Alli Carson sat in the back of the armor- plated limo, sandwiched between Sam and Nina, her Secret Ser vice detail. She was just three days shy of her twentieth birthday, but with her father being inaugurated President of the United States today, she’d scarcely had time to think about what she might get in the way of presents, let alone contemplate what she was going to do to celebrate.
For the moment, it was all about her father. The inauguration of Edward Carson, former se nior senator from the great state of Nebraska, was celebration enough. Even she had found it interesting that the media had made such a fuss over the exit polls showing that her father was the first president to be significantly helped by a massive African- American turnout. Those votes had been the result of a national campaign engineered by her father’s formidable election machine in conjunction with
the powerful black religious and political organization, the Renaissance Mission Congress. Her father had successfully run as the anti- Rove, basing his campaign on reconciliation and consensus building, for which the RMC had been the standard- bearer.
But for the moment, everything else was subsumed beneath the intricate and laborious plans for today, which had been ongoing for more than six weeks, as directed by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. The speeches, balls, cocktail parties, media ops, and shamelessly opportunistic sound bites had begun five days ago, and they would continue for another five days after her father was sworn in, an hour from now.
After eight years of the executive branch being at loggerheads with the legislature, today would usher in a new era in American politics. For the first time, a moderate Republican would be president—a man who, though a fiscal conservative, was unabashedly pro-choice and pro–women’s rights, which put him at odds with many Republicans and the religious right. Never mind. His mandate had come from young
people, Hispanics and African Americans who, finally deciding it was time for their voices to be heard, turned out in record numbers to vote for Edward Carson. Not only did they fi nd him irresistibly charismatic, but they also liked what he said, and how he said it. She had to admit her father was clever as well as smart. Still, he was of a species—the po liti cal animal—that she despised.
Alli didn’t even try to peer through the windows. The heavily smoked, bulletproof glass afforded only a glimpse of a world blurred in shadow. Inside, she was cushioned in a plush backseat, illuminated by the soft glow of the sidelights. Her hands were pale against the dark blue leather seat. Thick auburn hair framed an oval face dominated by clear green eyes. A constellation of freckles crossed the bridge of her nose like grains of sand, an endearing touch to a beautiful face. It said something important about her, that she deliberately didn’t cover her nose with makeup.
An engine of anxiety thrummed in the pit of her stomach. She’d given her iPod to the driver to plug into the stereo. A wash of fuzzed- out guitars, thumping bass, and steaming vocals from a band called Kill Hannah made the air shimmer and sweat.
“I wanna be a Kennedy,” the singer chanted, and Alli laughed despite herself. How many times had she had to endure the same question: “Are the Carsons the new Kennedys? Are you the political dynasty of the future?”
To which Alli would reply: “A Kennedy? Are you kidding? I don’t want to die young.” She’d said it so often, in fact, that it had become an iconic line, repeated both on hard news shows and late- night TV. It had even led to an appearance on Saturday Night Live, where they’d dressed her up like Caroline Kennedy. These antics didn’t exactly thrill anyone else in the Carson family, most of whom were seriously deficient in the sense- of- humor department.
They turned west onto Constitution Avenue NW, heading for the Capitol, where, as convention dictated, the swearing in of Edward Carson and his vice president would take place.
“What about Random House?” Nina, on her right, said suddenly. She had to raise her voice over the music.
“What about it?” Alli said.
Sam, on her left, leaned slightly toward her. “What she means is, are you going to take the deal?”
Sam wore a dark suit of a conservative cut, starched white shirt, striped tie. He had thinning brown hair, soft eyes, and an oddly monkish air, was broad, tall, and powerful. Nina had a long, rather somber face with an aggressive nose and large blue eyes. She wore a charcoal gray worsted suit, sensible shoes with low heels, a pale blue oxford shirt buttoned to the collar. Both Secret Ser vice agents had earbuds so they could communicate with their brethren in the presidential motorcade.
“The memoirs of the First Daughter. Well, in this age, public humiliation is a badge of courage, isn’t it?” Alli put her head back against the seat. “Ah, yes, the spellbinding saga of me. I can’t wait to read that, so I can only imagine how everyone else will be clamoring for it.”
“She’s not going to take the deal,” Nina said to Sam over her head.
“You think?” Sam said sardonically. Then he allowed a smile to creep onto his pock- cheeked face. “Right. She’s no Paris Hilton.”
Alli said: “Hey, listen, what Paris Hilton got before anyone else was the diff erence between exposing things about herself and being exposed. Why fi ght our tabloid culture, she asked herself, when I can make a mint from it? And that’s just what she did. She made exposing yourself cool.”
“You’re not going to make a liar out of Nina. You’re not going to take the deal.” Sam frowned. “Are you?”
Alli screwed up her mouth. “Real men would take bets.” She didn’t like being so predictable.
The limo made a dogleg to the right, onto Pennsylvania Avenue NW, passing under the four lanes of Route 395, and onto the ring road that swung around the sprawling Capitol building.
Another song came on, “Neon Bible” by Arcade Fire, shaking the interior of the limo, and, strangely, Alli found herself looking at Sam’s hands. They were square, callused, vaguely intimidating hands, reminding her of Jack McClure. She felt a quick stab deep inside her, and a darkness swept across her consciousness, like a veil lowered for a funeral. And just like that, the engine of anxiety morphed into a singular sense of purpose. She was looking at the world now as if through a telescope.
They were almost at the Capitol, rolling slowly, as if in thick, churning surf. She became aware of the press of people— dignitaries, politicians, security guards, military men from all the armed ser vices, newscasters, celebrities, paparazzi—their heaving mass impressing itself on the smoked glass.
She was aware of the tenseness of her body. “Where’s Jack?”
“My old buddy’s on assignment,” Sam said. But something in his voice alerted her.
“His assignment is here, with me,” she said. “My father made me a promise.”
“That may be,” Nina said.
“You know how these things go, Alli.” Sam leaned forward, grasping the inner door handle as they rolled to a stop.
“No, I don’t,” she said. “Not about this.” She felt a sudden inexplicable fear invade her, and she felt the brush of the funeral veil. “I want to talk to my father.”
“Your father is busy, Alli,” Nina said. “You know that.”
From out of her fear came a surge of outrage. Nina was right, of course, and this made her feel helpless. “Then tell me where Jack is,” she demanded. Her green eyes were luminous in the sidelights. “And don’t tell me you don’t know.”
Nina sighed, looked at Sam, who nodded.
“The fact is,” Nina said, “we don’t know where Jack is.”
“He didn’t check in this morning,” Sam added.
Alli felt a small pulse beating in the hollow of her throat. “Why haven’t you found him?”
“We’ve made inquiries, of course,” Sam said.
“The truth is, Alli . . .” Nina paused. “He’s vanished off the radar screen.”
Alli felt a tiny scream gathering in her throat. She rolled the gold- and- platinum ring around her finger nervously. “Find him,” she said tersely. “I want him with me.” But even as she spoke, she understood the futility of her words. Jack was gone. If the Secret Service couldn’t find him, no one could.
Sam smiled reassuringly. “Jack handpicked us to protect you. There’s nothing to be concerned about.”
“Alli, it’s time to go,” Nina said gently.
Sam opened the door, stepped out into the wan January sunshine. Alli could hear him whispering into his mike, listening intently to security updates.
Nina, half out of her seat, held Alli by the elbow. Alli smoothed down the skirt of the suit her mother had bought for her and insisted she wear. It was a mid- blue tweed with a hint of green in it that matched the color of her eyes. If she wore anything like this on campus, she’d never hear the end of it. As it was, her image would be plastered all over the papers and the eve ning news. She wriggled inside the suit, itchy and overheated. As was her custom, she wore a minimum amount of makeup—she had not given in on that one—and her nails were cut almost as short as a man’s.
When Sam nodded, Nina urged her charge forward, and Alli emerged from the plush cocoon of the limo. She saw the Unites States Marine and Air Force bands standing at attention to either side of the inaugural platform and, on it, the Speaker of the House, who would make the Call to Order and the opening remarks; the Reverend Dr. Fred Grimes, from whom the invocation and the benediction would come; and two mezzo- sopranos from the Metropolitan Opera, who would sing arias during the musical interludes. There was the vice president and his family. And her father, chatting with the Speaker of the House while her mother, head slightly bowed, spoke in hushed tones with Grimes, who had married them.
Then, Alli was inundated by a swirl of people, voices, microphones, hundreds of camera shutters clicking like a field of crickets. Sam and Nina cut a protective swath through the straining throng, guiding her at long last up the steps of the inaugural platform, draped in the American flag, the blue- and- gold symbol of the president’s office affixed to the center podium, where the speeches would be made, the swearing in would take place.
She kissed her mother as she was embraced; her father turned, smiled at her, nodding.
Her mother said, “Are you okay?” as they pulled away.
“I’m fine,” Alli said in a knee- jerk reaction that she didn’t quite understand. The breeze picked up and she shivered a little. As the marine band struck up its first tune, she put her hands in the pockets of her long wool coat.
Sunlight shone like beaten brass on the faces of the most important men in the Western world. She moved a step closer to her father, and he gave her that smile again. The I’m-proud- of- you smile, which meant he didn’t see her at all.
The last bars of the fanfare had faded and the Speaker of the House took the podium for the Call to Order. Behind him rose the facade of the Capitol, symbol of government and freedom, its dome glimmering as if with Edward Carson’s promise of a new tomorrow. Down below, among the pale fluted columns, hung three huge American flags, the Stars and Stripes billowing as gently as fields of wheat glowing in sunset.
Alli’s right hand found the stitches in the satin lining of her coat, her nail opening the basting until there was a small rent. Her two fingers encountered the small glass vial that had been secreted there. As if in a dream, she lifted out the vial, closed her fist around it in her pocket. There was a ticking in her head as she counted to herself: 180 seconds. Then she would open the vial of specially prepared anthrax.
And like the contents of Pandora’s box, out would come death in amber waves of grain.
Copyright © 2008 by Eric Van Lustbader. All rights reserved.