SEVENTY

MARYLAND

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7:30 AM

STEPHANIE DROVE THE SUBURBAN THAT PRESIDENT DANIELS had supplied them. He'd also provided two Secret Service revolvers and spare magazines. She wasn't quite sure what they were headed into, but apparently he wanted them prepared.

"You realize this truck is probably electronically tagged," Cassiopeia said.

"We can only hope."

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"And you realize that this whole thing is nuts. We don't have any idea who to trust, including the president of the United States."

"No question. We're pawns on the chessboard. But a pawn can take the king, if properly positioned."

"Stephanie, we're bait."

She agreed, but said nothing.

They cruised into a small town about thirty miles north of Washington, one of countless bedroom communities that encircled the capital. Following the directions given to her, she recognized the name of the glass-fronted restaurant nestled beneath a canopy of leafy trees.

Aunt B's.

One of Larry Daley's favorite haunts.

She parked and they stepped inside, greeted by the pungent smell of apple-bacon and fried potatoes. A steaming buffet line was being attacked by eager diners. They bypassed the cashier and spotted Daley sitting alone.

"Get some food," he said. "On me." A plate heaped with eggs, grits, and a fried pork chop sat before him.

As agreed, Cassiopeia moved to another table where she could watch the room. Stephanie sat with Daley. "No thanks." She noticed a colorful sign near the buffet line that showed two oversized pink pigs surrounded by the slogan GET YOUR FAT BACK AT AUNT B'S. She pointed. "That why you eat here? To get your fat back."

"I like the place. Reminds me of my mother's cooking. I know you find this hard to believe, but I am a person."

"Why aren't you running the Billet? You're in charge now."

"It's being handled. We have a more pressing problem."

"Like saving your ass."

He sliced his pork chop. "These things are great. You should eat something. You need a little fat back, Stephanie."

"So nice of you to notice my trim figure. Where's your girlfriend?"

"I have no idea. I assume she was sleeping with me to see what she could learn. Which was nothing. I was doing the same thing. Again contrary to what you think, I'm not a complete idiot."

Per Daniels's suggestion, she'd called Daley two hours before and requested the meeting. He'd eagerly agreed. What bothered her was why Daniels, if he actually wanted her to talk to Daley, had interrupted the encounter at the museum. But she simply added that quandary to the growing list. "We didn't finish our conversation."

"Time for a reality check, Stephanie. The stuff you have on me? Keep it. Use it. I don't care. If I go down, so does the president. Truth be told, I wanted you to find it."

She found that hard to believe.

"I knew all about your investigation. That whore you sent my way? I'm not that weak. Do you think that's the first time a woman has tried to learn things on me? I knew you were digging. So I made it easy for you to find what you wanted. But you took your time."

"Nice try, Larry. But that dog doesn't hunt here."

He worked on a combination of eggs and grits. "I know you're not going to believe any of this. But for once could you forget you hate my guts and just listen?"

That's why she'd come.

"I've been doing some snooping. Lot of crap swirling. Strange stuff. I'm not privy to the inner circle, but I'm close enough to cop a feel. When I found out you were looking at me, I figured you'd move on me at some point-and when you did, we could deal."

"Why didn't you just ask for my help?"

"Get real. You can't stand to be in the same room with me. You're going to help me? I figured once you peeped into the window and saw what was happening, then you'd be a lot more receptive. Like you are right now."

"You still bribing Congress?"

"Yeah. Me and about a thousand other lobbyists. Hell, it should be an Olympic sport."

She glanced at Cassiopeia and saw nothing that triggered alarm. Families and older couples populated the many tables.

"Forget all that. It's the least of our concerns," Daley said.

"I didn't know we had any concerns."

"Much more is happening." He gulped a few swallows of orange juice. "Damn, they load this stuff with sugar. But it's good."

"If you eat like this all the time, how do you stay so thin?"

"Stress. Best diet in the world." He tabled the glass. "There's a conspiracy going on, Stephanie."

"To do what?"

"Change the president."

This was new.

"It's the only thing that makes sense." He shoved the plate aside. "The vice president is in Europe attending an economic summit. But I've been told that he left his hotel last night late and went to meet with a man named Alfred Hermann. Supposedly a courtesy visit. But the VP is not a courteous man. He does things for a reason. He's met with Hermann before. I checked."

"And discovered that Hermann heads an organization called the Order of the Golden Fleece."

A look of amazement flooded Daley's face. "I knew you'd be a help. So you already know about it."

"What I want to know is why any of that is important."

"This group cultivates political influence and they have reach all over the world. Hermann and the VP have been friends awhile. I've heard talk about him and the Order, but the VP keeps his thoughts fairly close. I know he wants to be president. He's gearing up to run, but I think he may be looking for a shortcut."

Daniels had said nothing about this subject.

"You still have those flash drives you took from my house?"

She nodded.

"On one are some digital recordings of telephone conversations. Only a few, but damn interesting. They're with the VP's chief of staff-a true asshole if ever there was one. He funneled the Alexandria Link directly to Alfred Hermann."

"And how did you manage to learn that?"

"I was there."

She kept her face blank.

"Right there with him. So I documented the whole encounter. We met Hermann in New York five months ago. Gave him everything. That's when I brought Dixon in."

That was new, too.

"Yeah. I went to her and told her what was happening with the link. I also told her about the meeting with Hermann."

"That wasn't real bright."

"Seemed so at the time. The Israelis were the only ally I could muster. But they thought the whole thing to Hermann was some kind of backchannel to cause them problems. All I got was Dixon as my babysitter." He swallowed more juice. "Which wasn't all bad."

"Now I'm getting sick."

Daley shook his head. "It was about a month later when the VP's chief of staff and I were alone. Asshole that he is, he still likes to brag. That's what usually gets guys like that in trouble. We'd had a few drinks and he made some comments. By then I was suspicious, so I kept a pocket recorder on me. I got some good stuff that night."

Cassiopeia stood from her table and walked toward the glass wall. Outside, cars came and went in the shaded parking lot.

"He talked about the Twenty-fifth Amendment. How he'd been studying it, learning details. He asked me what I knew about it, which wasn't much. I acted disinterested and drunk, though I was neither."

She knew what the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution said.

In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.

SEVENTY-ONE

SINAI PENINSULA

MALONE CHECKED HIS WATCH: 11:58 AM. HE'D ALREADY glanced through the two openings once and seen nothing. Pam and McCollum stood below him as he balanced atop the fourteen stones.

Noon arrived and a carillon of bells pealed in the distance.

"That's eerie," Pam said. "Out here in the middle of nowhere."

He agreed. "Sounds a ways off." Like from heaven, he thought.

The sun blazed overhead. His body and fatigues were damp with perspiration.

He stared back through the openings.

Point after point, stretching down the backbone of the ridge, came into view. What may have been hermit caves dotted the rock wall like black eyes. Then he noticed something. A stony trail etched up one of the mounds. A camel track? He'd checked in Lisbon before they left and learned that the mountains of this region concealed fertile hollows the local Bedouins called farsh. Usually that meant a water source and drew whatever few inhabitants the land enjoyed. St. Catherine's monastery to the south, near Moses Mountain, occupied a farsh. He'd assumed more surrounded him.

He watched as shadows disappeared and the color of the granite mountains transformed from pewter to beet red. The twisting course of the path up the hillside, now maroon, assumed the shape of a serpent. The two openings framed the view like a painting.

See the endless coil of the serpent red with anger.

"Anything?" Pam asked him.

"Everything."

STEPHANIE GLARED AT LARRY DALEY. "YOU'RE TELLING ME that the vice president is planning to murder the president?"

"That's exactly what I think is happening."

"And how are you the only one on the planet who's noticed this?"

"I don't know, Stephanie. Maybe I'm just a smart guy. But I know something is happening."

She needed to learn more. That's why Daniels had sent her.

"Larry, you're just trying to save your ass."

"Stephanie, you're like the fellow who's searching for a lost quarter beneath a streetlight. A guy comes along and asks what's he doing. He says, "I'm looking for my lost quarter." Guy says, "Where did you lose it?" The fellow points off in the distance and says, "Over there." The guy's puzzled, so he asks, "Why are you looking here?" And the man says, "Because this is where the light is." That's you, Stephanie. Quit looking where the light is and look where you need to."

"Then give me something concrete."

"Wish I could. It's just the little things that all add up. Meetings the VP has avoided that a candidate would not. Pissing off people whom he's going to need. Unconcerned with the party. Nothing overt. Little things that a political junkie like me would notice. There's only a few of us on the inside who would even be privy to these things. These men keep things close."

"Is Brent Green one of those men?"

"I have no idea. Brent's a strange one. The outsider to everyone. I tried to push him yesterday. Threatened him. But he didn't rattle. I wanted to see how he'd react. Then when you appeared in my house and found that book, I knew you had to be my ally."

"You may have chosen wrong, Larry. I don't believe a word you say. Killing a president is not easy."

"I don't know about that. Every presidential assassin, whether actual or would-be, was either deranged, loony, or lucky. Imagine what professionals could do."

He had a point there.

"Where are those flash drives?" he asked.

"I have them."

"I hope so, because if anyone else does we're in trouble. They'll know I'm on to them. Me recording those conversations with the VP's chief of staff would be impossible to explain. I need those back, Stephanie."

"Not going to happen. I have a suggestion, Larry. Why don't you just turn yourself in, confess to bribing Congress, and ask for federal protection? Then you can spout all this bullshit to anyone who'll listen."

He sat back in his chair. "You know, I thought for once you and I might have a civil conversation. But no, you want to be a smug-ass. I did what I had to, Stephanie, because that's what the president wanted."

Now she was interested.

"He knew what you were doing with Congress?"

"How else do you think my stock rose so fast in the White House? He wanted things passed and I made sure that happened. This president has been successful in Congress, which also explains how he easily managed a second term."

"You have proof of his involvement?"

"Like I taped Daniels? No. Just reality, Stephanie. Somebody has to make things happen. It's the way of the world. I'm Daniels's guy. I know it, and he knows it."

She glanced over at Cassiopeia and recalled what the other woman had said on the way over. They truly did not know who to trust, including the president.

Daley stood from the table and tossed down a couple of dollars for the tip. "The other day you and Green thought this was all about Daniels's legacy. I told you what you wanted to hear to rock you to sleep." Daley shook his head. "This is about Daniels continuing to breathe. You're a waste of time. I'll handle this another way."

MALONE LED THE WAY UP THE GAUNT ESCARPMENT. EAGLES and buzzards patrolled overhead. The golden sunlight penetrated his brain and suffused his sweaty body. A light wash of rock littered the trail, the parched topsoil a loamy deposit of sand and silt.

He followed the serpentine path to the top, where three massive boulders had long ago toppled and created a tunnel across the crown. Fine dust, sounding like water splashing, rained off the stones. Despite the sun, the corridor was cool. He welcomed the shade. The other side loomed thirty feet away.

Ahead, he suddenly spotted a flash of red.

"You see that?" he asked.

"Yeah," Pam said.

They stopped and watched as it happened again.

Then he realized what was occurring. The noonday sun, as it found gaps between the three fallen stones, played itself off the red granite and colored the tunnel crimson.

Interesting phenomenon.

See the endless coil of the serpent red with anger.

"Apparently," he said, "there's lots of angry red serpents around here."

Halfway through he noticed words etched into the granite. He stopped and read the Latin, translating out loud.

"Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." He knew the passage. "From Exodus. What God said to Moses from the Burning Bush."

"Is this where that happened?" Pam asked.

"No one knows. The mountain about twenty miles south of here, Jebel Musa, is accepted by all three religions as the place. But who knows?"

At the tunnel's end a sudden blaze of warmth embraced him, and he stared out into a curving farsh dotted with cypress trees. Soft white clouds chased one another, like tumbleweeds, across the clear sky. His eyes slit lizardlike against the glare.

Pressed against the face of the far mound, tucked into an angle of stupendous cliffs, arose walls and buildings that strained against one another as if they were part of the rock. Their colors-yellow, brown, and white-merged like camouflage. Watchtowers seemed to be floating. Slim green cones of cypresses added contrast to burnt-orange roof tiles. No real logic prevailed as to size and shape. The assemblage reminded Malone of the anarchic charm of a hillside Italian fishing village.

"A monastery?" Pam asked him.

"The map indicated that there are three in this region. None is a great secret."

A path of boulder steps led the way down. The risers descended steeply, grouped three together between sloping stretches of smooth rock. At the bottom another path traversed the farsh, past a small lake nestled among the cypresses, and zigzagged up to the monastery's entrance.

"This is the place."

STEPHANIE WATCHED AS DALEY LEFT THE RESTAURANT. CASSIOPEIA came over, sat at the table, and asked, "Anything useful?"

"He says that Daniels knew everything he was doing."

"What else could he say?"

"Daley never mentioned that we were at Camp David last night."

"Nobody saw us but those agents and Daniels."

Which was right. They'd slept in the cabin alone with two agents outside. Food had been in the oven waiting when they'd awoken. Daniels himself had called and told them to arrange the meeting with Daley. So Daley either didn't know or refused to say.

"Why would the president want us to meet with him, knowing Daley might contradict what he's told us?" she asked, more to herself than Cassiopeia.

"Add that question to the list."

She watched through the front glass as Daley trudged through the gravelly parking lot toward his Land Rover. She'd never liked the man. When she'd finally confirmed that he was dirty, nothing had pleased her more.

Now she wasn't so sure.

Daley found his car at the far side of the lot and climbed inside.

They needed to leave, too. Time to find Brent Green and see what he'd learned. Daniels had not mentioned them talking with Green, but she thought it best.

Particularly now.

An explosion rocked the building.

Her initial shock was replaced with an awareness that the restaurant was intact. Loud voices and a few screams subsided as others, too, began to realize that the building was still there.

Everything was fine.

Except outside.

She stared through the glass and saw Larry Daley's Land Rover being consumed by flames.

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