Authors: Eva Hudson
Tags: #mystery, #thriller
Sitting in a luxury State Department limousine, Jayne Whitticker stared out across the wide runway toward the specially adapted Boeing 757. Through the tinted windows of the car the dark skies glowering over Andrew’s Air Force Base seemed even more oppressive than they had when she’d arrived ten minutes ago. A shiver ran across her shoulders. The clouds, heavy with snow, promised a blizzard later that day. Secretary of State Whitticker would be halfway across the Atlantic by then. She couldn’t help but wonder whether the threatening storm was some sort of omen for what lay ahead.
In the distance, the faint wail of a siren started up. Whitticker leaned forward in her seat. Automatically, the thick glass partition separating the front seats from the back buzzed down.
“Is that something we need to be concerned about, James?”
The man in the black suit murmured something into a discreet microphone clipped to the sleeve of his jacket, then waited. “Minor security breach on the other side of the base, ma’am. Nothing for you to worry about.”
“Ma’am?” His voice was hesitant, unsure.
“We should really be boarding now. The weather is deteriorating.”
“Give me a few more moments, James.”
The partition buzzed back up again.
Jayne Whitticker looked up at the snowy sky. She was about to face the biggest task of her career. The biggest she was ever likely to take on. At sixty-four, she knew her position as Secretary of State would probably be the last professional role she’d hold. She’d only had the job a few weeks, following the premature retirement of her predecessor. Before his heart condition had forced him to step down, he had been conducting difficult negotiations between three warring African nations, in an attempt to broker a peace deal and halt the slaughter of innocent civilians. It was a mission she had now inherited. In just over seven hours she would be sitting in a room in Strasbourg with the leaders of those three nations and their many aides. The eyes of the world would be on her.
The partition buzzed back down again. She should really be getting on that plane. She took a deep breath and straightened her spine. This might be the toughest job of her career, but it was also the most prestigious. She had an opportunity to help make an enormous change for the better. That was a task to be relished, not feared. “All right, James, I’m ready.”
“Actually, ma’am, we can’t move right now.”
“The security breach is more serious than we first thought.”
“I have to get on that plane.”
“You will, ma’am. Have no doubt about that.”
“What exactly is happening?”
“An individual was causing a disturbance at the entrance nearest the access road. The guard on duty raised the alert level accordingly.”
“What kind of disturbance?”
Before her chief security advisor could answer, Jayne Whitticker saw a black SUV swerve to a stop right next to her limousine. “James?”
“It’s all right ma’am. The individual is known to us. There’s no further threat.”
The partition moved back up again.
Outside, a special agent yanked open the rear passenger door of the SUV and, wearing a thin hooded coat and skinny jeans, the Secretary of State’s granddaughter, Rachel, jumped out. She had a small backpack slung across one shoulder and a coy expression on her face. The agent opened the door of the State Department limousine and Rachel climbed inside. She was shivering.
“How did you get here?” Jayne Whitticker held the eighteen year old’s ungloved hands in hers. “You’re frozen to the bone.”
Rachel sniffed then wiped a sleeve across her nose. “I hitched.”
“For God’s sake, what have I told you about that?”
“I know for a fact you hitched right across the country in the sixties and seventies. If it was OK for you then it’s—”
“Times are different now, more dangerous.”
“I had to come see you before you left.”
“Do your mother and father know you’re here?”
Rachel Whitticker wriggled her shoulders and turned away.
“You’ve had another fight?”
“Biggest one yet.”
“What was it about this time?”
“Dad wants me to go to college to study Math. I want to go to acting class. He won’t even listen to what I have to say.”
The things teenagers consider important, Jayne Whitticker thought. “How about majoring in Math? You could still take classes in theater and drama.”
The partition buzzed down again. “Madam Secretary? We really do have to board the plane now,” James said.
Rachel ignored him. “I even suggested that. I told you—he won’t listen. He’s being a bully.”
A strong stubborn streak ran through Whitticker’s family: everyone determined to hold their ground until the argument wasn’t so much won or lost, but rendered irrelevant.
“I’ll be right there, James.”
Jayne Whitticker had recognized long ago that she always took her favorite grandchild’s side over her son’s. It had become her default position. “A big fight doesn’t explain your presence here.” She squeezed Rachel’s hand. “You know what this trip is for. You know what I’m going to Europe to try to achieve. How important it is.”
“And you know I wouldn’t be here if there were any way I could stay with them without imploding.”
“Oh come on, Rachel. Are you seriously suggesting you come with me?” Jayne Whitticker pulled her hand away and studied her granddaughter’s face closely.
“If I come with you it’d give mom and dad a chance to calm down some. Maybe see things from a different perspective. Especially if you spoke to dad.”
The Secretary of State shook her head. “I can’t take you with me. I can’t. It’s just not possible.”
“Ma’am, I really have to insist now. The weather is closing in.”
“You wouldn’t even notice me. I promise I’ll behave myself.”
James climbed out of the car and grabbed the handle of the rear passenger door.
“Please, Grams.” She pulled a pained expression. “I don’t know what might happen if I stay.”
“You can’t get your own way through emotional blackmail. Please credit me with enough sense to see through that ploy.”
“I know how smart you are. And I’m so proud of you. What you’re about to do.”
“Flattery doesn’t cut it either.” Jayne Whitticker glanced down at Rachel’s left wrist, at the scar running from the base of her palm three inches up her arm. This wasn’t the first time her granddaughter had spoken about imploding. Rachel needed her support right now. The timing couldn’t have been worse. “I take it you remembered to bring your passport?”
Rachel dug a hand into her backpack and retrieved the dark blue rectangular booklet.
“You’ll have to have a chaperone once we’re over there. A private security guard. You do know I won’t be able to spend any time with you?”
“I understand. I told you—I’ll totally behave myself. I won’t embarrass you.”
The door opened next to the Secretary of State. James’ black jacket flapped in the strong wind. A few moments later Jayne and Rachel Whitticker were helped from the car to the steps of the waiting plane.
When Jayne Whitticker was buckled into her seat for take off, she took a moment to wonder at the wisdom of her decision, but before she had time to change her mind, her cell phone started to ring. She knew without looking who was calling. She answered quickly and listened carefully to an intense sixty second pep talk.
“Don’t worry, Mr President,” she said when it was her turn to speak. “The negotiations are in safe hands. I won’t let you down.”
The line for refreshments was moving slowly. Special Agent Ingrid Skyberg shuffled along patiently even though she was well aware the dark brown liquid that emerged from the plastic flask at the head of the table would taste nothing like coffee, or have any of its restorative effects.
A female detective joined the end of the line. Ingrid remembered her asking a raft of engaged and intelligent questions the day before. “Morning,” the woman said.
Ingrid turned to face her. “Good morning. I’m sorry—I didn’t catch your name yesterday.”
The detective shoved out a hand. “Detective Inspector Natasha McKittrick.”
They shook hands. “Pleased to meet you.”
“I just wanted to let you know I got a lot out of yesterday’s sessions. Child protection isn’t a specialism of mine, but I do like to keep up on the latest investigation techniques.” The line shuffled forward again. “I’m sorry I can’t say the same for some of my colleagues.”
Ingrid didn’t want to speak out of turn, but she had found the lack of engagement in the previous day’s training sessions surprising. “Were some of them recruited onto the course… involuntarily?”
“Oh no—they all signed up of their own free will. It’s an excuse to get out of the station, get a free lunch and take it easy for a couple of days. No reflection on you or your colleagues. Or the FBI in general.”
“Do you have any tips? Anything we can do to shake things up a little?”
“Do something unexpected. Something that might at least keep them awake until lunchtime.”
“Any idea what that might be?”
“You’re on your own there.”
Finally Ingrid reached the flask labeled ‘coffee’ and pumped out a small cup of dark liquid. “My coffee shop espresso seems an awful long while ago now.”
“This stuff is pretty foul, isn’t it?” The detective smiled at her. “Anyway—I just wanted to let you know you’re not totally wasting your time—some of us are getting a lot out of this.” With that DI McKittrick grabbed herself a tea and nodded a goodbye to Ingrid. Ingrid watched her settle into a seat right at the back of the overheated conference room.
Ingrid took her coffee to the front of the room and sat down behind a narrow wooden table, waiting for her two colleagues from the FBI’s Violent Crimes Against Children program to arrive. As she watched the rows of seats slowly fill, she wondered at the unexpected and slightly bizarre nature of the situation. Forty-eight hours ago she’d had no clue she’d be sitting in a stuffy subterranean conference room in New Scotland Yard. When one of the regular trainers had been forced to pull out because his wife had gone into premature labor, Ingrid’s boss had asked her to step in at the last minute. She’d said yes without hesitation: not only did she relish the prospect of helping out a colleague in need, but doing a little sightseeing in London just a couple of weeks before Christmas really couldn’t be turned down. But so far all she’d seen was the inside of a hotel room in Marylebone, this conference room in New Scotland Yard and the interior of a black London taxi cab.
A few minutes later her colleagues arrived and shortly after that the morning training session began. Thirty minutes into the session a noisy cell phone ringtone sounded from the center of the room. A middle-aged cop struggled to his feet, waved his phone in the air, and said, “Really sorry, everyone, but I can’t ignore this. Boss would kill me.” He flashed an inauthentic smile and swiftly headed toward the exit.
Ingrid glanced at her two Bureau colleagues. Kevin Price shrugged back at her. Lucille Gardiner, who was standing at the lectern, merely scowled a little harder than she had been prior to the interruption.
The cop was their first bailout of the morning. Ingrid suspected he wouldn’t be the last. She scrutinized the remaining detectives and tried to guess which ones wouldn’t make it to the end of the course the following day. She noticed that one bald guy at the back, carrying forty or so extra pounds, was actually asleep. Any minute now she was sure he’d start snoring. Just like yesterday, none of the audience seemed particularly interested. Ingrid wondered what unexpected event she could manufacture that might shake them up. Nothing obvious sprang to mind.
Despite the overall lack of interest from the crowd, Lucille continued with her Powerpoint presentation as if her audience were hanging on her every word. Ingrid could only admire her dogged determination. Five riveting multi-media slides later, Lucille’s cell phone started to vibrate noisily against the aluminum lectern. Ingrid’s colleague grabbed the glasses hanging on the chain around her neck and read the text message. As she read each word, her eyes widened incrementally. By the time she was done her mouth had fallen open. “I’m so sorry about this, folks—but I have to leave. I’m sure Agents Skyberg and Price will manage in my absence.” She grabbed her jacket and purse and hurried toward the door.
Kevin and Ingrid exchanged bemused glances. Lucille
cell phone interruptions—in training programs, meetings, or any other place she reasonably expected the participants’ undivided attention. Ingrid worried one of Lucille’s kids might be sick. She thought about running after her, just to see if there was anything she could do, but as she started to get up, the expression on Kevin Price’s face begged her to stay exactly where she was. She watched the door swing shut behind Lucille. The event was certainly unexpected, but Ingrid wasn’t sure it was quite what DI McKittrick had had in mind when she’d made her suggestion.
“So! Where were we?” Kevin jumped from his seat and took up Lucille’s place at the lectern. He gestured toward the Powerpoint slide displayed on the large white screen behind him.