Read The President Is Missing: A Novel Online

Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton

The President Is Missing: A Novel (25 page)

B
ach positions herself on the seacraft, gripping the arms, much as a child would hold a kickboard when learning to swim. Except those kickboards aren’t propelled by twin jet thrusters.

She pushes the green button on the left arm and aims the vehicle downward, plunging below the surface of the lake until she evens out at thirty feet below the surface. She pushes the button to accelerate the thrusters until she’s moving at ten kilometers per hour through the murky water. She has a fair distance to travel. She is at the eastern end of this huge body of water.

“Boat to your north,”
says the voice in her earbud.
“Veer south. Left. Veer left.”

She sees the boat on the surface of the water, but not before her team did, with their GPS and radar capabilities on the boat.

She veers left, thrusting through the foggy green water, the weeds and fish. The GPS on her console shows her the destination with a blinking green dot, and the number below ticks off her distance.

1800 m…

1500 m…

“Water skier from the right. Hold. Hold.”

She sees the boat above her, to her right, its engine chopping at the water, followed by the skimming of the water by the skier.

She doesn’t stop. She’s well below them. She guns the watercraft and speeds past them, beneath them.

She’ll have to get herself one of these toys.

1100 m

She slows the watercraft. The lake bottoms out at fifty meters at its deepest, but as she gets close to shore, the land rises up sharply to the water, and the last thing she needs is to slam into the earth.

“Hold. Hold. Stay down. Stay down. Sentry. Sentry.”

She comes to an abrupt halt nine hundred meters from the shore and doesn’t move in the water, nearly losing her grip on the watercraft, allowing herself to drift lower in the lake. A member of the security detail—US Secret Service or the Germans or Israelis—must be in the woods near the shore, looking around.

There can’t be very many of them patrolling the woods. It would require hundreds of people to secure more than a thousand acres of heavy woods, and their security details are light.

Last night—of course the agents walked the entire acreage, swept it thoroughly, before the president arrived.

But now they can’t afford to patrol the woods. Most of the security will be around or inside the cabin, with a few at the dock and a few in the backyard, where the woods end.

“All clear,”
the voice finally says.

She gives it another minute for good measure, then proceeds onward. When she’s three hundred meters from shore, she kills the engine entirely. She rides the momentum of this fun little toy upward until she’s coasting on top of the water, much like someone riding a surfboard to shore. She stays low—as low as she can with an air tank, her rifle, and a bag tied to her back—until she beaches on the small clip of sand.

She removes the scuba mask and breathes fresh air. She glances around and sees nobody. This part of the lake bends around, so that she is entirely out of the sight line of anyone by the dock. The Secret Service cannot possibly see her.

She climbs up onto the land and finds the spot where she is to hide the watercraft and scuba gear. She does so quickly, stripping off the gear and throwing on clean, dry fatigues from her bag. She towel-dries her hair and makes sure her face and neck are free of any moisture before she applies the camouflage paint.

She uncases her rifle and slings it over her shoulder. Checks her sidearm.

She is ready to do this now. Alone, as she prefers it, as she’s always been.

T
he woods provide Bach excellent cover. The tall, lush canopy trees block most of the sunlight, which renders visibility difficult for two reasons—the darkness itself and the intermittent strips of sunlight penetrating the canopy, which play tricks on the eyes. It’s hard to see much of anything in here.

She finds herself back in the Trebevic mountainside, on the run, in hiding, after it was over, after she turned the tables on the sniper, Ranko, the redheaded Serbian soldier who, for pity or sex or both, had taught her how to fire a rifle.

“Here, again, you’re using your arms too much!” Ranko said as they sat up in the bombed-out nightclub that served as a sniper’s hideaway in the mountains. “I do not understand you, girl. One day you can shoot a bottle of beer off a tree stump from a hundred meters away, and today your mechanics are those of a beginner? Let me show you once more.” Taking the gun from her, settling into the perch. “Hold steady, like this,” he said, his last words before she stuck the kitchen knife into his neck.

Taking his rifle, on which she was now well trained, to the open window of the nightclub overlooking Sarajevo, aiming down at Ranko’s comrades, the patrolling Serbian soldiers who had beaten her father to death and carved a cross in his chest, all for the crime of being Muslim.
Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop,
firing the rifle in rapid succession, picking them off
one after the other after the other, having to lead the last one as he dropped his weapon and sprinted toward the trees.

She hid in the mountains for more than a week afterward, hungry and thirsty and cold, moving about constantly, afraid to stay in the same spot, as they hunted for the young girl who killed six Serbian soldiers, one of them up close and the others from a hundred meters away.

With the pack and rifle on her back, she moves forward gingerly; with each step, she plants her foot before shifting weight onto it. To her right, something jumps, and her heart skips a beat as she reaches for her sidearm. Some little animal, a rabbit or squirrel, gone before she can make it out. She waits for the adrenaline to drain.

“Two kilometers due north,”
they tell her in her earbud.

She continues her gentle, quiet movements forward. Her instinct is to move quickly to her spot, but discipline is essential. She doesn’t know these woods. She never scouted the location, as she’d normally prefer. The ground is dark and uneven, obscured by the brush and lack of light, full of tree roots and branches and who knows what else.

Foot forward, weight forward, stop and listen. Foot forward, weight forward, stop and listen. Foot forward, weight for—

Movement.

Up ahead, appearing from around a tree.

The animal is no bigger than a large dog, with thick salt-and-pepper fur, tall ears perked at attention, a long snout, and beady black eyes that focus on her.

There aren’t supposed to be any wolves around here. A coyote? Must be.

A coyote that is standing between her and her destination.

Another one now, a second one, popping its head up, farther down, about the same size.

A third one, a bit smaller and darker in color, separating itself from the others, moving to Bach’s left, eyes on her, something fleshy dripping from its mouth.

A fourth one, to her right. A semicircle of four, in what she can only assume is some kind of formation.

A defensive formation. Or an attack formation.

The latter, she decides.

Eight beady eyes on her.

She takes a step forward and hears a low growl, sees the sides of the first animal’s long snout tremble, revealing teeth—presumably jagged fangs—that she’s too far away to make out. The others, spurred on by their leader, join in, snarling and growling.

Are
they coyotes? They’re supposed to be afraid of humans.

Food,
she thinks. They must be close to food or already feasting, maybe something big and tasty, like a deer carcass. They must see her as a threat to their lunch.

Unless they see
her
as the lunch.

She doesn’t have time for this. It would be too risky and time-consuming to alter her path. One side is going to have to move, and it isn’t going to be hers.

Her body otherwise still, she removes her sidearm, her SIG Sauer with the long suppressor.

The lead animal lowers its head, the growling louder, snapping at her.

She aims her weapon at the small space between its eyes. Then she adjusts her aim for its ear and fires once, a single suppressed
thwip
.

The animal yelps and spins around, bounding away in a flash, nothing worse than a small flesh wound on the tip of its ear. The others disappear just like that, too.

It might have been a problem if they’d all attacked at once, coming from different directions. She would have taken them all out, but it would have required more ammunition and probably made more noise.

It’s always easier just to take out the leader.

If there is nothing else to learn from history, it’s that from humans to animals, from the most primitive to the most civilized, most individuals want to be led.

Take out the leader, and the rest of the pack panics.

I
t would be better if it came from you,” I say to Chancellor Richter as we confer in the room I would call the cabin’s family room. “The other leaders in the European Union look to you, Mr. Chancellor. That’s no secret.”

“Yes, well.” Richter places his coffee cup on its saucer, searches for a place to set it down, buying himself a moment to think. It never hurts to stroke the boundless ego of the chancellor, the longest-serving leader in the EU and, my flattery aside, increasingly the most influential.

Never mind the fact that if the virus activates and decisions of war must be made, I will be making the same phone calls, with more or less the same pleas, to the leaders of France, the UK, Spain, Italy, and the other NATO countries.

If we have to invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty and go to war with Russia or whatever country is behind this, I’d rather the motion to invoke came from someone other than the United States. Better yet, as was the case after 9/11, a motion joined by all NATO members. It would be better if it looked like an unsolicited decision rather than a plea from a wounded superpower.

He doesn’t answer right away. I didn’t expect him to. Still, it is the first time I’ve seen Juergen Richter at a loss for words.

In the background, from the corner, the television plays a continuous string of bad news: the water-supply difficulties in Los Angeles, possibly caused by terrorism; North Korea vowing another ballistic-missile test after our military exercises in Japan; the civil unrest in Honduras, where half the president’s cabinet has resigned; further developments in the assassination plot against the Saudi king. But the lead story, of course, is the upcoming testimony of the president of the United States before the House Select Committee and, courtesy of my vice president, the question of whether the president is suffering from a “nervous breakdown” or has “fled the capital in a panic.”

My phone buzzes—
FBI Liz
—saving the chancellor from the awkward silence. “Excuse me,” I say.

I tap my earbud as I stand in the kitchen looking out over the backyard, the black tent, and the wall of endless trees beyond. “Go ahead, Liz,” I say.

“The team members that the Secret Service killed on the bridge,”
says the acting FBI director, Elizabeth Greenfield.
“We’ve identified them.”

“And?”

“They are a part of a group called Ratnici. It means “warriors,” basically. They’re mercenaries. They come from all over the world, and they’ve fought all over the world. The narcos used them in Colombia. They fought for the rebels in Sudan until the government hired them to switch sides. They fought for the Tunisian government against the ISIS insurgency there.”

“It’s what we figured. Cutouts. Untraceable.”

“But Ratnici doesn’t work for free. They’re soldiers, not ideologues. Somebody paid them. And for something like this, Mr. President, you can only imagine how much money they’d demand.”

“That’s right,” I say. “Good. You’re going to follow the money.”

“We’re trying, sir. It’s our best lead.”

“Keep at it, as fast as you can,” I say as the door leading to the basement opens behind me.

Up walk the Americans on our tech team, Devin Wittmer and Casey Alvarez, a wave of cigarette smoke wafting off them. I don’t know them to be smokers, but I assume some of the Europeans are.

Devin is no longer wearing his sport jacket. His shirt has come partially untucked, and his sleeves are rolled up. The wear on his face is evident.

But he has a smile on his face.

Some of Casey’s ponytail is undone. She removes her glasses and rubs her eyes, but the upturn of her mouth is promising.

I feel something flutter through my chest.

“We located it, Mr. President,” says Devin. “We found the virus.”

F
oot forward, weight forward, stop and listen.

Foot forward, weight forward, stop and listen.

It worked for her when foraging for food in the markets of Sarajevo. It worked for her when hiding from the Serbian army in the mountainside as they searched for the half-Muslim Bosnian girl who killed six of their men.

It worked for her a week later, when she finally summoned the courage to sneak down from the mountains to her home.

A home that had burned to the ground. A two-story house, now little more than a heap of gray ash and rubble.

Next to it, her mother’s naked body, tied to a tree, her throat slashed open.

Two kilometers. Bach could run the distance in twelve minutes, even with this pack on her back. She could walk it in twenty. But it takes her almost forty minutes in this cautious, plodding fashion.

Along the way, little animals bounce out of her path, even a few deer, freezing in place on her approach, then bounding away. But no more coyotes, or whatever they were. Maybe word got out not to mess with the girl with the gun.

She hasn’t strayed far from the east side of the acreage, heading due north during her jaunt and sticking close to the lake’s shoreline. The patrols aren’t likely to come from that side but rather from the north, south, or west.

She reaches the tree, the thickest one she’s seen in these woods. Sixty feet high and two feet in diameter, she was told, which to her means about eighteen meters high and sixty centimeters wide. Tall and skinny.

This is where it will happen. This is where she will kill him.

Above her, the tree is thick with leaves and strong branches, easy to climb. But from the ground, there is nothing to latch onto. Full climbing gear—a lanyard, foot spikes—would be too cumbersome, too heavy to transport.

From her bag, she removes the cord of rope with a noose on one end. She throws it up over the lowest-hanging branch, a good four meters above ground—about thirteen feet high. It takes her three tries to get the noose end over the branch. Then she raises up the other side of the rope as the noose side lowers down to her.

Once she has it in her hand, she slides the straight end of the rope through the noose. Then she pulls down on the straight end slowly, careful to avoid any snags, as the noose end slowly rises again. On the branch, the two sides come together in a knot.

She puts on the backpack again, and the rifle, and grips the rope. She’ll need to do this fast. It’s a lot of weight to put on the branch, so the less time it takes, the better.

She takes a breath. Her nausea has subsided, but she is bone-tired, weary and shaky. She fantasizes about sleep, about stretching out her legs and closing her eyes.

Her team may have had a point about her going it alone. They wanted to deploy a force of ten or twelve in the woods. That would have been fine with her, but the risk was too great. She couldn’t know how heavy the patrols of the woods would be. It was hard enough for her to make it to her spot alone without incident. Multiply one person by twelve, and that’s a dozen different opportunities for detection. It would only take one mistake, one person who was too loud or clumsy, and the entire operation would be blown.

She looks around one more time, seeing nothing, hearing nothing.

She climbs the rope, inching upward, her arms straining, one hand over the other, legs scissored over the rope.

She’s just reaching for the branch when she hears it.

A noise, in the distance. Not the sound of small animals scurrying away. Not the low growl or angry bark of a predator.

Human voices, coming her way.

It’s a burst of laughter she first hears, then animated chatter, muted by distance.

Does she drop down and remove her sidearm? The rope would still be visible, dangling from a branch.

The voices get closer. More laughter.

She removes her feet from the rope and puts them taut against the tree to steady herself, feeling the strain of the branch. If she holds completely still, they may never see her. Movement draws the eye more than anything else, more than color or sound.

Still, if the tree branch snaps, the noise will be unmistakable.

She holds still, no small chore when suspended in the air, her arms straining, sweat dripping into her eyes.

She sees them now, two of them, through the trees to the west, semiautomatic weapons in their hands, their voices growing louder.

Her right hand lets go of the rope, moving to the grip of her sidearm.

She can’t dangle here forever. The branch won’t hold. And sooner or later, the one arm holding her up will give out, too.

She manages to pull her sidearm free.

They draw closer, not specifically walking in her direction—more of a southeasterly direction—but getting near. If she can see them, they can see her.

Trying to obscure the movement of the weapon, she holds it close to her side. She’ll have to take out both of them before they can rattle off a single round, before they can reach their radios.

And then she’ll have to figure out what happens next.

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