Authors: James M. Tabor
The Beast stopped. Onlookers crowded against the police barriers that formed a one-hundred-foot perimeter around the president. Laning sat patiently. It always took ten minutes for the traveling security detail to deploy. Agents were responsible for thirty-degree sectors of an imaginary circle, the center of which was the Beast. Only after all twelve agents reported that it was clear did the detail commander instruct the agent in the driver’s seat to unlock and unload.
Two agents opened doors while others formed living walls around the president and her family. When everyone was in position, the whole assemblage moved quickly toward the cathedral’s twelve-foot-high doors.
“Hold up a minute,” Laning said. The detail’s lead agent, a balding, broad-shouldered man named Bob Delaney, started to protest. Laning was already halfway to a white-haired woman in a wheelchair who held a sign that read, “I’m 90 and I vote. God Bless America.” Laning grasped one of the woman’s hands in both of her own.
“What’s your name, ma’am?” she asked.
“Edna Hayes, ma’am.”
Laning smiled, her eyes shining. “God bless
, Edna.” She clasped the woman’s hand a moment longer, then straightened and looked at the other people.
It was hard to keep her face composed. Before taking office, she had known one sure thing: it would be like nothing she had imagined, or could imagine, any more than she could have imagined childbirth. She had been right. Washington was a cauldron, and every day scalded
her soul. There were mornings—and she would keep these secret to her dying day—when her first waking thought was
Dear God, take me away from this
But then on days like this she would come out and see the people,
people, their faces alight with joy, and there was magic in them and in her attacked and slandered country, and in such moments she saw other faces, frozen at Valley Forge, bloody at Little Round Top, raging at Belleau Wood and Omaha Beach, stoic at Little Rock, jubilant on the moon, faces of people like these right in front of her, and from them all she took the strength to continue.
An agent whispered, but this was not an easy thing to back away from, all those yearning faces and reaching arms. She reached back, grasped hands, felt the magic—a lovely teenage girl with braces, a man with a burned face, a woman with tears rolling down her round cheeks. A tall man, very handsome, with a black ponytail and shining black eyes.
“I never heard of them,” Hallie said.
“Of course not. You only hear about the stupid ones.”
“What do you want?”
“ ‘Come now therefore, and let us slay her, and cast her into some pit, and we shall see what will become of her dreams.’ ”
“Use your imagination.”
Something about his use of the word “patriot” triggered it: “The president?” she said. She pushed away the horror she felt, tried to focus on reasoning with him. “You won’t do it with a bioagent. She’s surrounded by dogs and sensors and who knows what else.”
“The Skinner is new to this earth. No referent for dogs and sensors.”
“But you’d still have to get close.”
“People get close when they go to church.”
“Church?” Now she remembered Ely, in his basement, mentioning the cathedral. There had been a lot of news about some special Easter service the president and her family was supposed to attend there. Not only her, but all kinds of political people who were usually at one another’s throats, and religious leaders, too.
Ely was here, which meant that someone else would be there. Suddenly she remembered Redhorse:
I’m goin’ to church. Big church
. She felt sick, but knew she had to keep Ely talking.
“What will you gain by killing her?”
He chuckled. “You know what they say. A fish rots from the head.”
“Where did you get this thing?”
“The Skinner?” His smile widened. “
brought it back.”
“It was in the battery pack.”
God damn him
, she thought.
God damn that expedition
. “You came here to get it.”
“I did, yes.”
Anger got the better of her. “You asshole. Why did you shit in my living room?”
“The police had to think that a real burglar was at work.”
“Laning is going to die a very unpleasant death. And so are you.”
He just laughed.
“You’re going to kill me and make it look like suicide? People get caught doing that all the time.”
“Stupid people do. They don’t bother to learn that hanging and strangling leave different ligature marks on the neck. Homicide 101. It worked fine with Robin.”
He switched on the basement lights. The Ely she had known was pudgy, with long brown hair and a beard. Squinting, she saw a gaunt, clean-shaven man in a white Tyvek hazmat suit with booties and a hood, safety glasses, and heavy black rubber gloves. She thought:
“Nobody is going to believe that I killed myself,” she said.
“You’re distraught over the deaths of your expedition team members. You broke up with your boyfriend. The FBI is after you. And your father died, what, about a year ago?” He held up a piece of paper. “If there’s any doubt, this will dispel it. A note, written on your computer and printed here, too.”
He looked at his watch. “It’s time for you to—”
“Do you know what happens to murderers in hell?”
“I don’t believe in hell.” He said this firmly, but she saw his eyes flick to one side. She had touched something.
“Everybody believes in hell. We say we don’t, but way down deep, we all do.”
He frowned. “I had planned to just hang you. Now I think not. But I don’t see what I need. Stay right there.” He went up the stairs.
There is slack in every rope
. Houdini had said that, Hallie had once read it, and while they were talking in the dark, she had been twisting and pulling against the towels as much as she could without making noise. Now she redoubled her efforts, listening to him opening drawers, shuffling contents. She heard him say, “Just the thing.”
He came back downstairs holding an ice pick.
President Laning reached for the handsome man’s hand to shake it, but it disappeared for an instant and reappeared holding something. The sun was behind him, it was hard to see clearly, but there was a flash in that bright painful light and she thought,
, and wanted to dive away, but it was all happening faster than she could move, faster than thought, and then something touched her hand, not a bullet but a white thing, and the man disappeared beneath a wave of Secret Service agents and another wave was washing her back to the Beast.
“Hanging ruptures the eardrums,” Ely said. “So we’ll have a little fun in there first. Nobody will know.” He gazed down at her. “Which ear? I guess it doesn’t matter.” He put his left hand on her head and leaned in, raising the ice pick.
With a last screaming jerk, she yanked her right arm free, grabbed a handful of his hood, and slammed his forehead with all her strength against the end of the wooden chair arm. She thought she heard something crack, his skull or the wood, maybe both. He grunted and collapsed facedown on the cement floor.
Her left arm first. Then, with both hands free, she loosened the rope and pulled it over her head. She started unwrapping her legs. Ely had been thorough—they looked like the puttees of old uniforms. She freed her right leg, started on her left. Ely groaned and moved his head. She picked it up, slammed his forehead down onto the concrete floor, and he lay still.
Freeing her left leg took longer, but finally she was loose. She stood up and fell to her hands and knees. Her legs had fallen completely asleep. She staggered up, stamped her feet, felt agonizing pins and needles, stumbled toward the bottom of the stairs.
A hand grabbed her left ankle, yanked back, and she fell forward. Ely had come around. He grabbed her other ankle. The man was stronger than she’d realized. He hauled her toward him and drove the ice pick into the back of her thigh.
Strong arms stuffed Laning, Paul, and the girls into the Beast, and Agent Delaney was about to order its driver to lock and go. Laning said,
in that brain-snapping voice.
Addressing Delaney directly, she said, “Robert, we came here to worship, and we shall. Do what you need to, and quickly. I want to be out of this vehicle and moving toward the cathedral in three.”
The agent shook his head, stone-faced. “Madame President, my responsibility is to—”
“Make it happen, Agent Delaney.”
And they did. When the massed people saw her get out of the Beast, there was an astonished silence. Then they screamed and cheered and kept cheering long after she and her family disappeared through the massive cathedral doors.
A thousand heads swiveled to see the president and her family. Somebody clapped, and then everybody was clapping and cheering, and it lasted as they strode up the nave aisle four abreast, preceded and followed by twice the usual number of sweating agents.
Bishop Newberry, aloft in the magisterial Canterbury Pulpit, marveled at the appearance of the most powerful woman on earth in her church. The grand organ boomed, and the choir filled the cathedral with heavenly harmonies.