It wasn’t as if she hadn’t had a chance. When she had got back from Jerusalem – hailed as the woman who had at last made a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process – she was, everyone told her, able to write her own ticket. She had been swamped with job offers, every think-tank and university had wanted her name on their headed notepaper. She could teach international relations at Harvard or write editorials in Foreign Affairs. There had even been a whisper from ABC News that, with the right training – and a suitable wardrobe – she might have the makings of on-air ‘talent’. One executive had sent a handwritten note: ‘I truly believe you are the woman to make international relations sexy.’

BOOK: The Chosen One
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