The Oklahoma City National Memorial Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Ben Kincaid stood at the corner of Lincoln Boulevard, still unable to believe he was really about to meet the President of the United States. In his short time as a replacement senator he had viewed President Blake from a distance, even attended ceremonies at the White House—but an actual face-to-face meeting was something else again. Was it only yesterday he was a small-time attorney with a struggling, profitless practice and a shoddy office in downtown Tulsa? It seemed that way. The whirlwind of events that had put him in the Washington limelight still seemed unreal. And the most unreal part was that his meteoric rise to the U.S. Senate was not the most amazing, unbelievable, life-shattering thing that had happened to him recently.
He stared at the gold band on the ring finger of his left hand, incredulous.
Ben Kincaid was a married man.
Major Mike Morelli, standing just beside him, leaned toward Ben’s ear. “Still can’t believe it, huh?”
“No. I was convinced I’d be a bachelor my entire life.”
Mike did a double take. “Ben—I was talking about shaking hands with the leader of the free world.”
“This is a major event.”
“Getting married is a major event.”
“Ah, the lover. ‘Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress’s eyebrow.’ ”
“If you’re going to start with the poetry, I’m disinviting you,” Ben said. “It’s just a big life change, that’s all. After you’ve been single so long.”
“Poor boy. ‘So we’ll go no more a-roving / So late into the night . . . ’ ”
“I think I’m hearing poetry again.”
“You need to relax, Ben. People get married all the time. In fact, some people get married several times. But there’s only one president.”
Ben shrugged. “I didn’t vote for him.”
“You didn’t vote at all!”
“I voted for Christina. Till death us do part.”
Mike rolled his eyes. “You are too sappy for words.”
“I recall a time—” Ben stopped short. He remembered when Mike was in the flush of new love—with Ben’s younger sister, Julia. He and Ben had been college roommates, Mike an English major, Ben studying music, when Mike met Julia. After a whirlwind courtship, they were married, but the union didn’t last long. Julia fled to somewhere on the East Coast and neither of them had seen her in years. Happily, despite this trauma and the deep scars it left, he and Mike had remained best friends throughout the intervening years, as Ben established his law practice and Mike rose to become a senior homicide investigator with the Tulsa Police Department.
Mike glanced at him, a small sad smile flickering on his face. They’d known each other long enough that Ben didn’t have to finish the sentence.
As if he sensed the need for a mood change, Mike’s expression suddenly shifted to a broad and rather naughty grin. “Speaking of your new bride—is she still pissed?”
Ben’s neck stiffened. “I wouldn’t put it quite like that.”
“I’ll bet. ‘Hell hath no fury . . .’ ”
“She’s just . . .” Ben drew in his breath, then slowly released it. “. . . Grumpy.”
“Imagine. And all you did was cancel her honeymoon.”
“There were extenuating circumstances. President Blake personally requested that I be here when he visited my home state.”
“But that didn’t satisfy Christina?”
“You know how . . . forceful she can be. Plus, she’s wanted to see France all her life.” He paused. “Plus, the man is a Republican.”
Mike smirked. “Which I guess explains why she’s not standing beside you playing the loyal wife.”
Ben shuffled his feet. “Well, someone had to stay in the gallery with my mother.”
Ben felt a light tap on his shoulder. The man standing behind him was young, perhaps early thirties, sandy-haired. He was wearing a midnight-blue suit, thin tie, and sunglasses, which Ben knew meant he must be one of the dozens of Secret Service agents stationed around the Oklahoma City National Memorial. “Yes?”
“I’m Agent Max Zimmer. I’m here to escort you to the reception position, where the cameras and crowd can see the president emerge from Cadillac One”—he smiled—“from a safe distance.”
But of course. It wasn’t as if the president had asked him here because of his deep personal affection. After that business over the nomination of Justice Roush to the Supreme Court, it was a miracle the man would speak to Ben at all. What he wanted was to be seen at an important Oklahoma event with a newly minted senator with unaccountably high approval ratings.
Ben heard what sounded like the buzz of a bumblebee coming from Zimmer’s coat sleeve. The agent casually raised the sleeve to his mouth, listened for a moment, then spoke into it. “Understood. Samson in five.” He looked up. “Come along, Senator. Time for you and your guest to move.”
Ben and Mike followed the agent to the street just behind the Oklahoma City National Memorial, erected on the site of the former Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the office complex that was blown to bits by Timothy McVeigh’s fertilizer bomb on this very date, several years before. It was a catastrophic event no Oklahoman would ever forget. Memorial services were held here on this date annually, and this year, the sitting president was in attendance to offer his condolences and help the healing.
And, Ben supposed, the fact that Oklahoma was a borderline red/blue state whose electoral votes were currently uncertain had nothing to do with it.
It was a magnificent memorial, the largest of its kind in the United States, designed to honor the fallen, the survivors, the rescuers, and everyone else whose life had been indelibly changed by the tragedy. Enormous twin bronze gates framed the 3.3-acre expanse within. Because the explosion occurred at 9:02 a.m., the eastern gate was engraved with the time 9:01—the last minute of peace—and the western gate was engraved with 9:03—the first moment of the ensuing horror. A reflecting pool stretched across the center of the memorial between the two gates, a thin layer of water over polished black marble. On one side of the pool was the Field of Empty Chairs: 168 chairs of bronze, glass, and stone, one for each of the people who died in the explosion.
As they walked, Ben saw a face he recognized.
“Brad Tidwell. My senatorial comrade.” Ben held out his hand. “Good to see you.”
The tall, lanky man in the blue suit took Ben’s hand cordially. “Kincaid, you are the worst liar I have ever met.”
Ben’s face colored.
“Seriously. Worst liar in the history of humanity. Which explains why you’ll never make it in politics.”
“Or,” Mike grumbled, “explains why his approval rating is so much higher than yours.”
Tidwell responded with a thin smile that, were Ben in a less charitable mood, he might have called a sneer. “Senator Kincaid has never had the pleasure of conducting an actual campaign. Believe me, if he ever does, his numbers will drop.”
Tidwell was a two-term senator based in Oklahoma City. After Senator Todd Glancy resigned, he had become the state’s senior senator, with Ben as his very junior partner. Since they represented different parties, they had spent much of the past few months canceling out each other’s votes.
“Since you’re a newbie, I wanted to make sure we were clear on protocol: when the president approaches us, I shake his hand first.”
Ben caught Mike rolling his eyes.
“Maybe I’m crazy,” Ben said, “but shouldn’t we let the president decide who he wants to greet first?”
“And he will. He knows how the game is played. You’re the one I’m worried about. No grandstand plays for the cameras and the folks back home. Don’t lunge for the man’s hand.”
“If he were stupid enough to lunge for the president’s hand,” Mike noted, “he would probably be tackled by a dozen Secret Service agents.”
“Another good point. See, Kincaid—I’m just looking out for your best interests. Brother senators should be friends.”
Riiiight, Ben thought. And with a friend like you . . .
They stopped walking as Agent Zimmer approached with another similarly garbed older man. “Senator Kincaid, this is Agent Gatwick, my immediate superior. Everything in place, Tom?”
“Right on schedule.”
“As planned. Domino Bravo.”
“Excellent.” Zimmer turned toward the north end of the street. “Here he comes.”
Ben followed his gaze and saw a large black sedan followed by what appeared to be an endless stream of black sedans flanked by motorcycle cops. “How many cars are in the presidential motorcade?”
Ben’s eyes bulged. “Are you joking? Who’s in all of those cars?”
“Secret Service in several. Homeland Security in a few. Local police. Press vans. One car carrying the president’s doctor and several refrigerated pints of the president’s blood. Various important dignitaries, not important enough for a personal meet-and-greet like you, but important enough to walk to the dais in the president’s wake. A counterassault team, to deal with potential attacks. The ‘bomb sweep’—that’s the first police car. It has the unpleasant and dangerous job of clearing the way for the motorcade. Another eight or so vehicles—the ‘secure package’—will split off from the motorcade and take the president somewhere safe in the event of an emergency.”
Ben continued to stare. “Is that the president’s car?”
“Nah. The Beast will be packed somewhere in the middle.”
Agent Gatwick nodded. “That’s what we call the president’s car. Cadillac One.”
“Why ‘The Beast’?”
“Because it’s a monster. A real leviathan. A Caddy DTS stretch sedan with satellite GPS and communication equipment. He could call an astronaut on the moon from that car. Carries its own air supply in case someone gasses the outside air. Totally bulletproof—the body is constructed of antiballistic steel paneling and the windows are made from inch-thick polycarbonate glass. In the event of a puncture, the tires can heal themselves.”
“It’s the Batmobile.”
“Basically, yeah. Without the tail fins.”
“What’s a car like that cost?”
“Last I heard, about twelve million.”
“And for all that—it gets lousy gas mileage.” Behind the sunglasses, Ben sensed a twinkle in Zimmer’s eye. “But it has a hell of a sound system.”
Far above the motorcade, in a grandstand recon office temporarily constructed on the roof of the adjoining Oklahoma City Memorial Museum, three sets of eyes were trained on the activities below.
“So she made it in time,” the oldest of the three, an extremely tall black man, commented.
“Just barely,” said the other man in the group. “But from what I hear, they had a little snuggle on Air Force One.”
“Never underestimate a woman,” said the only female of the three. “She can do anything she wants to.”
“I don’t doubt it,” the younger of the two men replied. “The question was whether she wanted to.”
“Don’t be absurd. If this is a marriage of political convenience, then it would be pretty stupid to miss a television spot that more than forty million people are expected to view live.”
“You seem to have some real insight here. Maybe you should go into politics.”
“Tempting. But I would hate campaigning. Can’t keep my mouth shut long enough. And I have a few skeletons in my closet.”
“Nerds are the only people who can run for political office in this country these days. To get elected, you have to be one of three possible things: old, homely—or male.” She smiled. “I’m none of the above. Also, I enjoy a healthy, unmarried sex life. I’m unelectable.”
“But if the reports and rumors I’m getting about the first lady are true—”
“She’s here, isn’t she?”
“But the scuttlebutt—”
“And she’s always there when he needs her, right?”
“Don’t be so easily misled,” the woman said, pointing a finger so close, it almost touched his nose. “All the sex in the world can’t compete with the thrill of receiving the applause of millions of potential voters. Remember what Kissinger said.”
“And that would be?”
Her upper lip curled in a distinctively naughty manner. “Power is the greatest aphrodisiac.”
Joel Salter felt a shiver creep up his spine. Bad enough he had to be the only Feeb in the outpost without that woman here making him supremely uncomfortable. He could still recall a time when this would’ve been an FBI operation and the Secret Service agents, nominally under the direction of the secretary of treasury, would’ve been managed by the deputy director of the FBI. Ever since the Secret Service had been transferred to Homeland Security, though, he hated these assignments. He was worse than a third wheel; he wouldn’t be useful even in the event of a flat tire. Unless he had some intel to provide, they didn’t want any part of the FBI. The general attitude seemed to be that if the FBI had been doing its job, Homeland Security would never have come into existence. People like Carl Lehman and Nichole Muldoon didn’t want him tainting their operation.
Muldoon was watching through high-powered binoculars that allowed her to peer through the green-tinted windows of Cadillac One. “My God,” she said, “they’re not even sitting on the same side. I guess absence does not make the heart grow fonder.”
Salter cleared his throat. “My understanding is that she sits facing him so that when the rear door is opened, spectators and cameras will only see the president. An unshared spotlight. A generous gesture, really.”
Muldoon snorted. “More likely she wants a minute to pull up her pantyhose.” She lowered the glasses and gave Salter another one of those looks. “You might know that, Joel. If you’d ever seen a woman’s pantyhose.”
He smiled faintly, trying to be a good sport. Truth was, Nichole Muldoon was no worse than most of the women he’d met in his law enforcement career, and was better than some. Certainly smarter than most. But something about her made him feel awkward. And ancient. At forty-six, he was only about a decade older than she. He’d worked hard to get his position in the FBI, as opposed to her meteoric rise in Homeland Security. He had years of experience where she had brains. But all of this was beside the point. At the end of the day, he knew it wasn’t her brains that were intimidating him.
The woman was knock-down-drop-dead-heart-stoppingly-pulse-poundingly-oh-my-God beautiful. She didn’t even have to try. Didn’t need makeup. She could stand there in a beige business suit with a little gold-buttoned jacket and it looked like a floor-length ruby red ball gown with a slit up the side and cleavage down to her navel. Nichole Muldoon had the look—the Look—that forced you to fantasize about what it would be like to have sex with her, even though you knew there wasn’t the slightest chance of it ever happening.
He couldn’t even have the pleasure of blaming her for the effect she had on him, suggesting she was using sex appeal to get ahead. As far as he knew, she was totally oblivious to the impact she was having on his libido. Sure, she made remarks about the first lady’s sex life and the size of the president’s equipment, but who didn’t? That was SOP in the sheltered world of Protect-the-President. That was just being one of the boys. If anything, that behavior should make him forget she was a beautiful woman. But he didn’t. Not ever. Not for one second. All she had to do was toss that shoulder-length blond hair back and he was orbiting Jupiter.
“Did you hear what I said, Joel?”
He jerked to attention. “I’m sorry. I was . . . surveying the crowd.”
Carl Lehman frowned down at him. Great. Make the deputy director of Homeland Security think you’re an idiot. That’ll push you up the ranks. “I told you we still haven’t located Marshall.”
“Really?” He had to seem surprised, even though he wasn’t. “Did someone call his wife?”
“Yeah. She’s clueless.”
“Didn’t he disappear once before?”
“Yeah.” Lehman ran his hand over the top of his head as if he had hair, although there hadn’t been any for many years. But since he was so much taller than anyone else in the room, who could notice? “We weren’t on duty that day. Samson wasn’t out amongst the Philistines.”
“Any cause for concern?”
Muldoon jabbed him in the side. “You know Carl. The rising of the sun in the morning is cause for concern.”
“But your people know what to do, right?” Salter asked. “They don’t need Marshall breathing over their shoulders.”
“True enough,” Lehman agreed. “But it’s still strange. Damn strange.” He drew in his breath, then slowly released it. “I suppose I’m just an old man worrying about nothing. Look,” he said, pointing toward the tableau below. “Samson is getting out of The Beast.”
The first six cars in the motorcade passed by, but the seventh slowed precisely opposite where Ben and the others were standing. Two police motorcycles swirled around the car, sirens blaring. Ben felt a tingle course through his body. Even though the windows were tinted, he knew who was sitting in the backseat of that car. It would be hard to miss. The presidential seals were emblazoned on the rear doors; an American flag flew proudly from the bumper.
Zimmer talked into his sleeve again. “Roger. Samson has arrived.” He leaned closer to Ben. “See the presidential standard raised from the left front fender? That tells us that the commander in chief is inside the vehicle.”
Zimmer stepped forward and pressed the security release button under the handle that allowed the door to be opened from the outside. Ben felt a sharp intake of breath. At first, all he could see was the interior of the car—blue leather upholstery with wood veneer accents. He spotted a fold-out desk being returned to its upright position. A long leg in a blue suit emerged. Behind the dark, green-tinted window, Ben saw the outline of a familiar female face.
Beside him, Ben sensed Senator Tidwell inch ever so subtly forward.
Zimmer helped President Franklin M. Blake from the car while Gatwick positioned himself behind. A dotted circle of agents surrounded the car, some of them scanning the horizon, some of them scanning the sky.
Behind the rope line, a huge swell of shouting and applause erupted. The president waved, smiled, then turned his attention to the phalanx of people waiting to greet him.
The president spotted Senator Tidwell and nodded, spotted Ben and nodded . . .
Then he walked directly up to Mike and shook his hand.
“A pleasure to meet you, Major Morelli. A real pleasure.”
Mike was obviously stunned. His usual savoir faire had utterly abandoned him. “A . . . p-pleasure to—to meet you, too, Mr. President.”
“I was very pleased when I heard Senator Kincaid had invited you. Always glad to meet a true public servant, someone who puts himself on the line for the common good. If there could be any benefit emerging from 9/11, it’s that we’ve all come to realize just how important the work you and your brethren do really is.”
Mike was still shaking his hand. “I—I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything,” the president replied, gently using his left hand to extract his right. His mostly gray hair shone in the morning sun. “Your work says it all for you. I’m a fan.”
Mike’s lips parted, a blank expression on his face. “You’re—a fan—of mine?”
“Absolutely. That work you did on the Kindergarten Killer case—outstanding. Showed up the Feds on that one, didn’t you?” he added, winking collegially. “No telling how many lives you saved. Made the world a better place, that’s for sure.”
“But—” Mike stammered. He still couldn’t think clearly. “How do you know about that case?”
President Blake took a step to the right. “Because I read this man’s book.” He extended his hand again. “How are you, Senator Kincaid?”
Ben felt startled and confused. “You read my book?”
“Both of them, actually. Excellent pieces of work, though I preferred the first.” He winked again. “Have to. I’m a law and order candidate.”
Ben struggled to work his head through this revelation, without success.
“Meant to tell you,” the president continued. “Appreciated the hard work you did to get Justice Roush on the Supreme Court.”
It was Ben’s turn to arch an eyebrow. The president may have nominated Justice Roush, but he and his party abandoned him when it was revealed that Roush was gay. “You did?”
“First rule of politics, Senator—don’t jump to any conclusions. I did what my party required. We can’t afford to lose the support of the religious right. But Thaddeus Roush was a fine man when I nominated him and he remains one today.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
As if he were passing through butter, President Blake eased on down the line. “Senator Tidwell. Good to see you.”
Ben didn’t have to be a mind reader to know that Tidwell was fuming. Ben could almost sympathize. Tidwell was the only member of the president’s party in the reception line and he was the last to be received.
“And you, Mr. President.”
As if to give the last man a special bonus, the president leaned forward slightly and placed his hand on Tidwell’s shoulder. “I’ve seen that energy bill you co-sponsored. I like it.”
“Thank you,” Tidwell said. Ben noticed that even this two-term senator was stammering a bit. “Does that mean we can count on you to sign the bill after it’s passed?”
The president smiled the sort of wide, friendly, earnest-looking grin that could get a man elected to the highest office in the land. “I said I liked it, Brad. Signing is a whole different thing. You can’t marry every woman you like.” He pivoted. “Which reminds me of a woman I like very much.”
As he turned, the first lady, Emily Blake, stepped from the limo. If anything, the chorus of hooting and hollering that followed exceeded the reception that had been given the president. Emily Blake was younger than her husband, but not by so much as to attract discussion. She was medium-sized, dark-haired, and dressed in a tasteful but sensible manner that reflected her tasteful but sensible demeanor. Ben knew she was extremely popular, especially in the Southwest.
The president took her hand, helped her off the curb, then raised both their hands into the air. The crowd went wild.
“Listen to that,” Tidwell murmured in Ben’s ear. “Her approval ratings are considerably higher than his and he knows it. He’s milking her for everything she’s got.”
“Isn’t that a bit cynical?” Ben said, as he watched the First Couple bathe in the limelight. “It’s hardly unusual for a man to bring his wife to a major event.”
Tidwell made a snorting noise. “He didn’t bring her. She flew in from Tucson. They met at the OKC airport down the road.”
Ben nodded. Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport was one of only three very special airports named for men who died in a plane crash. “She probably had a fund-raising event. It’s that time again.”
Tidwell shook his head. “It’s a marriage in name only, contrived purely for political purposes. They don’t do anything together. They don’t share anything. Not even the First Bedroom.”
Ben reared his head back, appalled. “How could you possibly know that?”
Tidwell shrugged in a nonchalant manner that Ben found extremely off-putting. “Word gets around. If you travel in the higher circles.”
Which, Ben knew Tidwell was implying, he didn’t. But of course—Tidwell was right. Ben didn’t know what to make of Tidwell’s gratuitous scuttlebutting of his party’s leader. Was he ticked off because the president greeted him last? Or was there something more going on?
The Secret Service agent closest to the president lightly touched his sleeve, which Ben knew was the signal for him to move on. Even with all this security, they never liked the president to stay in one place for too long until he had arrived at his destination.
As the First Couple turned toward the dais, the first lady stopped. “Senator Kincaid!”
Ben stood at attention. “Yes, ma’am?”
She smiled, exuding warmth. “Where’s that pretty little wife of yours?”
Ben fumbled for words. “She’s . . . in the audience. With my mother.”
Emily Blake’s eyes narrowed. “Is there a reason for that?”
“Well . . .”
“Tell that lovely redhead I’m inviting her to the White House for tea. We need to have a heart-to-heart.”
The president took his wife gently by the arm. “Now, Emily. We don’t harass a man about his wife. Even if he is a Democrat.”
“But, Frank—they’re newlyweds.”
“That’s right. It slipped my mind.” He gave Ben another wink. “So what the hell are you doing here, son?”
Secret Service agents Zimmer and Gatwick flanked the president and slowly escorted him toward the dais from which he would speak. All around them, Ben saw agents scurrying into position, watching all possible angles, talking into their sleeves. Ben knew there were at least as many, possibly more, agents working undercover, filtering quietly through the crowd looking for signs of trouble, as well as numerous sniper nests covering not only the ground but the surrounding downtown skyscrapers.
Ben and his group took the stage several steps behind the First Couple and were escorted to their seats. Risers had been erected opposite the reflecting pool to create a presidential platform with seats for important dignitaries behind and to each side. A podium bearing the presidential seal stood in the center. Just beyond the podium, a dense crowd of reporters hovered with mikes and minicams.
Ben marveled at all the activity, all the work that went on behind the scenes of a relatively simple presidential appearance. But he was cheered by the realization that, after so much work, caution, and preparation, nothing could possibly go wrong.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Capitol Conspiracy by William Bernhardt. Copyright © 2008 by William Bernhardt. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, 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.