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Chris Reich is a New York Times bestselling author. His upcoming book, Rules of Betrayal, will be released in July. For more information visit his website.
Koleson Fletcher backed into the motel room, his eyes flitting between the pistol rammed into his belly and the wild eyed man holding it.
“Whoa, Nick. Take it easy there,” he said. “I’m not feelin’ the love, if you get my drift. You mind stowing that piece? I’ve got this thing about lead and gunpowder.”
“And I’ve got this thing about lying dirtbags,” Nick replied. “Just think of the gun as a precaution.”
“Against a man who issued a press release saying that a bomb had destroyed the Palace Hotel ten minutes before an explosion took the place down.” Nick raised the pistol and leveled it at Fletcher’s face. “I’d say you’re lucky I didn’t put a bullet between your eyes when you walked in here. I’ve done it a few times before, you know. I’m not allergic to lead and gunpowder.”
“It wasn’t me,” said Fletcher. “I had nothing….”
Nick brought down the barrel of the gun across Fletcher’s face. “Enough excuses,” he said. “Of course it was you! Nothing gets out of 1600 without your approval. Are you forgetting that I worked as your deputy for the past six months?”
Fletcher collapsed to a knee, blood spilled from a gash on his cheek. “You’re wrong,” he said, fingers gingerly probing his wound. “We’d never send something like that out so quickly, never mind before the fact,” he pleaded. “Homeland Security would have issued the first release. Domestic terrorism is their bailiwick. We’d have followed with a comment, but not until the FBI, and even the state and local authorities, had weighed in too. We wouldn’t touch something like that until we’d taken the time to compile all the information and make sense out of it.”
Nick considered this. He’d taken the job as Deputy Press Secretary as a gesture to mollify his wife, Ashleigh, and, more importantly, his father-in-law, Senator Roberts. The senator had made it abundantly clear prior to Nick’s marriage that he did not want him to continue his career in Diplomatic Security, jetting around the world with a gun in his shoulder holster and putting his life at risk on a daily basis. He wanted his new son-in-law close to home where he could see him. And, as Nick had learned far too late, control him.
“Maybe,” said Nick. “But that doesn’t mean I can trust you.”
“You don’t have a choice, Nick. You’re out of people you can trust. There’s me and there’s all the other guys out there who want to see you dead.”
Nick looked at Fletcher, then let his eyes wander the motel room. Cigarette burns dotted the fading aqua carpet. The bedspread was stained with God-knows-what. The mirror above the dresser was cracked and threatened to fall out of its frame at any moment. He felt alone and more isolated than at any other time in his life.
“I need something, Kole…something to make me believe you. Friendship doesn’t cut it anymore.”
“I think there is something I might be able to do to set things straight between us.”
At the mention of his wife’s name, all of Nick’s dread and apprehension came back in a dark fury. “What about her?” he demanded.
“You heard from her, didn’t you?”
Nick did not answer immediately. He hurried to the window and pulled back the curtain, checking the street for a vehicle he had not noted before. In the parking lot, the same restless clique of blinged-out toughs and their dolled-up girlfriends were holding court. They were his urban alarm system. One sniff of trouble and they’d all be gone.
“Yes, she sent me something,” Nick said softly, dropping the curtain and turning to confront Fletcher. “How did you know?”
Nick grasped Fletcher’s collar and yanked him to his feet. “Where is she?”
“Here. In DC.”
“Ashleigh’s here? I don’t believe you. How? When? I don’t understand!”
“We placed a bug on your e-mail account. You know that message she sent you – the one about “male enhancement”? Our cryptanalysts cracked your code in five seconds flat. Her message was sent via wireless carrier, so we were able to triangulate her approximate location.”
Nick thought of the ordeal she’d been through. All night long, he’d been tormented by that image of Ashleigh with a gun pressed to her temple.
“She’s all right?”
“She seems to be fine.”
“Close. That’s why I came.”
“To tell me she’s okay?”
“No,” said Koleson. “I came to take you to her.”
The safe house was located on a curving, leafy road in the rolling foothills of McLean, Virginia. It was a plain single story ranch house, no different than the dozens that lined the street on either side of it. Nick opened the car door well before Fletcher finished parking in the driveway.
“Slow down,” called Fletcher. “I have some friends outside. You don’t want to surprise them.”
Nick stopped as he approached the front walk. It took him a moment to make out the shadows among shadows hidden beneath the eaves and crouched among the bushes. Another second and he was able to discern the dull gleam of an automatic weapon. He wasn’t sure whether the heavy duty protection comforted him or terrified him.
“Listen up,” said Fletcher, coming to his side. “She was in a car crash outside of Vegas. She may look a little ‘iffy,’ but she’s fine. Don’t get yourself all worked up.”
“Just open the door,” said Nick.
Fletcher put a key in the lock and leaned his shoulder into the door.
“Living room. To your right.”
Nick was by him in a flash.
Ashleigh had fallen asleep in a wing-backed chair, a copy of Time open on her lap. Her brown hair hung across her brow. An oval contusion darkened one cheek. Scratches, some of them deep, raked the other. She was a beautiful mess.
“Ashleigh,” he whispered, kneeling beside her. “It’s me. It’s Nick.”
Ashleigh Roberts awoke with a start. “Nick?” she said, bolting upright. “Is it you?” Her eyes filled. “Nicky. Oh, God. I can’t believe I’m really seeing you.”
“Believe it,” Nick said.
Ashleigh fell into his arms and the two hugged for what felt like a very long time. “It’s alright, baby,” he said, pressing his cheek against her soft, welcoming hair. “We’re going to figure this whole thing out. All of us. Kole’s going to help.” Nick looked toward the door. “Right, Kole?”
“You betcha,” said Fletcher. “The president is with us, too. If we work together, we’ll be able to track down the people behind this.”
Ashleigh shook her head, lowering her eyes.
“I guarantee it,” said Fletcher. “You have nothing to worry about. This nightmare is over.”
“Thanks, Kole,” said Ashleigh. “I feel better hearing that even if I’m not sure I believe it. There are some really evil people in the world.”
“You can say that again,” said Nick.
A pained expression soured Fletcher’s face.
“Kole?” said Nick, standing. “What is it?”
Fletcher shuddered, then slid to the floor.
Behind him stood a stout, red-faced man with an uncombed mane of gray hair. In one hand he held a Taser gun, its wires unraveled and leading to a charge that had struck Fletcher’s back. In the other hand, he held a semi-automatic pistol. It was pointed at Nick.
“It’s me,” said Charlie Mills. “I guess you can call me one of those evil bastards you were talking about. The real question is, who the hell are you?”