Authors: Vicki Hinze
Sybil Stone scanned the group of twenty already boarded on the flight. “No press or nonessential staff on this flight. Skeleton crew only. Get them off fast and get the press and staff separated, Agent Westford.” Worry clouded her eyes, turning her irises midnight blue. “Delay their return to the States until Monday”
Monday? But it was only Wednesday. “Staff and press, Vice President Stone?”
She nodded. “Yes, Agent Westford. Let’s get going. We have seventy-two hours, and we’re going to need every minute, ‘Hail Mary’and scrap of luck we can scrounge up.”
“I’ll have to bring in the CIA,” he reminded her, an accompanyimg chill crawling up his backbone. Liberty wasn’t prone to exaggeration, and only once, during a crisis in the Middle East that had threatened to rip open barely healed wounds, had he heard her resort to a verbal “Hail Mary” pass. “The press will scream bloody murder.”
“I look forward to hearing it.”
That baffled him. “Ma’am?”
“They’ll be alive to scream.”
believes, and believes, and believes
With love and
An idea does not a novel make. If a writer is extremely lucky, she encounters a generous soul along the way who is willing to share her time, expertise, and insights. This novel made that difficult transition blessed by many generous souls:
My amazing agent, Helen Breitwieser, who said, “Vic, write me a story about a woman VP,” and then not only loved it, but wholeheartedly supported it. My team at Bantam—a warm and enthusiastic group of professionals who always get what I mean—and when I get mired, explain it to me: Kara Cesare, Beth de Guzman, Anne Bohner, Nita Taublib, Wendy McCurdy, and Liz Scheier. Ladies, the depth of your caring and commitment humble me.
My family, who knows
about me and loves me anyway. My friends, fans, and fellow writers, particularly those upon whom I constantly rely: Lorna Tedder, Elizabeth Sinclair, Teresa Hill, Susan Wiggs, and all my RomEx sisters.
To Eliza for her sharp eye and insights, and to my research sources, who for reasons of their own choose to remain nameless, yet graciously gift me with technical support, insights on policy, procedures, and probabilities. You guys are terrific, and any errors are definitely mine.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all.
“Lady Liberty is on the move.”
Agent Jonathan Westford stilled. The message had transmitted through his earpiece clearly, but what he had heard couldn’t be accurate. Three agents had been assigned to the security detail guarding Sybil Stone, the Vice President of the United States. Three. Westford as mission chief; Harrison, an old-timer; and Cramer, who was new to working Special Detail Unit’s international details. Right now Liberty was supposed to be sequestered, having dinner in a private dining room with the other dignitaries, and Harrison was supposed to be standing watch.
So why the hell was
calling in her moves?
Forgetting his half-eaten dinner of steak and potatoes, Jonathan snatched his napkin from his lap and left the sanctuary of the Grand Palace Hotel’s dining room, silently damning budget cutbacks, reduced manpower, and Home Base for allowing itself to be forced to assign a rookie like Cramer to any Level-Five SDU mission, much less to one involving Liberty.
The main lobby was littered with guests, many of whom had been identified as press and more who had not been identified. The hotel was far too public, in Jonathan’s opinion, but it had been the one place Peris and Abdan’s leaders had agreed to meet, and when the president of the last superpower in the world employed you and he said go, you went or you resigned. Since Jonathan hadn’t been ready to resign, he’d gone.
Keeping a sharp watch for oddities, he strolled across the expansive lobby, longing for the days of summit meetings at Camp David or places equally secluded and less complicated to secure.
Why was Liberty on the move? And why were Harrison and Cramer not reporting?
As soon as he cleared the watchful eyes of the press, Jonathan broke into a full run, hurdled the velvet-rope barrier restricting public access to the diplomatic wing, then barreled down the deserted hallway leading to the conference room where Liberty had spent the last four days trying to broker a peace agreement between the leaders of two of the former Soviet nations, Abdan and Peris.
She alone had succeeded at getting them to the negotiating table. So far, she had managed to keep their tempers simmering, though threats of eruptions hung as heavily in the air as their threats for war. Fired up over a mineral-rich land dispute, both countries had been stockpiling arms for months, and in the past few weeks, they had escalated their purchases significantly.
Both had nuclear weaponry in their arsenals. Both had demonstrated the will to use them.
Vic Sampson, the hotel’s chief of security, intercepted Jonathan at the mouth of the corridor. Years of hard choices seamed his lean face. “What’s up? Why is she off-schedule?”
“I don’t know yet.” Admitting that grated at Jonathan, and he sniffed.
“What am I smelling, Vic?”
“Air freshener. It’s in the climate-control unit.”
Bad news all around.
“Lose it.” Jonathan doubled his pace.
Vic lifted his walkie-talkie to his mouth, then issued the order. Seconds later he issued another. “I don’t give a damn how you do it, just shut down the unit and get rid of it—now.” He slid the device back into its case at his belt. “Why did I do that?”
“Fragrance can mask contaminants.” Jonathan spared him a glance. “Maybe lethal contaminants.”
It was a serious mistake, and Vic had made it. No more needed to be said. He hadn’t been crazy about taking on the elevated risks of terrorist attacks or any of the other thousand extra challenges that came with hosting the summit, but he and his staff had been professional and extremely accommodating. To minimize security risks, they had blocked off an entire wing and had provided each of the peace-seekers and their staff suites, conference rooms, and offices with comfortable salons. All in all, the message to the peace-seeking entourage was unqualified, clear— and mirrored unilaterally throughout the world:
No one in power wanted these negotiations to fail.
No sane person wanted war.
“Clear behind us.” Vic reported a rear check. “Potential attack?”
“It’s possible.” Before Liberty’s plane had left D.C., two groups of terrorists, Ballast and PUSH, had threatened attacks. Vic had been warned and the Grand Palace had quietly given its employees “heavy-traffic” bonuses for working during the summit. But anyone with half a clue would know that this was “hazardous-duty” pay. Unfortunately, it was justified.
Jonathan rounded the corner and spotted Liberty walking toward him. Flanked by the other leaders, their guards, three Russian translators, and Cramer, she looked tiny—a blue-eyed blonde, about five-five in pumps, with a pretty girl-next-door face and a trim body polished by nature and healthy habits. Typical confident stride, purposeful yet not overbearing. No obvious distress. Actually, the woman was smiling, amused by something the Peris leader had said.
“She looks okay” Vic summarized his visual check. “But I’ll hang close, just in case.”
Jonathan nodded and continued with his own assessment. Though dwarfed by the tall, thick-shouldered men surrounding her, Liberty had a presence that had nothing to do with her navy power suit or her political clout. It signaled to even the most casual observer that she was in charge, which of course she was. In many ways, she was a remarkable woman: classy, competent, and cool but not distant. She had presence; he knew it, and others knew it. That was enough.
He stopped in the hallway in front of the office door, just steps away from the conference room they had been using for negotiations, and lifted a hand to snag her attention.
“Excuse me a moment please,” Liberty told the others, her voice soft and husky.
She walked over, stopped beside Jonathan, and smoothed back her pale, chin-length hair.
A Band-Aid on her finger?
His breath locked in his lungs.
What the hell was she doing with a Band-Aid on her finger? And why the hell hadn’t he been notified?
“Agent Westford?” Her brow furrowed, puzzled. “Is everything all right?”
“I need a moment, ma’am.” He had to work at keeping his voice level.
She had to work at holding her smile. “Of course,” she said, then stepped into his office.
He followed her to the doorway, stared Cramer to a
stop outside, and then spoke into his transmitter. “Harrison. My office. STAT.”
“On my way, sir.”
He turned to Cramer and ordered, “Do not move.” When he nodded, Jonathan entered the office, shut the door, and then flipped the switch to activate the electronics installed to create white noise and keep conversations private. Between satellite and high-tech surveillance equipment, few places existed where sound waves couldn’t be intercepted. White noise minimized the risks. That was important. If overheard, this conversation would have immediate international repercussions.