Three Weeks Later
Nervous?” asked Eddie Chase, nudging his fiancée as they approached the door.
Nina Wilde fingered the pendant around her neck, her good-luck charm. “Er, yeah. Aren’t you?”
“Why? We’ve met the guy before.”
“Yes, but he wasn’t the frickin’ president then, was he?”
An aide opened the door and ushered them into the Oval Office. They were greeted by applause. Waiting for them were former U.S. Navy admiral Hector Amoros, their current boss at the United Nations’ International Heritage Agency; several White House officials and representatives of Congress; the First Lady . . . and Victor Dalton, the president of the United States of America.
“Dr. Wilde!” he said, stepping forward to shake her hand. “And Mr. Chase. Good to see you both again.”
“Good to see you again too. Uh, Mr. President,” Nina added quickly.
Chase shook hands next. “Thank you, sir.”
The others took their seats while Nina, Chase and Dalton remained standing. Dalton waited for everyone to settle before speaking, half turning to face the White House photographer recording the event as much as his guests of honor. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “distinguished members of Congress, members of my cabinet. It is truly a great privilege to present this award to a woman whose unflinching bravery in the face of extreme danger has saved countless lives, both in America and elsewhere in the world. And at the same time, a woman whose dedication to science and discovery has changed our view of history forever, restoring to the world long-lost treasures that until now were thought only to be myth. In a way, she is responsible for protecting both our past and our future. I am honored today to introduce Dr. Nina Wilde, the discoverer of the lost city of Atlantis and the buried Tomb of Hercules, and also the savior of this nation from a monstrous terrorist act, and to present her with the highest accolade this office can bestow—the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Nina blushed, simultaneously fighting the pedantic urge to correct Dalton—Atlantis was the name of the island, not the city—as he carefully took a medal attached to a blue ribbon from a velvet tray. “Dr. Wilde, this nation is in your debt. I would be honored if you would accept this symbol of our eternal gratitude.”
“Thank you, Mr. President,” she said, lowering her head. Dalton raised the medal and placed it around her neck. He then shook her hand once more before turning her to face the strobing flashes of the camera, leaving her momentarily dazzled. The speech she had worked out earlier melted away to nothing under the onslaught of light and renewed applause. “Thank you,” she repeated, struggling to come up with something intelligent to say. “I’m . . . I’m very grateful for this award, this honor. And, um, I’d also like to thank my fiancé, Eddie—” She cringed mentally at that. I’d also like to thank? This isn’t the goddamn Oscars!—“without whom I’d probably be, well, dead. Several times over. Thank you. Everyone.” Cheeks now as red as her hair, she moved back.
“Dr. Wilde stepped on my toes a little there,” said Dalton jovially, raising a polite laugh and making Nina wish the Oval Office had a secret trapdoor she could disappear down. “But yes, the second person we’re here to honor today is Eddie Chase”—he gestured for Chase to step forward and take Nina’s place—“who as a former member of the United Kingdom’s elite Special Air Service has chosen to eschew public recognition for security reasons, which is a decision we can all respect. But this nation owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude for his role in preventing a terrorist atrocity.” He shook Chase’s hand. “Mr. Chase, on behalf of the people of the United States of America, I thank you.”
“Thank you,” said Chase as the applause began again. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to add anything else, the sound quickly died down. This time, only a single picture was taken: unlike the photos of Nina, which would be attached to a press release and sent out to news agencies worldwide within the hour, this was solely for the White House’s official records. Dalton’s slight turn away from Chase acted as an unspoken signal that the formal part of the presentation was over, and the audience stood, the politicians quickly seizing the opportunity to approach the president.
“So, that was your big speech?” Chase said quietly to Nina. “Thought it was going to be all about the wonder of great treasures from the past.”
Nina’s face screwed up at the reminder. “Don’t start. God, I was so nervous. You’re lucky I managed anything more coherent than ‘Duuuhhh . . .’?”
Amoros stepped up to them. “Well, congratulations, to both of you. Eddie, are you sure you don’t want any kind of recognition? I’m certain something could have been arranged.”
“That’s okay,” said Chase firmly. “I’ve pissed off a lot of people over the years—last thing I need is to remind them that I shot their scumbag brother or whatever by getting a medal.” He looked down at Nina’s neck. “Speaking of which, that suits you. You should wear it at the airport, see if it gets us a free upgrade to first class.” Nina gave him a sarcastic smile.
“You’re still rushing off to England tonight?” Amoros asked.
Chase nodded. “Wednesday, meet the president of the United States at the White House. Thursday, meet my nan for tea and biscuits in Bournemouth. Not quite in the same league.”
“We’ve been engaged for nearly a year,” said Nina. “We thought it was time I met Eddie’s family.”
“You thought it was time,” Chase said pointedly.
Nina held back her response as Dalton joined them, hangers-on moving into position around him. “So, Dr. Wilde. You found Atlantis and the Tomb of Hercules—what’s next on your agenda? Discovering the Temple of Solomon, or maybe Noah’s Ark?” He finished the sentence with a small chuckle.
Nina didn’t laugh. “Actually, my current project for the IHA goes back much further than anything I’ve done before—before Atlantis, even. What I’m trying to do is take advantage of the IHA’s access to worldwide archaeological and anthropological data to track the spread of humanity around the world in prehistory.” The words came out faster as her enthusiasm mounted. “The general pattern of the expansion of mankind out of Africa across Asia and Australia, and then later into the Americas and Europe, is pretty well established. The lowering of sea levels during ice ages allowed ancient humans to travel overland and settle in places that are now underwater—there’s a very promising site in Indonesia that we’re planning to explore later in the year.”
“I can’t wait,” said Chase. “It’ll be great to finally get out of the office and see some action!”
“Careful what you wish for,” Nina joked. “But my goal is to pinpoint the exact origin of humanity; the cradle of civilization, so to speak.”
Dalton raised an eyebrow. “Sounds to me like you’re looking for the Garden of Eden.”
“You could say that, yes. Although not in the Adam and Eve, talking snake sense. Actually finding the place where Homo sapiens branched off from other ancient hominids won’t make the creationists happy!” She realized that Dalton had tensed slightly, and Amoros cleared his throat in a tone of soft but definite warning. “Oh, God, sorry, they’re part of your—your ‘base,’ aren’t they? Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” said Dalton, smiling thinly. “My base is broader than just the creationist wing, fortunately. Why, some of my supporters even believe the earth revolves around the sun!” He forced a laugh, his entourage joining in; after a moment, Nina followed suit in a mixture of embarrassment and relief. “It all sounds fascinating, Dr. Wilde. Although it’ll be a tall order to top discovering Atlantis and the Tomb of Hercules—and both before you were thirty! You turned thirty just recently, am I right?”
“Yeah, I did,” said Nina, not happy to be reminded of the fact.
“Well, I’m sure you’ve still got time for plenty more accomplishments!” Dalton laughed again, as did Nina, though this time it was her turn to force it.
He was about to turn away when Chase spoke. “?’Scuse me, Mr. President. Can I ask you about something? Sort of in private?” He tipped his head to indicate a spot a few feet away from the rest of the group.
Dalton exchanged looks with his staff, then smiled and stepped over, the ever-present Secret Service agents watching from the side of the room. “Of course. What can I do for you, Mr. Chase?”
“I wanted to ask what’s going on with Sophia.”
“You mean Sophia Blackwood?”
Chase very nearly replied, “No, Sophia Loren,” but managed to hold back the sarcastic retort. The former Lady Blackwood—the UK parliament had recently stripped her of her title in absentia—was Chase’s ex-wife . . . and also the mastermind behind the planned act of nuclear terrorism that he and Nina had just barely foiled. “Yeah. Last I heard, she’d been moved to Guantánamo Bay. When’re you going to put her on trial?”
“She was moved to Guantánamo for her own safety,” Dalton answered. “If we put her in the normal prison system, she’d be dead long before we could hold a trial.”
“It’d save all those lawyers’ fees. We all know she’s guilty, and you’re going to execute her anyway, right?”
Dalton gave him a cold smile. “I have faith in the justice system to do the right thing.”
“Glad to hear it.” Chase extended his hand. “Thank you, Mr. President.”
Excerpted from The Secret of Excalibur by Andy McDermott. Copyright © 2010 by Andy McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.