Stone Barrington landed the Citation CJ3 Plus smoothly at Manassas Airport, in Virginia. As he taxied to the FBO he noticed a large black SUV parked on the ramp. To his eye it looked government and armored, and he wondered what VIP could be landing at the small, general aviation airport. His curiosity was soon satisfied: as he parked and cut his engines the vehicle began to move, and it stopped off his wingtip.
Stone ran through his shutdown checklist, then withdrew from the cockpit and opened the cabin door. A man in a blue suit with a shiny button in his lapel stood there.
"Yes," Stone replied, still mystified.
"Secretary Barker asked us to meet you."
Stone then noticed a second, similarly dressed man standing by the SUV and surveying the ramp, and he realized that Holly Barker had been sworn in as secretary of state. It was Election Day, and President Katharine Lee had, apparently, jumped the gun on her appointment, since she was the once and, if things went as they were supposed to, future President.
Stone handed the man a key. "Front luggage compartment," he said. "Take everything."
The car stopped in front of the elegant double-width town house in Georgetown. Stone had not seen the place for some years, but he now owned it, having come to an arrangement with the Lees by which he had exchanged his Santa Fe house, plus an adjoining property and some cash, for this house, which former President Will Lee had owned with his late father since he was an aide to a United States senator.
The driver pressed a button on the sun visor and a garage door opened. The vehicle drove into the basement garage, and the security man opened the door for him. "The elevator is straight ahead," he said. "We'll get your luggage upstairs."
Stone thanked him, got into the elevator, and pressed the G button. A moment later he emerged into the main floor central hallway, where there was a buzz of people and voices. Caterers were arranging the living room for a party, and Holly Barker stood in the center of the room, directing traffic. She saw Stone and ran to him, throwing her arms around his neck. "Here you are!" she sang out in a happy voice.
"Here I am, indeed," he replied, joining her in the hug. As always, she felt just wonderful. "I thought you were expecting just a few friends," he said.
"It got out of hand," she replied. "We're at fifty and counting. I'm learning that nobody declines an invitation from a high cabinet member. The caterers are felling another ox."
"So, you're already a cabinet member?"
"I was sworn in this morning."
"My congratulations," he said, kissing her.
"Come on upstairs, I'll show you your room."
Stone followed her into the elevator and took advantage of their momentary privacy to kiss her and pull her closer with his hand on her ass. They broke before the door opened.
She led him into what was, obviously, the master bedroom, which had two dressing rooms and two baths. "By tomorrow, all of Washington will know we're sharing a bed," she said. "I talked it over with Kate, and we agreed that it was better not to bother with a nod to convention, just to go ahead and let the world get used to the idea of a single woman with a sex life as a cabinet secretary-no fuss, no bother."
"I'm fine with that," Stone said. "It will do wonders for my reputation."
"Your bags are in that dressing room." She pointed. "You get unpacked, and by the way, we've upgraded to black tie. I knew you would bring a dinner jacket."
"You know me too well. What time do we make an appearance downstairs?"
"Seven o'clock," she replied. "I've rented three big-screen TVs, and that's when the action begins. Would you like a drink now?"
"I'd like a nap now, if that's all right. I was out with Dino and Viv until late last night. They were sorry they couldn't come, but the mayor stole them for his party."
"Apparently, my social magnet doesn't reach as far as New York," she said.
"It does, it just can't compete with the mayor's social magnet."
"I'll wake you at six," she said, pushing him onto the bed and pulling off his shoes. She threw a light blanket over him and kissed him on the forehead.
Stone sank into the soft bed and closed his eyes.
At six, Holly, already half-dressed, woke him, and he shaved and showered and got into his dinner suit. At five minutes before seven, they got on the elevator.
"You are gorgeous," he said, looking her up and down.
"I'm afraid I've infringed on your generosity for a whole new wardrobe," she said. "The new job requires a lot more dressing up than national security advisor to the President. Your credit card is smoking."
"That's what it's for," Stone replied. "Keep the credit card and use it as you will."
The door opened, and they spilled into the hallway. There were already many voices coming from the living room.
The first person Stone recognized was Senator Saltonstall of New York. They shook hands warmly. "Stone, may I introduce my daughter Celeste, and her beau, Peter Rule?"
It was the first time Stone had met Kate Lee's son by her first marriage. He was a handsome young man of around thirty, and Ms. Saltonstall was a genuine beauty. "I'm delighted you're here," Stone said to Peter. Your mother has told me about you."
"Uh-oh," Peter said. "I hope she hasn't blown our secret."
"She has not," Stone replied, "but I think you just did."
"He has a big mouth," Celeste said, kissing him on the cheek, thereby displaying her left hand, revealing about eight carats of glittering, emerald-cut stone.
"And you have a big diamond," Stone said, "so it must not be too much of a secret."
"Dad wants to announce it tonight," Celeste said, "before we adjourn to the White House for the latter part of the evening. Mom and Will have to touch a few bases, including campaign headquarters."
Stone knew from his mother that Peter was planning a run for New York's other senatorial seat at the midterm. Stone leaned forward and whispered into Celeste's ear, "You'd better get something smaller for campaigning."
"I hadn't thought of that," she said, "but you're right."
Holly pulled him away and began introducing him to all the others, a few of whom heÕd met before. Then the TV sets were fired up, everybody got some dinner from the buffet, and the evening began.
Everyone was cheerful and happy, looking forward to Kate's second term.
It was after midnight, and the polls were now closed in the continental USA. The crowd was lighter by half and what little conversation there was was subdued. Everyone was glued to the TVs.
Kate had gone into the election with a nine-point lead in the polls and was predicted to get more than 400 electoral votes. Instead, she was struggling toward 270. That morning's newspapers had headlined a story that Will Lee had taken a fifty-million-dollar bribe from a Saudi prince, to get a huge arms deal with the USA. The Lee campaign had flooded the airwaves with her surrogates, denying everything and blaming the lie on her opponent. From what Stone could see on the TV screens, especially the jubilant reporting on Fox News, Kate's campaign had taken on water, and with very little time to right the ship.
Holly stared at the screen. "I'm going to be the shortest-serving secretary of state in history."
"It's going to come down to Florida," Stone said. "How is Kate feeling about Florida?"
"Just great, until today," Holly replied.
A waiter passed among them with a frosty champagne bottle, topping off glasses.
An anchorman came back from commercial, holding a sheet of paper in one hand and a microphone in the other.
"Here it comes," Holly said.
"Some incredible news has just come in," the man said. "Let's go to Cassie Crane outside Republican campaign headquarters in New York."
A young woman with a microphone stood on the sidewalk in a light rain, next to a geeky young man wearing a dark suit and heavy glasses. "Chris, I'm here with Jason Foxworthy, who is a poll analyst with the Jack Marion campaign. Jason, I think it's best for you to tell your own story, then we'll have some questions."
"Thank you, Cassie," the young man said in a surprisingly deep voice. "Late last night I picked up a phone in our office and overheard a conversation between James Heckley, a speechwriter for Senator Marion, and Eliot Wafford, the owner of the Washington Debater, a conservative newspaper. I know it was Heckley because I could see him across the room as he spoke, and I recognized Wafford's voice from seeing him on TV shows. Also, Heckley called him Eliot, twice, during the conversation. They were confirming details of the big story that broke today about the alleged bribe taken by Will Lee. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that they were getting their stories straight, because Heckley was reading a draft of the story, and Wafford was suggesting changes to make it stronger and more damning. When they had finished their conversation, Wafford said that he was holding the Debater's presses to get it into the early-morning edition. They both seemed very pleased with themselves."
"Let's be clear, Jason," Cassie said. "You are saying that you overheard James Heckley and Eliot Wafford contriving this story?"
"That's exactly what I'm saying," Foxworthy replied. "The story is a lie, a complete fabrication." He held up an iPhone. "And I recorded all but ten or fifteen seconds of their phone conversation." He held up a wrinkled sheet of paper. "And I retrieved the draft from the wastebasket beside James Heckley's desk."
Cassie addressed the camera. "Chris, I have to get Jason to a secure location right away, and we've got a car standing by for him. There's one more revelation in the story, though-I've heard from two campaign staffers that James Heckley left campaign headquarters nearly two hours ago for Teterboro Airport, where a private jet was waiting to fly him out of New York. First reports say that the airplane had filed a flight plan for Caracas, Venezuela, but of course that destination could be changed en route. Back to you, Chris."
The anchor stared gravely into the camera. "Cassie, that was a brilliant piece of reportage, and we here all thank you for it. Unfortunately, the polls have already closed."
It was as though lightning had struck the living room-everyone was talking at once, some happy, others in tears. Two people were shouting into their cell phones.
Stone stood up and pointed at the TV set. "Everybody shut up!" he shouted.
The anchorman was now standing next to the campaign map. "We have just heard that Florida has reported its election results, and by a margin of less than four thousand votes, Katharine Lee has carried the state, and with Florida's twenty-nine electoral votes, has been reelected President of the United States, winning three hundred and three electoral votes. I think it's fair to say that a national catastrophe has been averted."
Cheering erupted in the room, and Holly fell into Stone's arms.
Stone awoke a little after seven am to the sound of Holly talking on the phone. She hung up. ÒBig news,Ó she said. ÒEliot Wafford has been arrested by the FBI on a charge of election tampering. TheyÕre still looking for James Heckley, but his flight diverted to Mexico City and landed there early this morning.Ó
Stone switched on the TV, and every news station was reporting its version of the Heckley/Wafford story. Kate's victory in the election seemed almost like an afterthought. He switched it off. "I don't think I can take this on an empty stomach."
As if on cue, a maid knocked and pushed a cart into the room. Moments later, Stone and Holly were sitting up in bed eating scrambled eggs and bacon. The TV was back on.
"And what does your day hold?" Stone asked.
"I'm visiting the State Department and being introduced to my staff, or at least, those I don't already know from working with them on the National Security Council. Stan Adamson is going to be there to introduce me. And you?"
"I'm due for a drink with Kate and Will in the family quarters at six. So are you."
"Since they appointed me their personal attorney, I've put together a team at Woodman & Weld, which will be known as The Barrington Group. There's a thick envelope on the table across the room containing a document I put together explaining everything. I'll deliver a copy to them this evening."
"I'll look forward to reading it."
"There's something else I want to discuss with you, but I don't want to talk about it here." He tapped an ear with his forefinger.
Holly looked shocked. "Really? Not here?"
"That's correct," Stone said. "We'll talk about it later, when the circumstances are more favorable."
"Whatever you say," Holly replied. She jumped out of bed. "I've got to get myself together."
That evening they took the elevator to the basement garage, where Holly's SUV awaited them. The street door was open, and Stone pulled her up the ramp with him.
"I'll be just a minute," Holly called to her security team.
Stone put his briefcase into the SUV, then they turned down the block.
"Okay, shoot," Holly said, taking Stone's arm.
Stone didn't hesitate. "I want you to have the house swept by your security team for listening devices, and I want them to do this at least every three or four days, but not on a regular schedule. Your car, too."
"Are you coming over all paranoid on me, Stone?"
"I don't think that the political opposition is going to cheerfully accept the election results," he said, "and we've already seen how far they're willing to go."
"But Wafford is already in jail, and Heckley is a fugitive."
"Wafford has certainly already been bailed out, and being a fugitive won't keep Heckley from operating for long. Even if I'm wrong about this, it won't hurt to be a little paranoid."
"All right, whatever you say."
"Also, you have to start being more careful in how you proceed with your life."
"What do you mean?"
"For instance, you had your car meet me at the Manassas Airport yesterday. That's personal use of an official vehicle, and that could come back to bite you on the ass."
"I suppose," Holly said.
"When you get to the office tomorrow, I want you to report that to your chief administrative officer, have him give you a bill for the cost of that service, and reimburse the State Department with a personal check. Thereafter, anytime you make personal use of any government property or service, do the same thing. You want to establish a consistent paper trail."