Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton
return to the Oval Office with Carolyn as the clock slowly, agonizingly approaches five. We are silent. A lot of working men and women look forward to five o’clock on Friday because it signals the end of the work week, some much-needed relaxation and time with family.
But for the last four days, Carolyn and I have been waiting and planning for this particular hour of this particular day not knowing whether it’s the beginning of something, the end of something, or both.
It was last Monday, just after noon, when I received the phone call on my personal cell. Carolyn and I were grabbing turkey sandwiches in the kitchen. We already knew we were facing an imminent threat. We didn’t understand the scope or magnitude of it. We had no idea how to stop it. Our mission in Algeria had already failed in spectacular fashion for all the world to see. Suliman Cindoruk remained on the loose. My entire national security team had been subpoenaed to testify the following day, Tuesday, before the House Select Committee.
But when I put down my sandwich and answered that call in the kitchen, everything changed. The dynamic was completely upended. For the first time, I had the tiniest sliver of hope. But I was also more scared than ever.
“Five p.m. Eastern time, Friday, May the eleventh,”
I was told.
So as the time approaches five o’clock on Friday, May 11, I am no longer thinking about the seven innocent children in the Republic of Yemen who are dead under a pile of ash and rubble based on a decision I made.
Now I’m wondering what in the hell is about to happen to our country and how I can best deal with it.
“Where is she?” I mumble.
“It’s not quite five, sir. She’ll be here.”
“You don’t know that,” I say as I pace. “You can’t know that. Call down.”
Before she can, her phone buzzes. She answers. “Yes, Alex…she—all right…she’s alone?…yes…that’s fine, do what you need to do…yes, but be quick about it.”
She puts away her phone and looks at me.
“She’s here,” I say.
“Yes, sir, she’s here. They’re searching her.”
I look out the window, up at the bruised sky, threatening rain. “What is she going to say, Carrie?”
“I wish I knew, sir. I will be monitoring.”
The instruction delivered to me was a one-on-one meeting, no exceptions. So I will be alone, physically, in the Oval Office with my guest. But Carolyn will be watching from a monitor in the Roosevelt Room.
I bounce on my toes, not knowing what to do with my hands. My stomach is in full-scale revolt. “God, I haven’t been this nervous since…” I can’t finish the sentence. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous.”
“You don’t show it, sir.”
I nod. “Neither do you.” Carolyn never shows weakness. It’s not her way. And it’s a comfort right now, because she’s the only one I can count on.
She’s the only person in the US government, besides me, who knows about this meeting.
Carolyn leaves. I stand by my desk and wait for JoAnn to open the door for my visitor.
After what feels like an endless slog of time, the clock moving in slow motion, JoAnn opens the door. “Mr. President,” she says.
I nod. This is it.
“Show her in,” I say.
he girl enters the room wearing work boots, torn jeans, and a gray long-sleeved T-shirt bearing the word
. She is waif-thin, with a long neck, prominent cheekbones, and narrow eyes spread apart in a way that suggests eastern Europe. Her hair is in one of those styles I’ve never understood, the right side of her head shaved in a military buzz cut with longer hair hanging over it, down to her bony shoulders.
A cross between a Calvin Klein model and a Eurotrash punk rocker.
She scans the room, but not the way most people who enter the Oval Office do. First-time visitors soak it all in, eagerly devour all the portraits and knickknacks, marvel at the presidential seal, the
Not her. What I see in her eyes, behind the impenetrable wall of her face, is pure loathing. Hatred of me, this office, everything it stands for.
But she’s tense, too, on alert—wondering if someone will jump her, handcuff her, throw a hood over her head.
She fits the physical description I received. She gave the name at the gate that we expected. It’s her. But I have to confirm, regardless.
“Say the words,” I tell her.
She raises her eyebrows. She can’t be surprised.
She rolls her eyes.
“‘Dark Ages,’” she says, curling her
’s, as if the words were poison on her tongue. Her accent is heavily eastern European.
“How do you know those words?”
She shakes her head, clucks her tongue. There will be no answer to my question.
“Your…Secret Service…does not like me,” she says.
Doze not like me.
“You were setting off the metal detectors.”
“I do that…always. The…what is your word? The bomb frag—the—”
“Shrapnel,” I say. “Parts of a bomb. From an explosion.”
“This, yes,” she says, tapping her forehead. “They told me that two…centimeters to the right…and I would not have woken up.”
She curls a thumb into the belt loop of her jeans. There is defiance in her eyes, a challenge.
“Would you like to know…what I did to deserve it?”
I’m going to guess it had something to do with some military strike ordered by an American president—maybe me—in some faraway land. But I know next to nothing about this woman. I don’t know her real name or where she’s from. I don’t know her motivation or her plan. After first making contact with me—indirectly—four days ago, on Monday, she fell off the map, and despite my considerable efforts to learn more about her, I failed. I don’t know anything about her for certain.
But I am reasonably sure that this young woman holds the fate of the free world in her hands.
“I was walking my…cousin…to mass when the missile hit,” she says.
I shove my hands in my pockets. “You’re safe here,” I say.
Her eyes drift up and away, enlarging them, a beautiful copper color. It makes her look even younger. Less of the hardened image she’s trying to project and more the scared kid she must be, underneath it all.
She should be scared. I hope she’s scared. I sure as hell am, but I’m not going to show it any more than she will.
“No,” she says. “I do not think.”
I donut zink.
She blinks her eyes heavily, looks away with disdain. “The American president promises.” She reaches into the back pocket of her jeans and produces an envelope, tattered and folded in half. She straightens it and places it on the table next to the couch.
“My partner does not know what I know,” she says. “Only I do. I did not write it down.” She taps the right side of her head. “It is in here only.”
Her secret, she means. She didn’t put it on a computer we could hack or in an e-mail we could intercept. She is storing it in one place only, a place that not even our sophisticated technology can penetrate—her mind.
“And I do not know what my partner knows,” she says.
Right. She has separated herself from her partner. Each of them, she is telling me, holds part of the puzzle. Each of them is indispensable.
“I need both of you,” I say. “I understand. Your message on Monday was clear about that.”
“And you will be alone tonight,” she says.
“Yes. Your message was clear on that, too.”
She nods, as if we have settled something.
“How do you know ‘Dark Ages’?” I ask again.
Her eyes turn down. From the table by the couch, she picks up a photograph of my daughter and me walking from Marine One toward the White House.
“I remember the first time I saw a helicopter,” she says. “I was a young girl. It was on the television. There was a hotel in Dubai that was opening. The Mari-Poseidon, it was called. This…majestic hotel on the waters of the Persian Gulf. It had a heli—a heli…pad?”
“A helipad, yes,” I say. “A rooftop landing for helicopters.”
“This, yes. The helicopter landed on the roof of this hotel. I remember thinking that if people could fly, they could do…anything.”
I’m not sure why she’s telling me about Dubai hotels or helicopters. Maybe it’s nothing more than nervous chatter.
I approach her. She turns, puts down the photo, and steels herself.
“If I do not leave here,” she says, “you will never see my partner. You will have no way to stop this.”
I lift the envelope from the table. It is nearly weightless, flimsy. I can see a trace of color through the paper. The Secret Service would have inspected it, checked it for any suspicious residue and the like.
She steps back, still wary, still waiting for government agents to burst through the door and whisk her away to some Guantánamo Bay–style interrogation room. If I thought that would work, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But she has set this up so that it wouldn’t. This young woman has managed to do something that very few people could pull off.
She has forced me to play this game on her terms.
“What do you want?” I ask. “Why are you doing this?”
For the first time, her stoic expression breaks, her lips curve, but it’s not an expression of mirth. “Only the president of this country would ask such a question.” She shakes her head, then her face once again becomes a poker-face wall.
“You will find out why,” she says, nodding toward the envelope in my hand. “Tonight.”
“So I have to trust you,” I say.
This draws a look from her, a raised eyebrow, her eyes glistening. “I have not convinced you?”
“You’ve gotten this far,” I say. “But no, you haven’t entirely convinced me.”
She eyeballs me, a confident, daring look, like I’d be a fool to call her bluff. “Then you must decide,” she says.
“Wait,” I say as she heads for the door, reaches for the knob.
She bristles, freezes in place. Still looking at the door, not me, she says, “If I am not allowed to leave, you will never see my partner. If I am followed, you will never see my part—”
“No one’s going to stop you,” I say. “No one’s going to follow you.”
She holds still, her hand poised over the knob. Thinking. Debating. About what, I don’t know. I could fill a room with what I don’t know.
“If anything happens to my partner,” she says, “your country will burn.”
She turns the knob and leaves. Just like that, she’s gone.
And then I’m alone with the envelope. I have to let her go. I have no choice. I can’t risk alienating the one chance I have.
Assuming I believe her. Assuming that everything she’s saying is true. I’m nearly 100 percent there, but in my line of work, it’s hard to get closer than that.
I open the envelope, which tells me where the next meeting will take place, tonight. I replay everything that just happened. So very little did. She had almost nothing of substance to say.
She accomplished two things, I realize. One, she needed to hand me this envelope. And two, she wanted to know if she could trust me, if I would let her leave.
I walk over and sit on my couch, staring at the envelope, trying to glean any hints from what she said. Trying to think ahead on the chessboard.
A knock on the door, and Carolyn enters.
“I passed her test,” I say.
“That’s all this was,” she agrees. “And that,” she adds, nodding at the envelope in my hand.
“But did she pass mine?” I ask. “How do I know this is real?”
“I think it is, sir.”
Overhead, the lights flicker again, a momentary strobe effect. Carolyn looks up and curses under her breath. Another thing she’ll have to address sometime down the road.
“Why do you believe her?” I ask.
“The reason it took me a few minutes to come in, sir.” She points at her phone. “We just got word out of Dubai. There was an incident.”
An incident in Dubai. “With a helicopter?”
She nods. “A helicopter exploded while landing on the helipad of the Mari-Poseidon Hotel.”
I bring a hand to my face.
“I checked the timing, sir. It happened after she’d walked into the Oval Office. There’s no other way she could have known about it.”
I fall back against the couch. So she accomplished a third goal. She showed me she was the real deal.
“All right,” I whisper. “I’m convinced.”
p in the private residence, I open one of the dresser drawers, which contains only a single item: a picture of Rachel. I have plenty of those around here, photos of her vibrant and happy, mugging for the camera or hugging or laughing. This one is for me only. It was taken less than a week before she died. Her face is blotchy from treatments; she has only wisps of hair on her head. Her face is almost skeletal. To most people, this would be hard to look at—Rachel Carson Duncan at her absolute worst, finally succumbing to a ravaging disease. But to me, it’s Rachel at her best, her strongest, her most beautiful—the smile in her eyes, her peace and resolve.
The fight was over at that point. It was just a matter of time, they told us—could be months, but more likely weeks. It turned out to be six days. It was six days I wouldn’t trade for any others in my life. All that mattered was us, our love. We talked about our fears. We talked about Lilly. We talked about God. We read from the Bible and prayed and laughed and cried until our wells of tears had run dry. I’d never known intimacy so raw and cathartic. I’d never felt so inseparable from another human being.
“Let me take a picture of you,” I whispered to her.
She started to object, but she understood: I wanted to remember this time because, at that moment, I’d never loved her more.
“Sir,” says Carolyn Brock, lightly rapping her knuckles on the door.
“Yeah, I know.”
I put my fingers to my lips, then touch Rachel’s photo. I close the drawer and look up.
“Let’s go,” I say, dressed in my civvies and holding a small bag over my shoulder.
Alex Trimble’s head drops, his jaw clenched with disapproval. When the head of a Secret Service detail dreams his worst nightmare, it is this. He can always console himself with the fact that I gave him an order, that he had no choice but to let me go.
“Just a loose perimeter?” he says. “You’ll never see us.”
I give him a smile that says no.
Alex has been with me since I was first assigned security protection during the primaries, when I was a governor viewed as a long shot for the nomination. It wasn’t until the first major debate that my poll numbers surged, placing me in the top tier of candidates behind the front-runner, Kathy Brandt. I didn’t know how the Secret Service doled out its assignments, but I had assumed, as a dark-horse candidate, that I did not receive their best and brightest. But Alex always said to me, “Governor, as far as I’m concerned, you
the president,” and he was disciplined and organized. His team feared him the same way cadets fear their drill sergeants. And as I told him when I made him the head of the White House detail, nobody killed me, so he must have done something right.
You don’t get too close to your security, and they don’t get too close to you. Each side of the arrangement understands the need for emotional separation. But I’ve always seen the goodness in Alex. He married his college sweetheart, Gwen; he reads the Bible every day and sends money to his mother back home every month. He’s the first to tell you he wasn’t book smart, but he was a hell of a left tackle and got a football scholarship to Iowa State, where he studied criminal justice and dreamed of joining the Secret Service so he could do in life what he did on the gridiron—protect the blind side of his client.
When I asked him to head up my detail at the White House, he kept his standard stoic expression and ramrod posture, but I caught a brief sheen of emotion across his eyes. “It would be the greatest honor of my life, sir,” he whispered.
“We’ll use GPS,” he says to me now. “Just so we’ll know where you are.”
“Sorry,” I say.
“Checkpoints,” he tries, a Hail Mary. “Just tell us where you’re going—”
“No, Alex,” I say.
He doesn’t understand why. He is convinced that he could surveil me invisibly. I’m sure he could. So why won’t I let him?
He doesn’t know, and I can’t tell him.
“At least wear a bulletproof vest,” he says.
“No,” I answer. “Too noticeable.” Even the new ones are too bulky.
Alex wants to argue more. He wants to tell me that I’m being a horse’s ass, but he’d never speak to me like that. He runs through an entire plea in his head, probably no different from the arguments he’s already raised with me, before dropping his shoulders and relenting.
“Be safe,” he says, a line that people throw out every day as an innocuous sign-off but that in this case is charged with emotion and dread.
I look at Danny and Carolyn, the only other people in the room. It’s time for me to go, alone and off the record. For years I’ve been constantly going, but never alone and never off the record. The Secret Service takes every step with me, and at least one aide is almost always there, even when I’m on vacation. A record is kept of where I am every hour.
I know this is the only option that will spare the country untold misery and allow me to do my duty to preserve, protect, and defend it. I know my fellow Americans go alone and off the record all the time, though surveillance cameras, cell phones, social media mining, and hacking are shrinking their zones of privacy, too. Still, this is a big change, and I feel a little disoriented and disarmed.
Danny and Carolyn are by my side for the last leg of my dislocation from the trappings of office. We are quiet. They each tried hard to talk me out of this. Now they’re resigned to helping me make it work.
It’s harder than you might think to get out of the White House unnoticed. We take the stairs from the residence all the way down. We walk slowly, each footfall another movement toward what is about to happen. With every step, I am surrendering more control to an uncertain fate tonight.
“You remember when we first took this route?” I ask, recalling our postelection tour before I took the oath of office.
“Like it was yesterday,” says Carolyn.
“I’ll never forget it,” Danny says.
“We were so full of…hope, I guess. We were so sure we’d make the world a better place.”
Carolyn says, “Maybe you were. I was scared to death.”
I was, too. We knew the world we were inheriting. We had no illusions that we would leave everything perfect. When I hit the pillow every night during those heady preinauguration days, my mind would veer wildly from dreams of massive strides forward in national security, foreign relations, shared prosperity, and health care and criminal justice reform to nightmares of completely botching the whole thing and plunging the nation into crisis.
“Safer, stronger, fairer, kinder,” Danny says, reminding me of the four words I ticked off every morning as we began to put fine points on our policies and build our team for the upcoming four-year term.
Finally we reach the subbasement, where there’s a one-lane bowling alley, a bunkerlike but well-furnished operations center that Dick Cheney occupied after 9/11, and a couple of other rooms designed for meeting around simple tables or sleeping on cots.
We pass the doors and head toward a narrow tunnel that connects the building to the Treasury Department, just to the east, on 15th and Pennsylvania. What exactly is beneath the White House has been the subject of myth and rumor going back to the Civil War, when the Union Army feared an attack on the White House and plans were put together to evacuate President Lincoln to a vault in the Treasury Building as a last resort. The real work on the tunnel didn’t begin until FDR and World War II, when an air assault on the White House became a real possibility. It was designed in a zigzag pattern precisely to mitigate the impact of a bomb strike.
The entrance to the tunnel has a door alarm, but Carolyn’s taken care of that. The tunnel itself is only ten feet wide and seven feet high—not a lot of headroom for someone like me, who’s over six feet tall. It could have a claustrophobic effect, but I don’t feel it. For someone no longer accustomed to going anywhere without the Secret Service or aides, the empty, open space of the tunnel is liberating.
The three of us walk almost the length of the tunnel before coming to another path, which turns right into a small underground parking garage reserved for high-ranking Treasury officials and important guests. Tonight it also holds my getaway car.
Carolyn hands me car keys, then a cell phone, which I put in my left pocket, next to the envelope that the girl gave me half an hour ago.
“The numbers are preprogrammed,” she says, referring to the cell phone. “Everyone we talked about. Including Lilly.”
Lilly. Something breaks inside of me.
“You remember the code?” she asks.
“I remember. Don’t worry.”
From behind my back, I produce an envelope of my own, this one bearing the presidential seal and containing a single piece of paper. When Danny sees it, he almost loses his composure.
“No,” he says. “I’m not opening that.”
Carolyn puts out her hand and takes it from me.
“Open it,” I tell her, “if you need to open it.”
Danny puts a hand on his forehead, pushing his hair back. “Jesus, Jon,” he whispers, the first time since I took office that he’s used my name. “Are you really going to do this?”
“Danny,” I whisper, “if anything happens to me—”
“Hey—hey now.” He puts his hands on my shoulders. He is faltering, holding back emotion. “She’s like flesh and blood to me. You know that. I love that kid more than anything.”
Danny’s divorced now, with one son in grad school. But he was in the waiting room when Lilly was born; he stood on the altar at her baptism; he teared up at every one of her graduations; he held Lilly’s other hand at Rachel’s funeral. Early on, he was “Uncle Danny” to Lilly. Somewhere along the line, the “uncle” part got dropped. He will be the closest thing she’ll have to a parent.
“You got your Ranger coin?” he asks.
“What, you’re popping me with a coin check right now?” I pat my pocket. “Never go anywhere without it,” I say. “What about you?”
“Can’t say I have mine with me. Guess I owe you a drink. So now you…” His throat catches with emotion. “Now you
to come back.”
I hold my stare on Danny, my family not in blood but in every way that matters. “Roger that, brother.”
Then I turn to Carolyn. We don’t have a hugging kind of relationship; other than the nights I won the nomination and then the general election, we’ve never embraced.
But we do now. She whispers into my ear. “My money’s on you, sir. They don’t know what they’re up against.”
“If that’s true,” I say back, “it’s because I have you on my side.”
I watch them leave, shaken but resolved. The next twenty-four or forty-eight hours will not be easy for Carolyn, who will have to serve as my point person at the White House. These are unprecedented times. We are, in a real sense, making this up as we go along.
When they are gone, when I am alone in the tunnel, I bend over and put my hands on my knees. I take a few deep breaths to combat the butterflies.
“I hope you know what the hell you’re doing,” I say to myself. Then I turn and head farther into the tunnel.