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TUESDAY, OCTOBER 30, 1:00 A.M. EASTERN STANDARD TIME
THE PILOT OF MARINE One curled the helicopter around the Washington Monument and hovered to a soft landing on the south lawn of the White House.
Inside the blue and gold chopper, a big athletic man with smooth features yawned and unbuckled his seat belt. In the navy blue suit, starched white shirt, and silver tie, he could have been anyone from a visiting foreign dignitary to a favored political donor.
"Are you ready?" asked Dr. Willis Hopkins, a shorter, older man wearing black-framed glasses and a tweed jacket that made him look more like a math professor than the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
"As ready as you can be for this sort of thing," the bigger man replied. The side door opened and the staircase lowered. He followed Dr. Hopkins off the helicopter.
By all rights, he should have been exhausted; in the previous seven hours, he'd traveled by F-16 from his home in Patagonia to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. But the fifteen-minute ride in Marine One had left him feeling completely awake, as if he were hyper-caffeinated. He'd rarely felt this alert before. Then again, he'd never received a personal summons from the President of the United States before.
Two armed U.S. Marines stood at the base of the staircase as he exited into a crisp fall night, feeling and hearing the blades slowing above him. Waiting on the lawn was a blonde in a dark-blue business suit, pearl necklace, and black pumps. She looked harried and her breath smelled of mint trying to mask cigarette smoke.
"Well done, Dr. Hopkins," she said. "The President's very pleased you could find and get him here on such short notice."
"The least I could do, given the circumstances, Cynthia," Dr. Hopkins said.
She turned to the other man, regarding him with great curiosity, as if studying some exotic specimen. He could almost hear her thinking: late thirties, six-two, two-ten, olive patina to his skin, a face that seemed drawn from many races and ethnicities, a man who could blend in almost anywhere.
"The infamous Robin Monarch," she said.
Dr. Hopkins pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, saying, "Robin, meet Cynthia Blayless, White House chief of staff."
She reached out. Monarch shook her hand, found it clammy, but said, "A great pleasure, Ms. Blayless. Dr. Hopkins said you needed some help."
"We do," she said, gesturing toward the White House. "Several people are waiting for you inside. They'll explain."
As they walked toward the Rose Garden, Blayless said, "Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Monarch. Your resolution of the Green Fields affair last year was quite impressive."
"I had a lot of help. Look, Ms. Blayless, I'm honored, but I don't work for the agency anymore. I have no real obligation to—"
"The President knows all that. We all know that," Blayless said impatiently. "And we're glad you've at least come to hear our proposal. I think you'll find it quite rewarding."
Monarch was torn. Over the past four years he'd become profoundly distrustful of government officials, any government official, and he tried to avoid them at all costs. For the past nine months, he'd been living a solitary life on a remote estancia in Patagonia. He had intended to stay there indefinitely until Dr. Hopkins called him.
Two armed Marines stood at the far end of the colonnade in front of a pair of French doors. Blayless opened them and stepped inside.
Monarch was rarely intimidated, but he felt off balance stepping into the Oval Office. At a sweeping glance, he realized the President was not in the room. But he recognized the four people gathered under the watchful gaze of Abraham Lincoln, whose portrait hung over the fireplace.
The long, wiry man with the enormous head standing behind the sofa was Kenneth Vaught, the current Vice President, and the nominee of his party in the upcoming general election. On the sofa in front of Vaught perched Elise Peck, the national security advisor, a fair-skinned redhead with a dancer's posture.
Across the coffee table from Peck, Richard "Ricky" Jameson, the florid-faced Louisiana-born secretary of Homeland Security, tapped a packet of Equal into a teacup. Beside Jameson, Admiral Philip Shipman, current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, studied the contents of an open manila file.
By the time Monarch had taken two steps, these four were scrutinizing him with sober, calculating expressions that made him want to crack a joke of some sort. He resisted the temptation.
"This is Robin Monarch," Chief of Staff Blayless said. "Dr. Hopkins and the President thought it a good idea for him to be present at this meeting."
"What's this all about?" demanded National Security Advisor Peck. "Who is he?"
Blayless and Hopkins hesitated.
Monarch cleared his throat and said, "I'm a thief."
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Sullivan