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Andrew Klavan’s new novel is The Homelanders: The Long Way Home. He is the author of such bestselling novels as True Crime, filmed by Clint Eastwood, and Don’t Say A Word, filmed starring Michael Douglas. He is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and his essays on politics and culture have also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. You can visit him at www.AndrewKlavan.com.
Nick pressed hard against the office wall, just inside the door. He gripped the Sig Sauer in one damp hand, holding it high, at the level of his eyes. If Becktel stepped back across that threshold, Nick was going to drive the pistol’s butt into the side of his head. He didn’t much like the idea of assaulting a U.S. Senator—not to mention his father-in-law—but he didn’t see where he had much choice. The danger was too great, the loyalties too shady, the time too short. This could well be his last chance to get the answers.
"Let me look at you, let me look at you," the Senator’s words reached him from the hallway. He could hear his voice quiver as he spoke to the daughter who seemed to have come back from the dead. They were not more than three steps away. "Is it possible? Are you real? Are you alive? My God!"
"Yes," Nick heard Ashleigh answer coolly. "It’s really me. But there’s no time for this. We have to talk—right now."
"Yes…yes…" Nick could hear Becktel trying to overcome his shock and re-gather his wits. The man truly did love his daughter; that much was clear. He really was shocked to see her alive. Whatever else he’d done, Nick thought, he hadn’t been a part of her kidnapping. That was something. "Come in," the Senator said then. "Come into my office."
Nick saw Becktel’s back as he came into the doorway, drawing Ashleigh with him. Nick tensed, lifting the gun a little higher, ready to strike. A bead of sweat ran down the side of his face.
Then Ashleigh said, "No. No. We can’t talk in there. It isn’t safe."
Becktel paused, just inches away from Nick. "Not safe? But no one knows about this office except—"
"There’s no time to argue," Ashleigh said. "You have to trust me now. We can’t talk in your office. Close the door and let’s go."
The Senator hesitated another moment. Nick held his breath. Then Becktel moved out into the hallway with his daughter, closing the office door behind him. "All right," Nick heard him say. "All right."
Nick heard their footsteps fading down the marbled hallway. He breathed for the first time in what seemed like hours.
He shoved the gun into his belt and moved from the door. He went around the mahogany desk. There was the senator’s laptop case on the floor. He opened it swiftly, brought out the computer, set it on the desk and turned it on.
Still dazed, Becktel followed his daughter down the short hall to a small white doorway. She stepped through and he followed.
Now they were in a narrow well at the top of a spiral staircase. The stairs spun down to another hall that eventually led to the Senate floor itself. Ashleigh stopped on the landing and turned to him.
"This is good," she said. "No one will hear us here."
It seemed strange to the Senator. Less secure than his hideaway. But the look on his daughter’s face was so urgent, he didn’t dare question her. He simply said, "I still can’t get over it: you’re alive."
"I won’t be for long if you don’t tell me the truth," she said.
"About the Christmas File."
Becktel felt as if a trap door had opened inside him and his heart had fallen through. He began a feeble protest, "The Christmas file? What do you…?"
But Ashleigh plowed on. "Don’t, Daddy. Please. Don’t lie to me. I saw it with my own eyes. I didn’t mean to.
I saw the name—Christmas—and I thought… Well, I thought it was something innocent. I peeked and…there were the pictures…your notes."
Becktel’s mind raced. She had seen the notes too! What a fool he’d been to pour out his feelings like that, leave them there for anyone to see. It was because he had thought it had ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, but now… What lie could he tell her?
What story would possibly make sense?
Of all the stupid ways to get burned! And by his own daughter!
"They’re your parents, aren’t they?" Ashleigh said.
He tried to smile at her. His mind raced. He couldn’t let this stand. He couldn’t let her walk away, knowing what she knew. "Yes," he answered softly. What else could he say? She had read the notes. "They’re my parents."
"Russian, I take it."
Somewhere below them a door opened and closed. Ashleigh looked around nervously. Becktel seized on it. "Look, I’ll tell you everything. But not here, not like this…"
But her beautiful face was set, fierce. "What was the Village? Where do you come from? Who are you? Or maybe I should ask: who are you working for?"
Becktel’s stomach turned. She had almost guessed the whole thing. He stared at her, as if from a distance. Suddenly, he felt very far away, as if his mind belonged to someone else. His eyes flicked over his daughter’s shoulder. Distantly, coolly, he reflected that the spiral stairs were right behind her, a steep twisting fall to a marble floor. If he pushed her… If she stepped back… If she tumbled over the railing… A tragic accident and this problem would be solved.
The Senator stared at his daughter as if in a trance…
"Come on, come on," Nick muttered.
He had the USB drive plugged into the Senator’s laptop. The computer’s contents were copying themselves into it. It seemed to be taking forever. Nick glanced at the door. No noise outside. Ashleigh was doing her part well. He turned back to the laptop and watched the names of the files flashing past as they copied.
Then he saw it. One file. One word – there on the monitor for just a second: Christmas.
With another quick glance at the door, Nick called up the file and opened it. Ashleigh had told him what was inside: the photographs of Becktel’s parents; the anguished notes to himself. He knew this wasn’t the time to look at it. Becktel could come back in here any minute. He knew he should finish his copy and run for it.
But he had to look. He had to know.
As the files continued copying onto the drive, he scrolled quickly down through the notes. Quick half sentences, full of anguish.
What will they do to them?
What do they want?
Who is left to contact me now?
Down and down until he reached the final entry.
Nick’s lips parted. He stared at the words on the screen.
Time is running out. I’m caught in the middle. I can’t stall them any longer. Popov wants action. The Brethren want the apocalypse.
Putin wants Little Big Boy.
Nick looked up suddenly. He’d heard something. Out in the hall.
His heart hammering in his chest, his palms sweating, Senator Becktel walked slowly away from the stairwell, back toward his hideaway. He felt as if his daughter’s stare had burned itself into his brain. The accusation in her eyes, the betrayal in her voice. Who are you? Who do you work for?
He opened the door to the outer hallway. He walked down the hall to his office door. He reached into his pocket, brought out a handkerchief and mopped the sweat off his face.
Then he opened the door and stepped inside.
The office was as he’d left it: empty. The White House press release on the desk, his laptop in its case on the floor.
Becktel went behind the desk and sank slowly into his chair. What was he going to do now?
What was he going to do?
"For a moment, I thought he was going to kill me," said Ashleigh as Nick rushed to her on the capitol steps. "The look in his eyes… It was as if he had become someone else, someone I never knew. For a moment, I really thought he was going to push me down the stairs. Then… I guess he couldn’t do it. He just turned and walked away."
"He nearly caught me in the office," Nick told her. "I had to get out of there in a big hurry."
"Did you copy the laptop?"
He nodded. He held up the USB drive. "It’s all here." He took hold of her hand and looked for a long moment into her frightened eyes. "There’s not much time. Let’s get back to the hotel."
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