Destroyer 98: Target of Opportunity
By Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir
Everybody thought they recognized the man who tried to assassinate the President of the United States, but ten minutes after he left their sight, no one could remember his face.
The assassin had that kind of face. It was nondescript. Slight of build, vacant-eyed, weak-chinned, pasty-faced, he looked like a nobody. The quintessential nobody.
It was exactly his utter nobodyness that made him slip from memory as soon as he was out of sight.
Yet everyone who got a good look did a double take.
The desk clerk at the Government Center Holiday Inn in Boston, Massachusetts, found himself scrutinizing the man's receding hairline when he presented himself to the front desk, saying, "I have a reservation."
"May I have your confirmation number?" the desk clerk asked, fingers hovering over the reservation terminal.
"Number 334433," the man said from memory. His voice was neither high nor low, loud nor soft. Nor was it evenly modulated. He spoke with a nervous, halting tone.
When the man's name came up on the screen, the desk clerk failed to recognize it. It was only when he asked for the credit card that he looked more closely at the face. It was one of those new picture-ID credit cards. His face struck a chord in memory.
"Have you stayed with us before?" the clerk asked pleasantly.
"No," said the man. He did not look away. Nor did he meet the desk clerk's eyes. He was standing right there, but he seemed as conspicuous as the brass ashtrays that dotted the bright lobby. There but not there. Decoration. Unimportant-unless you had to get rid of a cigarette butt in a hurry.
"I thought you looked familiar, Mr.-" the clerk read the name off the credit card "-Hidell."
Alek Hidell said nothing when he accepted his credit card back.
The desk clerk banged the front bell and, as the bellboy bustled up to scoop up Alek Hidell's two suitcases, he watched Hidell walk toward the elevator, trying to place his face.
He looked so damn familiar . . . .
Then the elevator doors closed on his impassive, pasty features, the desk phone rang and the clerk put the man completely out of his mind.
He only recalled him again when the Secret Service showed up the next day. By then, it was too late to be a national hero.
ALEX HIDELL was next noticed riding in the back of the last car of a four-car Silverbird subway train as it rattled south through the Red Line tunnel between Charles Street Station and the JFK- UMass stop later that day. Noticed and dismissed from memory. Although several passengers looked twice at him as he sat swaying in his seat, clutching a shapeless duffel bag that bulged with something hard and angular. But almost everyone clutched something. It was the week before Christmas.
The driver of the shuttle bus to the University of Massachusetts Harbor Campus also looked twice when the nondescript Hidell boarded his bus just outside the JFK- UMass station.
I've seen that guy before, the driver thought to himself.
Five years of driving the shuttle bus between the JFK- UMass Red Line station and the college had brought him into contact with thousands of riders, most of them students and faculty. A familiar face unless it was a pretty one-shouldn't have caused his eyes to go to the interior rearview mirror all the time the nondescript passenger rode the bus. But this guy's face did.
He sat in the back, gazing out the window, lost in thought. There was a suggestion of a sly smile lingering on the passenger's lips. It was that, not the undershot jaw or dreamy eyes, that kept drawing the bus driver's gaze.
Where have I seen that guy before? he kept asking himself.
He looked fiftyish. Not too old to be a student, technically. But fiftyish students at UMass were comparatively rare. And he looked too vacant to be faculty. Even UMass faculty.
The little guy had never ridden the UMass shuttle. The driver was sure of that. This wasn't a passenger-I-haven't-seen-in-a-long-time experience, he decided. This was a guy-I-haven't-seen-since-high-school experience.
But the bus driver hadn't known the solitary passenger back in high school, either. Maybe grade school. Maybe that was it. He had known the passenger back in grade school before his jaw and hairline receded. Before the brownish hair that sat on his head like a disturbed wig had begun to thin out.
But much as he tried, the bus driver couldn't put a name to the annoyingly familiar face.
The shuttle bus trundled off Morrissey Boulevard and up the lone access road to the imposing complex of chocolate brown brick buildings that comprised the University of Massachusetts at Boston. It came to a stop in the sheltered concrete trough between the administration building and the parking garage under the elevated campus plaza.
The passenger got up and left the bus by the rear door, stepping through to the steel door to the underground garage so quickly he was hardly noticed.
In that brief span of time, the driver followed him with his eyes. Even his jerky walk rang a dim memory bell.
Then the bus filled with departing students and faculty, and the driver closed the doors and continued on his monotonously circuitous route.
By the time he pulled out into the daylight of Columbia Point and the John F. Kennedy library, he had put the disturbingly familiar passenger out of his mind.
NO ONE NOTICED Alek Hidell as he strode through the ill-lighted underground parking garage to the elevator marked Science Center. He waited patiently for the elevator and rode it to the top floor, then worked his way through the narrow corridors until he came to the rooftop greenhouse, a pair of Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses blocking his eyes.
The warm, moist air smacked him in the face when he opened the door. By that time he was already sweating anyway.
A denim-clad woman looked up from tending rows of Christmas cactus. "Yes?" she said.
"Secret Service," he said, flashing a gold badge clipped to his wallet. "You'll have to vacate."
"This spot makes a perfect sniper's nest. We're sealing it off."
"Now? The President isn't due until tomorrow."
"Now," said Alek Hidell.
The young woman gathered up her purse and books, saying, "Will I be able to water my plants tomorrow?"
"Could you water them for me?"
"I'll think about it," said Alek Hidell, shutting and locking the greenhouse door after her.
When the elevator doors ran shut, he stripped off his coat and shirt and hunkered down on the tile floor in his undershirt. Extracting the sections of his rifle from his duffel bag, he began assembling the weapon.
When it was all together, he took an oily rag and began polishing it, his pouty lower lip growing moist in the close humid air.
He was still polishing it the next morning when a Secret Service agent stepped off the elevator. Hidell ditched the rifle under a shelf and went to the greenhouse door where the agent stood, his face like a rock behind his impenetrable sunglasses.
"'You'll have to vacate this area," the agent said, flashing his gold badge. "Security precaution."
"Make me," Hidell said in a self-effacing tone.
"I didn't catch that," the agent said, leaning forward.
"I said, 'Make me.'"
The agent's face gathered around the edges of his Ray-Ban Aviators like a wet rag wrinkling up. He stepped into the greenhouse, his right wrist lifting to his mouth. He never got a chance to speak into the flesh-colored wrist mike.
Alek Hidell whipped the rifle from the concealing shelf and shot the agent square in the nose. The slug came out the back of the agent's head. He stumbled back and when he hit the tile, Hidell finished him off with a second shot to the throat.
When he stepped from the greenhouse roof, he was wearing the agent's blue windbreaker with SECRET SERVICE stenciled on the back in white block letters, sunglasses, and belt radio and earphone.
Hidell stood on the eastern coping of the roof and looked down at the starkly abstract black-and-white compound of the Kennedy Library poised on the brink of Columbia Point, where the Atlantic lapped gray and cold.
The press was already gathered. Microwave TV vans spilled miles of thick cable everywhere. Satellite dishes pointed to the winter sky. And, of course, Secret Service agents, unmistakable in their Ray-Bans, moved about with brisk authority.
Rifle at his feet, Alek Hidell waited patiently, the cold breeze off the Atlantic worrying his faded hair, listening to Secret Service communications.
"Point of entry secure."
"Access road is now clear of traffic."
"Library roof checks out."
"Science roof okay," said Alek Hidell into his wrist mike.
"Okay. Stay sharp. Stagecoach is turning onto access road. Repeat, Stagecoach is turning onto access road."
"About time," Hidell muttered under his breath.
A minute later three black Lincoln Continental limousines came up the perimeter road to the entrance to the Kennedy Library. The waiting crowd grew still. A wintry wind seemed to pick up.
And Alek Hidell lay down on the edge of the roof and cradled his rifle in his arms. He put his right eye to the cheap Japanese scope, his finger on the trigger, and tracked the middle limo-the one flying the presidential flags-with cool confidence.
When the three limos eased to a stop before the entrance, his earphone crackled, "Get set. Big Mac is about to step out. Repeat, Big Mac is about to step out."
"Make it easy for me," Hidell muttered, putting the cross hairs of his scope on the dead area where the rear curbside door would open.
Then it opened.
"Big Mac stepping out now. Watch your zones."
A familiar helmet of thick steel-wool hair lifted into the cross hairs and Alek Hidell squeezed the trigger carefully.
The helmet of hair erupted in a pink-and-gray flower of exploding blood and brains.
"He's been shot! Alert Mass General!"
"Sniper on roof! Repeat, sniper on roof! Everybody get down! Get down now!"
Everybody got down on the plaza, fearing another shot.
But there was no second shot. Just the echoes of the single rifle shot reverberating between the great buildings of the University of Massachusetts, and the answering cries of disturbed scavenger sea gulls.
"For the love of God!" a shocked Secret Service voice said over the air. "It's Dallas all over again!"
"You can say that again," said Alek Hidell, leaving his rifle on the roof as he quickly and quietly reentered the Science Center.
On the roof a single shell casing lay smoking. And scratched into the shiny brass were two letters: RX.
His name was Remo and he stifled a yawn as the agent at the Mavis Car Rental counter tried to assure him that yes, while the city of Furioso, Florida, is as safe as can be, prudent tourists took precautions before driving into the city.
"What kind of precautions?" Remo wondered, hoping to cut off the droning spiel.
"For one thing, we suggest that our customers do not dress in touristy garb when driving into the city."
Remo looked down at his clothes. He was wearing a black T-shirt and matching black pants. Italian loafers enclosed his sockless feet.
"This," he asked, "is touristy?"
"Actually you're fine in the garb department, sir."
"I always thought so," Remo said good-naturedly.
"We also suggest you store all luggage in the trunk of your rental vehicle. No stacks of conspicuous luggage piled in the rear seat where they might be spotted by urban predators."
"Is that what they call them down here?"
"That's what the City of Furioso safety brochure calls them," said the rental agent, pulling a pastel-colored pamphlet from a plastic holder and offering it to Remo.
"The salient points are inside," he added.
"So why are you running them down for me?" asked Remo.
"Company policy. A lot of adults can't read these days. Lawsuits, you know."
"Lawsuits I know about," said Remo, opening the brochure.
It was festooned with palm trees and pastel bikinis. The Sorcerer's Castle and other famous attractions belonging to the nearby theme park called Sam Beasley World were splashed around the twenty points of safety.
Nowhere in the pamphlet was there any mention that renting a car and driving it from the lot and into the city was an open invitation to be slaughtered.
"It says here not to drive in through International Drive," Remo pointed out.
"Actually that's been updated. It's I-4 that's unsafe now."
Remo looked up.
"Urban predators read, too. Some of them."
"Excuse me, chump," a surly voice said at Remo's side. And a long brown arm reached under Remo's elbow to slip a pamphlet from the plastic holder. "Gotta have one of these here brochures."
Remo felt the butterfly touch on his wallet, which he carried in his right front pants pocket because pickpockets had the hardest time reaching into it undetected.
Remo stepped back, bringing the heel of one hand-tooled Italian loafer down on the instep of the would-be pickpocket with deceptively gentle force. Like a jigsaw puzzle held together by tough ligaments, foot bones began separating along every fault line, and the pickpocket yelped and kept yelping until Remo released the foot.
"Hey, man, what your damn foot made out of anyways? Lead?"
The pickpocket was hopping on his good foot while clutching his other Reebok with both hands. Blood seeped up around the laces with each hop.
The pickpocket saw the blood seepage and rolled onto his back the way Remo had seen hip-hoppers drop to the sidewalk to spin in place.
This man didn't spin. He began screaming that he was going to sue everybody in a fifty-foot radius for inflicting personal injury, emotional carnage and "expensive stuff like that there."
To quiet him, Remo nudged his skull with the toe of the same foot that had rearranged his foot bones. He began spinning. And screaming.
"Happy to oblige," Remo said as the rental-booth door was opened by a second possible urban predator. He gave the spinning man another nudge, which sent him spinning like a top out the door and onto a moving escalator.
"What his problem?" the newly arrived possible urban predator wanted to know as his head snapped from the escalator to Remo and back again.
"He tried to pick the wrong pocket," said Remo.
"What pocket is that?"
The possible urban predator-Remo had sized him up by the steely 9 mm bulge in the crotch of his baggy pants pocket-did a double take, pretended to look at the red Mavis sign on the glass door again and said, "Oh. This be Mavis. I want Burtz. They number two and try harder."
"You were saying?" Remo asked, turning his attention back to the rental agent.
"You shouldn't have done that."
"All he wanted was your wallet."
"And all I wanted was to keep my wallet."
"He might sue."
"He might," Remo agreed.
A screech came from the vicinity of the escalator. "My damn leg! It caught in the fucking escalator! I'm gonna damn sue some sonna bitch over this."
"Just as long as he doesn't sue me," said Remo, grinning. And put out his hand for the keys.
"I need to finish telling you about the safety problems," the agent said.
"I have the pamphlet, remember?"
The agent plowed on anyway. "If, while driving from the airport, you are rammed from behind or someone attempts to run you off the road, under no circumstances should you stop your vehicle. Or if you are forced to halt, do not exit your vehicle."
"Got it," said Remo, signing the credit card slip.
"Your car will be waiting in the lot. For your personal safety our tags are no longer emblazoned with the Mavis corporate logo."
"How many Mavis renters bought the farm before the front office decided on that innovation?" asked Remo.
"When our rentals dropped thirty percent in one month," admitted the rental agent.
On his way to the rental lot, Remo stopped to buy six of the biggest pieces of luggage he could find, in bright red leather, an I'm Going to Sam Beasley World T-shirt and a yellow Day-Glo Welcome to Florida acrylic baseball cap.
He carried them balanced on one upright palm in a stack that teetered right, then left, then right again and threatened to fall countless times but never did because the stack, precarious as it was, had become one with his perfectly balanced body.
At the foot of the escalator Remo paused only to step on the free hand of the urban predator who had earlier tried to pick his pocket and was now trying to free a baggy pant leg from the stalled escalator treads.
Under the brief pressure of Remo's foot, the metacarpals became the base ingredient of gelatin.
"You again. Damn, I gonna sue you ass off."
"Have your lawyer call my lawyer," Remo called cheerily.
"What your lawyer's damn name?"
"Alan Dershowitz. And don't let him tell you any different."
Remo walked out of the airport and into the morning humidity of Florida, whistling. He was a tall lean man with dark deep-set eyes, high cheekbones, a cruel mouth and wrists like railroad ties.
The car was waiting for him, and to the horror of the lot attendant, Remo stacked the red leather tourist luggage in the back seat until it resembled a Lucite luggage rack, put on his yellow Welcome to Florida baseball cap and drew the colorful Sam Beasley World T-shirt over his own.
"Sir, I would not recommend doing that."
Remo slid behind the wheel. "Which is I-4?"
The attendant pointed to an exit. "That one. Whatever you do, don't take it into the city dressed as you are. Take International Drive or the Beeline Expressway."
"Thanks," said Remo, tooling the car out of the lot and onto Interstate 4.
He drove slowly, taking his time. After all, he had two or three hours until Sam Beasley World opened, and there were more interesting things to do than sit around a stuffy hotel room.
Like his job.
As he cruised along I-4, Remo wondered what his job was anymore.
He hadn't filled out a 1040 since the day over twenty years ago when the state of New Jersey had pronounced a death sentence on him and taken away his past life with a single jolt of low-amperage electricity while he sat strapped in the electric chair, a Newark cop convicted of a murder he had never committed. After that day Remo Williams ceased to exist, to his friends and the Internal Revenue Service alike.
Had he been obliged to fill out a 1040 every April, Remo would have written "assassin" in the space designated occupation.
He was no run-of-the-mill assassin. He was America's secret assassin-or had been until he had quit CURE, the supersecret government agency that had framed him in the first place. His job-when he had been employed-was to serve as the sanctioned killer arm of CURE, an organization that had been set up in the early 1960s by a young President who, ironically enough, had himself succumbed to an assassin's bullet.
Remo was not an assassin the way the man who had murdered that President had been an assassin. That guy was a loner, a loser and flake. And he used a rifle.
Remo carried no weapon. He was a weapon. His entire body had been trained to the ultimate in human achievement. The key was the human brain. Scientists had long ago figured out that the average person used barely ten percent of his brainpower. It was like using one lobe of one lung to breathe-which is how most people actually breathed when you got right down to it.
Long before there were scientists to discover this deficiency, the head of an obscure fishing village in what was now called North Korea had discovered this truth and learned to unlock the limitless potential of the human machine.
He had been the first Master of Sinanju. His descendants, of whom Remo was a spiritual if not blood heir, had been trained by the Masters of Sinanju who followed in his awesome footsteps.
The House of Sinanju had been the secret power behind the great thrones of the ancient world, and now in the modern world it stood unknown, unseen and unstoppable beside the leader of the greatest nation in human history in the person of Remo Williams, who had been trained by the last pure-blooded Master.
For twenty years, he had served America and its Presidents, good and bad, honest and not, through CURE, a secret offshoot of the executive branch.
No more. There were some loose ends to tie upnamely the question of his own ancestry, since Remo had been an orphan-but after they were taken care of, he was a free agent. No more CURE. No more Harold W Smith, who ran it. No more running his tail off dealing with America's increasingly unsolvable problems.
Of course, there were some problems Remo considered worth solving.
Like the problem of tourist murders in Florida.
It has gotten so that every week there was a new dead Florida tourist. It was bad for America's image, the President had complained to the press. Bad for Florida tourism, the governor had added. Remo Williams didn't care about America's image or Florida's tourist industry any more than he cared about John Wayne Bobbitt's prospects for romantic bliss.
Innocent tourists he cared about.
Which is why, since he was already on his way to Sam Beasley World to tie up a loose end, Remo didn't mind dealing with it.
Trouble was, no one was taking the bait. Remo turned on the radio and found some Barry Manilow music and cranked it up full blast. Maybe that would draw flies. It sounded treacly enough.
Remo got all the way into the city of Furioso without being rammed from behind, sideswiped or car-jacked. The disappointment showed on his strongboned face.
He found a turnoff and sped back to the airport.
"I have a complaint," Remo told the rental parking-lot attendant as he got out.
"The car is not satisfactory?" said the attendant, who didn't know what surprised him most, the complaint or the fact that the customer was still living.
"It is not."
"What appears to be wrong with it?"
"Too inconspicuous," said Remo.
The lot attendant blinked.
Remo looked around the lot. He pointed. "I want that one."
In a far corner of the lot was a car identical to the one Remo had just driven back, except that it was Christmas red.
"It's the same."
"I like the color better."
"Oh, I can't let you have that one. It has an old tag on it."
"Looks fine to me," said Remo.
"But, sir, the tag says Mavis Rental Agency. You'd stick out like a sore-"
The attendant looked at Remo in his Day-Glo outfit, the red leather luggage that crammed the entire back seat, and swallowed the rest of whatever he was going to say.
"I want it," Remo insisted. "I'm the customer, and the customer-"
"-is always right," the attendant echoed. Wearily he handed Remo the keys.
"Mind transferring my luggage?" asked Remo. "I forgot to buy paint."
The attendant was only too happy to comply and help a tourist in the last sweet minutes of his foolish life, and when Remo came back he stood idly by while Remo shook a can of orange safety paint and inscribed the word TOURIST on the sides and rear window of the rental car.
Remo stepped back, admiring the way the vibrant orange letters clashed with the red body paint.
"How's that look?"
"Loud," the attendant said. "But it suits you, actually," he added with a glassy smile.
"See you on the trip back," said Remo, getting in.
"It's the Christmas season, and miracles do happen," the lot attendant said weakly as Remo drove off again, fodder for the next morning's tragic headlines.
This time Remo had no problems. He hadn't gone an eighth of a mile when a blue Camaro, shedding a purple neon glow from tubes bolted under the Chassis, blasted in behind him and accelerated.
Remo relaxed a fraction of a second ahead of the jolt of bumper meeting bumper. Most people tensed up. That was how bones were broken. Remo's fully working brain, one of only two in these last years of the twentieth century, told him to relax. And he moved in his seat with the jolt, breaking nothing.
A massive arm gesticulated by his side mirror.
"You! Pull over. Gotta exchange insurance papers witchu. "
"Happy to oblige," Remo said to himself, and pulled off an exit and into a gas station that had succumbed to urban blight. There were no pumps, plywood covered the windows, and weeds grew up from cracks in the broken asphalt.
Two probable urban predators popped out of the Camaro. Remo tagged them as probable because they came out holding Tec-9s, one hand on the grip and the other clutching the lower end of a ruler-straight 50round clip jutting from the magazine receiver.
They held the pistols before them like mechanical scythes.
"Give us whatchu got!" one grunted.
Out of the open passenger window sailed Remo's baseball cap and the can of orange safety paint. They landed at the feet of the armed youth.
"Your wallet, fool!" one snarled.
"My wallet's mine," said Remo, opening the door and stepping out. "And you wouldn't shoot a guy over his wallet."
"Wrong. We gangstas!" the other spat.
One Tec-9 came up to shoulder height and began popping.
Remo wove wide of the sudden storm of bullets. The weapons were equipped with hellfire switches that sprang the triggers back into firing position, giving the ticky-tacky weapons an extra edge.
Which in this case was absolutely none at all.
While the hapless rental car began collecting washerlike perforations along its paint job, Remo swept in on the blind side of the nearest definite urban predator. In the strict sense, all sides were blind sides when a ordinary man armed only with a bullet-spewing handgun took on a Master of Sinanju.
The first attacker was still looking at the afterimage of his intended victim poised before the open car door when Remo's right index finger entered his left temple and came out again in a single pumping motion.
Brain function ceased immediately, and he fell on his weapon.
This put the second man at Remo's mercy. He had started firing late and so still had a quarter clip left. Remo hated to see all those bullets go to waste so he slipped up and under the popping barrel that was threaded to accept a silencer and turned the soft part of the gunman's throat into an organic silencer.
The barrel lifted suddenly, came into contact with the underside of a slack jaw, and seven Black Talon rounds entered soft flesh and removed the upper quadrant of the man's head in a single mass like a raspberry pie.
The rest of him fell flat. He landed on his back, and after a few seconds the falling top of his head snacked his face.
Remo returned to the perforated rental car after spraying an orange safety circle around the two dead bodies and then bisecting them with a diagonal slash of paint. A minute later he was back on the highway.
A mile farther along a battered gray van pulled up alongside Remo's car, and a voice insisted that Remo's wallet be tossed into the broad palm that floated between both vehicles.
"If I throw it, I might miss," said Remo.
"Don't miss, else I won't miss," a broad face behind the broad hand growled, displaying the perforated barrel of yet another Tec-9.
"That's a popular make around these parts," Remo commented.
"She be made in Miami."
"Always buy American, I say."
White teeth flashed in the broad face, and the broad palm shook for emphasis.
Remo shrugged and said, "I didn't know my wallet was so popular."
"Fuck the wallet. It's what be in it. And I want it in my fucking hand."
Remo slipped the wallet from his pocket, fingered out the money and ID cards and slapped the empty billfold into the hovering hand.
The hand looked strong enough to support a two-by-four, never mind a soft leather wallet, but the wallet somehow slipped to the speeding highway. Two of the man's four fingers slipped with it, along with his severed thumb.
The man screamed with dull shock as he realized he was shy three fingers and a stranger's wallet.
"My damn fingers! Where'd they go to?"
"If you turn around quick," Remo said helpfully, "you might get them to the hospital in time to get them sewn back on."
"They sew fingers back on, too? I thought that only worked with dicks."
"If you don't hurry, they're going to have to sew your dick onto one of those stumps for a thumb."
The broad man began shouting at his driver, "Turn around! Damn it! Turn around before my damn fingers get run over. I don't want no fucking dick for a thumb."
The van accelerated, and Remo decided to let them both live. Advertising usually paid.
The next attempt to rip him off came disguised as a silver Cadillac. It was shiny with chrome and meticulously kept up. So when it veered in front of Remo and abruptly slowed down, rather than break slowly to minimize an unavoidable crash, Remo accelerated.
The entire rear deck crumpled. Remo backed up, and as the driver jumped out screaming his rage, Remo jammed it again for good measure, destroying the vestigial spare tire.
"Look what you done to my fucking damn car!" the driver screamed.
"You stopped short in front of me," Remo pointed out politely.
"I stopped short just to hold you up, motherfuck. Not to total my wheels. I just stole this baby today."
"Tough. You do the crime, you gotta do the time."
"Time? This ain't about time! Oh, man, lookit my damn wheels."
And while the driver was all but tearing his hair out, Remo took the can of orange spray paint he had recovered from the gas station grounds and carefully drew the circle-and-diagonal-slash "No" sign on the undamaged hood of the Cadillac.
The driver gaped at this casual act of vandalism with disbelieving eyes.
"What you do that for?" he blurted.
"It's my mark," Remo said casually.
"What're you, fucking Zorro?"
"Don't use profanity in the same sentence as Zorro. The Sam Beasley people might overhear and sue you for defamation of copyright."
"You're paying for that."
"If you want my wallet, the last dipshit probably has it by now."
A knife came out. Remo was almost disappointed. The thief might as well have pulled a plantain. But Remo let him take his best shot.
The definite urban predator came in low, going for Remo's seemingly exposed belly. It would have been a perfect disemboweling stroke, a lateral rip calculated to split Remo's abdominal wall into a clown grin, letting his tightly packed intestines come tumbling out.
It never landed, because Remo drove the heel of one shoe into the man's definitely exposed belly.
The man stopped, grunted and turned green. He dropped his knife, the better to clutch his stomach. It felt strangely hollow in his mauling hands, the strong abdominal wall flapping like a loose plastic window shade. He doubled over.
When the awful smell emanating from the seat of his pants reached his quivering nose, the knife man muttered, "I think I done shit my pants."
"Better check to be sure."
"I ain't shit my pants since I was little."
The knife man was definitely greener now and still doubled over. He hobbled over to the side of the road, where he gingerly removed his soiled pants.
When he turned around, the knife man saw the gray slimy ropes hanging out his backside and asked, "What's my damn guts doing on the outside of me?"
Remo shrugged casually. "You tried to disembowel me. I returned the favor."
"I didn't see no knife."
"There's more than one way to disembowel a cat," said Remo, finishing the job by driving a knuckle into the empty cavity of the knife man's stomach and shattering his lower spine.
The knife man made a messy pile when he sat down forever.
Whistling, Remo painted a circle around his body and ran the diagonal slash across it, intestines and all, before driving off.
"Remo Williams," he said in a bright announcer's voice, "you just snuffed half the car-jackers in Furioso, Florida. What are you going to do now?"
In his own natural voice, he replied, "I'm going to Sam Beasley World."
Flanked by a running roadblock of caterwauling blue-and-gray Massachusetts State Police cars, the Presidential motorcade raced away from the University of Massachusetts at high speed, lights flashing in alternation. Scurrying traffic crowded to the side of the road. Police and Army helicopters buzzed overhead like protective dragonflies.
No one noticed the weaving white Ford Aerostar van as it scooted down the opposite lane to turn up the UMass access road.
If they had, they couldn't have failed to notice the driver. Or the bulky virtual-reality helmet encasing his head like a sensory-deprivation sphere.
Despite the fact that he couldn't see past the helmet's blank eyephone goggles, the driver slid up the curving access road without scraping a fender.
"You're almost there," a voice inside the VR helmet said softly.
"This is so neat," the driver burbled. "It feels exactly like I'm driving a real car in the real world in real time."
"Pay attention to the mission, not the technology, " the soft voice told him. "You are in a totally immersive experience which requires absolute concentration."
"Got it. What was all that commotion back there?"
"You have entered the action phase of the experience."
"Great. No offense, but except for the high-res graphics, it's been a pretty uneventful ride so far."
"Did you notice anything unusual about the motorcade?"
"Yeah, they were hauling ass to beat the band."
"The President has just been shot."
"You and only you can find the assassin hiding in the brick buildings directly ahead of you."
"Good game concept."
"That is the parking-garage entrance on your left. Drive in there."
"Shouldn't I be making my own decisions?"
"You can try the branching nodes later. The clock is ticking. Here is the game scenario. Rogue CIA and Secret Service elements are trying to get to the assassin first. If they succeed, the cover-up will begin and the American people will never know the terrible truth."
"Count on me," said the driver, flooring the accelerator.
It was incredible, from the authentic sound of a racing six-cylinder engine to the acoustics that changed as soon as he slid into the virtual-reality underground parking garage beneath the illusionary University of Massachusetts.
"This is really cool," he blurted. "I actually smell stale car exhaust."
"The Jaunt VR System has a forty-thousand-facsimile olfactory library. We call the process 0lfax.
"Olfactory library. Sensurround sound. Vehicle simulation. Your guys have put together the VR system for the twentyfirst century here. Damn! Everything looks, smells, sounds and feels real. Really real."
"The Jaunt System has achieved seventy-five million polygons per second of resolution. Mere reality is estimated at eighty million polygons."
"Let me tell you," the driver said, parking the car in the nearly empty garage. "You can't hardly notice those missing five million polygons."
"Do not forget your weapon. You'll find it in the glove box."
The driver turned his insectlike head. The glove compartment popped open and revealed a revolver clipped to the panel. He picked it up. It felt real. Probably was.
"This is only a dinky little .38," he said in disappointment.
"Stuffed with Devastator bullets. Perfect for your mission."
"You could have at least included a laser targeting system."
"Make sure you write that on the survey questionnaire when the simulation is over."
"You bet," said the driver, stepping out of the car. He began walking, tentatively at first and with greater confidence as the computer-generated surroundings responded to his presence.
As seen through the eyephone goggles, everything about the game was incredibly real. Oh, there were electronic glitches here and there, but on the whole the fidelity was excellent. Even the close air of the "garage" smelled stuffy. You couldn't beat it for realism.
Except with reality itself.
And who cared about reality when by simply donning a senses-blocking head-mounted display, you could become whoever you wanted, do whatever you wanted and conquer any challenge-if you made the right decisions.
IN HIS THIRTY-ODD YEARS on earth, Bud Coggins had hardly ever made the correct decision. Not in school, not in work and certainly not in his personal life. As a consequence, he had gotten his fill of reality. He was too short, too fat, too balding and too poor to make reality work for him.
Games he could work. Standing behind an arcade video game, Coggins beat the youngest kid at Sonic Hedgehog II six times out of seven. A dozen years of playing every video game known to man had developed in Bud Coggins the lightning reflexes of a fifteen-year-old. The games had come and gone over the years. In the arcades and in home systems. Atari. Intellivision. Nintendo. Sega Genesis. Trio CD-ROM. There was no game he hadn't played, from Pong to Myst. Mortal Kombat to Lovecraft Is Missing. Give him a joystick, trakball or lightgun, and Bud Coggins could hit the target each and every time.
When the first virtual-reality systems came in, Bud got very excited. He soon fell into a deep depression because tending bar for eight-fifty an hour didn't pile up the money fast enough to pay for a ten-thousand-dollar personal VR game system.
But there were still ways. Trade shows. Public demonstrations. Anyplace Bud Coggins could score a free ride, he did. And because he adapted to virtual reality better than mundane actuality, the invitations kept coming in the mail.
Right now the game was called Ruby. And Bud had been selected by computer to be the first person in the history of the universe to play it. That was what the four-color invitational brochure had said. Bud Coggins had only to call a number and make an appointment.
A soft voice on the telephone had told him to come to an office park in South Boston, the site of the testing lab of Jaunt Systems, inventors of the only seventy-five-million-polygon totally immersive virtualreality gaming system on earth.
Bud had felt like an F-22 Stealth fighter pilot when they strapped him into a white Ford Aerostar van that was sitting off the concrete floor on big rubber rollers. That was so the tires would roll freely when he hit the gas, they had explained.
Once he was strapped in, they set the VR helmet on his grinning head and all went black.
When the eyephones came to life, Bud was looking at the same concrete warehouse interior he had entered. It was just as dingy, just as ill lit, and the three VR technicians were just as shadowy. All wore sunglasses, just like real life.
"Nothing's changed," he complained.
"You are not looking at reality, " a soft voice in his VR helmet had informed him. "You are looking at Ruby."
"The Mortal Kombat of VR game simulations. It will look, taste, sound and feel absolutely real. And in order to properly evaluate this experimental system, you must drive as if you are driving in Boston traffic."
"Good challenge," said Bud Coggins, who drove in Boston traffic every day. It was said when Parisian taxi drivers congregated to swap stories about the worst drivers in the world, they invariably threw up their hands at the mention of Boston drivers.
"Got it," says Bud Coggins, clutching the steering wheel and wondering if the new-car smell in his lungs was from the Aerostar upholstery or VR generated.
"We will see everything you see via our remote console. Do you have any questions?"
"Great. Why is the game called Ruby?"
"That will become clear as the game scenario progresses. You may start your engine now."
Bud Coggins had fired up the engine. The car simulator revved up nicely, vibrating comfortably when he left it in neutral.
"You may exit the warehouse."
Coggins released the brake, pumping the gas. There was a bump, and the warehouse surroundings fell behind the van, which seemed to be actually moving.
"That was one hell of a bump," he said aloud. "It felt like I came off the rollers."
"Sorry. Must be a bug in the software controlling the multiaccess motion-simulator seat. Is the helmet still functioning?"
"Yep. Good thing it's padded. Think I banged it on the roof."
"You are going to Dorchester."
Bud turned left onto Morrissey Boulevard, and the soft voice inside the VR helmet kept him busy with questions while impressing upon him the need to avoid jostling the delicate VR gear packed in the back of the van.
"Drive as if the cars around you are real, Bud. Avoid reckless driving. Do not call attention to yourself. "
Bud Coggins enjoyed the high-adrenaline sensations of driving through virtual Boston traffic. The other drivers were honking and cursing at him without any justifiable reason, just as they would in real life.
"People kept staring at me," he remarked at one point.
"Ignore them. Trust no one. "
"Is that important to the game?"
"People stare at other drivers. It's simply part of the natural feel we've given Ruby."
At one point Coggins lowered his window and stuck his hand out. The cold air blew through his fingers just as it would in true expressway traffic.
"Amazing," he had said over and over again. "I am fully, totally, absolutely immersed in virtual reality."
BUD COGGINS was still thinking that as he crept through the simulated underground parking garage of the University of Massachusetts, stalking a Presidential assassin who could be anybody with only a .38 revolver.
"Bud, the concrete posts are color coded. You are looking for the yellow-orange section."
"It's just ahead," said Bud, voice tightening in anticipation.
An elevator door slid open, and Coggins whirled in time to see the too-obvious figure of a Secret Service agent carrying a MAC-11.
The agent saw him, but was too slow. Coggins lifted, sighted and fired once. The agent went down, his weapon unfired.
"I got him. I got him!"
"Don't shout. It will attract others. Remember all real-world scenarios have been programmed in."
"Right, right," said Bud Coggins, stepping over the body and marveling at the metallic scent of blood that tickled his nostrils.
"Take his belt radio, " the voice in the helmet instructed.
"That will help me track the renegade Secret Service guys, right?"
"Their quarry is your quarry. It is important that you find the assassin before they do."
Kneeling, Coggins stripped the corpse of the radio set and put it on, following the instructions of the helmet voice. There was a port in the helmet for the Secret Service earphone jack. It fit perfectly. The body felt so real Bud wondered if one of the technicians hadn't lain down on the warehouse floor to play dead Secret Service agent.
When he arose, Bud could hear realistic-sounding radio conversation.
"Suspect spotted on roof of Science Center."
"Roger. Seal off all entrances and exits."
"Did you hear that?" Coggins asked the voice.
"Yes. Go to the Science Center," the VR-helmet voice said.
Coggins searched the signs until he found one that pointed the way. He rode the elevator up two floors and got off.
And stepped right into an ambush.
There were two Secret Service agents crouching before double doors signaling to one another as if about to kick in the doors.
They heard the sound of the elevator door open, started turning-and Bud Coggins got off two shots a fraction of a second apart.
Both agents went down, painting the door with their blood.
"Looks like they had the suspect cornered behind those doors," Bud muttered. There was a sign that said Herbert Lipke Auditorium.
"It's an auditorium. Shit. I have only three shots left and I have to track the suspect in a theater."
"You are allowed to acquire any weapons you find along the way," the helmet voice instructed.
"Good," said Coggins, picking up a fallen Delta Elite automatic. With a weapon in each hand, he eased one of the double doors open.
The theater was dark. The seats appeared empty. Three bays of red-covered seats sloped down toward the stage at a steep angle, backed by a horseshoe-shaped pinewood backstop.
Hunkering low, Bud Coggins began to move down one aisle, sweeping his pistol muzzles from side to side. If anything moved in these deep shadows, he was going to get it before it got him.
The curving ranks of seats fell behind with every step. All were empty. He was holding in his breath so that if he had to fire he could exhale with the shot, the way the pros did it. Coggins had picked up a lot of pointers over his stellar career of playing electronic games.
The voice in his helmet was quiet now. He could hear tense breathing, and knowing it wasn't his own, realized that the control technician was just as excited as he was.
This was a great game. Still couldn't figure out why it was called Ruby. Then again, he never understood why Tetris was called Tetris.
The doors on either side of the stage blew open under the hard shoulders of sunglassed men with guns.
Flashlights blazed and a voice cried, "Freeze! Don't move! Secret Service! Don't move!"
Coggins dropped to one knee, waiting. Had they seen him?
And the agents converged on a man who had been sitting in the front row, waiting in sinister silence.
The man stood up. His back was to the seat rows. He was short and slight and might have been some harmless professor of astronomy waiting to expound on the top quark.
The Secret Service agents treated him like a coiled asp.
"Keep your hands where they are!"
"I'm not resisting!" the man shouted suddenly. "I'm not resisting arrest!"
A human wave, they converged on him, threw him to the floor and cuffed him. He submitted without a struggle.
"You are under arrest for attempting to assassinate the President of the United States," an out-of-breath Secret Service agent said.
"I didn't assassinate anybody," the man said in a nervous voice. "I'm a patsy."
When they hauled him to his feet again, someone hit the lights. Everybody got a good look at the assassin then. Except Bud.
"Holy shit!" an agent exploded. "He's wearing one of our countersniper windbreakers."
"I don't recognize him," another said.
"He's not from the Boston office," said a third.
"Still, this guy looks vaguely familiar," a fourth agent said.
"We'll sort it out later. Let's get him out of here."
They spun the handcuffed prisoner around and marched him roughly up the aisle.
Bud Coggins ducked behind the pine barrier and watched the knot of men approach, their captive stumbling before them, his pasty face sweaty and drained of blood.
"Did I fail?" he whispered into his helmet.
"No. Do you see the man's face?"
"Does he look familiar to you?"
"Yeah. Yeah, he does! But I can't place him."
"Then here is a clue. The name of the game is Ruby. You are Ruby, Bud Coggins. Do you understand now? You are Ruby."
And Bud Coggins understood perfectly. He came out from behind the pinewood barrier in a marksman's crouch and shouted, "Oswald! You killed my President!" He then emptied the contents of both guns into the handcuffed prisoner. The man gave out a groan, twisted on his feet and sprawled on the carpeted aisle.
A storm of return fire tore into Bud Coggins's wildly pounding heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, liver and most importantly, his '7R helmet. It cracked open like an Easter egg.
As he lay broken and bleeding in the cavernous auditorium, looking at the real world through real eyes, Bud Coggins smiled through his pain.
This Ruby is a great game, he thought. He felt totally, absolutely, scarily immersed in the experience of dying.
And then he did die. Happily. He had been the first human being to play Ruby and he had won first time out.
Remo Williams cruised past the entrance to Sam Beasley World.
It looked exactly the way he remembered it. Before it had fallen into the biggest sinkhole in Florida history, that is. Pennants chattered in the wind, and colorful bunting everywhere proclaimed Have a Beasley Christmas.
Two years ago an armed invasion of Cuba had brought Remo to the Cuban-exile community of Miami on the trail of the mastermind attempting to destabilize the island nation. The trail led, of all places, to Sam Beasley World, where Remo had discovered an underground installation in which preparations were under way for a second assault using animatronic soldiers under the command of the legendary animator and theme-park operator, Uncle Sam Beasley.
It was hard to judge which was more fantastic: that the Sam Beasley Corporation, with theme parks in several nations, would try to overthrow the Castro government in order to establish a tax-free world headquarters and theme park in the Caribbean; or that the mastermind was none other than Uncle Sam himself, who was supposed to have died in the mid-1960s.
Eventually Remo and his mentor, Chiun, had gone to Cuba to head off the second invasion. In the process they had captured Uncle Sam alive. Normally disposing of a problem like Uncle Sam would have been easy. Remo was sanctioned to kill in the name of national security. Except that Remo had grown up watching "The Marvelous World of Sam Beasley" and had been a huge fan. The Master of Sinanju, too, had a soft spot for the defrosted animation genius.
So they had spirited him to Folcroft Sanitarium, the CURE cover installation, where Uncle Sam was stripped of his hydraulic hand and cybernetic eyeball. Then he'd been installed in a rubber room to live out the rest of his natural life, which, considering that he had been given an animatronic heart in addition to the other cyborg parts, could mean a hundred years or so.
Uncle Sam had recently escaped, and for three months Dr. Smith had been trying to track him down. No luck. The CURE computers were down, leaving the organization virtually blind except for human intelligence.
So every few weeks Remo would infiltrate a part of the Sam Beasley empire looking for him. Now that it was completely rebuilt, it was time to hit Sam Beasley World in Furioso, Florida, once again. It was no fun, but it beat putting up with the snotty French at Euro Beasley.
Remo parked in the lot and bought a ticket at the entrance. He walked down Main Street, which was bedecked with silvery tinsel and other Christmassy decorations, eyes and ears alert for signs of trouble. The last time he was here, the cartoony greeters had been put on alert and issued weapons. They had been told they were repelling terrorists.
Instead, Remo and Chiun had gone through them like buzz saws. Back then, the entire park had been honeycombed with snares and booby-trapped attractions. Remo had no reason to think the rebuilt attractions were any different.
As he melted through the crowds, Remo pretended not to notice the greeters whispering into their snouts and fuzzy paws.
"He's here," whispered Gumpy Dog into his paw.
"The one with the thick wrists," added Missy Mouse.
"He's headed toward Horrible House," said Mucky Moose into his drooping foam antlers.
Remo overheard them tracking him. No response seemed to come back. Maybe Beasley was here, maybe he wasn't. If he was, there was only one place he would be. Utiliduck.
Casually Remo sauntered over to a great plastic hippopotamus with a yawning mouth. A sign hung on the hippo's lower tusks. It said Trash.
As people passed by, they tossed their empty soda cans and candy wrappers into the hippo's mouth. When the hippo's belly got full, it shut its mouth and, with a whoosh, emptied its trashy guts into a pipe that led from its fat gray rump to somewhere underground.
Remo watched the hippo's mouth reopen. So did a greeter dressed as Mongo Mouse. He was pretending to ignore the curious questions of a little ponytailed girl while trying to act nonchalant.
Instead, he looked like a human radar dish with those ridiculous ears zeroing in on Remo Williams.
Remo ignored him and waited for the mechanical pink mouth to yawn its fullest. When the little girl with the ponytail tugging on his spun-glass tail succeeded in distracting Mongo for a moment, Remo dived into the hippo's mouth.
The hippo, stomach counterweights responding to Remo's lean one hundred fifty-five pounds, promptly shut its happy jaws.
Mongo Mouse looked up and muttered, "Shit."
"Don't say bad words, Mongo," the little girl cautioned. "Uncle Sam might be listening."
"Get lost," Mongo Mouse growled, striding toward the hippo and whispering into his snout mike, "I lost him. Anybody see where he went?"
"Not me," reported Screwball Squirrel.
"Not me," said Gumpy Dog.
Remo heard all this through the hippo's gray polystyrene shell. Then the pneumatic pipe at his feet irised open, and with a whoosh he was sucked down.
The pipe was narrow, its sides slick Teflon. Remo just went with the flow, legs straight, arms flat to his sides as he was drawn into the massive trash-moving ductwork of Utiliduck, the underground complex that housed the dark underbelly of Sam Beasley World, the place where the refuse was processed, power and electronics were generated, and the other systems needed to keep the park operating year-round were hidden.
Remo just hoped that he hadn't picked a tube that fed directly into an incinerator.
IF IT WASN'T for that damn figure skater with the big teeth, Godfrey Grant would not have been consigned to the bowels of Utiliduck. That much he knew.
Oh, how the world had come to love her clean, graceful body as it flashed and swirled over Olympic ice. Her face graced endless magazine covers and cereal boxes and billboards.
And Godfrey Grant had come to hate her guts. And her damn jumbo teeth.
Grant's downfall had begun when the figure skater had been whacked in the knee by dimwits in the pay of a rival figure skater. Overnight she had became an object of sympathy the world over. America clung to her sobbing, piteous, plaintive "Why me's?" until miraculously she had recovered enough to challenge her rival at Lillehammer.
Godfrey Grant had cheered her on even when she won only the silver. At least she had left her rival in the dust. Or the ice. Or whatever.
When the greeter-overseer had come to Grant the next day and informed him that he would sit beside her in the post-Olympics parade through Sam Beasley World, Grant was ecstatic. The fact that he would be encased in a polyurethane Monongahela Mouse greeter's outfit didn't matter at the time. He was going to share the spotlight for all the world to see. If only his girl and his immediate family knew it was him wearing the lollipop ears, that was okay. It was enough.
Came the glorious day, and the figure skater climbed into the pink-and-purple Mousemobile for a turn around the Enchanted Village.
The cameras were rolling. They were waving to the cheering crowd. That part was fine.
But some idiot in publicity had miked the Mousemobile and caught the damn figure skater, a two-million-dollar Sam Beasley check stuffed down her flat ice-princess chest, complaining to beat the band.
"This is cornball city," she had muttered for all the world to hear. "I can't believe I'm sitting next to a giant mouse and people are taking it seriously. Puhleeze!"
Under his mouse head, Godfrey Grant had gone white. He knew how image sensitive the Mouseschwitz High Command was. So he gave the figure skater a gentle nudge in the ribs.
A harmless nudge. That's all it was supposed to be. A nudge and a whispered suggestion to cool it while you're a guest of Sam Beasley World.
Trouble was, the Mongo Mouse head didn't afford much peripheral vision. Grant couldn't see as clearly as he should. And the gentle nudge in the ribs became a hard elbow to the temple.
With a yelp the figure skater dropped right off the back of the Mousemobile, where a team of Clydesdale horses clopped all over the ungrateful bitch, mashing fingers, breaking teeth and most unfortunately shattering the very same kneecap the moron with the collapsible steel baton had failed to even dent.
The figure skater's career was over.
Godfrey Grant's career with Beasley would have been over, too.
Except for the fact that they had miked the Mousemobile.
When he was summoned before the Beasley overseer, Grant expected they'd want his head. The rodent head. And his resignation.
They took the head, all right. But instead of firing him, they consigned Grant to Utiliduck duty, the lowest niche in the the Beasley food chain.
"You're not firing me?" he had asked.
"Normally you'd have been out on your curly tail in a flat minute," the overseer had barked. "But you lucked out. The networks picked up the bitch's whinings and broadcast them clear to Tokyo."
"That's why I tried to nudge her," Grant had protested. "To keep her quiet. I knew the company wouldn't want people to hear. It would spoil the moment."
"The moment," the overseer had shot back, "is not only spoiled, but the bitch is suing us. The cameras caught it all, so she'll probably triple her fee for that one stupid ride."
"I don't get it."
"The big cheese saw and heard it all. He thought she deserved to have her kneecap broken for mouthing off like that. In fact, he was distinctly heard to say that it was too bad the horses didn't bust both of them and put her in a wheelchair."
"That's why I'm not fired?"
"That's why you're not fired," the overseer had said, handing Godfrey Grant a long-handled push broom and saying, "Now get to sweeping."
So Godfrey Grant got to sweeping. A year of sweeping had not endeared him to the job or Utiliduck or mouthy ingrate figure skaters, but in these hard times a job was a job and the truth was that between the heat and the bratty kids, being a greeter could be murder.
At least down in Utiliduck, it was cool and quiet and not much happened to spoil a man's workday.
So Grant was surprised when the white ceiling lights suddenly turned yellow. He had never seen that before. A moment later they shaded to orange, and section control doors began slamming shut.
The lights then became red, and a Klaxon started hooting.
"What's going on?" he asked a squad of security men as they pounded his way.
"Someone trying to sneak in for free?"
The team leader stopped. "Can you handle a gun?"
And he handed Grant a machine pistol with a mouse-head silhouette stamped on the buttstock.
"Be on the lookout for a guy in a T-shirt with thick wrists. If he comes this way, shoot on sight."
"Shoot?" muttered Godfrey Grant. "Who'd try to sneak into Utiliduck that would need shooting?"
The security team leader didn't reply. They kept running as if they were on a deck of an aircraft carrier during a strafing attack.
So Godfrey Grant tucked his machine pistol into his belt and went back to sweeping the trash that periodically dropped from the nest of ceiling pneumatic terminals.
It was his job to push the incoming trash into the waiting valve of a floor trash compactor. It would have been just as simple to have the stuff go directly into the compactor, but that was Beasley World up above. Anything could come dropping down with the trash. Wristwatches. Wallets. Guns. Medicine. Even cranky baby sisters who kept their older brothers from the Buccaneers of the Bahamas ride.
So Godfrey Grant maneuvered his push broom through the trash, keeping an eye peeled for valuables and inconvenient children.
When a pair of loafers dropped from above, bringing with them a tall skinny guy with thick wrists and the deadest eyes Godfrey Grant had ever seen, he dropped his broom and stammered, "You're the guy."
"The guy with the thick wrists everybody's looking for."
The man seemed unperturbed. "That's me."
"I'm supposed to shoot you," said Grant.
"But I don't want to," Grant admitted.
"Suit yourself," the guy with the thick wrists said in a bored voice. He looked around, saw he was in a white room with slick walls and asked, "Where's Uncle Sam?"
Grant hesitated. "Beasley?"
"He's been dead longer than I've been alive."
"They don't tell the custodial staff very much around here, do they?"
Grant looked blank.
"Where's the warmest room down here?" asked the man.
Grant frowned. "Warmest?"
"You heard me," said the guy with the thick wrists, drifting up to Grant. Grant backed off, thought he succeeded, but then his machine pistol was suddenly in the guy's right hand. He brought his other hand up, and the machined steel began complaining. It squeaked. It barked. It began coming to pieces as if it were made out of stale sugar cone.
"There's a room two lefts down that corridor, that no one's allowed to go into," Grant offered. "When people come out, they're usually sweating like pigs."
"Sounds about right."
"They're going to make me pay for that broken gun."
"Between you and me and the wall, I don't think anyone's going to be counting guns after I'm through."
And when the thick wristed guy was gone, Grant looked up. He could have sworn the tube he'd come out of was too narrow for a full-grown man. Although the guy was on the skinny side.
Shrugging, Godfrey Grant reached down to retrieve his long-handled push broom and resumed sweeping. After all, he was paid to push a broom, not deal with security problems.
Not to mention the skinny guy with the wrists had treated him better than his bosses ever did.
"FIRE that fuck, Maus."
"At once, Director."
"No, not at once, you idiot. That lumber-wristed meddler is running around loose. Swat him first. Then fire that fuck."
In the perpetually steamy Utiliduck control room, Captain Ernest Maus strode to the console and punched up the ceiling camera in the corridor approach.
The man with the thick wrists was walking purposefully along the corridor.
He hit a key and barked, "Intruder in Corridor G. Repeat, intruder in Corridor G. Approach and neutralize."
"This ought to be good," chuckled the voice from the high-backed console chair.
Maus nodded. "They'll get him in a cross fire and chip his skeleton to pieces."
"Serve the bastard right. Lock me in a damn rubber room for two years, will he?"
The main monitor on the other side of the room covered Corridor G. Satellite monitors showed Utiliduck security teams regrouping to take up positions of attack at turns of the branch corridors.
"They're in position, Director. The intruder seems oblivious to them."
"What's that he's doing to the wall?"
"Touching it with his fingertips," Captain Maus reported.
"After he takes that next turn, he'll be touching the face of God."
REMO WILLIAMS felt along the wall. It was of sheet steel. Rock solid. An excellent conductor of vibrations. His ears caught the padding of feet made heavy by the weight of awkward weapons. He counted seven in ambush at three separate points just ahead and four more trying to pace him a turn in the corridor behind.
The steel wall grew warm. He was near the hothouse control room that Uncle Sam Beasley would naturally favor because, even after two years out of the cryogenic capsule that had sustained his body until the animatronic heart could be developed, he had not shaken the chill from his old bones.
A tiny whir told Remo that he was being tracked by a camera. He ignored it. As the wall under his brushing fingertips grew warmer, Remo paid attention to the sounds coming from the ambush zone ahead.
Heartbeats began to pick up. Shallow breathing all but stopped. He was close. They were getting ready to spring out.
At the moment just before they would have jumped, Remo set the fingernails of his right hand against the wall and scratched them like nails on a chalkboard.
His nails, hardened by years of diet and exercise, scored the steel with a harsh high-speed screech.
In that paralyzing second when human eyes blinked in startled response, Remo zipped ahead, flashed by the blinded ambush teams, and one hand held flat before him hit a warm blank door.
It caved in, driven as much by the hard column of air Remo was pushing before his flat palm as it was by the hand itself.
It was a sliding door. So one side buckled completely while the other held. But one side was enough.
Remo stepped into a short entryway that shouldn't have been there, so he kept going.
A sharp plate of steel like a guillotine dropped behind him, stirring the hair on the back of Remo's head.
"Too late," Remo told Maus, whose finger had just stabbed the button that had released the descending blade.
"Damn!" Maus muttered.
The voice of Uncle Sam Beasley barked from behind his chair. "What's wrong with that ambush team?"
"I don't know, Director."
"Time to go back to the happy home," Remo called to the back of the console chair. Uncle Sam didn't bother to turn. One hand reached out to stab a button. The good one.
"Never," he snapped.
Remo stepped toward the chair, spun it around and looked into the cold eyes of Uncle Sam Beasley.
One eye exploded like a camera flashbulb. Too late. Remo had already heard the click of the cybernetic relay in the eyeball and shut his own eyes. The insides of his eyelids turned a brilliant laser-beam red. Aiming from memory, he drove his right index finger into the prosthetic eye.
The eye imploded. The animatronic heart kept beating as usual.
A flat click to his rear brought Remo spinning around.
Captain Maus had a gun. An Uzi, a mouse head stamped on the butt. He was holding it steady on Remo.
"Shoot me," Remo warned, "and Uncle Sam buys it, too."
Behind Remo, Uncle Sam growled, "Shoot anyway."
Sweaty faced, Maus said, "But, Uncle Sam-"
"Shoot, you toady!"
The pale trigger finger turned to bone, and Remo, astonished, started to move in on Captain Maus. He cleared the room in less than three seconds, wove left to avoid a fistful of bullets snapping at him and struck Maus in the temple with a hard slap.
Maus went flying into the console, not dead but chastised to the point of multiple fractures.
The back of the console was dotted with vicious black holes. Uncle Sam's one good hand flopped off the console and swung loose like a hinged stick.
Remo crossed the room and spun the chair.
Uncle Sam Beasley sat folded in his chair, his head hanging down between his knees in the prescribed airline-crash position. He wasn't moving. Not even his dead dangling arms.
Horrified, Remo said, "Uncle Sam!"
Remo grabbed the broken figure by his collar and lifted the bloodless face into view. It was intact, the good eye rolled up until only the white showed, the frosty mustache seeming to droop in death.
Remo's ears told him that Uncle Sam's animatronic heart beat no more.
"Damn," he said under his breath. "Damn, you're dead."
A familiar voice boomed above Remo's head. "No. You are."
Remo looked up. The main monitor was filled with the age-seamed visage of Uncle Sam Beasley.
"Didn't think I'd let you get that close to me again?" Uncle Sam gloated.
The inert body in Remo's hand suddenly snapped back to life, and a hydraulic hand with snapping steel fingers sought his throat.
For years after, everyone remembered where they had been when they heard the chilling news bulletin that the President of the United States had been shot.
Republican Congressman Gila Gingold was addressing the House of Representatives.
"Once again the big-spending, big-government side of our government has concocted a so-called healthcare reform package. I can tell you as House minority whip that I will do everything in my power to see that this bill goes down in defeat, just like all the other harebrained attempts to governmental- medical care in this country the Democrat in the White House has tried to jam through Congress."
A House page slipped him a note. Gila Gingold glanced at it, and his emerald green eyes went wide in his flushed face. "I-I have just had word that the President has been shot."
A hush fell over Congress.
Gila Gingold gathered his thoughts and wondered if he should call for a moment of prayer or finish what he'd started. Sensing a golden opportunity to do both, he decided to improvise.
"Even as we speak, our fallen President is undoubtedly being tended to by the finest private physicians available. Were universal health care to become law, he, like all Americans, would have to take potluck. We can't afford potluck medicine in America. So I ask you to join me in saying a resounding no to this latest travesty even as we bow our heads in prayer for the fallen author of said travesty."
IN NEW YORK CITY, in the studios of the Tell the Truth radio network, broadcaster Thrush Limburger was taking calls.
"Go ahead, caller. You're on the air."
"And Roger right back to you. What's on your mind?"
"What do you think of this latest health-care proposal?"
"It's a naked grab for control of a multibilliondollar health-care industry, perpetrated by the unthinking but temporary occupants of the White House."
"They keep coming up with these bills, Thrush. Every time one gets shut down, they pop up with another. Is there anything we can do to stop it?"
"Well," Thrush said, and chuckled, "we can pray for divine intervention. Maybe God will vote this President out of office a year early, if you catch my drift."
A frantic waving hand from the control room caught Thrush Limburger's eye. His assistant, Cody Custer, had slapped a big sheet of paper against the glass. The Magic Markered words froze Thrush Limburger in midguffaw: President Shot in Boston.
"Ahem," Thrush said, rustling a commercial script between his thick fingers. "Of course, I don't actually mean that. I may be on the other side of the fence, politically speaking, from this President, but we both want the same thing. A better world."
Thrush tapped a chime and said, "Now for a word about my favorite beverage, Tipple."
PEPSIE DOBBINS, Washington correspondent of American Networking Conglomerate News, was at her desk working the phones when an aide popped his head into her cubicle and said, "The President's been shot!"
"He stepped out of his limo, and a sniper took the top of his head off."
Pepsie Dobbins clutched the edge of her desk, slim fingers going white at the knuckles. Her face froze. Her eyes teared. She bowed her expertly coiffed shag.
"Did-did we get film?" she choked out.
"Yes. The feed's coming in now."
Pepsie lowered her head, eyes squeezing tears of relief that coursed down her makeup-powdered cheeks.
"Thank God," she sobbed.
With an effort she came out of her chair and followed the lemminglike streams of staff heading for the monitor room.
"Satellite feed's coming in now," a technician said, hoarse voiced.
All eyes went to a monitor, one of many banks of monitors in the monitor room. Pepsie's eyes raced along the grid, pausing at the one that monitored CNN, which scooped them with annoying frequency.
"Hurry, hurry," she urged. "CNN doesn't have film yet."
The feed came in.
The angle, everyone saw, was not straight on. The ANC cameraman had been blocked by the broad backs of the Secret Service protective ring. The camera jumped around several times.
Pepsie wrung her hands. "Come on. Come on. Steady it. Steady it, please."
As if in response, the camera caught the opening of the limo door emblazoned with the Presidential seal.
"Here it comes," the technician warned. "Prepare yourselves. It could be gruesome."
"Be gruesome," Pepsie whispered prayerfully. "Please, oh please, be gruesome."
The familiar steely haircut ducked up from the dark interior of the limo back, one hand fumbling for the middle button of the dark suit. Abruptly the top of the victim's head came apart.
"This is better than the Zapruder film," Pepsie screamed. "We've got to go on. We've got to go on right now!"
"Let go. Damn it, let go," the news director was saying, trying to disentangle Pepsie's claws from his collar. "I make the decisions here."
"CNN hasn't broken in yet..." the technician reported.
"No cut-ins from the other networks," an intern called.
Pepsie pleaded, "Greg, you've got to go on the air with this. Let me do it, please."
"This is the anchor's job."
"He's not here. I am. Please, please." She was bouncing on her heels now, pulling the news director by his tie as if trying to ring a church bell.
"It's news. We gotta go with something."
"All right. Do it from your desk. We'll superimpose a newsroom background over it."
"Great. Great. You won't regret this," Pepsie Dobbins said, running in her stockinged feet for her desk.
Flinging herself behind her desk, she primped her short sassy shag as she stood up straight. Her back was to a blue screen that the camera couldn't read. A computer-generated newsroom would be laid in the background. Only the audience would see it. No one would suspect it didn't exist.
The red light came on. The news director threw her the signal, and Pepsie Dobbins moistened her red lips as the announcer intoned, "This is an ANC special report."
"And this is Pepsie Dobbins speaking to you from our newsroom here in Washington."
Out of the corner of her eye, Pepsie saw the director pointing frantically to the monitor. Pepsie allowed her left eye to dart to the screen. She had the faculty of being able to move her eyes independently of each other so that when she turned slightly she appeared to be looking directly at the viewer while surreptitiously watching her surroundings.
To her horror, she saw herself on the in-house monitor-against a dead black background.
"In our Washington bureau, excuse me," she corrected. "This just in from Boston, Massachusetts. The President of the United States was shot by unknown persons as he exited his limousine at precisely-" she glanced at her desk clock and guesstimated a time "-10:47 Eastern Standard Time. ANC News had a crew at the scene, and video is being satellited to us even as I speak. We here at ANC have yet to screen this footage, but in the interest of the public's right to ratings-I mean, to know-and as a public service we are showing it to you raw. We caution viewers that some of the scenes you are about to see may be graphic to the point of gruesomeness and that small children and animals should be shooed away so that they do not see it. Everyone else, pull up your chairs. This is history and you are seeing it almost live."
The news director flashed a signal to the technical crew, and Pepsie's left eye went to the monitor.
The monitor was blank.
"Something's wrong," she hissed.
Technicians in the control room frantically threw switches.
The monitor screen winked, and suddenly there appeared the computer-generated ANC Washington bureau newsroom-without Pepsie Dobbins. No footage rolled.
"Where's the damn footage?" Pepsie screamed.
Over the air millions of Americans watched the static newsroom shot and heard the disembodied voice of Pepsie Dobbins demand that the footage be telecast.
The news director shushed her with a finger to his lips.
"Get that fucking footage on the air before CNN beats us to it!" she hollered, her blue tomcat eyes snapping sparks.
Millions of Americans heard that, too.
Then a technician poked his head out of the control room saying, "The deck ate the tape."
The news director cursed and, without looking back, threw the signal to Pepsie to take back the broadcast.
In TV sets all over America, the empty newsroom was replaced by the sight of Pepsie Dobbins, her head down on her desk, tearing tufts of her short brown-blond mane of hair out with enameled nails, repeating "I'm gonna kill everyone in the control room ...." over and over.
In her earpiece, the news director whispered urgently, "You're still on, Pepsie. Improvise something."
Without lifting her head, Pepsie said in a twisted voice, "On behalf of ANC News, I would like to lead the nation in a moment of silence for our martyred President."
Offstage the news director screamed, "What are you doing? We don't know that he's dead yet."
"Trust me on this one," Pepsie muttered.
Then CNN came on with their version of the footage.
It was merciful. The CNN camera crew, well behind Secret Service rope lines, caught only the shirtfront of an anonymous Secret Service agent as the limousine door opened. In another second the man who emerged from the limo would have stepped into clear sight. But he never did.
A shot rang out, and the agents whirled, forming a tight protective knot around the fallen man, 9 mm MAC-lls and 10 mm Delta Elite handguns coming up at the ready.
After that it was aboil in frantic officials. Someone yelled, "It's Dallas all over again!" and the Presidential motorcade sped away from the rushing cameras, grim-faced agents clinging to bumpers and sideboards.
The camera found a pudding of blood and brains on the pavement and lingered on it for nearly a minute. Then other cameramen saw the stain and they quickly trampled it under their jostling feet.
America was spared the gruesome sight. But nothing spared them the horror. Their imaginations filled in the Technicolor details.
HAROLD W SMITH WAS oblivious to the first bulletin. It was ironic. Harold W Smith should have known about the Presidential assassination as it was breaking. At the very least.
In the best of all possible scenarios, Harold Smith should have seen it coming and been able to intercept the assassin. That, among other responsibilities, was Harold W. Smith's duty, as director of CURE, the supersecret government agency he headed.
As the first reports were breaking, Harold W Smith, incongruously attired in a gray three-piece business suit, was in a concrete vault in one corner of the basement of Folcroft Sanitarium, the cover installation that masked CURE operations. Smith was completing repairs to the great bank of IDC mainframes that constituted the nerve center of CURE's information-gathering arm.
CURE had been without its full Intelligence-gathering capability for three months now, ever since the awful morning when a combined IRS-DEA raid on Folcroft had forced Smith to erase the thirty years of data he had painstakingly compiled. And as the lasers were burning the deepest secrets of a fractious nation out of existence, Smith had taken the poison pill that would have erased him, too.
The raid had been instigated ironically enough by a computer intelligence Smith had already defeated. The doomsday plan had come close to succeeding. The IRS had seized Folcroft and would have auctioned it off over Smith's cold gray corpse but for his enforcement arm, Remo Williams and his trainer, Chiun, the last Master of Sinanju.
They had brought Smith back from the brink of eternity, and working behind the scenes, the three men had gotten the IRS and DEA off their backs without compromising CURE security.
In the aftermath a dangerous patient and security threat had escaped, and the CURE computers, only recently upgraded, were reduced to the status of multimillion-dollar blank slates.
It had taken three months to bring them back online. It would take another decade to restore the most important portions of their data base. Harold Smith, who had been young during his days with the OSS during World War II, did not know if he had another decade.
But because he had taken up the responsibility for CURE, he had done what he could. The systems were back online, and the four great mainframes and the slave WORM-drive units once again held the duplicate data bases siphoned off the IRS, Social Security Administration, FBI, CIA, DEA, DES and TRW computer systems.
It was enough to put CURE back in the Intelligence-gathering and analysis business. It was not enough to restore it to full capacity.
As he secured the three locks that concealed the CURE computers from prying eyes, Harold W Smith reflected that in these early days of the information superhighway, the proliferation of computers out there meant that in many cases he needn't have the raw data locked in his basement to have access to it. He need only reach out through the telephone system to snare what he wanted.
Perhaps, Smith thought as he rode the elevator to his second-floor office, that was for the best.
When he stepped off the elevator, he saw his secretary sobbing at her reception desk. Harold Smith paused, adjusted his Dartmouth tie uncomfortably and contemplated slipping past the weeping woman and into his office. He detested overt displays of emotion. Especially coming from women. They made him feel helpless and awkward.
Mrs. Mikulka abruptly looked up, and it was too late.
"Er, is something wrong?" Smith asked uneasily.
Eileen Mikulka took a deep, ragged breath, her eyes red and moist. "He's been shot!"
"The President. Someone shot him. Oh, what is this country coming to?"
In a stark, still fraction of a moment, Harold W. Smith stood rooted. He remembered an identical time, an identical cold, settling feeling some thirty years ago, when, sitting in his office, he had picked up the telephone to hear his wife sobbing out the identical news. Her words had almost been the same. Why was it that people always said "they" did it. Who were "they"? Why didn't people ever say "someone" shot the President? Or "a killer" shot the President. It was always "they."
The news of the death of that particular President so long ago had been like a cold dagger in Smith's vitals. For that President had installed Smith in the position of CURE director, entrusting him not only with the security of the nation but the political fate of the President, as well. For both men had known that if the truth ever leaked out, that President would be impeached for setting up an extraconstitutional bulwark against crime and corruption. In order to preserve the nation, CURE routinely trampled all over Constitutional guarantees.
Smith snapped out of it. "Hold my calls," he said hoarsely. "I will be in my office."
The renewed sobbing followed him into his office, ceasing only when he shut the oak door that was soundproofed against all noise.
Smith crossed the Spartan but slightly shabby office in long-legged strides that put him behind a desk that was like a slab of anthracite on legs. The chair creaked under his spare frame. Reaching under the desk edge, he depressed a button.
Under the black glass desk top, canted at an angle so only Smith could read it, a computer monitor winked into life, its black screen blending with the desk glass. Only the angry amber letters on the screen showed.
Thin fingers touched the strip of desk top closest to him. A touch-sensitive keyboard illuminated. Smith logged on with hard stabs of his fingers.
A warning message was already in the system, which patrolled all open news and data feeds in the nation.
Smith read the first bulletin, and a chill climbed his curved-with-age-and-work spine.
PRESIDENT OF U.S. SHOT EXITING OFFICIAL CAR AT KENNEDY LIBRARY IN BOSTON, MASS. RUSHED TO MASS GENERAL HOSPITAL. NO WORD ON CONDITION.
In the spare, stark prose of the wire services lay a world of horror.
Smith swallowed hard, his bony Adam's apple sliding from sight.
"It's happening again," he said.
IN THE MAIN TRAM BAY of Mass General Hospital, Chief of Surgery Kevin Powers was scrubbing for a scheduled colostomy when the hospital's chief administrator burst in and started to say something.
A phalanx of men in business suits and impenetrable sunglasses pushed the man and the half-open swinging doors in and, without stopping, seized Dr. Powers by his blue surgical scrubs and walked him out of the scrub room to the OR.
A gold badge was flashed in his face. "Secret Service," a man said, tight-upped.
It hit Powers with the clarity only dire emergency brought to the brain. "The President?" he blurted.
"It's a head wound."
They continued walking him down to the OR and marched him like a white-faced automaton through the double doors.
Dr. Powers started to protest. "You're not scrubbed."
"There's no time," the agent said. "There he is. Save him, please."
The patient already lay on the operating-room table. Other agents were finishing stripping off the expensive suit and undergarments. They tore at the clothing with gritted teeth and tears of rage and frustration in their eyes.
The body lay utterly inert, moving only when the jerking rips made it jiggle.
"What is it-gunshot?"
"One shot to the head," the Secret Service agent told him.
Dr. Powers found himself being impelled toward the head. When his eyes fell on the wound, he knew there was no hope. Not for a thinking recovery anyway.
The bullet had exposed the pinkish gray mass of the brain. It throbbed lazily as the electrocardiogram machine began emitting jittery pulses and beeps.
"It's bad, isn't it?" an agent said tearfully.
"Let's get to work," Dr. Powers said grimly as his gloved hands picked up a scalpel.
Carefully he smoothed the matter-spattered hair away from the area of the wound. Gasps all around. Under his mask, he winced. The wound was larger than it seemed.
Then the EKG machine began emitting a low, frightening beep, and a nurse said, "Flatline."
"Resuscitate," someone shouted. It was a Secret Service man.
"Don't bother," Powers said.
"We can't lose him!"
"I'm sorry. He's gone."
Strong hands came at Dr. Powers from both sides, grabbing him roughly by his gowned shoulders.
"You save that man," a voice said with rough violence.
"He's beyond saving, damn it. A third of his brain is pulp. I bring him back, and he'll be a withered vegetable. Is that what you want?"
No one said anything. Slowly the hands released his gown. The agents began weeping openly. One turned and, with a steady rhythm, pounded the white tile wall with his fist until blood appeared.
As he did the decent thing and drew a clean sheet over the strong clean body defiled by violence, Dr. Kevin Powers could only reflect dully that he had been a participant to history.
But he wanted to pound his trembling fists on the wall in frustration, too.
FOR NEARLY two more hours, the press and the people stood vigil in the crisp December air outside of Mass General Hospital. No word came. In the absence of facts, rumors abounded. They grew in the telling, and across the nation hope for the President's survival began to die.
A unshaven man wearing aviator sunglasses and a blue L.A. Dodgers baseball cap kept saying, "I'm ashamed to be an American today. I'm ashamed to be an American." A video camera hung from his dead fingers. From time to time he filmed the stunned faces of the crowd.
At the top of the third hour, Pepsie Dobbins leapt from a cab and forced her way through the crowd. They stood about like sheep, eyes turned up to the top of the building. A few hung their heads in sorrow or prayer.
Pepsie wormed her way through the crowd, fighting toward the hospital entrance, which was guarded by stony-faced state troopers at stiff attention. An ANC cameraman followed, lugging his Minicam.
"Let me in. I'm Pepsie Dobbins."
Pepsie started to argue.
The clatter of a helicopter rotor began bouncing off the buildings. All eyes looked upward. Pepsie took a step back in order to see.
The big olive-green-and-black shape floated majestically to the hospital roof and disappeared from view. It was out of sight in less than forty seconds. It lifted off again, lumbering majestically in the direction of Logan Airport.
"That's Marine One," someone whispered. "The President's helicopter."
"Maybe he's all right," someone else said.
A third person said in a dead tone, "Maybe they're taking the body back to Washington."
Pepsie whirled on the state troopers and demanded, "Where are they taking the President?"
"Back to Washington," said one state trooper in a robotic voice.
"I demand to speak with the hospital director," Pepsie demanded.
"I demand some information."
"You know what we know."
"Is the President alive or dead?"
"Is there a cover-up going on here? Is that it? Has the cover-up already begun?"
"There's no cover-up," the second trooper said, tight-upped.
"How do you know unless you know more than you're saying?"
"No fucking comment," said the first and second state troopers a beat apart. Then they sealed their lips and looked stony eyed over Pepsie Dobbins's head at nothing.
Pepsie Dobbins struggled her way to a pay phone and dialed the Washington bureau of ANC News and said, "The President has died."
"You have that confirmed this time?"
"Marine One touched down on the hospital roof and took off again before the wheels bit gravel. It's on its way to Logan Airport."
"Have you confirmation the President's body is aboard?"
"You saw the footage. No one could have survived that shot. Mass General Hospital is one of the best in the nation. If he were alive, they wouldn't dare move him."
"This is too important to put on the air without corroboration, Pepsie."
"You idiot! Do you want CNN to beat us again?"
"Do you want to look like a fool to all America again?" the news director countered.
"This morning wasn't my fault. It was that screw-up technician."
"Hold the line."
Pepsie held. She tapped her toes impatiently, counting the seconds. She wasn't going to be scooped again. Not if she had to march up to a local camera crew and seize a microphone.
The news director came back on the line. "The White House has put out a statement," he said.
"They say the President will address the nation later this afternoon."
"That's crazy! We all saw the top of his head come off."
"They're hinting he's alive."
"My God! It's a cover-up. Do you realize how big this story just got?"
"Pepsie, get a grip. Maybe they mean the Vice President. If the worst has happened, he's President now."
"What are the call letters of our local affiliate?"
"Don't you dare go over my head and air this story like that time in Baltimore."
"There's a cover-up going on. And I'm on ground zero."
"Look, we'll sort the pieces out on this end. Everybody's at the hospital, right?"
Pepsie scanned the crowd with her wide feral eyes. "Right. Of course. I see MBC. BCN. And Vox."
"Go back to the shooting scene. See what you can pick up there."
"But the story's here. "
"No, the story's on Marine One heading for Air Force One. "
"Maybe I can sneak on board ...."
"Fat chance. But if there's a cover-up brewing, that story's back at the Kennedy Library."
"You'll hear from me," said Pepsie, hanging up and sticking two fingers into her mouth. She blew a whistle shrill enough to derust the Lusitania.
Looking like a chocolate-milk carton on wheels, a brown-and-white Boston taxicab stopped briefly and whisked her away.
"Kennedy Library," she snapped, shoving her cameraman in ahead of her.
The driver stared into his rearview mirror in surprise. "Aren't you Pepsie Dobbins?"
"Can I get your autograph? I think you're the funniest newswoman on the air."
"I'm not supposed to be funny," Pepsie snapped.
"That's why you're so funny."
"Shut up and drive," fumed Pepsie.
In the hothouse control room under Sam Beasley World, Remo Williams blocked the animatronic stainless-steel hand that clutched at his throat.
It was neither swift nor strong. The wrist encountered Remo's thicker wrists and, thwarted, the steel hand opened and closed like a clutching flower of metal.
Remo unblocked his wrists and captured the steel fist in his own fingers. He exerted pressure. The fingers, tiny servo motors whirring in complaint, tried to reopen. And failed.
Remo looked up at the screen and the eager face of the real Uncle Sam Beasley.
Uncle Sam was snapping an unseen switch over and over again angrily.
"Watch this," Remo said.
And he crushed the metal hand into a ball of steel wool.
The head of the animatronic Beasley snapped around and, teeth champing, tried to take a chunk out of Remo's wrists. As the porcelain teeth disturbed the tiny guard hairs on Remo's wrist, he brought his hand down hard. Uncle Sam's jaw fell off, trailing sparks and wires.
Up on the screen, the real Beasley's jaw dropped open. He shut it and demanded, "What the hell are you made out of?"
"Snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails," Remo said, casually batting the head off its spinal stalk. It flew at the screen. The real Beasley, caught off guard, recoiled. The head burrowed into the shattered screen, and both began emitting acrid electrical smoke after the screen went dead.
Remo turned his attention back to Captain Maus.
"Where is he?"
"I will die before I betray Uncle Sam."
"Let's test that theory," said Remo, taking Maus's right hand by the wrist.
"This little piggy went to market," Remo said, dislocating Maus's right index finger simply by yanking it straight. The joint gave a tiny pop. "This little piggy started home," said Remo, doing the same to the ply.
Maus's eyes widened as he watched his fingers wilt like fleshy flowers under the casual violence of the thick-wristed man.
"The Sorcerer's Castle!" he bleated.
From a hidden speaker, Uncle Sam Beasley snarled, "Maus, you are a traitor."
"But-but," Maus protested, his face twisting like heated wax. "I've been a fan of yours since I was a little boy!"
"Consider yourself defrocked of your mouse ears."
Captain Maus hung his head and blubbered like a child.
"Grow up," said Remo. "What's the best way to get to the castle from here?"
Maus kept blubbering, so Remo took his temples between his forefinger and thumb and exerted pressure. The fused skull plates at the top of Maus's skull actually bulged upward under his thin hair, and he let out an inarticulate scream that would have meant nothing to anyone except Remo, who over years of practice had learned to understand people when he squeezed the truth out of their skulls.
"Hatchinthecenterofthefloorwillgetyouthere," Maus had said at ultrahigh speed.
"Much obliged," said Remo. "Stay here till I get back."
But as Remo popped the hatch in the center of the floor, he heard a faint gritty crunch as Maus broke something between his teeth. Maus slumped in his console chair, and Remo shrugged. One less loose end to worry about.
An aluminum ladder led down to a square brick tunnel. There was a golf cart in the tunnel, and Remo climbed aboard. That made it easier. He sent it humming along the tunnel, which went in only one direction.
When he reached the end, Remo jumped from the moving vehicle to an identical aluminum ladder hanging from an identical well and was halfway up when the unattended golf cart crashed into a bulkhead.
By the time Remo reached the top-the well was barely three stories high-the whine of a helicopter was audible.
Remo stepped out into a stone corridor through a stone niche that had a knight in medieval armor bolted to it.
The helicopter whine was growing louder. It was coming from above-far above-so Remo ignored the graceful stone staircase that swept upward and slipped out a narrow window. The castle walls were made of big stone blocks with plenty of handholds between them. Remo climbed a turret as if it were made for that purpose.
The helicopter was a fat green lime with Christmassy red trim and snowy white rotors. It had already lifted off a concealed helipad when Remo came over the battlements and floated toward it on gliding feet.
Remo snared one snowy skid just as it was lifting out of reach. His fist closed, and his feet left the ground.
The helicopter tilted and angled out toward the west.
Below, orange groves and kudzu patches rolled by as Sam Beasley World was left behind.
Remo waited until the helicopter pilot had settled onto his course before boarding.
Using both hands, he pulled himself up until his heels hooked onto the skid. He executed this maneuver with such smooth grace that there was no sudden shifting of weight to unbalance the colorful craft.
Once wrapped around the skid, it was an easy enough matter to reach up and find the side-door handle. Remo yanked it open and slipped in with an uncoiling motion that landed him in the rear seat while pulling the door shut after him.
"Going my way?" he said airily. The pilot looked over his shoulder, white as a ghost.
"Where the hell did you come from?" he sputtered.
Remo started to smile. The smile evaporated when he realized only he and the pilot were on board.
"Where's Uncle Sam?" Remo asked.
"Twenty-five years in his grave," the pilot blurted.
"A popular rumor, if untrue," the filtered voice of Uncle Sam Beasley said from a speaker inside the bubble.
There came a pop, a puff of evil black smoke arose from the rotating rotor shaft above Remo's head, and the turbine cut out.
"Oh, Jesus. We've lost power," the pilot snapped, throwing switches.
Remo kicked open the door.
"Where the hell do you think you're going?" the pilot shouted in the sudden silence.
"Bailing out," said Remo.
"It's sure death."
"So is falling straight down in this oversize Christmas ornament."
"We'll be fine," the pilot said. "The main rotor is still turning. It'll act like a parachute. It's called autorotation."
Remo stayed half-in and half-out of the bubble just in case.
The helicopter floated straight down, sustained by the steady braking action of its main rotor.
It settled in a field of kudzu maybe ten miles west of Sam Beasley World.
As Remo got out, he saw another Christmas-colored chopper lift off from the fairyland skyline of the theme park and realized he'd been played for a sucker. It angled away and out of sight.
"Who was that voice that came over the speaker?" the pilot asked.
"Sound familiar?" said Remo.
"Yeah, it did," the pilot admitted.
"That was Popeye the Sailor Man," said Remo.
The pilot just stared at him.
He was still staring when Remo started walking through the endless kudzu toward the nearest highway. The nearest highway wasn't very near, so it was a good twenty minutes before Remo reached it and another ten before he found a gas station with a pay phone.
He called Dr. Harold W. Smith, waiting impatiently as the connection was rerouted twice before ringing a blue contact phone on Smith's glassy desk.
Smith's voice sounded hoarse but lemony. "Remo, is that you?"
"Yeah. What's wrong?"
"The President of the United States has been shot."
"Damn. How bad?"
Smith's voice sank to a hush. "They're reporting his death, Remo."
Remo said nothing. He was no particular fan of the current President, but in the long moment that the news sank in, he thought about where he had been thirty years ago when he had heard those identical words.
He had been in class. Saint Theresa's Orphanage. A nun whose name Remo had long ago forgotten was teaching English. There had come a knock at the class door, and Sister Mary Margaret, whose name and face Remo would remember to his dying day, entered, more pale of face than usual. She had conferred in a low voice with the other nun, whose face lost all color, too.
Then Sister Mary Margaret had addressed the class in a low, hoarse voice. "Children, our beloved President has been shot. We must all pray for him now."
And Sister Mary Margaret had led the class in prayer.
Remo could still remember the cold feeling in that classroom that day. He was old enough to understand a terrible thing had happened, yet still young enough to be dazed by the news.
When the word came that the young President had died, every class had been cancelled and the entire population of Saint Theresa's Orphanage was led in procession to the chapel. A Mass was sung. Those were still the days of Latin Masses.
It was the first time Remo Williams had ever seen the priests and the nuns-the only authority figures he had known up to that point in his life-weep. It had made him tremble in fear back then, and a little of that sick, hollow emptiness rose up to haunt him three decades later.
"Who did it?" Remo asked after his thoughts came back to the present.
"I have no information at present," Smith said, dull voiced.
"But I do. I found Uncle Sam. He was at Sam Beasley World."
"He got away. And I'm stuck in some highway in the middle of Kudzu, Florida."
"Go to Washington, D.C., Remo."
"Gladly. What's there?"
"The Vice President. He may need protecting."
"We blew a big one, didn't we?"
"Someone did," said Smith, terminating the connection with abrupt finality.
Secret Service Special Agent Win Workman hated guarding the President of the United States.
He hated it every time the President with his two giant 747s blew into town loaded down with communications gear, armored limousines and an endless list of demands on the Boston Office.
Win Workman worked out of the Boston district office of the Secret Service. He liked working out of Boston, where his routine duties included catching counterfeiters, busting credit-card thieves and solving computer crimes. This last category was one of the fastest-growing missions of the service, whose job wasn't just limited to protecting Presidents, whether sitting, retired or aspiring.
Win Workman had gone to the Service by way of BATF. The pay was higher, the duties more interesting. Just as long as he didn't have to guard any Presidents.
There was little danger of that, he had discovered. Win was too "street" for the White House detail. The Boston office preferred him to work on undercover assignments.
So Win Workman worked the street. He liked working the street. The trouble was every time the President blew into town, they pulled him off the street, made him shave and put on his best Brooks Brothers gray suit and handed him the belt radio whose earphone had been custom-fitted from a mold of his left ear for a perfect fit.
Usually he had to deal with the "quarterlies"-the local nuts and screwballs who had come to the service's attention because they had made public threats against the Chief Executive. They were interviewed every quarter as a matter of routine precaution and were checked out whenever the President came to town.
But this time he had to stand post, thanks to a virulent flu that had knocked out half the Boston office.
Win felt like a tailor's dummy standing post as the Presidential motorcade rolled like a segmented black dragon through the narrow streets of the city. All dressed up and hoping for no action. None whatsoever, thank you very much.
The trouble with standing post for the President of the United States, as Win Workman saw it, was not the boredom factor. High as it was. It wasn't even being pulled off the street.
Working undercover, you won some and you lost some. Not much glory either way. Not in the service, where you were trained to take your satisfaction in a job well done, not press ink or TV face time.
Standing post for the President, you got no thank you's if you did your job right. If you didn't, you might as well have been witness to the end of the world.
Win Workman found himself standing post on the roof of the University of Massachusetts Healey Library building when the shots that all but stopped his own heart rang out.
His eyes went instantly to the source. Across the plaza. Down on the Science Center roof, there was a man: with a rifle.
"Fuck!" he said, dropping into a marksman's crouch and opening fire.
It was a dumb-ass ridiculous thing to do. Win had only his service-issue 10 mm Delta Elite automatic. The range was too short. But he was the only agent close enough to distract the shooter.
So Win Workman emptied his clip as the shooter, one shot fired, laid his rifle carefully at his feet and took off.
It was only then that Win saw the man's aviator sunglasses and white coil going from his earphone into his windbreaker collar and realized that he'd waved to the man only minutes before. Waved to what he thought was a D.C.-based Secret Service countersniper named Don Grodin.
The man walking away wasn't Don Grodin. He was wearing Grodin's service-issue windbreaker and he practically swam in it.
"Jesus," he said as he pelted toward the stairs.
After that everything became a mad blur. His earphone filled with so much chatter Win had to pull it out and scream into his hand mike.
"Shut the fuck up! Everybody! Shut the fuck up right now."
When the earphone stopped buzzing, he jammed it back into its place. By that time, he was on the plaza. "Boston agents, this is Win. Switch to backup frequency. Suspect shooter has left roof of Science Center. Repeat, suspect shooter has just left Science Center roof. Be aware he's wearing a countersniper windbreaker. I want men on the garage elevator, men on the plaza and at all exits including the damn catwalks. The rest of you sweep the Science Center."
Someone asked, "How is the Man?"
"Forget the Man. He's the White House detail's problem. Ours is the shooter."
"Looked like he was hurt pretty bad, " someone else muttered.
After that the only conversation came in snatches, punctuated by gunfire.
"We have shooting in the parking garage. "
A moment later it was, "Shooting in Science."
"My God! There are two dead agents here."
"We think he's in the Lipke Auditorium."
By that time, Win Workman had reached the Science Center with a knot of agents and got them organized.
The main entrance to the Lipke Auditorium was one floor above. But the stage entrances were on the plaza level.
"Half of you take stage right. The rest of you come with me. We're going in stage left."
It took less than thirty seconds for the other detail to report that they were in position. Everyone took deep breaths, and Workman shouted, "Go!"
They poured into the gloom of the auditorium, flashlights pointing in all directions like a million-feelered insect.
The shooter was sitting quietly in the front row, exactly dead center. He made no effort to resist as they fell on him, throwing him to the floor.
"I'm not resisting. I'm not resisting arrest!" he screeched.
"Good thing for you, you bastard," Workman barked.
After patting him down and finding no concealed weapons, they hauled him to his feet again. Someone took his wallet and handed it to Workman. He hastily pocketed it and said, "Let's get him the fuck out of here."
They were hustling him up the steps when someone with a head like a high-tech diver's helmet popped up from behind a section of rows and started firing two pistols at once, straight-arm style.
It was one of those heart-stopping moments you play and replay in your mind forever, rolling the tape back, looking at your own mistakes or a juncture where you could have done something to change what happened.
For years afterward Win Workman would do that in the grim hours before he fell asleep. But when it happened, he was just one of the many who mowed down the assailant as he methodically pumped hot rounds into the prisoner.
THE GUNSHOT ECHOES were still bouncing when Win Workman kicked the .38 revolver and what looked suspiciously like a service-issue Delta Elite away from the dead assailant's hands and shouted, "Anyone hurt? Anyone hurt, damn it?"
"Just the suspect."
He stamped back.
The suspect in the President's shooting lay on his back, jerking uncontrollably like a puppet whose lax strings still had some tug in them. Then he expired.
"Motherfucker," Win cursed.
It was in that moment that he took his first hard look at the shooter.
"I know that face," he said.
"He on the lookout list?"
Someone pulled his set of the watch cards showing mug shots of people who were considered a threat to the President. The face of the dead man was not among them.
The other agents gathered round, faces drained of all blood, all emotion except dull shock.
"Yeah, I've seen him before, too."
They were like robots now, focusing on the face because to have lost their President like this probably meant the loss of their jobs. They were being professional. To be otherwise would probably have caused them to break down sobbing.
After several minutes no one could place the face.
"All right," Workman muttered. "Let's get these bodies out of here."
"Christ," an agent said bitterly. "It's Dallas all over again. How could we be so stupid?"
The thought seemed to hit everyone at once.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Win said slowly.
"What I'm thinking I don't want to be thinking."
They gathered around the dead shooter again.
"Oh, man," a third agent said. "It is him."
"You know what this means?"
"Yeah," Workman said. "I know exactly what this means. It means the end of the Secret Service as we know it. That's Lee Harvey Oswald lying there."
And Win Workman reared back and gave the dead man the hardest kick he had in him.
"Don't look now," another agent said in a dull, drained-of-emotion voice, "but I think this guy in the funny helmet looks kinda like Jack Ruby."
There was a stampede to the body of the man in the helmet. Enough of it had shattered to show one side of the man's face.
"Looks like Ruby. But a younger Ruby," Win observed.
"And that guy back there is the spitting image of Lee Harvey Oswald-if Ruby hadn't shot him dead back in '63"
"How old was Oswald when he got it?"
"Maybe twenty-three, twenty-four, something like that," Win said.
They went back to the corpse that resembled an older Lee Harvey Oswald.
"Add thirty years and you get a fifty-five-year-old guy."
"This guy looks about that."
"Can't be Oswald."
"Looks just like him. Right down to that simpering-idiot grin of his."
Win Workman looked from the face of the dead man to the wallet he was opening in his hands. He had brought it out of his pocket woodenly, as if afraid of what it would reveal.
"The driver's license says he's Alek James Hidell," he said.
A collective sigh of relief began to slip out of open mouths. Then someone snapped his fingers. It was so loud it might have been a gunshot.
"What is it?" Win asked angrily.
"Alek Hidell. That was one of the aliases."
They rushed back to the body of the other dead man.
He carried his wallet in his back hip pocket. They could feel it, but they couldn't get at it without turning the body over.
"Better leave it," Workman said. "This is too much for me. "
"Man, this can't get any worse," an agent muttered.
But it did. Almost at once.
An agent reported, "I found the shooter's weapon."
"Stay there. We'll be right up."
WORKMAN ALONE stepped out onto the Science Center roof so as not to disturb evidence.
He walked over to the agent who was half kneeling over the weapon. It was a bolt-action clunker with a makeshift strap.
"Damn. That's an old one," Workman said, crouching over the rifle.
"Look at the barrel."
"What about it?"
"Look at the name of the make stamped on the barrel."
Workman twisted his head around until he could read it.
"Mannlicher-Carcano," the other agent finished.
Win Workman said, "Get out of here!"
"That was what it said. I swear."
That was what it said: Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5 Cal. Made in Italy.
"Mannlicher-Carcano was the rifle Oswald used in Dallas," Workman said dully. "If it was Oswald-"
"What do you mean?" the other agent asked.
"We got the shooter. Add thirty years, and you have the spitting image of Lee Harvey Oswald."
"There's something else," the other agent said. "Look at this spent shell casing."
"What about it?"
"There's something scratched in the metal."
"Two letters. Looks like RX"
"What the fuck does that mean?"
Then, as if it couldn't get any worse, an agent stuck his head out of the greenhouse door leading to the roof and said, "There's a woman demanding to know about the cover-up."
"She says she's Pepsie Dobbins."
"Throw her nosy ass out of here!" Win Workman shouted. "And seal this entire building. This is a Federal crime scene, goddamn it."
At the Furioso International Airport, Remo booked the next flight to Washington and then found a pay phone.
He dialed his home number in Massachusetts.
The line rang three times. Remo hung up, rang it another three times and hung up again. On the fourth ring of his third try, the Master of Sinanju came on the line.
"Remo?" a querulously squeaky voice said.
"Bad news, Chiun. The President was assassinated."
"The Fat Prince? The gluttonous one?"
"Did you do this deed?" the squeaky voice asked.
"Of course not."
"Then he was not assassinated. He was murdered. Only you and I are capable of work worthy of the name."
"Cut the self-congratulatory crap. A sniper took him out."
"What do you mean, 'good'?"
"Emperor Smith, whom we serve in secret, will know by the crude use of a boom stick that neither you nor I were sunlighting."
"For the thousandth freaking time, it's 'moonlighting' and it happened in Boston, not three miles from where we live."
"Remo! This is not true."
"Why was I not informed that the puppet President was in this province?"
"Smith will want to know why you didn't stop the killer."
"I knew nothing of any President or his killer," Chiun squeaked plaintively.
"You know that and I know that. But the President was killed on Smith's watch, which is your watch."
"Your watch, too."
"I don't have a watch anymore. I'm just tying up loose ends, remember?"
"We will blame the unfortunate death of the puppet on your recalcitrance," Chiun crowed.
"The hell you will. Listen, I'm on my way to Washington to protect the new President."
"There is a new President?"
"The Vice President."
"This country is doomed."
"It will be if there's a conspiracy. I'm going to watch over the Vice President. I could use a hand."
"If there is a conspiracy, my place is at the side of the rightful emperor, Harold the Mad."
"Look, no one knows about Smith," Remo shouted.
"Are you calling from an airport?"
"Yes, what does that have to do with anything?"
"Because an airport is a public place and you are shouting your emperor's secrets to any skulking spy who happens by."
Remo switched ears and whispered urgently into the mouthpiece. "I'm officially requesting your presence. Okay?"
"I will consider your request-once I have it in writing," said Chiun thinly. "Until then, my place is at Smith's side."
And the line went dead.
Remo slammed the phone down, breaking the plastic handle. He went to the next phone in line and dialed Smith at Folcroft.
"Smitty, I just talked to Chiun. He won't join me in Washington."
"I made the mistake of whispering the word 'conspiracy,' and he thinks he should be watchdogging you."
"I will call him. Where are you?"
"Furioso International Airport. My flight leaves in ten minutes."
"I expected you in Washington by now."
"I had to wade through miles of kudzu before I found a road with cars on it. The first dozen cars wouldn't stop for me, but I had a lucky break."
"Someone stole my rental car and happened to drive by."
"No. I ran after the car and pulled him out from behind the wheel while he was doing seventy."
"I assume there were no witnesses to this."
"A Greyhound bus happened by in the opposite lane, and the car thief bounced under the wheels, if that's what you mean."
"Good. Keep me informed."
Smith hung up.
Remo found a seat in the waiting area. Other passengers were standing around glued to TV monitors as the networks continued their special reports.
The footage of the death shot was shown a total of eighteen times in nearly as many minutes. Remo, who had dispensed death to the deserving countless times in a long career, turned away from the screen in disgust.
The hushed conversation of waiting passengers came to his ears, as much as he tried to block it out.
"Another assassination. When will it stop?"
"I remember when Kennedy was killed like it was yesterday."
"He was a good President, despite the stories that have come out."
"No, I meant Robert Kennedy."
"Oh. I thought you looked kinda young to remember Jack."
"There's nothing lower than an assassin."
A redheaded woman wearing glasses dropped her shoulder bag at Remo's feet and took the seat beside him. "Have they caught the man who did it yet?" she asked Remo, emboldened by the national tragedy to speak to a total stranger.
"Not that I heard."
"I can't believe we've lost another President."
Remo said nothing.
"The coward," the woman said bitterly.
"Who?" asked Remo.
"The assassin. There's nothing more cowardly than an assassin. What would make a person do such a cold-blooded thing?"
"Search me," said Remo uncomfortably. "Maybe he was a professional."
"As if that were an excuse," she sniffed. "Scum is Scum."
"Look," Remo said angrily, "I don't feel like talking to a total stranger just now, okay?"
The woman reached out and patted Remo's hand sympathetically, cooing, "I understand. You're upset. We're all upset."
Remo stood up and changed seats. Another total stranger sat beside him and asked the latest news. Without replying, Remo changed seats again.
Everywhere he sat, the word "assassin" was hissed in bitter tones.
They called the flight, and after the plane was airborne, Remo left his seat over the wing and took an empty one in the rear of the cabin where he could get away from the incessant talk of assassination.
In more than twenty years working for CURE, Remo had had his problems with working for CURE. Sometimes America didn't seem salvageable. Sometimes the man in the White House wasn't worth fighting for, either.
Many times before, Remo had gotten disgusted with everything and quit. He had always come back. Now he was convinced he had come to the end of the line.
He had given CURE too many years of his life. It was time to move on.
But to what? He hadn't given it much thought, but as he looked out at the unrolling Florida landscape, he wondered what place he would have in the world.
His only trade-if that was what one could call it-was in being an assassin. Remo could never go back to being a cop. He still liked the idea of going after the bad guys, but there was too much red tape now. He could never play by the rules again.
Being an assassin was something Remo had grown comfortable with. Strictly speaking, he never thought of himself as an assassin the way Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan were assassins. They were nut loners. Remo was a consummate professional.
The first time the Master of Sinanju had told Remo that he was being trained in the ultimate assassin's arts, Remo hadn't thought of Sirhan Sirhan. He had thought of James Bond. A cool, capable guy who slides in and out of dangerous situations dealing with the bad guys no one else could touch.
That was certainly what they seemed to be training him for.
When it finally sank in that the Master of Sinanju was an assassin in the traditional sense of the word, Remo had been troubled. Growing up, he had learned to despise the word. Kennedy. Then King. Then another Kennedy.
"I don't want to be an assassin," he had told Chiun so very long ago.
"I am offering you the universe, and you decline?"
"I'm definitely declining."
"No white has ever before been offered Sinanju."
"Sinanju, I'll take. The assassin's belt I pass on."
"Belt! Sinanju does not wear belts. And you cannot separate the art from the result. You are Sinanju. Therefore, you are an assassin. It is a proud tradition."
"Not in this country. Here 'assassin' is a dirty word."
"When the songs detailing your glorious exploits reach the far corners of this benighted land, the word will be exalted."
"You're not listening. Assassins are murderers."
"No. Murderers are murderers. Assassins are artists. We are physicians of death. If there is a problem vexing a nation, we remove it like a cancer. If a ruler is surrounded by intrigues and pretenders, we cleanse his castle."
"You sound like a roach exterminator."
"Upright roaches only," Chiun had said. "There are standards."
"What if he's being stalked by an assassin?" Remo had challenged.
"Doesn't matter who."
"It matters very much who. If someone is being stalked by a rival house of assassins, the clumsy ninja for example, or a low poisoner, we will eradicate this vermin."
"What if he's being stalked by a Master of Sinanju?"
Chiun had beamed at that question. "Then he deserves to die."
"Because he hired cheap help to guard his throne while his enemies hired the best. Us."
"In other words, we work for the highest bidder."
"No, we work for the richest thrones. They deserve the best. All others deserve scorn for not hiring us, and death if their enemies do."
"Sounds like blackmail!"
Chiun had shrugged. "You will come to see it differently when you learn to breathe with your entire body."
Remo had learned to breathe with his entire body, thus liberating the unused portions of his mind. He had become a Master of Sinanju capable of feats of skill, strength and speed ordinary humans only read about in comic books.
In time he came to understand Chiun, last Master of Sinanju, and the five-thousand-year tradition of the House of Sinanju, which had hired out its best to the thrones of the Old World so that the village, on the rock-bound coast of the West Korea Bay, could eat. Especially the children.
But nowhere over the decades did Remo ever think of himself as an assassin the way the screwballs who murdered Presidents did.
But as the 727 winged north to the District of Columbia, he began to wonder. If he left the service of America, would Chiun leave, too? And if Chiun left, would he install Remo as sole heir to the village, and go to work for some foreign nation?
Would Remo go? And if that nation gave the order to snuff the US. President, what would Remo do?
It all came down to one simple question. Deep down, who was Remo Williams?
It was a question that had been bothering him more and more these days.
It had all started with a mission to Tibet, where he had had the worst case of deja vu on record. And he'd never been to Tibet before. Chiun, who had for years been convinced that Remo was the reincarnation of a Hindu god called Shiva the Destroyer, claimed that Remo was merely remembering his ancient home.
After that he had gone to visit the grave with his name on it. A ghostly woman had appeared to him and told him to seek out her own grave. She had given Remo a few cryptic clues and promised that finding her grave would reveal his father.
Remo, whose first view of his mother had been as a phantom at his own grave site, had never known neither his father nor mother. That quest was all that kept him with CURE for now. Smith had promised to help in the search. But with the CURE computers crippled, it looked to be a long process.
Remo was determined to see it to the end, wherever it led.
After that he would sort out his future. If he had one.
As the plane circled Washington National, Remo's sharp eyes made out a big blue-and-white 747 on approach to Andrews Air Force Base, the great seal of the President on its flank. Air Force One, bearing the honored fallen.
He thought back to that bleak November day in 1963-the last time a dead President had been brought home for burial-and he didn't feel good about himself at all.
Then the airline captain's voice came over the PA system.
"The White House has just announced that the President of the United States is about to land at Andrews Air Force Base, and that he is in good health. I don't know what it's all about, folks, but considering the alternative, I think I'll take the good news at face value."
Spontaneous applause rippled through the passenger cabin.
In the rear Remo wondered what the hell was going on. He'd seen the President gunned down just like the rest of America.
Not until Air Force One lumbered off Runway 22 Left on spooling engines and banked south over the Atlantic did the head of the White House Secret Service detail allow himself the luxury of tears.
He was a big man, with the wide shoulders of a linebacker and a face composed of smooth ledges and ridges that looked strong without the aviator-style sunglasses and indomitable with them clapped over his eyes. He had served through three administrations and had not lost a man. Until now.
So the tears rilled down from behind those opaque lenses as Vincent Capezzi stood post over the coffin that had been strapped to the master bed in the flying White House. Other agents stood outside the door. Capezzi had wanted to be alone with the fallen man.
"We did our best," he said in a low voice as if the dead, unhearing ears could hear every word. "I want you to know that. We did our best for you. But there was nothing we could do."
The coffin, a simple white capsule of composite material, sat mutely on the oval bed.
"And you knew the risks. It doesn't make it right, but you knew the risks when you took the damn job."
There came a knock at the door.
"What is it?" Capezzi said impatiently. He had not finished what he had to say.
"ANC is reporting the President is dead," a voice said.
"Goddamn," said Capezzi, taking off his glasses and wiping his eyes with a linen handkerchief.
"It just broke."
"Has the Man been informed?"
"I'll do it," he said. When he stepped out into the narrow corridors, the glasses were back on his face and his face was again a fleshy rock.
Thank God for shades, he thought to himself as he knocked on the door with the Presidential seal.
A hoarse, dispirited voice said, "Yes?"
"Capezzi, sir. May I come in?"
"Is it important?"
The door unlocked from within, and Vince Capezzi stepped in.
THE PRESIDENT of the United States wore shock on his face like a crumbling mud pack. He was looking out the window at the winter clouds, which reared up like gray-black mountains. He turned in his seat.
He wore a blue poplin windbreaker, the Presidential patch over his heart. There was still blood and brain matter on his shirtfront from the shooting.
"ANC has you dead," Capezzi told him.
The President of the United States snapped out of his spell. "Don't they know better than to go on the air with wild speculation?" The President caught himself. Since the day he took office, they had been tracking his political highs and lows as if he were some kind of fool IPO stock on NASDAQ.
"The other networks are sure to follow. It's a panic situation."
"Has the First Lady been told?"
"Yes. First thing. If she hears the bulletin, she'll know to discount it."
"And the wife of the agent who took the bullet meant for me?"
"No wife. No immediate family."
"Small comfort in that," the President said bitterly.
"He knew the risks of wearing his hair cut like yours and stepping out of the limo first, Mr. President. It was an invitation to take the first shot."
The President looked up. "What is it you boys call that duty?"
"Playing the designated goat, sir."
"I want his sacrifice made known to the American people."
"Sorry, sir. If we released those details, the next sniper will hold back that first shot until he's certain he has the right skull in his cross hairs."
The President made a tight fist. He rubbed his puffy eyes wearily. "I look like a low coward, running away like this," he said bitterly.
"Sorry. But in the event this is a conspiracy and not some lone agent, you have to be returned to the White House. It's for your own personal safety."
The President's eyes flared. "I needed to give that speech. You had no right to hustle me away like that! I'm the damn President of the United States."
"Our mandate to protect you supercedes your wishes," Capezzi said, trying to keep his voice calm. "You need to issue a statement, Mr. President, reassuring the nation."
The President seemed to deflate like a tire. "What I really need is a fresh shirt."
"I'll send your chief of staff in."
Vince Capezzi started to leave.
"Tell him to take his time. If the networks all go on the air with unsubstantiated rumors, they deserve to eat their broadcasts."
"Yes, sir," said Vince Capezzi, closing the door behind him.
Politicians, he thought. A good agent lay in his coffin, a bullet meant for the Chief Executive in his brain, and the true target still had the presence of mind to shuffle the deck before he dealt the next hand.
LIKE A REPEATING IMAGE, six stone-faced Secret Service special agents blocked Pepsie Dobbins's attempt to enter the Science Center at the University of Massachusetts Harbor Campus.
They were resealing the entrance doors with white barrier tape. Two ends of a broken seal hung from the spot where one of two sets of double doors came together.
"I'm Pepsie Dobbins," she said. "What can you tell me?"
"I mean, what can you tell me about the conspiracy to assassinate the President?"
"Ah-hah! Then there is a conspiracy."
Behind their aviator sunglasses the six stony faces grew long.
"Nobody said that," an agent said.
"Nobody has contradicted it, either," said Pepsie. She turned to her cameraman. "Did you get that on tape?"
The cameraman nodded. A mistake. Two burly agents strode up to him and relieved him of his Minicam. One said, "I'm confiscating this as evidence in an ongoing investigation" as the other slapped white protective tape over the cassette port.
"Don't you dare!" Pepsie snapped.
"It's done. And you have exactly thirty seconds to leave this campus or we'll confiscate you. "
"I still have my quote," Pepsie warned. "And if you people are involved in any cover-up, ANC News will be the first to see you hung."
"That's 'hanged,'" an agent said.
"How many people involved in the conspiracy?" demanded Pepsie.
"Hah! Another nondenial. Further evidence of conspirators."
Pepsie stormed off campus saying, "We've got to get to the local affiliate."
"Why?" her cameraman asked. "You don't have film."
"We have a Secret Service agent explicitly not denying that there was a conspiracy to assassinate the President of the United States."
"Is that a double negative?" the cameraman asked as they went looking for their cab.
"I don't care what they call it, it's news."
The cabbie was still in the idling Boston taxi down in the underground garage when they got there.
As they got in, they found him fiddling with the cab radio.
"Boy," he said. "You'd think the Secret Service would be talking over a secure channel at a time like this."
Pepsie's eyes and voice grew eager. "You can pick them up?"
"What do you think I've been doing while I've been waiting? The limes crossword?"
"Well, don't just sit there," Pepsie said, pulling a minicassette recorder from her purse. "Turn up the volume so we can all hear."
The tense, urgent voices of the Secret Service crackled over the tinny dash radio.
"They're bringing the shooter's rifle down now," a voice said.
"They sure it's a Mannlicher?"
"It says Mannlicher-Carcano on the barrel, stamped big as life" came the hushed reply.
"What's a Manhiemer-Carbano?" Pepsie wondered aloud.
"Mannlicher-Carcano," the cabbie said. "It's a piece-of-shit Italian rifle."
"How do you know?"
"Hell, everybody knows what a crummy rifle the Carcano is. Even though Oswald did pretty well by it."
"Lee Harvey Oswald. The nut who shot Kennedy."
Pepsie frowned. "I thought Sirhan Sirhan shot Kennedy."
"Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy. I'm talking about Jack."
"I wasn't born then," said Pepsie, who hated it when baby boomers flaunted the fact that she hadn't been alive during most of the sixties.
The Secret Service voices continued. "Call out the serial number. I'll radio it to the BATF's NFTC for tracing."
"What did he say?" Pepsie wanted to know.
"He said," the cabbie said patiently, "he's going to radio the Mannlicher's serial number to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The NFTC is their National Firearms Tracing Center. They can trace any gun manufactured in this country that way."
"How do you know all this stuff?"
The cabbie shrugged. "I'm a buff." He turned around in his seat. "How come you don't?"
"It's a girl thing," Pepsie retorted. "You wouldn't understand. You have testicles."
A voice crackled from the dash speaker. "Serial number C2766. Repeat, C as in Charlie, twenty-seven sixty-six."
"Holy fucking shit!" said the cabbie.
"What is it? What does that number mean?"
"It means," said the cabbie, "that the Mannlicher-Carcano that shot the President dead is the same one that killed Kennedy."
Pepsie Dobbins and her cameraman exchanged blank looks.
"What does that mean?" she asked.
"It means," said the cabbie, "that this is one hell of a story and how come you're sitting here when you should be getting it on the air before the cover-up begins all over again?"
THE CABBIE PEELED out of the garage on burning rubber and sped to the local ANC affiliate.
When Pepsie Dobbins barged in the door, she filled her lungs with air and called out at the top of her voice, "Point me to the nearest hot camera and get my news director in Washington on the line."
She was greeted with a sea of stony faces.
"Well, what are you standing around for?"
The stony regards grew stonier still.
"Don't you know who I am? Pepsie Dobbins. I broke the historic news that the President was murdered. Now I'm about to blow the lid off the conspiracy behind it."
No one made a move except a guard in a booth who picked up a telephone and began dialing.
"What's wrong with you people? I know the President is dead, but you can mourn on personal time. We have the people's right to know to exploit."
"The President isn't dead," someone said in a dull monotone.
Pepsie took a single step backward. "Oh, my God," she whispered to her cameraman. "Do you think they're in on the conspiracy, too? Maybe part of the cover-up?"
"Looks that way to me," the cabbie undertoned.
Pepsie whirled. "What are you doing here?"
"I want to see how everything comes out. Besides, you don't know jack shit about the subject. I do. I've read every book on assassination I could get my hands on. I'm a walking encyclopedia. Maybe I should be put on retainer."
"Later," Pepsie said. She cleared her throat and said, "The President has been killed, and the Secret Service is trying to cover up the truth. God knows how deep this goes or how big it is."
A man stepped out into the waiting area, face tight as a drum. "The President is not dead," he said.
"We all saw it on TV."
"That was a Secret Service special agent who was killed, not the President."
"How do you know?"
"I'm the news director here and I just got it from your news director. The network is issuing a retraction and apology right about now."
"Oh, my God. They aren't mentioning my name, are they? I'm still trying to live down that last little faux pas. "
"You mean the one where you were pretending to do a live remote from the Capitol Building, except it was a color slide projected onto the wall behind you?" the cabbie asked amiably. "Or the faux pas where you did a stand-up in front of NASA headquarters and they put up a slide of Nassau in the Bahamas?"
"I was tricked into doing both of those against my better judgment," Pepsie snapped.
"Your better judgment," the news director said, "has given ANC a black eye and caused the stock market to drop one hundred sixty points in three minutes. They had to halt trading. The currency markets are in an uproar. It was looking pretty grim until Air Force One issued their official denial."
"Are we sure the President is still alive?" Pepsie demanded.
"He hasn't gone on the air yet."
"It could be part of the cover-up."
The news director accepted a cellular phone handset from a secretary, spoke into it briefly, then tossed it to Pepsie.
"Tell it to your news director. And then clear out of my building."
"Greg? I can explain," Pepsie said into the handset.
But Greg wasn't in the mood for hearing explanations. He swore a continuous blue streak until Pepsie stopped wincing and just hung her head in shame.
When he was through with his tirade, Pepsie said, "I think I can redeem us a little. Maybe."
"I have hard evidence that the rifle used to shoot the President-I mean the Secret Service agent-is the same one that killed Kennedy. Jack, not Robert."
"Don't screw with me, Pepsie. You're on thin ice as it is."
"It's true. I have it on tape. Listen."
Pepsie rewound her minicassette and played snatches of the Secret Service radio exchange into the cellular handset.
"Who's that explaining everything to you?" the news director asked.
"My cab driver."
"You're depending on the memory of a fucking cab driver for your fact checking?" the news director roared.
"I resent that remark," the cabbie said. "I happen to be an amateur conspiratologist. "
"Look," Pepsie said, clapping a hand over her free ear, "if it's the same rifle, this could be big. We've got to go on the air with it."
"I'm going on the air with nothing! You get your ass back to Washington, and we'll sort it out later. In the meantime, I have an unscheduled appointment in the network president's woodshed. And you have one in mine. "
The phone went click in Pepsie's ear.
"Take me to the airport," Pepsie told the cabbie dispiritedly. "And don't be in such a rush."
On the way out, the cabbie was saying, "I don't suppose I could talk you into letting me accompany you to D.C.? I got a lot to offer and I'm sick of contending with these maniac Boston drivers ...."
The airline reservations agent was unapologetic.
"We have no adjoining seats in coach and none in first class at all."
"But I'm Pepsie Dobbins. Bump someone."
The agent remained unmoved. "The flight has boarded. Would you prefer to wait for the next flight."
"I'd love to," Pepsie muttered. "But I have to be in Washington."
"Do you have a preference-12-A or 31-E?"
"Just give them both to me," Pepsie said. "Since when does the ANC News Washington correspondents get so little respect?" she fumed.
"Since she screwed up royally," suggested the cabbie.
"You watch your mouth. You're along for the ride only as long as you pull your own weight."
"Happy to oblige," said the cabbie, accepting his boarding pass from Pepsie.
"What about me?" asked the ANC News cameraman, who stood a little off to one side, his hands dangling uncomfortably as if he didn't know what to do with them when not packing around the chief tool of his trade.
"Walk," said Pepsie. "And next time hold on to your camera."
ON BOARD, Pepsie found a little mummy of an Asian man sitting in 12-A. A lavender kimono covered his pipe-stem body. He was as bald as an egg except for some snowy cloud puffs over each ear. A wisp of smoke too vaporous to be called a true beard hung off his wrinkled chin. He stared out the window with narrow eyes that were hazel in the reflected glass.
Pepsie bent over and asked, "Would you mind trading seats with my friend?"
"Yes, I would mind," said the old Asian in a squeaky voice. He did not look away from the window.
"But I need to sit with my friend."
"Then sit on his lap. Just do not bother me."
"But I'm Pepsie Dobbins."
"And I am the Master of Sinanju."
Pepsie blinked. "I guess he won't budge," she told the cabbie.
"You are very astute," said the Master of Sinanju. "For a mere female."
Reluctantly Pepsie took her seat next to the little wisp of a man, and the cabbie went to the back of the plane. Within a few minutes the jet was airborne.
After the Please Fasten Seat Belts light was doused, Pepsie turned to the old Asian and complained, "It wouldn't have hurt you to be nice to me."
"I do not see you being nice to me."
"But I'm an important network correspondent."
The face of the old Asian gathered its wrinkles together like parchment taking on water. "Pah! I am even more important than you."
"I am the resolute guardian of the throne of America."
"That's nice," said Pepsie in a thin voice, instantly dismissing the old man as senile.
The old Asian lapsed into silence.
"Of course," the old man added after a long pause, "it is a state secret."
Not looking up from her copy of People, Pepsie murmured, "What is?"
"The fact that I serve the true ruler of America in a secret capacity. Do not tell anyone."
"It is a thankless task."
"I'm sure it is."
"Especially thankless since I am reduced to protecting the puppet President and not Emperor Smith."
Pepsie shook off her disinterest. "Puppet President?"
"He is a sham. Though few know it."
"I'm sure," Pepsie said vaguely.
"Your entire government is a sham. A sham and a farce."
"But never dull."
"But this is what an assassin is reduced to in these odious times."
"Excuse me. Did you say 'assassin'?"
The old Asian placed a thin finger like a yellowed mummy bone to his papery lips. "Secret assassin."
"You're an assassin?"
"This is very interesting," said Pepsie, surreptitiously reaching into her purse and squeezing the Record button on her minicassette recorder.
"Of course, I cannot speak about it. Tongues would wag-"
"They always do. But just between you and I, you didn't have anything to do with what happened here today?"
"Yeah. The disgrace."
"It was a base act. To use a boom stick and strike down a member of the palace guard and not the proper target."
"You think it's bad they got the wrong guy?"
"It is a disgrace. A proper assassin dispatches his target and no other. And he does this without resorting to smoke and thunder."
"So if it were you, the President would have been killed?"
"If it were I," the old man said, "the puppet would not only have expired, but have expired in a way that no one would ever suspect fool play."
"You mean foul play."
"A chicken would be insulted by what happened this day."
"Truly." The old man lapsed into another long silence. His quick hazel eyes went continually to the gleaming aluminum wing just below the window.
"We are past the point of danger," he said after a while.
"You mean the country?"
"No. I mean this conveyance. The wing has not fallen off. Typically this only happens in the first ten minutes. If it has not fallen off now, it is unlikely to do so until we are again on the ground. By then, it does not matter if the wing falls off or not."
"Back to the puppet President," Pepsie said quickly. "If he's a puppet, who pulls his strings?"
"Emperor Smith. It is he who truly rules this land and who, for stubborn reasons I cannot understand, allows the fallacy of democracy to lurch on unchecked."
"You mean, like voting?"
"I've never voted."
"You show uncommon wisdom."
"Do you think Smith has anything to do with the attempts on the President's life?"
"No. It is Smith who has ordered me to Washington to protect the puppet from those who covet his life. I do not understand this. Smith has ignored all my entreaties to snuff the puppet and set him on the Eagle Throne."
"You mean the Oval Office?"
"I mean what I mean. It matters not where the emperor places his throne, only that he sits upon it with firmness."
"You want the President dead?"
"It will bring stability to this land of mass confusion. Every four years it is the same circus. Many vie for the puppet throne, and each time the prettiest face and the loudest voice triumphs. Seldom has a true ruler won the contest."
"Name one who did."
"Milhous the Trusted. He was a true leader. Cold. Ruthless. Calculating. The years when he was puppet were good ones, relatively."
"What did you say your name was?"
"I did not say," the old man sniffed. "But I am called Chiun. Remember the name well. Just do not repeat it to anyone."
"My lips are sealed," Pepsie said, surreptitiously shutting off the tape recorder.
The Washington press corps had already staked out Andrews Air Base when Air Force One touched down on barking tires.
Secret Service Special Agent Vince Capezzi spotted them as the lumbering 747 swung off the runway, trundling toward the waiting black-and-olive-green helicopter that, like others designated for the Chief Executive's official use, was called Marine One whenever the President himself stepped aboard.
"We got press in large numbers," he barked into his hand mike. "Inform the pilot to park her in the hangar. We'll take the Man off inside."
Turbines spooling down, the Presidential plane veered toward a waiting hangar. Seeing the course change, the Washington press corps surged toward the hangar.
"Wonderful. They're going to try to beat us to the hangar."
"I'd better put this to the President," said Capezzi, lifting himself out of his seat in the Secret Service cubicle.
He moved through the narrow blue corridors and encountered the chief of staff.
"We have press," Capezzi said grimly.
"Good? We've got to get the Man to Crown as fast as possible."
"It's the White House. Call it the White House when you talk to me. All these dipshit code names drive me crazy."
"Until we've ascertained that there is no conspiracy, the President belongs in a secure place."
"He has a health-care plan to push. He's pretty steamed you pulled him out of Boston."
"I didn't notice your vociferous objection."
The chief of staff shrugged. "You know how it goes."
"Yeah, I know how it goes. Whenever the President has to change his schedule, the service is trotted out as scapegoat. But this time the threat was real."
"Look, I'm going to recommend the President speak briefly to the press."
"It's a risk."
"It would have to be a pretty big conspiracy to have agents in Boston and Washington," the chief of staff pointed out.
"It's not impossible. And I object to any Presidential appearance in the strongest possible terms."
"He's still the President. He makes these decisions. But I'll relay to him your concerns."
"Like hell you will. I'm going in there with you. I won't lose this President to staff politics."
"Fine," the chief of staff said stiffly. "We'll both go see the President."
"Don't bother," the hoarse voice of the President of the United States said. "I heard everything."
The President appeared behind them, looking grim.
The chief of staff spoke up quickly. "Mr. President, now would be an excellent time to assure the nation that you are alive and in control of the reins of power."
"You mean word hasn't gotten out yet?" Capezzi said.
The chief of staff smiled tightly. "We thought it would endanger the President's security if word were released prematurely."
Buttoning a fresh jacket and smoothing his replacement tie, the President said, "I'll address the press when I step off the plane. Have the air stairs rolled into place and make the usual security arrangements."
"Damn," Capezzi said, turning on his heel to do his thankless duty.
Air Force One was braked short of the hangar. The Washington press corps uncertainly stopped its mass stampede and looked indecisive.
There was a runway staircase mounted on a waiting truck and it started up, moving into position. Once the bumpers touched the hull on either side of the main exit door, the door was thrown open and Secret service agents, clutching MAC-11s, rattled down the red-carpeted steps and began going among the press contingent, demanding to see plastic press IDs and frisking unfamiliar reporters with metal-detecting wands.
"Okay," one barked into his wrist mike. "All clear."
"Roger. We're moving him down from Angel One now."
The President emerged, flanked by two agents whose immobile faces rotated back and forth with metronomic regularity.
The President lifted one hand, and gasps floated up from the assembled press.
Walking steadily, the President descended to the bottom of the steps and stopped before a portable podium that had been hastily set in place.
"I would like to make a statement," he began in a somber voice.
"Who are you?" a reporter blurted.
"Looks like the President," a second reporter said.
"But he's supposed to be dead," a third said.
The President ignored the outburst and pressed on. "As you all know, earlier today there was an incident where a shot was fired at the Presidential limousine."
"Mr. President," a reporter asked, waving. "A question, please."
The President ignored him. He opened his mouth to continue his statement.
"Mr. President, why aren't you dead?" the reporter interrupted.
The President looked up to see who had spoken. It was a former White House correspondent famous for his rude questions and bad hairpieces. He was wearing a serious expression despite the utter ridiculousness of his shouted question.
"You are the President of the United States, aren't you?" he added pointedly. "I mean, you're not a double or ringer brought in to calm the nation?"
"You know better than that," the President snapped, dispensing with his address.
"But, sir, with all due respect, how do we know you are indeed the President?"
"Because I just stepped off Air Force One wearing the President's well-known face," the President said, swallowing a bitter "you moron."
"I mean no disrespect, Mr. President, but the networks have reported your death. In fact, they have film. And it clearly shows your head being blown apart in living color."
"That was not me but a Secret Service agent who looks a little like me."
"In other words, a double?" the former White House correspondent said quickly.
"A decoy," the President snapped back. "Not a double."
"Can you prove that you're the real double and not the dead double?"
The President jerked an angry thumb over his shoulder at Air Force One. "His brave body is in the process of being unloaded," he said tightly.
"When will we be allowed to film the corpse?"
"You wouldn't be able to broadcast the film. Trust me."
"We telecast the film of you having your head blown apart," a woman reporter corrected. "Semilive."
"That wasn't me," the President snapped.
"We haven't fully established this yet," another reporter pointed out in a tone more reasonable than the comment itself.
"Look at me!" the President exploded. "I am the President of the United States. I am standing here in my own flesh speaking in my own voice. What is so darn hard to understand?"
"Do you have a comment on Watergate-I mean Whitewash? Whatever it's called now. You know, the scandal thing."
"I'd rather talk about health-care reform."
"Yeah, that's him," the former White House reporter with the silly hairpiece said.
The President continued his statement. "I would just like to assure the American people that, despite this tragedy, the governing of this nation will go on uninterrupted. And I would also like to express my sincere condolences to the family of the slain agent. Thank you."
"You said there would be questions," a reporter complained.
"I've answered all the questions I intend to answer," the President snapped.
"Does that mean you don't know the answers?"
"Just one more," the President said wearily.
"Don't do it, Mr. President," the chief of staff whispered.
Too late, the President pointed to the person who had spoken.
"Will the Vice President take over your duties during the period of uncertainty over your identity?"
"There's is no uncertainty! I know who I am. And the American people know who I am!"
"Is that a yes or a no?" asked one reporter.
"That will be all. That will be all," the chief of staff said, leading the fuming President away from the podium.
"Hey, that will make a great instant-poll question," another piped up. "Let's let the American public decide."
An armored limousine slithered under the shadow of Air Force One and the President was pushed into it for the sixty-yard trip to Marine One, which was whining into life.
Agents surrounded the President when he emerged, forming a moving diamond around him. He was jostled up the stairs like a convicted felon being hustled off to court.
When Marine One lifted into the air, Secret Service Special Agent Mince Capezzi breathed a long, whistling sigh of relief.
Once they reached Crown, the President would be safe.
The network news vans and satellite trucks had been parked on the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue before the White House for over an hour now, their microwave dishes pointed in all directions. Cameramen were perched on the van roofs, panning tripod-mounted video cameras back and forth.
Roving news crews prowled the perimeter fence, blocked from entering by uniformed Secret Service agents.
"We need a statement from the First Lady," a reporter called over the fence.
"The First Lady isn't making any statements right now."
"She's gotta make a statement. She's the new Jackie Kennedy. She owes it to the nation to share her pain with ordinary citizens."
The Secret Service agent bit his lips. The word from the West Wing was to stonewall the press until an official statement was put out.
"Sorry," he said.
Frustrated, reporters descended on citizens and tourists who were gathering on Pennsylvania Avenue, weeping and stunned.
"What does the Presidential loss mean to you personally?"
"Where were you when you heard the news?"
"I need a shot of someone crying," a reporter called out. "If you've got tears in your eyes, raise your hand and I'll put you on the BCN Evening News. "
No one raised their hand. But someone threw a rock. It bounced off the reporter's skull, and for the next ten minutes he became the story as cameras closed in on him lying on the pavement, bleeding from a gash over one eye, saying, "Help me. Someone help me."
"Sorry," he was told by his colleagues, "you're news now. We can't help you."
"Can't you bleed a little more?" another colleague requested. "This is kinda dull. How about a nice painful groan?"
NO ONE NOTICED the panhandler arrive in a metallic blue Porsche.
The panhandler stepped from the Porsche after parking it near the Treasury Building, one block east of the White House. He was wearing a shabby tan trench coat and a black acrylic baseball cap with the letters CIA stamped on the front. His aviator-style sunglasses were taped together with duct tape on the bridge and stems.
He shuffled toward the east White House fence, making no effort to solicit spare change from the gathering crowd.
There was a Secret Service special agent stationed under a spreading magnolia tree, and while his attention was elsewhere, the panhandler suddenly knelt and pulled a black-and-white cat from under his trench coat. He shoved the complaining feline through the fence, saying, "Scat!"
Secret Service Special Agent Clyde Norman caught the motion out of the corner of his eye.
"Hey!" he yelled at the kneeling panhandler. "Get away from that cat!"
The panhandler abruptly straightened up. "I was just petting it," he said defensively.
Trotting down to the fence, Norman lifted his left hand to his mouth. "Flea Dip is loose again."
"Who the hell is Flea Dip?" a voice called back.
"Oh, right. Just take it slow, Norman. He's very mellow for a cat."
"Must have inhaled," Norman said, slowing up when he realized the black-and-white tabby wasn't disposed to run away.
He looked mellow, all right. In fact, he looked somewhat on the stoned side.
"Here, Socks. Come, boy. Or girl. Or whatever you are."
The cat swung its piebald head around, fixing Norman with dull yellow eyes. It wore a red leather collar.
Norman sank to one knee. The panhandler had already moved on.
"Come here, Socks. Come on."
The cat simply sat there, looking absolutely zoned out.
"What are you, deaf?"
Norman got up, taking care to make no sudden moves. Still crouching, he inched toward the cat.
Just as Norman was about to scoop him up, the cat gave an unexpected leap, sailing over his shoulder, and bounded along on paws like soft white fur boots.
"Damn!" Norman got up, whirling.
"Norman to Base. Flea Dip is coming your way. Repeat, Flea Dip is coming your way."
SECRET SERVICE Special Agent Dick Armbruster was standing post on the breezeway between the Oval Office and the family quarters of the White House when he received the transmission.
"Damn that moron cat," he grumbled, stepping onto the lawn.
More often than not he got stuck with feline protection, as the service had dubbed it in its limitless bureaucratic hightestosterone style. Feline protection ran the gamut from hauling the little fur ball down from Andrew Jackson's magnolia tree to the joys of the weekly flea dip.
It was Armbruster who had coined the First Cat's code name, Flea Dip-a coining scrupulously kept from Ballbuster and Braces, or the First Lady and First Daughter in service code.
Armbruster was coming around a corner when he heard a faint hissing. "Aural contact with Flea Dip on north side."
"Roger. Approach with caution, Armbruster."
"Roger," said Armbruster, thinking they make it sound as if they were stalking a wild animal.
The hissing was still audible as Armbruster turned the corner and came upon the First Cat diligently licking its fuzzy butt.
Armbruster froze, his agent's instincts kicking in. The cat was licking itself steadily. Yet there was a protracted hissing coming from the cat itself.
As he knelt to observe more closely, Agent Armbruster thought he saw a fine mist rise from the feline's red leather collar.
The cat seemed to sense something was wrong, too. It began to sniff itself with delicate curiosity.
Not for the first time, Armbruster thought it was one hell of an ugly cat. Its face mask was a mottling of black-andwhite patches without symmetry or beauty.
Blithely unaware of its ugliness, the First Cat continued sniffing itself.
Armbruster reached out a tentative hand. Usually the First Cat would come to him, dumb-ass feline that it was.
"Here, brain dead."
Without warning, the cat gathered itself up on stretching legs and arched its back. Hackles rising with porcupine suddenness, the First Cat opened its mouth and hissed. This was a different hiss than the earlier sound, deeper, more threatening.
"Come on, Socks. Don't bust my chops. You know me."
Armbruster knew the best way to soothe a nervous cat-at least this nervous one-was to let it sniff his loose, unthreatening fingers. He let his fingers go limp and pushed them toward the hissing feline.
"Have a good sniff," he said soothingly The cat growled like a junkyard dog.
Armbruster pulled back slightly. "Whoa, there, tiger. What's your problem?"
The cat straightened its ebony back, and Armbruster approached again.
In his ear the radio voice of the assistant detail head asked, "What's keeping you with that fool cat, Armbruster?"
"Hold your horses," Armbruster barked. "I'm closing in for the kill."
And the cat pounced.
THE ASSISTANT HEAD of the White House detail was named Jack Murtha and he had just received word that Marine One was about to land.
"We're going to need as many agents as we can scrounge up to meet Big Mac. "
"Roger," Murtha said, and then into his mike he asked, "Murtha to Armbruster. What's keeping you with that fool cat?"
Back came a testy and unprofessional "Hold your horses."
Then his earphone filled with a hissing, spitting, snarling ball of sound, and Armbruster was screaming in a high, frightened voice, "Backup! I need backup! Rose Garden!"
"All available agents! Rose Garden. Armbruster in trouble."
As he ran, Murtha wondered what the hell was going on. It sounded as if Armbruster had gotten himself tangled up in the mother of all cat fights.
They found Special Agent Dick Armbruster sprawled in the Rose Garden, his face striated with streaks of red and his right hand in ribbons.
"There he goes, the bastard," Armbruster shouted, pointing with a shredded index finger.
Everyone looked where he pointed.
"There who goes?"
"That damn killer cat. It jumped me. Look what it did to my hand."
"What'd you do, kick it?"
"I never touched it. It attacked me. Christ, it was a damn cougar."
"Get that cat," Murtha said. "Two of you, stay with me. We'll get him inside before the press or the President sees this mess."
Jack Murtha was overseeing the moving of the injured agent when the sound of wildcats came in stereo. In the earpiece and just around the corner.
"Ahh!" an agent screamed.
"That sounds like Reynolds."
"It's that cat. It must be rabid," Armbruster said.
"You know that cat. Mellow as pipe smoke. Look what it did. It's not itself."
"Damn," Murtha said, lifting his wrist mike on the run. "All agents. Possible rabid cat moving toward South Lawn. All available agents pursue and surround. Use extreme caution."
The wildcat sounds stopped suddenly, and when Murtha, two special agents in tow, reached the place where they heard the sound, they found the two agents squirming on the grass.
"Reynolds! What happened?"
Reynolds looked up with pleading eyes. He was clutching his throat with both hands. Blood was dripping through the cracks in his fingers, and when Murtha yanked them away, he saw exposed trachea.
Reynolds gave out a choking gurgle, and his eyes rolled up in his head.
The other special agent was sitting, holding his left eye cupped in one hand.
"I think it got my eye."
"Damn, what's got into that cat?" Into his hand mike, he barked, "Report on Flea Dip."
"Burton here. Vonier and I have that tick-bait cat in sight."
"Use extreme caution. Do not attempt to apprehend without assistance."
"Yes, the fucking cat. Surround but do not approach."
"Roger," Burton said in a dubious tone.
FULLY SEVEN trained special agents converged on the South Lawn where Marine One was due to arrive shortly.
Socks the First Cat was pacing in increasingly smaller circles as it became aware of the closing net of frightened humans.
"We'll close the circle and keep it contained until Marine One sets down," Murtha said, whispering into his hand mike so as not to spook the First Cat.
A chorus of "Rogers" filtered back.
"Anybody notice if it's foaming at the mouth?"
"Negative. No foam."
"No foam from this side."
The cat continued pacing, arching its back often.
"It's not acting like Socks at all."
"When they contract rabies, they lose their minds," Murtha said grimly.
"It does have that stupid look rabid animals get."
"You ask me, that fool cat was born looking stupid."
The circle continued closing. Socks walked in tighter and tighter circles, starting in one direction and retreating when it realized there was no loophole in the circle of polished cordovans.
The distinctive echoing rattle of Marine One came at the worst possible time.
The First Cat gathered itself up.
"Okay," Murtha said urgently. "Just everybody hold your ground. It's too well fed to jump very high."
In that, Jack Murtha was wrong. From a standing start, Socks jumped straight backward. Everyone expected a forward leap. So the agents behind the First Cat were caught by surprise.
The cat hopped backward like a bullfrog to land between Jack Murtha's legs.
"Mother-" he said, reaching down to grab the cat by the neck in both hands. Maybe he could immobilize it by cutting off its oxygen. He had been taught that hold at the service's training center at Beltsville.
Jack Murtha wrapped all ten fingers around the cat and lifted. It was an adaptation of his training and looked good in theory.
In practice it was a disaster.
The cat squirmed, clawing, and its rear claws raked his wrists and hands. It was like trying to hold on to a threshing python. Its strength was incredible.
Marine One settled closer. He could feel the hair at his neck stir under the fierce prop wash.
"Give me a hand!" he cursed.
But it was too late. Frenzied claws forced him to let go.
The First Cat sprinted off, tail curled high, a halfdozen Secret Service special agents in hot pursuit.
"Damn it! Don't let it get near the President," Murtha said, holding up the ribbons that were now his wrists. "Shoot it if you have to, but don't let that the little fucker get near Big Mac!"
THE PRESIDENT of the United States looked out the window of Marine One as the great expanse of the South Lawn came into view.
He saw a knot of Secret Service special agents pounding toward the landing pad.
"Don't you think they're overdoing it?" he asked his Secret Service bodyguard.
"Until a conspiracy is proven or disproven, there is no such concept as overdoing it, sir," said Vincent Capezzi.
"That, I plan to take up with your superior."
"I understand he's en route to the White House, Mr. President," Capezzi said as the big helicopter touched ground. He unbuckled and leapt from his seat to open the door for the Chief Executive.
The President of the United States emerged from Marine One to see a frantic clot of agents pounding toward him. Leading the group, as if in welcome, was Socks the family cat.
Despite his bad mood, the President let a smile come to his puffy face. "Now, isn't that just the cutest thing you ever did see?"
"Socks. Looks kinda like he's leading the Secret Service."
Vince Capezzi turned and saw the look on the faces of his fellow agents. Their shouting blended into a hoarse burst of sound.
Reaching for his belt, he turned on his radio.
Through the earphone came a blur of frantic shouting.
"Shoot the fucker!"
Capezzi spotted the guns in his fellow agents hands and jumped to a reasonable conclusion.
There was no one between the frantic special agents and the President but himself and the family cat. They obviously weren't out to shoot the cat. They must mean either the President or himself.
Either way, Vince Capezzi's duty was clear.
Throwing the President of the United States to the grass at the foot of the blue-carpeted fold-down helicopter steps, Capezzi snapped his MAC-11 from its whip-it shoulder sling, simultaneously throwing himself across the President's bulky form, and prepared to mow down his fellow agents and ask questions later.
He just hoped a stray round didn't catch the First Cat. Ballbuster would kill him.
Capitol Hill police cruisers and sawhorses had blocked all approach roads to the White House, so the taxi driver turned to Remo Williams and said, "This is as far as I can take you."
"Thanks," said Remo, throwing the cabbie a twenty and stepping out of the car.
Marine One was coming down at a shallow angle toward the the dull green expanse of the South Lawn, so Remo figured matters were reasonably well in hand.
The burst of gunfire brought him from a standing position to a floating run that was deceptively fast.
Remo went over the White House fence and flashed over the ground so fast his feet never tripped the seismic sensors buried under the turf.
There were no guards to stop him as he whipped toward the South Lawn. Not that any guard would have been fast enough to react.
Remo's senses were trained to absorb and analyze dangerous situations in a split second. A microsecond was sometimes all he had to dodge a bullet or evade other forms of sudden death.
Coming around the corner, Remo saw a clot of Secret Service agents dropping into firing positions.
The weapons were pointed toward Marine One. At the foot of the fold-down blue-carpeted steps whose risers were emblazoned with the words, Welcome Aboard Marine One, a lone agent was sprawled over the President of the United States and was shooting short bursts over the heads of the others, crying, "Lay down your arms! Goddamn it, lay down your arms!"
Confusion marked the faces of the crouching agents. Some hesitated. Others were throwing up their hands in surrender.
And in between, a black-and-white cat crouched in fear, ears laid back, not knowing which way to go.
For once Remo's training was not equal to processing the information his brain was receiving.
He flashed among the crouching agents and began relieving hands of weapons. Slap. Slap. Slap.
He used restrained force. Still, a few fingers got broken. But every visible weapon went bounding along the grass, clips and bullets popping out.
Remo started sweeping around for another pass when the agent spread-eagled over the President paused, holding his fire.
He had seen Remo. He was the only one who had. He adjusted his weapon, trying to track him. Remo feinted, moved backward and managed to keep the muzzle pointing every place except where he was.
During the lull, the First Cat ran toward the nearest shelter. Marine One.
An agent hollered, "The cat! Stop the cat! It's rabid!"
In the act of weaving, Remo shot forward.
He came up behind the cat, reaching out to grab its tail.
The cat felt the hand and curled its spine, claws unsheathing. It was like taking hold of a live high-voltage wire, Remo found. Hissing and spitting, the cat squirmed and struggled and went for Remo's throat.
Remo simply spun in place and gave the cat a kaleidoscopic 360-degree view of the White House grounds.
When he finally dropped it, the cat wove dizzily on its feet and staggered three steps.
A bullet caught it in the flank, and it flopped over dead.
"What'd you do that for?" Remo snapped as trotting Secret Service agents approached.
"It was rabid."
"I had it under control. That was someone's cat."
"Who the hell are you?"
Remo pulled out his wallet and showed his Remo Eastwood Secret Service ID card and gold badge.
"You're with us?" the agent asked skeptically.
"Dressed like that?"
"Where are your sunglasses?"
"If I wore sunglasses in December," Remo said acidly, "I might as well carry a sign saying, Pay No Attention to Me. I'm an Undercover Secret Service Agent."
"Then what are you doing here without a White House pass?"
"Maybe you should disentangle the President before you throw your weight around," Remo suggested.
The agent looked past Remo's shoulder.
The President of the United States lay under a pile of three Secret Service agents. Two more had poured out of Marine One after the shooting began.
A muffled "Get off me" was coming from under the pile.
"It's okay," Secret Service Special Agent Dick Armbruster said.
"It's not okay until I know what went down," Capezzi said from somewhere within the pile.
"The Presidential cat is rabid. It tore up a bunch of agents. We were trying to stop it from attacking Big Mac."
"Did somebody say something about Socks?" an anxious female voice called.
All heads turned.
It was the First Daughter. She was peering around one of the Ionic columns strung along the White House breezeway, her face as white as the column she clutched. Sunlight glinted off her braces.
"I'm afraid we have bad news about Socks," Armbruster said.
"But he's right here," said the First Daughter.
And from behind the column, a familiar black-and-white mottled face peered with dull yellow eyes.
"If that's the First Cat," Vince Capezzi said, pointing toward the cat sitting at the feet of the First Daughter, "who the hell is this?"
The dead cat on the grass just lay there, dead.
"Somebody has some tall explaining to do," the angry voice of the President of the United States said from under a pile of protective agents.
"All right, all right," Jack Murtha called out. "Everybody on their feet."
"Hey, where is that guy Eastwood?"
Everyone looked for Secret Service Special Agent Remo Eastwood. But he was nowhere to be found.
THE PRESIDENT of the United States didn't know whom to trust.
It was written on his face as his Secret Service agents picked him up off the grass at the foot of Marine One's fold-down steps.
"We're going to walk you to the Oval Office, sir," Vince Capezzi said.
"What's going on?" the President asked, shaky voiced.
"I wish to God I knew," said Capezzi.
Capezzi called for a box-there were three basic protective formations used to protect a moving President, the box, diamond and circle. Capezzi called for all agents to assemble in four enclosed lines around the Man, their handguns held at the ready.
It was a short dash up the path to the Oval Office, which faced the South Lawn, and they moved to it with urgent speed. It was the longest short dash Vince Capezzi ever experienced.
"Daddy, Daddy," called the First Daughter, coming running, the First Cat bounding along on its snow white paws.
Jack Murtha dropped to one knee, trained his shaking Delta Elite automatic on the First Cat and shouted, "Get that cat out of the way!"
The President's daughter went bone white. She gathered up the cat, shrinking back from the angry finger pointing at her.
"Daddy, what's going on?" she moaned.
"What are you doing?" the President demanded, pulling Murtha to his feet.
"Sir," Murtha said flatly. "We can take nothing on face value."
"That's my daughter, you clown!"
"Ask her a question only you and she know the answer to," Murtha said, not taking his eyes or his gun off the First Daughter.
"Where's your mother?" the President asked his daughter.
"Go to her. I'll be up shortly," the President urged.
"Daddy, I'm scared."
"I know," said the President, who wanted to reach out and give his daughter a hug but dared not move out of the box.
They escorted him to the latticed doors to the Oval Office, and only then did the human box of shaken agents dissolve to take take up their posts outside the doors.
The President got behind his desk and put in a call to the director of the Secret Service.
"I am glad you are all right, Mr. President," said the director.
"I am not all right," returned the President. "I just landed on the South Lawn, and a contingent of the White House detail were shooting all over the place."
"Shooting at what, sir?"
"It looked like they were shooting at me."
The director of the Secret Service was speechless. The President could almost hear him gulping for air on the other end of the line, not two blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.
"But they claim they were trying to shoot the First Cat," the President added.
"Except the cat they were shooting at wasn't the First Cat, but an exact double."
The director of the Secret Service seemed to be having trouble breathing now.
"You know what this means?" the President continued. "A conspiracy. Maybe with roots in the Presidential protective service."
"I-I'm on my way, Mr. President," said the director of the Secret Service.
"Plan on a long stay," said the President before hanging up.
The First Lady burst into Oval Office a moment later, her blond hair bouncing, her face so white her cheeks looked like smoldering coals.
"Tell me what's going on!" she hissed. "I had to practically kick those agents in the balls before they'd let me in to see you."
"I want you to take Chelsea to Camp David. It may not be safe here."
"I'll do nothing of the kind."
The President looked at his wife, saw the sparks in her blue eyes and knew that all of Congress hitched together like a team of horses could not drag the First Lady to Camp David.
"I want you to do something for me," the President said.
"Go through the incoming White House E-mail. Look for a message from Smith."
"Not that Smith?"
"Yes, that Smith. If you find one, bring it right here."
"First I want to know who Smith is."
"Sorry. National-security secret. You have no need to know."
"My foot! I'm the-"
"-wife of the President. Nobody elected you. Now get going. Unless you yearn to be the Jackie Kennedy of the nineties."
The First Lady turned even more pale, then turned on her heel and stormed out of the Oval Office.
After she was gone, the President went to the somber privacy of the Lincoln Bedroom and opened a drawer in an antique rosewood bed stand.
The red telephone without a dial sat where it had since the days of the President who had inspired him to run for high office a generation ago. He picked up the receiver and brought it to his ear. There was no dial tone. But as the outgoing President had explained to him, there never was a dial tone. It was a dedicated line to a faceless man named Dr. Harold W. Smith at
CURE, the supersecret branch of government only the Chief Executive knew about.
The President waited for the phone at the other end to ring. But there was only a dead, gravelike silence on the line.
It had been like this for three months. In those three months the Chief Executive had heard nothing from Smith. He had no idea where CURE was located. There was no other way to reach Smith, and since the last crisis in which Smith had gotten word to the White House by E-mail, there had been no further communication. But then there had been no further crises, either.
The President replaced the red receiver. It had been a wild stab in the dark to contact Smith this way. He wondered if the man had died.
As he returned to the Oval Office, he decided that the President who had set up CURE in the first place must have made provisions for the agency to continue in the event Smith passed on. Otherwise, without CURE, American democracy might pass from the world forever.
The First lady was waiting in the Oval Office when the President reached it. She was wearing that frustrated impatient look of hers.
"No word?" he asked.
"None. And I'd like to know who Smith is and what Cure is."
The President winced. When Smith had contacted him that last time, the E-mail address had been firstname.lastname@example.org. There was no such mailbox address, they discovered, and so no way to reply.
"Some day you'll know."
"Not when. If."
"If what?" pressed the First Lady.
"If," said the President, dropping heavily into the chair behind the desk where so many Presidents before him had toiled, "you ever become President yourself."
"Don't think it couldn't happen," the First Lady flared.
"Not for a moment," said the President, smiling.
The First Lady relaxed slightly.
"I want you to do something important for me," the President said.
The President lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Fetch me a couple of things."
The First Lady approached the executive desk and put one ear to the President's mouth.
When the President explained his needs, the First Lady frowned, then blurted, "What do you need those for?"
"Because," said the President, "I'm going jogging."
"Are you insane?" the First Lady shrieked.
"No, just scared out of my skin," admitted the President of the United States in no uncertain terms.
At a pay phone on Virginia Avenue, Remo Williams phoned Harold W. Smith at Folcroft Sanitarium.
"Smitty. Did you hear? The President's still alive."
"Yes. It is a great relief."
"Well, don't relax yet. Something weird's going on down here."
"What is it? Where are you, Remo?"
"D.C. I just got back from the White House."
"You should be protecting the President."
"Scratch that plan. I just pulled his fat out of the fire in front of his personal Secret Service guards. I've been made."
"Pulled his fat out of the fire? What do you mean?"
"Just as I was pulling up, he was stepping off Marine One. No sooner does he do that than the Secret Service starts to draw down on him."
Horror made Smith's voice wobble. "His own agents?"
"No, not the guys in the chopper. The ones patrolling the White House grounds. It looked like they were going to slaughter one another until I stepped in and grabbed the cat."
"The First Cat. What's his name? Puss? Boots?"
"Socks," said Smith.
"Except it wasn't Socks, because Socks showed up later."
"Why would the Secret Service be shooting at a stray cat?"
"I don't think it was a stray. It was a dead ringer for the real Socks."
"How can you be sure?"
"If you ever looked Socks in the puss, you'd be sure. That is one ugly kitty cat."
Smith made a strange noise, and when he got his throat cleared he asked, "Remo, please begin at the beginning."
"Let me finish up my story before I go back to square one. I moved in and grabbed the cat. Let me tell you, it was strong. Or thought it was. The agents swore it was rabid. But I don't think it was. It was just an upset cat. Once I defused the situation, everything seemed to get back to normal. I flashed my Secret Service ID and, while the pieces were being picked up, I got out of there."
Smith said nothing for a long time.
"The Secret Service is extremely well trained," he mused.
"Not these guys. They were having conniption fits over a stray cat."
"It is entirely too coincidental that a cat exactly resembling Socks should appear on the White House grounds creating such a disturbance."
"I hate it when you're right," Remo said glumly.
"Remo, Chiun should be arriving at Washington National any minute now. Rendezvous with him, then call me."
"What are you going to do in the meantime?" wondered Remo.
"Dedicate my computers to the problem. Something is going on, and there is insufficient information to make out what."
"While you're at it," said Remo, "don't forget to keep looking for my parents." He was about to hang up when an unexpected sight came trotting around the corner on fourteen legs.
It was the President of the United States, jogging amid a loose circle of very white-faced Secret Service agents. Everyone was wearing running shorts and sweats.
Except the President. He was wearing a T-shirt too thin to protect him from the late-December chill, mild as it was. And a green baseball cap.
Remo read the legend on the cap and, as the President approached, his pasty legs jiggling like Jell-O with each step, he got a glimpse of the front of the T-shirt.
Hastily he turned his face away from the sweeping sunglass lenses of the Secret Service and said, "Smitty, you won't believe this, but the President just jogged by."
"After two assassination attempts?"
"Well, I think the President is trying to reach out to you."
"Why do you say that?" asked Smith.
"The hot line to the White House still down?"
"Yes. I've been unable to locate the break in the line."
"If you have a TV at hand, turn it on. The news guys up the block look excited enough to be broadcasting this live. They've set up a roadblock to ask the President the usual dippy questions."
"One moment, Remo."
AT HIS DESK at Folcroft, Harold W. Smith tapped a sequence on his computer keyboard. Instantly the amber glow of his computer screen went black as it shifted to receiving broadcast-quality TV signals.
Sure enough, the networks were broadcasting live footage of the Presidential jog.
"This is Fred Flowers," a reporter was saying, "coming to you live where the President of the United States, not two hours after an attempt on his life and a mysterious altercation among the Secret Service agents on the South Lawn, is calmly jogging down Constitution Avenue."
The camera zoomed in on the President's puffy face. It looked like a sponge in water. His eyes were squeezed almost shut. He did not look calm. Neither did his agents, who looked, if anything, like men marching through an unmarked minefield.
The long onyx Presidential Lincoln Continental limousine followed at an uneasy crawl.
As the President trotted up to the waiting press ambush, questions were called out.
In response, the President turned his head and gave a forced smile. To the consternation of his bodyguards, he suddenly put on speed, pulling ahead of them.
Then he turned his jogging body toward the camera and waved broadly.
Harold W. Smith read his last name on the President's thin T-shirt front and again stitched in white lettering on the front of the green baseball cap.
Smith leaned down to read the legend better, but he could not. The screen was too small.
He clapped the phone receiver to his face and asked, "Remo, what is that written on the President?"
"T-shirt or cap?" asked Remo.
"The cap says Eat Granny Smith Apples, and the T-shirt says Smith College."
"Smith College is a women's college," Smith said tartly.
"And from the way he's eyeing that Burger Triumph hungrily," Remo said, "I don't think he's that big a fan of Granny Smith apples, either."
"He is trying to contact me," said Smith.
"Is that a good idea? Last time you talked to him, he was threatening to shut down the organization."
"I have no choice," Smith said instantly. "This is an unmistakable signal that the President wishes to meet with me."
"How are you going to arrange that?"
"I am doing it right now," said Harold Smith.
"By electronic mail," explained Smith.
"I don't hear any clicking of keys."
"My new keyboard is keyless," reminded Smith.
"Oh, right," said Remo, watching the President jog on past. The more Remo had seen him jog on TV, the more pounds the Chief Executive seemed to gain. A moment later Remo saw the explanation. A Secret Service agent came jogging out of the Burger Triumph carrying a steaming cardboard container of jumbo fries. He handed it off to the President, who munched hungrily as he ran.
"I have just suggested that the President see a movie," Smith was saying.
"Tell him to skip the popcorn," grunted Remo.
"Never mind. Any particular movie?"
"Yes. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. "
"I don't think that's playing anymore," said Remo.
"It will play tonight," Smith said. "In the White House theater. And I expect to see it with him."
"How're you going to get in?"
"You and Chiun are going to get me in," said Harold Smith in a decisive tone of voice. "When you meet Chiun, rent a room at the Watergate Hotel. I will call you."
"You don't want us to meet you at the airport?"
"Absolutely not. Once we are in Washington, we will have to be exceedingly careful of our conversations, whether by phone or in person. The Secret Service, FBI and CIA are all going to be on the highest state of alert, eavesdropping on phone conversations and searching hotels for suspicious persons. Under no circumstances attract attention to yourself."
"Who, me?" said Remo.
"I was thinking of the Master of Sinanju," said Smith.
"Me, too," said Remo.
"One more item," said Smith.
"Buy yourself a good conservative suit and matching pair of sunglasses."
Before Remo could ask why, Harold Smith had disconnected.
The director of the Secret Service showed up at the West Gate to the White House, briefcase in one hand, personal faxphone in the other.
A uniformed Secret Service guard confiscated both and ran the metal-detecting batons up and down his stiff body anyway.
"Are you crazy! Do you know who I am?"
"Orders from the Man, sir."
The director of the Secret Service turned as red as a boiler about to explode but held his tongue.
"You may enter, sir."
"First get me the President on the line."
"I'm sorry, sir. Big Mac has just left Crown."
"I was not told this."
"It was a sudden decision."
"Where did he go, Camp David?"
"No, sir. He's just gone for a jog"
"A jog! In the middle of all this?"
The gate guard said nothing.
"I want radio silence from this moment on," the director snapped.
The director indicated the press microwave vans parked outside the White House with a toss of his gray head.
"The Grim Ghouls are probably prowling our band even as we speak."
The director was escorted to the Secret Service command post in the basement of the West Wing and repeated the order to the assistant chief of the White House detail, Jack Murtha.
Belt radios were immediately shut off.
"What's this about Big Mac going for a jog?" the director wanted to know.
Murtha said, "It's true, sir. We pleaded with him to reconsider, but he was insistent."
"He took his detail with him?"
"Of course, sir."
The director of the Secret Service heaved a slow, relaxed sigh. At least the President still trusted his personal guard.
"What's the latest from Boston?" he demanded.
"Another fax coming in now."
"What have we got so far?"
Jack Murtha went pale as a pear. "Morgue photos on the shooter and the subject who took him out."
"Let me see."
The photos were handed over.
"Damn, if that doesn't look like Oswald," the director said as agents gathered around him.
"If that's Oswald, who's buried in his grave?"
"And this guy does kinda resemble Ruby," an agent pointed out.
"Ruby was older," the director said. "If the shooter is Oswald plus thirty years, why is this other guy younger than Ruby?"
"Plastic surgery?" someone piped up.
"No theories. I want facts. We'll get into theories later."
"Sir, this fax is from the Boston medical examiner. A preliminary examination of the body reveals a mastoid scar and evidence of wrist slashing in the not-recent past."
"Damn! Oswald had scars like those."
"This can't be Oswald, can it?"
"I hope to God it's not," said the director, plugging his own faxphone in. "But let's get Oswald's prints out of storage and make sure."
"Both!" snapped the director. He dialed the local phone company and said, "This is the Secret Service. Reroute all calls from 555-6734 to this line."
The moment he hung up, the faxes began coming up. He lifted them off the tray as fast as they came, reading them with a face growing loose with the succession of shocks.
"Damn. Damn. Damn."
The other agents looked up expectantly.
"According to this, the serial number of that Mannlicher-Carcano is identical to the one Oswald used on Kennedy."
The other agents looked so blank they might have fainted on their feet.
The director looked up. "Anybody know where that damn gun ended up?"
"Check this out."
A hasty call later, Jack Murtha was saying, "Are you sure? Are you absolutely positively certain it's still there? Well, go look!"
He put his hand over the mouthpiece. "National archives say the rifle is still there, but they're looking anyway."
"God help them if they let that goddamn rifle out of their hands," the director said flatly.
A moment later word came back. "Director, they swear up and down the rifle is still under lock and key."
"Send a man over to double-check? No, do it yourself. Call me the instant you verify this and then call Boston to double-check their serial number. Damn! There can't be two rifles with the same serial number."
"What if there are?"
"If there are, we not only have a mess on our hands, but we may have to reopen the Kennedy hit, as well."
Later the phone rang, and a uniformed Secret Service agent reported, "Big Mac is back at Crown. Repeat, Big Mac is back at Crown."
"Stop talking like that. This is the telephone."
"Sorry, sir. Habit."
"Get word to the Man I'm on station."
"Roger. I mean, at once, sir."
Less than a minute later the telephone rang, and the President's breathlessly hoarse voice was saying, "See me in the Oval Office."
When he reached the Oval Office door, the director found the way blocked by three special agents instead of the usual one.
"Good thinking," he said.
"Identify yourself, sir," the middle agent said stiffly.
"You know who I am. Let me pass."
"President's orders, sir. Sorry."
"I'm hearing that word a lot," the director said, snapping out his ID.
"No sudden movements if you please," an agent cautioned.
"I hate the word sorry. Sorry means failure. It says, 'I do my job sloppily.'"
When his ID was inspected and approved by all three agents, the door was opened and the director was ushered in. Once it was shut, he crossed the blue rug, saying, "I'm terribly sorry, Mr. President. I want you to know that I will leave no turn unstoned- er. . . stone unturned-to get to the bottom of the fiasco in the ranks this afternoon."
The President waved him to a chair.
The director sat. His eyes fell on the President's T-shirt.
"Isn't Smith a women's college, Mr. President?"
"Borrowed my wife's T-shirt," the President said tightly.
"Didn't she go to Wellesley?"
"Never mind," the President said testily. "I want to hear about Boston."
The director's face fell. "We're still developing our Intelligence."
"Tell me what you have so far."
"It's very confusing. It really should be digested by professional analysts before you look at it. Certain facts could be misleading. Very."
"I don't give a rip. I want to hear what you have. You have been investigating this, haven't you?"
"Absolutely," the director said, clearing his throat. He did it three times before the Presidential glare forced him to cough up.
"We have the shooter."
"Alive or dead?"
"Who is he?"
"His driver's license says he's Alek James Hidell." The President made a face. "Seems to me I've heard that name before."
The director of the Secret Service thought fast. "I was thinking that myself. We suspect it's not his real name. But we're not sure," he added quickly. "Anything is possible. Anything."
"A man whose identity we have not yet determined killed him."
"Christ! This sounds like Jack Ruby."
"Yes," the director of the Secret Service said in a sincere voice, "it sounds very much like Ruby. Yes, indeed."
"So we have to assume a conspiracy?"
"I would not assume anything at this point. We are running the man's prints and should have something shortly."
"Is there anything else I should know?" the President asked.
"I have a great many loose facts, but again I caution you against trying to make a clear picture out of disconnected pieces of the jigsaw."
"Is there a motive? Any indications of confederates or claims of responsibility?"
"No claims. But it's just a matter of hours. Once details get out, the usual terroristic cells and fringe political splinter groups will all be claiming credit. And, of course, we have to look out for the copycat factor-"
The President frowned.
"Bad choice of words. You know what I mean, emulators. There is always someone who thinks there's glory in finishing a job another guy blew."
"I know," the President said somberly.
"I would like to recommend that you keep a low profile over the next week. At least a week."
"I have universal health care to push."
At that moment the First Lady came rushing in without bothering to knock.
"This just came off the net," she said breathlessly.
The printout was slapped on the desk. The President looked at it briefly.
He handed it back to the First Lady and said, "See to it. Tonight."
"What good will renting an old Jimmy Stewart movie do?" the First Lady asked testily.
"Trust me on this one."
The director of the Secret Service looked interested. "Is there something here I should be apprised of?" he asked politely.
"No!" the President and the First Lady said with equal vehemence.
The director looked at them both. As the First Lady marched from the Oval Office, he leaned forward and said, "Mr. President, if I am to do my job, I need to know that I have your full confidence."
"You do. Your agents do not. I want the White House detail rotated out. Everyone except Capezzi. He saved my life."
The director swallowed hard. "Yes, sir."
"And I want the incoming detail agents closely watched."
"Other agents. Work it out. I want no more incidents like this afternoon. It's bad enough the nation thinks its President has been blown away by some crazy. But if it gets out the Secret Service almost did him in, it will sound to the world as if there's a coup brewing."
"Don't even say that word," the director said fervently as he stood up to go.
"How was your flight?" asked Remo when the Master of Sinanju stepped from the gate at Washington National.
"The wing did not fall off," said Chiun, his face a composed web of deep seams.
"A lucky streak like that can't go on forever."
"It has not. I was forced to sit near a very rude and unimportant woman."
"Tough. All the way down I had to hear about how evil assassins are."
"Ignorance blights this land like no other," said Chiun, walking along with his hands tucked safely into the sleeves of his kimono. "I understand the puppet lives."
"Yeah. But he's not out of the woods yet." Eyeing the lavender silk, Remo said, "I hope you came with a few spare kimonos."
"You never hope that."
"Normally. But Smith is coming down. And he specifically asked that we avoid attracting attention."
"It would be better if enemies knew that the House of Sinanju had come to protect him."
"We can protect him in a quieter kimono than lavender."
When they reached the baggage carousel, the Master of Sinanju undertoned, "There is the rude one."
Remo stared. "Isn't that Pepsie Dobbins?"
"I did not ask her unimportant name," sniffed Chiun.
"Yeah, that's her."
"She demanded my seat, claiming she was more important that me."
"Not since she blew the report on the President, from what I hear. People want to see her strung up."
"I have put her in her place, do not fear."
"Good," said Remo, watching luggage start to drop down the chute.
"I have told her that I work for Emperor Smith and not the puppet President," added Chiun.
"That's good," said Remo, starting forward when he saw the first of a possible fourteen lacquered steamer trunks come sliding down. Remo caught himself in midstride.
"Wait a minute! What did you say?"
"What I have just told you," said Chiun.
"She's a freaking reporter."
"She is a freaking fool intoxicated on the smell of her own vanity. Now, do not let my trunk be stolen by cretins."
Because the risk to the trunks was real, Remo started pulling them off the belt as soon as they came by.
"Only three?" he asked when the conveyor belt finally stopped.
"I was in a hurry," said Chiun.
Remo looked up. There was no sign of Pepsie Dobbins.
But as he carried the three trunks out of the airport, Remo spotted her at a cab stand. Unfortunately Pepsie spotted him, too.
She came up saying, "We meet again."
"I do not know you," said Chiun disdainfully.
Pepsie ignored the Master of Sinanju. "Who are you?" she asked Remo.
Noticing one hand stuffed in her big purse, Remo said, "Remo Wayne Bobbitt."
Pepsie made a notch with her eyebrows. "I know that name."
"I'm famous for my detached personality," said Remo. "It gets me on all the talk shows."
Pepsie indicated Chiun. "Are you with him?"
"What's it to you?"
"He tells the most interesting stories."
"He has A-L-Z-H-I-M-E-R-S," said Remo, spelling out the word. When Pepsie seemed slow getting it, he added. "You know, S-E-N-I-L-E."
"You left out the e, P-E-N-I-L-E one," sniffed Chiun.
Both Remo and Pepsie looked blank, and the Master of Sinanju cackled softly to himself.
Pepsie said. "Want to share a ride to-"
"The White House," said Chiun.
"Pay no attention to him," Remo said hastily. "We are not going to the White House."
"It is where we are headed," said Chiun.
"We're going to our hotel," insisted Remo, eyeing Pepsie.
"Which hotel is that?" asked Pepsie.
"Are you always this nosy?" asked Remo.
"I'm not nosy. I'm just trying to save a few dollars. Maybe we can split a cab."
"You can have both halves of my cab," said Remo, setting down the three steamer trunks and folding his arms stubbornly.
"What are you doing, Remo?" asked Chiun.
"Waiting for a cab I like."
Chiun gestured to the waiting line. "I see many cabs."
"I don't see one in a color I like," Remo said flatly, staring Pepsie Bobbins full in the eye.
"What color are you looking for?" Pepsie wanted to know.
"One that doesn't clash with your hair," said Remo, turning his back on her.
After ten more minutes of fruitless conversation, Pepsie Bobbins got the message and threw her traveling bag into the trunk of a cab and said, "ANC Studios."
A man Remo mistook for a cabbie on break followed her into the cab and said to the driver, "And take the direct route. I know how you guys rob unwary tourists like us."
After the cab had departed, Remo turned to the Master of Sinanju and said, "Nice move. Smith said to play it cool, and you practically tell the press about the organization."
"No one would believe a woman who claims to be in one place while actually standing in another."
The next cab in line slid up.
"I thought you didn't recognize her," said Remo, opening the door.
"I did not want her to know that," said the Master of Sinanju as he slipped into the rear of the cab.
DURING THE CAB RIDE to the studio, Pepsie Dobbins popped a fresh tape into her cassette deck and said, "I've been dying to do this. Give me a crash course in assassinology."
She clicked on the recorder and held it up to the cab driver's face. The driver in the back of the cab, not the one driving.
"First," he said, "everything you know about this stuff is wrong. Oswald didn't shoot Kennedy, and Sirhan didn't shoot the other Kennedy."
"Were they part of the same conspiracy?"
"That part nobody's figured out yet. But don't let me get ahead of myself here."
"You should give me your name for the record."
"I was wondering when you'd get around to that. For a hotshot reporter, you're kinda sloppy on the details."
"Your name, please," Pepsie requested aridly.
"Aloycius X. Featherstone."
"I hope you have a nickname."
"People call me Buck. On account I like to turn one now and again."
"Keep talking, Buck."
"Like I was saying, nobody you think shot anybody, actually did. It's all cover-ups. Nothing that got out so far is the truth, so help me God. Ray didn't kill King."
"Slow down. Who's Ray and who's King?"
"James Earl Ray and Martin Luther King."
Pepsie frowned. "Why does everybody have three names?"
"That's another good point. Three-name guys are very big in this business. Don't ask me why. But whenever you come across a three-name guy, he's usually the killer or the victim."
"You just said that Oswald didn't kill Kennedy. He's a three-name guy."
"It wasn't Oswald. It was Alek James Hidell. That was his real name. Oswald was what he always said he was-a patsy."
"Is there a beginning we can start at?"
"You should see that movie."
"What one about Oswald and Kennedy that Hardy Bricker directed, CIA. It lays it all out, except the answers."
"Then what good is it?" Pepsie responded.
"You gotta know the right questions to ask, or the answers you're gonna get won't be worth squat. That was the problem with the Warren Commission Report. Those stiffs asked the wrong questions and they got answers that to this day are no good."
"I should read a copy of the Warren Report, shouldn't I?"
"Maybe we can find one in one of those government bookstores."
"Good idea." Pepsie leaned forward. "Driver, find me a bookstore that carries the Warren Report."
"They don't carry it in bookstores," the driver called over the honking of Washington traffic. "You're better off trying the library."
"How would you know?" Buck asked the cab driver.
The cabbie shrugged and said, "I'm a buff. And that guy is handing you a load of crap, lady. Oswald shot Kennedy, all right. On orders from the mob."
Buck shook his head vehemently. "No. It was a CIA operation all the way."
"The mob. The Chicago mob. It was Carlos Marcello and those guys. They had the means, motive and opportunity. They were after Robert Kennedy, who was busting their balls all over the place. They didn't care about Jack. They figured if Jack was croaked, Lyndon would shitcan Bobby. End of problem. If they whacked Bobby, Jack would be in a position to nail them to the fucking wall. Which I can assure you, they did not want."
"Crap," said Aloycius X. "Buck" Featherstone.
"It worked, didn't it? And Hoffa was in on it, too."
"Who's Hoffa?" asked Pepsie, jerking her recorder from the front seat to the back in an effort to vacuum up every loose theory.
"Some smart-ass Teamster boss," muttered Buck. "They never found his body. It don't mean nothing."
"If you're saying the CIA whacked Jack to keep him from pulling out of Vietnam, you're full of it," the cab driver insisted. "There was no guarantee Lyndon wouldn't have done the same thing once his fat can was in the seat."
"But he didn't. That's proof positive!"
"One sec," interrupted Pepsie. "Who did Lyndon shoot?"
"Himself," grunted Buck. "In the foot. He was the President after Jack. Got hounded out of office."
"Why does that keep happening?" Pepsie asked plaintively. "Why do our Presidents keep getting hounded out of office?"
"The press," both cab drivers said at once.
"When I want editorializing, I'll ask for it," Pepsie snapped. "Now, let's get back to hard theory."
"First we gotta get you that Warren Report," said Buck.
PEPSIE FOUND A SET in the Washington Public Library.
"This is the Warren Report?" she asked, staring at a long shelf of dusty leather-bound volumes.
"It must be very popular. They have so many copies. An entire shelf full."
"That's the full set," said Buck. "All twenty-six volumes."
Pepsie's already unnaturally wide eyes became saucers. "This is all one book?"
"I can't read all this! What do you think I am-a print journalist?"
"I read it all."
"And I have a life to lead, and this is only one story."
"If what we overheard is true, this isn't just a story. It's the story. Maybe the story of the twentieth century. If Oswald or Hidell is still alive and he's trying to take out the President, that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt there was a conspiracy. And we're in the perfect position to blow it wide open. You and I could be the next Woodward and Bernstein."
Pepsie rubbed book dust off her immaculate fingers. "I heard about them. I think my news director plays golf with one of them or something."
"They're the guys who cracked Watergate wide open, which was nothing compared to this."
"Come on. Let's put this to my news director."
WHEN PEPSIE DOBBINS entered the ANC News building, no one said hello.
"Looks like they're giving you the cold shoulder," undertoned Buck.
"They're probably still upset over the assassination attempt. It would unnerve anyone. And a lot of these people actually vote."
The news director of ANC News's Washington bureau accosted Pepsie in the corridor, biting out his words between clenched teeth, saying, "In my office."
"Wait outside," Pepsie told Buck.
In the office Pepsie Dobbins said, "I have evidence of a conspiracy to assassinate the President."
"By Lee Harvey Oswald?" the news director said dryly.
"Well, his name might be Alek James Hidell. We're not sure."
"My assassinologist and I."
"That's a nice way of saying my ass. Now, do you have any reasonable explanation before I consign you to whatever local news organization will have you?"
"You can't fire the reporter who's sitting on the biggest story of the century."
"You have nothing."
"Listen to this tape."
Pepsie produced her cassette recorder and rewound it.
A squeaky voice began speaking when she depressed the Play button.
"Smith has ignored all my entreaties to snuff out the puppet and set him on the Eagle Throne."
Pepsie's recorded voice asked, "You want the President dead?"
"It will bring stability-"
"Who's that speaking?" the ANC news director asked.
"He said his name was Chiun. I met him on the plane. He told me the President's a puppet and America is under the control of a man named Smith."
"A man you met on a plane?" the news director said.
"And a man named Smith controls everything?"
"And I'm supposed to let you run amok with this story?"
"Look, I know I'm right about this. You can't turn away the next Steinway."
"The guy you play golf with." Pepsie snapped her fingers anxiously. "You know. He broke the old Whitewash story. Floodgate, or whatever they called it."
"You mean Bernstein?"
"Whatever, I'm him. The next him. Some day you could be playing golf with me. "
"No sale, Pepsie. The network president told me I could keep my job as long as you lost yours."
"I'm telling you a man named Smith is important to this story."
"Do you realize how many Smiths there are in the world?"
At that point a news writer poked his head in the door and said, "We just noticed something funny about the President when he went jogging."
"Can't it wait? I'm trying to fire somebody here."
The news writer noticed Pepsie for the first time. "Oh! Hi, Pepsie. Good luck in your next job."
"Hi," Pepsie said disconsolately.
"What is it?"
"The President was wearing a cap that said Eat Granny Smith Apples," the news writer said.
The news director pointed to Pepsie and roared, "Have you been drinking from the same water cooler as this one?"
"And his T-shirt said Smith College."
The news director looked strange for a moment.
"That's a woman's college, isn't it?"
"I went there," Pepsie volunteered helpfully. "I never saw any guys. Unless you count dykes."
"Why would the President wear a Smith College shirt?"
Pepsie started jumping an place. "Smith! Smith! Don't you get it? It has something to do with the Smith I told you about."
"Who's Smith?" the news writer asked curiously.
"Play down that story and get out of my office," the news director roared.
The door slammed.
The news director said slowly, "Pepsie, I know I'm going to regret this, but here's the deal. You're fired. Officially."
"Unofficially if you want to follow this cockeyed story of yours, go to it. But I didn't authorize it. I don't know anything about it. And I don't want to hear about it unless you come up with something solid. If you do, and this is as big as it sounds, even the network president will welcome you back with open arms."
"Guarantee me no other reporter gets to run with the Oswald angle, and it's a deal."
"Believe me, that's between you and me. And I'm forgetting it the minute you've left the building."
"I'll need a Minicam," said Pepsie.
"I'll have one messengered to your apartment. But no cameraman."
"No problem. I'll have my assassinologist carry it. All you have to do is know where to point it. It'll be just like driving a cab."
The news director opened the door invitingly. "Goodbye, Pepsie. Unless you pull off a miracle."
"Don't think I won't."
Remo and Chiun were seated on the rug of their Watergate hotel room, eating take-out rice from cardboard containers and talking. Chiun's steamer trunks were stacked on the big bed.
Remo was saying, "I don't want to be an assassin anymore, Little Father."
Chiun's voice grew thin. "Why is this?"
" 'Assassin' is a bad word in this country."
"This is a country where vast sums of money are showered upon a starved blond singer who cannot sing simply because she makes a public spectacle of herself. It is no wonder."
"I would have paid Medusa not to publish that book of naked pictures of herself," Remo admitted.
"You are an assassin," said Chiun. "It is not only what you do, if clumsily, but what you are. You can no more not be an assassin than you can cease to breathe correctly."
"And it's the week before Christmas. It's always a sad time of year for me."
"We do not celebrate Christmas," Chiun sniffed.
"Christmas is a pagan festival started by the Romans, which was debased even further by the followers of the Nazarene, who brought ruin to the old Rome just as they will bring ruin to this new Rome called America."
"I've heard this story a thousand times before," Remo said wearily. "Sinanju celebrates the Feast of the Pig instead."
Chiun made a face. "It is not called that! That is your cruel name for the beauty of the day in which certain obligated persons bestow a small offering to those who have shared wisdom with them."
"I like Christmas better," Remo said dryly. "The presents flow in both directions."
"Pah! What good are presents flung about willy-nilly? A present should be given in gratitude, not in expectation of a gift in return. Otherwise, even the unworthy receive presents, debasing the giver, the recipient and the offering in a shameful spectacle of mutual greed, avarice and ingratitude."
"A good way to describe Christmas these days," Remo grunted. "But when I was a kid, I always looked forward to Christmas. Sometimes-" his voice caught "--sometimes I used to dream that my parents would come for me at Christmas, and everything would change."
"Everything has changed, my son," Chiun said in a suddenly gentle tone of voice. "You have a father. Me."
"I have another father out there," Remo said sadly. "I need to find him"
"If you wish to make me an offering in return for all that I have bestowed upon you, Remo Williams, do not seek out your father."
The grave tone in Chiun's voice made Remo eye the Master of Sinanju suspiciously.
"Why are you so against my finding my father?" he asked.
"It will only bring you unhappiness."
Remo dug a folded artist's sketch from the pocket of the gray Brooks Brothers suit he was wearing on Smith's instructions. He unfolded it. It showed a young woman with sad eyes and long dark hair. The face in the sketch had been drawn by a police artist from Remo's instructions. It was a perfect likeness of the phantom woman who had appeared to him at his grave site.
"I don't even know her name," he said quietly. "She's my mother, and I don't even know her name."
"She is not your mother!" Chiun spat.
Remo looked up. "That wasn't what you said before."
"I did not wish to break your heart," Chiun said evasively. "Now, I cannot bear to see you pine so over a fragment of your imagination. I cannot conceal the truth from you."
"I think the truth is the last thing you want me to discover," Remo said. "And I'd like to know why."
The phone rang.
"Must be Smith," said Remo, getting up to answer it.
Remo had no sooner said "Hello" into the mouthpiece than a breathless, lemony voice said, "No names. You know who this is. Meet me at the logical place in twenty minutes."
Before Remo could say "What?" the line went dead in his ear.
Remo slammed down the telephone, saying, "Damn it!"
"What is wrong?" asked Chiun.
"That was Smitty. And he's so paranoid he said to meet him in the logical place. Then he hung up before I could ask him what the logical place is."
"The logical place is the logical place," Chiun said blandly.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Remo fumed.
"It is logical because it is obvious."
"Well, it isn't obvious to me."
"That is because you do not have a logical mind."
"And I suppose you do?"
"Bring me a guide to the attractions of this latterday Athens."
Remo grabbed a thick guidebook off the writing desk and laid it at Chiun's sandaled feet, simultaneously scissoring down into a lotus position, facing him.
"I defy you to find the logical meeting place in that," he said.
The Master of Sinanju frowned and brought his long nailed fingers together prayerfully. He closed his eyes. The nails touched, but his palms did not. He might have been communing with his ancestors.
Abruptly Chiun's eyes opened, and his hands, as if moving of their own volition, pried open the book at random. He looked down. His wide hazel eyes darted along the open pages.
"Well?" said Remo.
Without warning, the Master of Sinanju clapped the guidebook shut.
"Finish your rice," he said. "For we have less than twenty minutes to meet our emperor at the logical and obvious place."
Scooping the last chopstickfuls of rice into his mouth, Remo muttered, "This, I have to see."
TEN MINUTES LATER, Remo stood alongside the Master of Sinanju outside the Watergate Hotel while the doorman signaled a cab. One pulled up instantly.
Remo opened the door and allowed the Master of Sinanju to enter. By the time he got around to the other side and got in himself, Chiun had instructed the cabbie where to go.
"Don't I get let in on the secret?" Remo asked Chiun as the cab sped off in the late-afternoon twilight.
"If you had a logical mind such as mine, you would not need to be told."
"I have a logical mind," Remo insisted.
"No, you have an obvious mind. It is drawn to the obvious, never the logical."
"Blow it out your kazoo," said Remo, momentarily distracted by a passing set of D-cups bouncing before a leggy brunette.
Chiun rearranged his kimono skirts in a more artful manner and said nothing. Some truths were so obvious they required no repeating.
When the cab drew up to an imposing stone castle on the National Mall in the heart of Washington, Remo got out and asked, "Where are we?"
"The logical place," said the Master of Sinanju, drifting toward the great entrance.
Remo followed. His eyes went to the name carved deep into the facade over the massive entry.
It said Smithsonian Institution.
"Oh," said Remo.
"Is it not both logical and obvious?" asked Chiun.
"I guess," Remo said doubtfully. "It would have been a lot more logical to just tell me where to meet. It's not as if this isn't a public place."
"That would have been too obvious," said Chiun, walking with his hands firmly tucked into his kimono sleeves.
"You know," said Remo, as they walked into the vast vault of the Smithsonian Museum, "I thought I'd broken Smitty of all this supersecrecy bullcrap years ago."
"A good emperor keeps his secrets. As does a good assassin."
"You should talk, the way you spilled your guts to Pepsie Dobbins."
"I merely spoke the truth. If more rabble knew that we stood beside Smith and Smith stood behind the puppet President, no rival assassin would dare to threaten either."
"Not in this country. We grow more nuts than Lebanon and Iran combined, and every one of them wants to take a whack at the President."
The Master of Sinanju looked both ways. "Which way do we go?"
"The logical way."
Chiun made a wrinkled face. "There is no logical way."
"Maybe there's an obvious way," said Remo, happy to have the upper hand for a change.
In the end they split up, Remo going one way and Chiun the other.
Remo found himself in the section devoted to TV show memorabilia, and it made him wonder what future generations would make of the latter years of the twentieth century when a black leather jacket worn by a comic actor occupied the same weight as the Spirit of St. Louis or the Gettysburg Address.
After making a circuit of one wing and finding no trace of Harold Smith, Remo started wondering if Chiun had been mistaken. The thought gave him a moment of quiet joy, until he realized that if it were true, finding Smith would be impossible.
Remo found Chiun pestering a woman at an information booth.
"I seek the emperor," Chiun was whispering.
Before Remo could intervene, the woman looked blank a moment and said, "You're in the wrong building. Try the Museum of American History across the mall."
"Thank you," said Chiun, who joined Remo, saying, "We are in the wrong place."
"I think that woman misunderstood you," Remo started to say.
"She understood me perfectly. I asked for the emperor, and she has directed me to another building, also called Smithsonian."
Remo bit his tongue and followed the Master of Sinanju out of the building. Time enough to straighten this out once Chiun found out the truth for himself.
They went to a modern white building that resembled a Kleenex box across the mall. The sign on the front read National Museum of American History. A pylon out front explained that it was part of the Smithsonian family of museums.
They entered and at once were confronted by a two-story pendulum methodically knocking over a series of red pegs that were arrayed in a wide circle at the outer edges of the pendulum's scope of movement. Most of the pegs were down.
Remo joined the crowd at the glass barrier, followed by Chiun, and read a sign that called it the Foucault pendulum.
"Says here the pendulum's changing swing proves the earth rotates," Remo explained.
"It proves that the white mind is obsessed with toys, having been poisoned by pagan feasts," sniffed Chiun. Turning to a guard standing nearby, he said, "We seek the emperor. Direct us, guardian of the castle of Smith."
The guard had only to think a moment. "West wing near the escalator," he said, pointing down a corridor.
Puzzled, Remo followed Chiun down the corridor.
They came to a huge marble statue of a seated man wearing a toga that had fallen to his waist. He carried one hand high, and a sheathed sword was clasped in the other.
"What emperor is this, Remo?" asked Chiun.
Remo looked up at the statue's face. He wore his hair long and curled, and not shorn short, as would a Greek or Roman ruler of old, which he otherwise greatly resembled.
"Search me. Ancient history isn't my strong suit."
"This is no emperor of old," spat Chiun. "Obviously it is one of the very early rulers of this land."
"We have only Presidents here," Remo said distantly, searching the passing faces for Smith's lemony visage.
"Did not a British king rule this land at one time?"
"I guess so," said Remo vaguely. "I only care about Presidents. Sometimes not even them."
"I have always suspected that other emperors lurked in the shadows of this nation's halls," said Chiun. "Now I am sure of it."
"Not a chance."
Chiun stepped back, the better to search the statue's cold stone face with his birdlike eyes. It was strong, with a heavy nose and high forehead. Chiun canted his head this way and that. Then his eyes fell to the broad base of the throne on which the statue sat.
"Hah! Look, Remo, here is proof of what I have been saying for years."
Remo turned and saw the pointing finger of Chiun. He tracked it with his eyes.
There at the base of the statue was a single name: Washington.
"It is now clear to me," cried Chiun. "The Emperor Washington founded this land."
"He was President."
"Another sham concocted to deceive a gullible populace."
"Who would go to all the trouble of carving a twenty-ton statue of George Washington and dress him like Caligula sitting in a steam bath?" Remo wondered aloud.
A lemony voice behind them said, "His name was Horatio Greenough, and this statue is a famous white elephant that was ejected from the Capitol Building in 1908."
They turned to see Harold Smith standing there in his familiar gray suit that he wore like a personal uniform.
"Pretend to be admiring the statue," Smith undertoned.
"I'm not that good an actor," muttered Remo.
Chiun bowed low. "Hail Smith, blood descendant of Washington the First."
Smith paled and said nothing. He carried a well-worn leather briefcase. "I saw you exit the Smithsonian castle as my cab pulled up. Why did you come here?"
Remo pointed to the statue of Washington. "Chiun got his emperors mixed up."
"Were you followed?" asked Smith.
"Yes," said Chiun. "Remo followed me."
"I meant by strangers."
"No one could follow me."
"No," agreed Remo. "Chiun just told Pepsie Dobbins all about the organization."
Smith's eyes grew large behind his rimless glasses. He wavered on his feet.
"I merely enlightened an ignorant woman," said Chiun.
"Don't sweat it, Smitty. Word is she was canned for reporting the President's death prematurely."
Smith smoothed his hunter green Dartmouth tie, and the action seemed to stabilize his wobbly sense of balance.
"I must speak with the President directly," he said, eyeing the thinning evening crowd so intently that they automatically stared back.
"We can get you into the White House, if that's what you want," said Remo.
"Yes," said Chiun. "No palace guard is equal to our stealth and cunning. If you wish to enter quietly, Remo and I will arrange it. If it is your preference that we storm the White Palace, this too is doable."
Remo looked at Chiun. "Doable?"
"It is word very popular in this province," Chiun said, bland voiced. "We must blend in however we can."
Remo looked at Chiun's gold-trimmed white silk kimono and said, "The only place you'll blend is at a Communion offering."
Chiun wrinkled his nose and said nothing.
"I have a rental car waiting nearby," said Smith, starting off.
OUTSIDE, Smith took the wheel, and Remo and Chiun at his tight-jawed insistence sat in the rear where they were less likely to be noticed. Smith drove down Constitution with all the urgency of a Sunday-school teacher, and when the white radiance of the White House cause in sight, Smith turned up Fifteenth Street and parked near the Treasury Building.
Shutting off the ignition, Smith turned and asked, "Remo, I trust you have your Secret Service badge and identification card with you?"
"What name does it give?"
"Remo Eastwood. Why?"
"You are Remo Eastwood, a special agent out of Dallas. I am Smith, your supervisor."
Smith stepped out, saying, "It is the perfect name if one does not wish to arouse undue notice."
"Just as long as no one asks your first name," said Remo, getting out, too.
"What is my secret name?" squeaked Chiun as they started up the broad stone steps of the Treasury Building.
"Moo Goo Gai Pan," said Remo.
"I will not be called that. I will be Old Man Lump."
"A famous Korean of renown."
Smith hushed them both as they entered the Treasury Building, and led them to the section given over to the Secret Service.
Smith flashed his ID at the turnstile, introduced Remo as Remo Eastwood out of Dallas and Chiun as expert on assassinations, hired by the service to consult on the attempts on the President's life.
They were passed without question.
"We here to see what the Secret Service is up to?" Remo asked as they moved through the corridors, attracting more than normal interest.
"Do not be ridiculous," said Chiun. "It is obvious why Smith has come to this Greek money temple."
"Not to me," said Remo.
"Of course not. You have an illogical mind."
Remo followed in silence as Smith led them to a marble staircase that led downward into the building's subbasement. The way was blocked with a padlocked wrought-iron gate with a sign on it saying Unsafe. Do Not Enter.
The sign looked as if it had been posted in the days of Harry Truman.
To Remo's surprise, Smith took a key from a pocket and opened the fat padlock. A restraining chain rattled loose, and Smith opened the gate. He motioned them to slip through, then replaced the chain and snapped the padlock shut again.
They went down the cool stone steps, making virtually no noise. At the bottom they came to a huge steel vault door. There was a combination lock. Smith spun it once to clear the dial, then, blocking it with his spare frame, quickly worked the combination. It fell open on silent, well-oiled hinges the size of Amtrak rails.
"What's this?" Remo asked as they passed through the vault door. "The secret tunnel to the White House?"
"Of course," said Chiun.
"I wasn't asking you," said Remo.
Smith said, "It is a secret tunnel to the White House."
"If it's so secret, how do you know about it?"
"This is how I used to visit the President who inaugurated CURE."
Remo was so surprised he said nothing. He was used to Chiun coming up with these surprises. Not Harold Smith.
Chiun closed the vault door behind them. Once it shut, big fluorescent lights came on, revealing a big living area well stocked with food, communications equipment and a small number of beds.
"In the event of a siege of the White House or a nuclear attack in which they cannot be moved to a secure FEMA site in the Maryland mountains, the First Family will stay here," Smith explained, his lemony voice small in the great vault.
An opening on the other side of the vault led into a dark space. A tunnel, smelling faintly of moist brick. Smith led the way.
The tunnel was not straight. It zigzagged, and Remo realized the design was meant to foil pursuers unfamiliar with it.
They walked the length of two blocks. Smith's eyes weren't equal to the gloom, so Remo had to lead him along, directing Smith by the simple expedient of pulling him along by his tie.
"They gave you the key but not the location of the light switch?" Remo grumbled at one point.
"The lights are controlled from the White House end," Smith said.
"It is obvious, as well as wise," said Chiun.
Remo shot the Master of Sinanju a dark look that Smith missed in the murk.
The tunnel led to a thick stainless-steel door. Smith said, "There should be a wheel, Remo. Turn it."
Remo found a wheel that belonged on a submarine bulkhead door and undogged it. The door opened out, and they passed through to what looked like the boiler room of the White House.
"Okay," Remo said tightly, "here comes the tricky part."
"The theater is in the East Wing," said Smith.
"Just point the way," said Remo. Smith went to a boarded-up closet door, unlocked it by pressing a corner lintel, then the door clicked open, boards and all.
Smith beckoned them on.
They found themselves in a corridor so narrow it had to be a hollow space in the walls. As they squeezed along, Remo noticed Smith reach surreptitiously into the watch pocket of his gray vest. Out came a white coffin-shaped pill. Smith made a protective fist around it.
Remo eased up and took Smith by the same wrist, twisting it against the natural flex of the joint. Smith clenched his teeth fiercely, and his fingers went slack.
Remo caught the poison pill in his free hand and released Smith.
"No poison pill until you find my father for me," said Remo.
"What if we are caught?"
"Then it's every man for himself."
Rubbing his wrists angrily, Harold Smith continued leading the way.
The White House was strangely quiet. Occasionally footsteps came to their ears. Smith seemed to guide himself by sense of direction and the touch of his hand on the wall. He led them eastward.
When they emerged into light again, they were standing in an alcove.
"The White House theater is to our left," whispered Smith. "This is the critical stage." He donned a pair of impenetrable sunglasses, adding, "Follow my lead." Then he stepped out.
Remo put on his own sunglasses. Unseen, the Master of Sinanju drew on round smoked glasses of his own.
There was a Secret Service agent standing post before a double set of cream-colored doors.
Smith showed his Secret Service badge and said, "Has the President arrived yet?"
"No, sir. The picture is scheduled for seven sharp."
"The director requested a double-check of the security arrangements," said Smith.
The Secret Service agent reached for his belt radio, and Remo noticed Smith stiffen.
"Damn, I forgot."
"Yes?" said Smith in a too-cool voice.
"We're on radio silence."
"I know," said Smith quickly. "And if we're to check the theater before Big Mac arrives, we must move quickly."
"Right," said the agent, stepping away from the door.
Then he noticed Chiun regarding him through smoked lenses.
"Are you Secret Service?"
Chiun drew himself up proudly. "Better. I am a Secret Servant."
"Master Chiun is an expert on assassinations," Smith said quickly.
"Expert assassin," corrected Chiun.
"His English is not very good," added Smith, who hastily ushered Remo and Chiun into the tiny theater.
"Big Mac?" said Remo, once they were alone.
"Secret Service code name for the President," explained Smith.
"Fits him like a glove," Remo grunted.
Then, outside the closed doors the sound of running feet preceded a shout.
"Is the Man here yet?" an out-of-breath voice asked.
"No," returned the agent on post.
"Well, I gotta find him quick! We have a problem on the North Lawn. You try the East Wing, and I'll head up to the second floor."
The rattle of running feet faded down the corridor, and in the White House theater, Remo said to Smith, "What do we do?"
"You and Chiun look into this. Discreetly."
"What about you?"
Harold Smith took a seat in the first row.
"I intend to await the President's arrival."
Although it was early by Washington standards, the White House began emptying out at 7:00 p.m. Staff were being sent home early under a strict gag order.
Kirby Ayers of the uniformed Secret Service watched over the turnstiles at the East Gate entrance, where staffers and visitors alike were required to go through the process of inserting their magnetic keycards into a reader machine before walking through the metal detectors.
The White House press corps, on the other hand, were clamoring to get in.
"What is the President doing?" one asked from the sidewalk where they had been exiled in blanket punishment for the networks having prematurely reported the President dead and doubting his genuineness upon his return to Washington.
"You have to ask the President's press secretary that," Ayers said.
"She won't return our calls."
"You pronounced her boss dead on national TV. What do you expect?"
"But we're the White House press corps," another moaned.
"You have my sympathy," Ayers said.
In all the commotion, neither the press nor the uniformed Secret Service guards noticed one of the most famous haircuts in Washington crawl out of the back of a TV microwave van on sprawled arms and legs and clump below eye level through the metal detector.
He got halfway across the North Lawn before he was picked up by the Secret Service surveillance cameras and the alert was sounded.
By that time he had splashed into the fountain in the center of the lawn.
That was where the director of the Secret Service found him when he came pounding out of the North Portico, a detail of agents at his heels.
"He's in the fountain, sir," Jack Murtha said.
"How did he get through the gate?" the director complained.
"We think he crawled on his hands and knees while the press had the uniforms distracted."
"We can't have a security breach like this! Big Mac will have my ass flame broiled."
When they reached the marble lip of the White House fountain, they saw no sign of anyone.
"Who's got a damn flashlight?" the director demanded.
A flashlight was handed over.
The director beamed light all through the pool. He caught a flash of something lurking under the cold water. It was mottled green and brown.
"What the hell is that?" he breathed.
Then a head rose from the water, and two green eyes looked directly at the director of the Secret Service from under a thick thatch of wet white fur.
The green eyes were so cold and inhuman the director almost dropped his light. "What in God's name is that?" he said hoarsely.
Another flash came into play.
"That hair sure looks familiar," Jack Murtha muttered.
"Look at those eyes. Like a snake's. They don't even blink in the light."
"You! Come out of there with your hands up," Murtha commanded.
The baleful green eyes continued to regard the cluster of agents with cold menace. Bubbles began to appear in the area of his submerged mouth.
Then slowly and deliberately the head lifted into view.
"Holy Hell!" Murtha blurted. "That's Gila!"
"Congressman Gila Gingold, minority whip in the House of Representatives."
"My God! It is him. But what the hell is he doing here?"
The question hung in the air less than five seconds. Without warning, the figure in the pool gathered itself and came splashing out of the pool on clumsy arms and legs, head held high like a turtle, jaws snapping angrily.
Delta Elites snapped in line.
"Hold your fire!" the director cried. "You can't shoot him. He's a member of Congress and the opposition party to boot. Think of the stink."
Hastily the Secret Service beat a retreat to the North Portico, heads turning often.
It was a frightening sight. Gila Gingold, dressed in jungle fatigues, slithered along the winter brown lawn on his belly. He charged up to the North Portico, where the director promptly slammed the door in his pugnacious face.
Gila Gingold flopped around the doorway, threshing like a bull snake and snapping his jaws angrily. He growled once but didn't say a word otherwise.
"What the hell is wrong with him?" the director wondered aloud in a horrified voice.
"You know what a pit bull he is where Big Mac is concerned."
"Looks like he wigged out completely-"
"We'd better inform the Man," the director said.
"How? We're on radio silence."
"I'll do it personally," said the director.
He withdrew into the White House proper.
"You know," Jack Murtha said to his fellow agents as the House minority whip paced on all fours back and forth before the entrance to the executive mansion, "he kinda reminds me of something."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," said another. "But I can't put my finger on it."
After five minutes the camouflaged figure slithered back to the fountain and slipped from sight.
THE PRESIDENT of the United States was in the family quarters waiting for the First Lady when the director of the Secret Service walked in unannounced.
"Why Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?" she was asking the President. "Is there a secret message in the sound track?"
"If I knew, I'd tell you."
The director cleared his throat. "I'm sorry to barge in like this, Mr. President. But we have a little problem on the North Lawn."
"If it's little, you deal with it," the First Lady snapped.
"Well, perhaps 'little' isn't the correct word."
They both looked at him questioningly.
The director drifted up to the President and whispered into his ear, "We have a man in jungle fatigues crawling along the North Lawn on all fours."
The President ran to a window.
"Is that him down in the fountain?" he asked.
The director looked. "I'm afraid so, Mr. President."
The First Lady joined them, peered down and asked impatiently, "What's that lizard doing in my foun-"
"Lizard?" the director asked.
"If that mop of white hair doesn't belong to Gila Gingold, I'm Eleanor Roosevelt."
"That's who we think it is, too."
"Let's deal with this quietly," the President told the director of the Secret Service.
"No," countered the First Lady. "Let's call in the press. If the Republican whip has gone off his rocker, it should lead the evening news."
"Not on your life," said the President.
"Who wears the pants in this family?" the First Lady said.
"That doesn't matter. I wear the Presidential pants."
The First Lady stormed away, muttering, "Wait until I'm President."
"Where are you going?" the President called.
"To get my Nikon. If I can't have this on the news, at least I'll get snapshots for my White House scrapbook."
Rolling his eyes for the director's benefit, the President repeated, "Deal with this as quietly as possible."
"That will be difficult, sir. He tried to bite us. Snapped at our heels like a junkyard dog."
"Now you know how the First Lady and I feel," said the President. "Come on. Maybe I can talk sense into him."
"I don't recommend this. It could be a trick to lure you out into the open."
"If the Republicans want me out of office that badly, they're welcome to take their best shot."
The director turned green as he followed the President to the narrow White House elevator.
"GILA, IS THAT You?" the President called uneasily as he approached the fountain gingerly.
From the vantage point on the second floor, the House minority whip had looked absurd. Now, face-to-face, the President found himself shivering under the baleful, unwinking glare of one of his chief political adversaries.
"Gila, whatever's troubling you, I think we can talk it out, just you and me."
The green eyes continued their unnerving unwinking staring.
"Whatever our differences, we both want what's best for this country. Why don't you come out before you catch your death?"
The half-submerged head dropped lower in the cold water until only the eyes peered out from the wet white mop. Slow bubbles formed.
"Better step back, sir," warned the Secret Service director. "Last time he bubbled like that, he took a run at us."
"Good idea," said the President, taking a step backward.
The green eyes narrowed suddenly.
With a ferocious flailing, the white-haired man surged up out of the water. On all fours, he cleared the space between the pool and the Chief Executive too fast for anyone to react.
Strong white teeth clamped over the President's right ankle. He let out a howl of pain.
"Shoot him! Shoot him!" the director cried, hoarse voiced.
"Don't you shoot anyone!" the President, recognizing through his pain that he was in the line of fire.
Secret Service agents staggered back, trying to get a clear shot, their faces going ghost white.
On the dry grass, the President and the minority whip were threshing and struggling madly. The President slapped at his tormentor's hair with no effect.
"Shoot to wound!" the director ordered.
"Stay still! Stay still, Mr. President," Jack Murtha pleaded.
"Get him off me!" the President howled, eyes wide with horror.
Up above, the First Lady was snapping pictures with a flash camera as fast as she could press the shutter release.
Fingers tightened on triggers, but before a hammer could fall, the agents suddenly felt their spines fill with ice. They thought it was a symptom of their own horror. But their weapons fell to the ground a half beat apart.
The director demanded, "What's wrong with you two?"
"I am," a squeaky voice said from behind the two agents.
And while the director's attention was distracted, Remo Williams swept down the darkened lawn and brought the side of his hand down on the back of the minority whip's threshing neck.
Gila Gingold relaxed immediately.
Pulling the President out from under his dead weight, Remo whispered, "Smith sent us."
"Thank God. I thought he was going to tear my foot off."
"Who spoke? Who said that?" the director said, trying to see past his frozen agents.
"I did," said the President.
The director whirled. He saw the President getting to his feet unsteadily and the minority whip out cold on the lawn. No one else.
"Never mind," the President bit out. "I have a movie to catch."
"At a time like this?"
''Definitely at a time like this. Have Gila sent to St. Elizabeth's, and for God's sake keep this quiet."
"Sir, I wouldn't know how to explain to anyone what just happened here."
"Best thing I've heard all day," said the President, limping back into the executive mansion.
While he was doing that, the director walked around his paralyzed agents and demanded, "What got into you two?"
The two agents just keeled over, seemingly under the force of their boss's shouting.
From the East Gate the press corps called out pleading questions that were met by a cold silence.
THE PRESIDENT of the United States found no one on post at the entrance to the White House theater.
He hesitated. Then a Secret Service agent came hurrying down the hall. It was Special Agent Vince Capezzi, much to the President's relief.
"Sorry, sir. I was called away to look for you."
"I'm going to watch this movie," he told Capezzi, "and I don't want to be disturbed by anything short of a nuclear alert."
"Yes, sir," Capezzi said.
The President entered the theater, which was so small that during state dinners it sometimes doubled as a cloakroom. The lights were already down. And down in the tiny first row a man sat. He didn't turn around when the President entered.
The President hesitated. He felt a sudden chill. Straightening his coat, he advanced.
The man simply sat there like a tailor's dummy.
Taking the seat beside him, the President undertoned, "Smith?"
"Of course, Mr. President," said the familiar lemony voice.
Only then did the President truly relax. "How did you get in?" he asked.
"The Treasury tunnel."
"You know about that?"
"Unimportant. You wished to see me?"
The screen turned white, and the film began to roll. Over the opening credits, they spoke in clipped sentences, the President stealing the occasional sideways glance at Harold Smith's patrician profile. The man looked utterly ordinary, the President thought.
"What happened to the hot line?" he asked Smith.
"The mind behind the banking crisis of last Labor Day apparently severed the line. I have been unable to locate the break and repair it."
"Then we have no direct line of communication?"
"A minor inconvenience at a time like this."
"I need your help. We just had an incident on the White House lawn."
"I notice your ankle is bleeding."
The President looked down at his right shoe. His sock was mangled.
"The House minority whip bit me on the ankle."
Harold Smith seemed not to have a response to that, so the President went on. "I think one of your people saved me."
"He saved you from the rabid cat, as well."
"The cat tested clean for rabies, according to the FBI testing lab."
"Someone is trying to kill me, or embarrass me, or both."
"I agree with that assessment," said Smith as the film continued rolling. Both men watched every frame, but none of it registered.
Smith said, "I assume you wish the organization to continue, at least through the present crisis."
The President sighed. "I know we've had our differences. But your handling of the banking crisis was exemplary. The economy had a near miss the nation might not have survived."
"The other problems have been dealt with," said Smith. "We have recovered the lost operating funds and are fully funded once again."
"Good. You can assume a clean bill of health from me, and sanction to continue operating."
"I accept that," said Smith.
The President turned. "You don't sound very happy about it."
"It is duty we are talking about, Mr. President, not pleasure. I have served seven Chief Executives before you. None of it involved pleasure."
"I hear you."
"My people will be stationed here for the duration of the crisis. Meanwhile, I must have access to all Secret Service findings."
"I'll arrange a briefing."
"My identity must be held in the strictest confidence."
"We'll work out the details," said the President.
The film continued rolling. After a while the President asked, "The President I most strive to emulate was the one who started all this, wasn't he?"
"You know, I have a hard time believing that."
Smith made no reply, so the President said, "It's kinda ironic that the Chief Executive who sanctioned covert assassination as an instrument of domestic order and foreign policy got assassinated himself."
Smith remained quiet, making the President of the United States feel as if he had been talking nonsense and not something close to his heart.
"How do I compare with him?" he asked at last.
"Mr. President, I knew that President well."
"You are not that President."
And in the bright darkness of the White House theater, the President sank unhappily into his seat.
Pepsie Dobbins was working the phone in her Georgetown town house, with her free forefinger jammed into her free ear.
Across the room Aloycius X. Featherstone was droning into a tape recorder. In between calls, Pepsie unplugged her eardrum and tried to follow along.
". . . after the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba went blooey, Kennedy was quoted as saying he was gonna smash the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds. Unquote. He fired the director of the Agency, which was Allen Dulles, along with a certain General Cabell. The thing to remember here is that while Dulles may have been the chief conspirator, Cabell's brother was key man. Why? It's very simple. Cabell's brother just happened to be mayor of Dallas in those days. Here, the plot, as they say, begins to thicken ...."
A voice said hello in Pepsie's telephone ear, and she said, "George? This is Pepsie. What do you hear?"
"That you've been canned, for starters."
"No, I mean about the attempt on the President's life."
I don't know anything about that, but there was a big commotion going on the White House lawn not an hour ago."
"What kind of commotion?"
"A Secret Service beef. They took a guy out on a stretcher covered by a sheet."
"Not when you consider where they sent him. St. Elizabeth's."
"Isn't that the mental hospital the Secret Service is always sending people who make threats against the President?"
"Exactly. They don't send dead or wounded to St. Elizabeth's, only psych cases."
"Maybe a Secret Service agent flipped out."
"They're showing footage on CNN if you want to check it out."
Pepsi hung up and grabbed her TV remote. CNN came on.
While she waited for the top-of-the-hour Headline News, Pepsie listened to Buck Featherstone.
"Mayor Cabell ordered the Dallas PD to botch the investigation, and tipped them where to find Oswald. The shitbird Marine Oswald, not the CIA Oswald who wasn't really Oswald. But Hidell-"
Featherstone looked up and saw Pepsie watching a silent TV
"You with me so far?" he asked.
"Is the tape still running?"
"Then I don't need to be with you."
"Shouldn't you be taking notes or something?"
Pepsie shook her short shag. "Tonight when I go to sleep, I'm going to play your tapes and absorb it all in my sleep. That's how I learn foreign languages."
"What languages do you know?"
"English mostly. Never mind. Keep talking."
Buck shrugged. "Hidell, as I see it, was the CIA triggerman on the hit team. Who were the others? No one knows. Maybe they were CIA, maybe mob, maybe Cubans. Maybe one of them was the real Oswald. Anyways, it was Mayor Cabell who sicced the Dallas police on Oswald to throw suspicion off Hidell. It's a well-documented fact that-"
When Headline News came on, Pepsie turned up the sound so loud Buck stopped talking and watchers, too. She hit the Record button on her VCR remote as a precaution.
"In the still-unexplained aftermath of the attempt to assassinate the President of the United States this morning in Boston, the White House has ordered the White House press corps off the executive mansion grounds, and staff have been furloughed early. Despite official denials, rumors have abounded all day that the President was gravely wounded-a story compounded by a still-unexplained commotion involving the Secret Service when Marine One landed at two o'clock this afternoon.
"Within the hour the President put in an unexpected appearance on the North Lawn. Cameras caught the Chief Executive as he was apparently attempting to coax an unidentified individual out of the fountain."
Murky footage rolled showing the President at the fountain. Without warning, a man in jungle fatigues jumped out and toppled the President. The rest of it was an indistinct blur in the darkness of the White House lawn.
"The President was reportedly unhurt in the attack, and his assailant was removed to an undisclosed location," the news reader continued. "At this hour there is no word on his condition. This incident has fed further fuel to a firestorm of rumors of a conspiracy to assassinate the President-rumors the White House explicitly denies.
"In Hollywood, a spokesman for film director Hardy Bricker claimed today that the attack of the President strikingly evokes Dallas and called for emergency legislation authorizing the release of still-classified..."
"Turn that up. I want to hear this," Buck said.
The phone rang, and Pepsie muted the TV instead.
"Yes?" she said into the phone.
"Pepsie Dobbins?" asked a muffled female voice.
"I can't identify myself, but if you want a story that will get you back into the good graces of ANC, you should go over to St. Elizabeth's and ask to see Gila Gingold. "
The line went dead.
"Who was that?" Buck wanted to know.
"I'm not sure, but it sounded like the First Lady. She sometimes leaks stuff to me."
"What did she say?"
"She said it was Gila Gingold who's at St. Elizabeth's."
"That doesn't seem plausible," said Buck.
"You should talk," snorted Pepsie. "Get your coat and camera. We're looking into this."
"Can't it wait? I want to hear what Hardy Bricker says. He's my hero."
"Get a new hero."
CONGRESSMAN GILA GINGOLD sat at his desk in the Capitol Building trying to decide whether to paint the kronosaur gray green or green gray when the telephone rang. Kronosaurs were giant prehistoric crocodiles, and no one knew what color they were supposed to be.
He was alone in his office, his staff having gone home. Congressman Gingold would have gone home, too, but his wife was there. She took a dim view of his fascination with dinosaurs. Wouldn't see Jurassic Park once, never mind six times, which was the number of times Gila Gingold had sat through the film, not counting video viewings. With a film that great, video viewings didn't count.
Gila was trying to get the bottle of gray-green enamel open as the ringing continued incessently. Deciding it might be his wife, the congressman from Georgia set aside the bottle and plastic-model kronosaur he'd assembled in his off-hours and lifted the desk receiver.
"Yes?" he said guardedly, because you never knew.
"Fred Flowers, BCN News. I'm calling to confirm a story that's sweeping the city."
"That Gila Gingold is under observation at St. Elizabeth's after an incident on the White House lawn."
"It's a crock!" Gila Gingold roared, coming to his feet. "And it's 'Gila' with a hard G. Not 'Hila.' A Hila is a Spanish lizard. I'm Gila."
"You're Gila Gingold?"
"It's Gila. Hard G, damnit!"
"Would you mind commenting on your alleged biting of the Presidential ankle?"
"That never happened, you stegosaur!" Gingold roared.
"Then why have you been committed to St. Elizabeth's? Allegedly?"
"Idiot!" snapped Gila Gingold, slamming down the phone and grabbing his overcoat. He was so mad he knocked the plastic kronosaur to the floor without noticing. When he slammed the office door after him, the array of plastic tyrannosaurs, allosaurs and velociraptors shook on their shelves.
AT ST. ELIZABETH'S, no one in authority would talk to Pepsie Dobbins.
"Are you denying Gila Gingold has been committed here?" she insisted. "Remember, you're on camera."
They were in the office of the hospital's spokesman. Behind Pepsie, Buck Featherstone sighted through the ANC videocam lens and hoped he was pressing the right button.
"I am neither confirming nor denying it," said the official spokesman for St. Elizabeth's Hospital.
"That's no answer."
A man walking on very hard heels tramped up behind them and demanded to know, "Who's in charge around here?"
Recognizing the voice, Pepsie turned. Seeing Gila Gingold, face red with anger under his white thatch of hair, she struck Buck in the arm and hissed, "Film everything that happens!"
She shoved her mike into Gingold's perpetually red face and asked, "Congressman Gingold, what do you say about reports that you were taken away from the White House tonight after an unsuccessful attack on the President's life?"
"I deny them absolutely," Gingold snapped, voice thundering with indignant rage.
Pepsie whirled on the hospital spokesman and said, "Obviously Congressman Gingold hasn't been committed here. So why do you refuse to deny the rumor?"
The spokeman looked confused. "But-but he is here."
"Show me," Congessman Gingold said.
"This way, Congressman," said the spokesman.
"We're coming, too," said Pepsie triumphantly.
"No, you're not," the spokesman retorted on the run.
"Congressman, the only way you're going to quash this vicious maligning of your character," said Pepsie breathlessly, following Gingold down the immaculate hallways, "is with raw footage."
"Stick with me," Gingold bit out.
In a private ward on the fourth floor, they were taken to a private room where a man lay sedated. He was sleeping on his stomach, his arms hanging over the sides of the bed.
"We keep turning him over on his back," an orderly said, "but he keeps flopping over like that."
Gila Gingold strode up and lifted the man's head by his thick hair. "That's not me."
"It sure looks like you," Pepsie said.
"I'm handsomer. Vastly."
"Maybe it's your brother."
"I don't have any brother and I demand St. Elizabeth's Hospital issue a statement categorically denying that I'm being held for observation."
"According to this chart you are," Pepsie said, indicating the clipboard at the foot of the bed. "See, it says Gila Gingold. "
"I will sue this institution out of existence before I let this outrage go any further," thundered Gila Gingold.
"We're under Secret Service instructions to release no information about this patient," the spokesman stammered.
"Somebody is going to pay for this."
Pepsie lifted the mike and asked, "Congressman, do you want to make an official statement for broadcast?"
"You're damn right I do," said Congressmen Gila Gingold, pivoting to a perfect two-shot with Pepsie Dobbins.
At that moment two Secret Service agents came pounding into the room to wrestle Gila Gingold to the floor. "How the hell did you get loose?" one grunted.
"Tell them I'm the real Gingold," the congressman shouted as he straggled on the floor.
Pepsie turned to Buck and hissed, "Are you getting this on tape?"
"Good" Raising her voice, Pepsie said, "You've got the wrong Gingold. The other one's still in bed."
On the bed the sleeping Gila Gingold flippered his arms and legs as if swimming through a dream lake.
It took twenty minutes to straighten it all out. By that time Pepsie Dobbins couldn't be more pleased. She had yards of tape, and it was coming up on eleven o'clock.
CONGRESSMAN GILA GINGOLD'S vociferous denial aired on the eleven o'clock news nationwide. All of official Washington saw it.
In the White House family quarters, the First Lady said, "Damn!"
In his pizza-box-strewn New York apartment, Thrush Limburger jumped up and said, "Washington, here I come!"
And in the White House subbasement Secret Service command post, all hell broke loose.
The director of the Secret Service hated stonewalling. It was not his job to hold information back from his boss, the President. But this was a special case. It wasn't just a matter of his job. The honor and integrity of the service were at stake.
An assassin wearing a Secret Service countersniper windbreaker had tried to kill the President of the United States and had been slain in return by a service-issue Delta Elite. Everything smacked of Dallas.
If the attempt on the President's life had any connection to the service-any at all-then the service was all but headed for mothballs. Hell, it had almost happened in the aftermath of Dallas anyway. Every agent knew that. It was the service's darkest hour, the event that haunted every agent's waking life and deepest slumber.
So when the President showed up at the command post in the White House subbasement with three of the strangest people he had ever seen in tow, the director thought fast.
"We're still developing the incoming Intelligence," he said quickly, even before the three could be introduced.
The beeping of the fag brought an agent hurrying out of his seat to pluck a sheet of paper from the tray. He glanced at it and seemed to lose two shades of color.
"Is there a problem?" the white-haired man in the gray suit and dark glasses asked in a lemony voice.
"And you are?"
"Smith. Secret Service. Retired."
"He's agreed to come back to help us out," the President added.
"Back? Where did you serve?"
The director swallowed hard and hoped it wasn't noticed. Did they suspect? If they suspected the truth, it was already all over.
"And this is Special Agent Remo Eastwood, along with Chiun, who is an expert on assassins."
"You?" asked the director, looking down at the tiny Asian in the white-and-gold kimono and smoked glasses.
"You will reveal all that you know," he said.
"Why don't we start with security video of the two incidents here in Washington?" The director turned and said, "Jack."
Jack Murtha popped a cassette into a VCR, and they gathered around to watch.
"We had all the video from the different monitors edited together for easy analysis. You'll see."
The video was a kaleidoscope of agents running to and fro, trying to catch the nimble black-and-white cat that strongly resembled Socks. At first it was comical, until the cat, cornered, started attacking.
"It started off acting like a typical cat," the director narrated, "then all of a sudden, it turned lion."
The video had caught it turning on two Secret Service agents, leaping up, ripping at their throats with its teeth and hanging on, as if by sheer tenacity it could drag its victims to the ground.
"Here it looks as if it's actually trying to drag Special Agent Reynolds away, but obviously its strength wasn't enough," the director said.
The footage that followed was even more chaotic, but it showed clearly the desperate attempt by the Secret Service detail to capture the crazed cat before it could reach the President.
"As you can see, Mr. President," the director said when the footage ended, "the White House detail was clearly trying to save you from what it believed was a rabid animal."
The President looked unconvinced.
Agent Eastwood turned to the tiny Oriental, Chiun, and asked, "What do you think?"
"I think tiger."
"Not lion. Tiger. That cat thinks it is a tiger."
"Why makes you say that?" the President asked.
"Because if it thought it was a lion, it would have bitten those men on the rump to bring them down. It seized their throat in its jaws. A tiger brings his prey down thus. Therefore, it was not a lion, but a tiger."
Everyone looked at the little man named Chiun blankly.
"But it's a stray tabby cat," the director said.
Chiun said, "It may have been born a tabby, but it died a tiger."
No one had much to add to that, so the director signaled for the second tape.
Because it was night, the surveillance video cameras recorded night-vision images that played back a grainy greenish black.
It was clear enough to show vividly the sight of what appeared to be Congressman Gila Gingold chasing Secret Service agents across the White House lawn and later attacking the President himself. On all fours.
Once the President hit the lawn, the figures blended together.
"I count two extra people," the director of the Secret Service said, brow furrowing.
"Shadows," said Harold Smith, looking to Remo and Chiun.
"No. Run that over."
"Forget it," the President cut in. "Have that tape destroyed. It's not exactly anyone's finest hour."
After that, there was an awkward silence.
The director offered, "Congressman Gingold is under observation. Maybe we'll have some kind of explanation in a few days."
Again Special Agent Eastwood asked his companion, "What do you think?"
"That was no man," intoned Chiun. "That was a gravel worm. "
"What's a gravel worm?"
"The Egyptians of old called them gravel worms because when their eggs hatched, they resembled gravel come to life as they crawled up from the gravel beds of the Nile."
"I still don't know what a gravel worm is," said Remo.
"In some lands they are called alligators. In others, the word is crocodile."
Jack Murtha snapped his fingers. "I knew Gingold reminded me of something. He reminded me of an alligator!" He ran over and reran a portion of the tape. "Look, see the way he came splashing out of the fountain? That's how an alligator runs."
"You mean he was trying to drag me into the fountain with his teeth?" the President demanded.
"That's how they kill prey. By dragging them into the water and holding them under till they drown."
The President of the United States shuddered visibly and uncontrollably.
"What would make Congressman Gila Gingold think he was a alligator?" asked retired Special Agent Smith.
"The same evil that convinced a simple tabby cat that it was a tiger," said Chiun.
"I would like to examine that cat," said Smith.
The cat was brought over from the FBI testing lab in a carrier cage. It had already begun to stiffen.
"I can't get over how much that looks like Socks," the President said glumly.
"Did I mention we found evidence that the cat was dyed to match Socks's markings?" the director asked casually.
"No, you did not," the President said tightly.
"Actually it was the FBI forensics lab that uncovered it," the director added hastily. "We have so much stuff coming in here, we're just shipping it right on over to the Fantasy Factory for analysis."
"Fantasy Factory?" asked the President.
"Secret Service Intelligence Division. They're the best, Mr. President. They spitball every conceivable scenario. If sense can be made of all these events, they'll do it."
Special Agent Smith had withdrawn the dead cat from the carrier cage and was going through its fur with his fingers. Near the top of the head where the fur was black, he paused, separating the stiffening hairs.
"Find something, Smith?" asked the President.
"A scar. Perfectly circular."
Everyone gathered around to see. It was dime-sized patch of whitish scar tissue.
"Looks surgical," muttered Remo.
"The FBI missed this," said Smith.
"Shame on them," the director said smugly.
Smith looked up. "Where is the cat's collar?"
"FBI must still have it"
"It should be examined."
"I'm sure that's being done right now," the director said, rocking on his heels. So far, this was going smoothly. The FBI was catching most of the heat.
"And Gila Gingold's hair should be examined for a surgical mark such as this," said Smith.
"If such a mark is found, it will be incontrovertible evidence of a conspiracy to assassinate the President."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. We have no evidence of any such conspiracy. Not in Boston. Not in Washington. At least, not officially."
"What do you mean by not officially?" the President demanded.
The director lost his composure. "I mean, sir, simply that there are Secret Service procedures we follow, and crying wolf isn't part one of them. And I'm getting tired of this dried-up retirement case barging into my investigation, Dallas experience or not."
"Do not speak to me that way," warned the tiny Asian Chiun.
"I was referring to Smith."
"And do not speak to Smith that way," said Chiun.
The director towered over the little Asian. "Who made you cock of the walk?"
"The Master before me."
Before the director could say anything further, the President noticed the TV set. It had been left on and was tuned into a broadcast channel. Congressman Gila Gingold's brick red face filled the screen. There was a chyron in one corner of the screen. It said Live.
"What's he doing on the air live?" the President blurted.
"What's he doing out of St. Elizabeth's?" the director sputtered.
An agent turned up the sound.
". . . demand that the White House officially apologize for floating the obviously untrue story of my institutionalization. A story put out in the obvious and blatant attempt to discredit me."
The camera zoomed past Gila Gingold to a man sprawled on a hospital bed, sleeping on his stomach.
"Which is which?" asked the President.
"The one on his stomach is the gravel worm," said Chiun. "He thinks he is sunning himself."
The camera returned to Gila Gingold's glowering face, and Pepsie Dobbins's disembodied voice asked, "Congressman, why do you suppose the White House has led the general public to believe you attacked the President tonight?"
"Obviously my successful efforts to lead the charge against their universal health-care program in Congress is the chief motivation here."
"And who specifically?"
"I won't name names-except to point out that everyone knows the First Lady is point man on health care."
"Thank you, Congressman Gingold."
Pepsie Dobbins turned to the camera and all but blocked the view of Congressman Gila Gingold.
"Tonight all Washington wonders if the fight over universal health care has reached a new low in political brawling or broken out into open warfare."
An off-screen anchor's voiced asked, "Pepsie, first of all welcome back to ANC News."
"Secondly, what can you add to the Boston angle to this story?"
"This is no Boston angle," the Secret Service director sputtered.
Then Pepsie Dobbins spoke the words that made the room spin around the Secret Service director's head.
"I have this from a source within the Secret Service itself. The rifle used in the attempt on the President's life tonight was a Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5-caliber military rifle, serial number C2766. This is the same rifle used to assassinate President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, more than thirty years ago."
"Pepsie, this is stunning. What does it mean?"
"It means," said Pepsie Dobbins, her tomcat eyes bright, "that I may be the next Steinway. Or Steinward. You know."
"I mean," the anchor persisted, "what does this mean to the story?"
"That there is an open conspiracy to kill the President and it has roots that go back eight administrations."
In the White House Secret Service command post, all heads turned toward the director, and all eyes locked with his. They were not happy eyes. The director sympathized. He imagined his own eyes were looking extremely unhappy right about now.
An incoming fax announced itself with a strident beeping, and the director's heart all but stopped as Smith casually reached over to claim it.
"According to this," he announced, "the FBI has a positive fingerprint match for the man who tried to shoot the President."
Everyone stopped breathing for a moment.
"The prints are those of Lee Harvey Oswald."
"Incredible," said Harold W. Smith as Remo handed another still-warm fax to him.
It was 3:00 a.m. in the Secret Service command post of the White House. For over four hours Smith had been sifting through the raw data from Boston, from St. Elizabeth's and other focal points of the investigation.
"Have you figured it out?" asked the President of the United States.
"Not by any means," admitted Smith.
Remo and Chiun lounged by the door. Whenever someone knocked, they told them to go away.
"This is assistant detail chief Murtha," a nervous voice asked. "The director wants to know if you're finished with the room yet."
"It is not over till the First Lady sings," said Chiun.
"You mean the fat lady sings," corrected Remo.
Chiun shrugged as if the distinction were utterly unimportant.
"Go away," said the President.
Harold Smith leaned back in his chair. Removing his rimless glasses, he rubbed red-rimmed gray eyes. His face was three shades grayer than normal, an indication of his extreme fatigue.
"Mr. President," he began, "I can only tell you what a collation of these reports suggests."
"I'm listening," said the President.
"The man claiming to be Alek James Hidell bears body scars identical to those on the body of Lee Harvey Oswald. His fingerprints also match those on file for Oswald. His rifle is identical to Oswald's weapon."
"Then Oswald tried to kill me?"
"Not necessarily. The rifle is identical, but it is a replica. The actual Oswald rifle is still with the national archives, where it has been since the 1960s. This suggests that the assassin may also have been a replica."
"What if it was the real Oswald, or the real Hidell?"
"Remotely possible, sir. But consider. Every human element of this bizarre web of events has been a replica. A replica Oswald. A replica Gingold. Even a replica Socks the cat."
"Then the same people that killed Kennedy aren't out to get me?"
"It's too early to say so with confidence. But consider, while this Hidell seems to have aged as much as the real Oswald would, his killer, the Jack Ruby replica the Boston office has identified as a bartender named Bud Coggins, is younger than Ruby was in 1963."
"I don't follow your thinking," the President said slowly.
"The Ruby replica-Coggins-was seen driving to the University of Massachusetts wearing a virtual-reality headset. He was wearing it when he shot Hidell. The Boston office reports that a miniature camera mounted on the helmet actually transmitted whatever the man was looking at-or would have been looking at if the helmet hadn't been blocking his vision-to the so-called eyephones in the helmet. In other words, he was seeing reality, but thought he was in virtual reality."
"Sounds like hooey to me," said the President.
"On the contrary, it was very clever. There was a letter of invitation found in the dead man's pocket inviting him to an exclusive virtual-reality game demonstration. No return address. Just a telephone number. He obviously called this number and was given the helmet and the van found in the UMass parking garage. The name of the company was Jaunt Systems. There is no such company on record, Mr. President. And the telephone number is a blind cellular number."
"I'm still not sure I follow."
"According to the invitation, the name of the game Bud Coggins thought he was playing was Ruby."
"Bud Coggins was a dupe. A well-known player of electronic games, no family, few friends, he was tricked into covering up the trail back to the assassination conspirators by gunning down Alek James Hidell, chosen as much for his game skill as his resemblance to Jack Ruby. Had there been an older Ruby who could have done the job, no doubt that one would have been contacted instead. But Bud Coggins had the greatest chance of success."
"But he gunned down several crack Secret Service agents."
"He thought he was playing a game. That and his superior reflexes gave him an edge the Secret Service did not have. They could not shoot unless they were certain of their target. Coggins shot first and asked no questions. Thinking he was in a game, there was no lethal penalty for minor failures encountered along the way."
The President digested this in silence.
"We now know that the replica Gila Gingold was found to have a surgical scar-a burr hole-in his head identical to the replica Socks the cat. That links those two incidents, but not the Boston shooting. Nevertheless, I believe they are linked."
"By the clever employment of replicas."
"Makes sense," said Remo.
"But who is trying to get me?"
"I submit to you, Mr. President, that none of these attempts were serious."
"This is a well-planned and orchestrated operation. If we can call it that. Yet anyone willing to research Secret Service procedure-and I submit the mastermind behind this has done his homework-would know that you never step out of the Presidential limousine first, but only after a special agent has. Further, the likelihood of the replica Socks getting to you was not high. And the replica Gingold likewise was unlikely to cause you fatal injury."
"You mean no one's actually trying to kill me?"
"No one is trying to kill you yet. They are certainly trying to frighten you or discredit you."
"The only clue, and it has obviously been planted, was found on the shell casing of the bullet that killed Special Agent Crandall."
"The man who took the bullet for you in Boston."
"That's the first time I've heard his name," the President said slowly.
Harold Smith picked a Lucite container from the desktop and handed it to the President. "Examine the initials on the ejected shell," he suggested.
The President tilted the box until the brass casing rolled the scratched letters into view. "RX?" he muttered. "Who is RX?"
"The initials mean nothing to you?"
"Perhaps they are not initials," mused Smith.
"What could they be?"
"On the face of it, RX is shorthand for prescription."
The President looked odd. "The medical community?"
"A warning from someone wishing you to think they are the medical community. Consider, Mr. President. You were in Boston at the John F. Kennedy Library to talk about health care when the first attempt was made. The shell casing was left at the sniper's perch deliberately, along with the rifle. You are a great admirer of President Kennedy. It is very clear that a great deal of money and effort has gone into sending you a message."
"Back off health care, or join Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery?" ventured the President.
"That is how I interpret it, Mr. President."
"Well, I'm not backing off."
"I do not expect you to. But you must realize that the mind behind these outrageous attacks may be prepared to escalate his tactics."
"Escalate to what? He's already tried to kill me three times."
"Escalate to the point of succeeding," said Harold Smith.
The President swallowed.
Someone began pounding on the door, and a shrill female voice demanded, "What's going on in there? So help me, if you're with another woman, you'll get more than a lamp thrown at you this time."
"Coming dear," said the President, rising to go.
"It is over," intoned Chiun.
"Huh?" said Remo.
"The First Lady has sung."
In the dead of night in Pepsie Dobbins's Georgetown town house, the telephone buzzed. Pepsie Dobbins awoke, heard a voice speaking and murmured, "Hello?"
The voice continued speaking, and the phone continued buzzing. Pepsie shook her befogged head to clear it and realized it was her tape recorder speaking in the voice of Buck Featherstone.
". . . on the other hand, if there were two Oswalds, the substitution was made when the real Oswald was stationed in that U-2 base in Japan."
Pepsie clicked off the tape machine and picked up the quietly buzzing telephone.
"Pepsie Dobbins?" a soft voice asked.
"What is past is prologue."
"You are on ground zero of the story of the century."
"My words exactly."
"And I'm in a position to help you."
"Yeah?" said Pepsie, sitting up. She hit the Record button on her built-in telephone recorder, just in case.
"The people out to get this President are the same people who martyred President Kennedy."
"Who? Who? Tell me!"
"Isn't the President the establishment? Now."
"No, I mean the infra-establishment. The secret people in secret offices doing secret things. Sometimes they work for the military-industrial complex. Sometimes they are entrenched bureaucrats in low places. Other times it is Congress itself."
Pepsie frowned. "Who are they this time?"
"The medical-industrial complex."
"They have left a clue. You should find this clue and expose it to the world so the world will know. Maybe if the world finds out, this President can be saved from involuntary martyrdom."
"Who are you?"
"Call me the Director."
"The director of what?"
"I want something in return from you," the Director said.
"Footage. I want every inch of tape and film you can beg, borrow or steal on this story."
"Are you from CNN by any chance?" Pepsie asked.
But the line went dead.
DR. HAROLD W. Smith awoke in the rosewood somberness of the Lincoln Bedroom. He had never enjoyed that privilege before. Not even at the invitation of the President who had installed him as director of CURE.
It was a privilege that under ordinary circumstances Smith would never have accepted. But the threat to the President was extraordinary, and the Secret Service seemed, at best, inept.
And his cover identity as retired Secret Service special agent seemed unimpeachable. No one would connect him with the Harold Smith who was director of a sleepy institution like Folcroft Sanitarium.
Smith awoke with the dawn and allowed himself the momentary luxury of absorbing the impressions of the Lincoln Bedroom. It was here that seven Presidents had come to contact him. The room was red. It seemed appropriate inasmuch as the telephone in Smith's office was also red.
Curious, Smith pulled open the night-table drawer and exposed the White House end of the dedicated line to Folcroft and CURE. It, too, was red.
Smith lifted the receiver. The line was dead. Restoring it, once the current mission was completed, would be his chief priority.
Smith was about to roll out of the big rosewood bed when someone knocked twice on the door.
"Yes?" Smith said.
The door opened, and to Harold Smith's absolute horror, the First Lady barged in, wearing a turquoise Donna Karan dress.
"Are you Smith?" she demanded.
Smith hesitated. Then, remembering his cover, said, "Yes."
"The Cure Smith?"
Harold Smith eyes widened. "I do not know what you are talking about," he blurted.
The First Lady came over to the bed on clicking heels. Harold Smith modestly drew the covers up to his throat.
"Exactly who are you?"
"Madam, that is none of your concern."
"My husband says you're with the Secret Service."
"I am retired, technically," said Smith.
"And those two who stood outside my bedroom last night guarding us were also Secret Service agents?"
The First Lady's laserlike blue eyes blazed at him. "If any of you are with the Secret Service, then I'm Bess Truman."
Smith said nothing.
"Do you know what the little man in the kimono said to me this morning?"
"I do not," Smith admitted.
"He offered to slay anyone who stood between me and what he called the Eagle Throne in exchange for the Kingdom of Hawaii."
"I am certain you misunderstood him."
"And he called you Emperor Smith and the President a puppet."
"That, of course, is preposterous."
"If he is a puppet, he's my puppet. Do you understand?"
"Yes," said Harold Smith, "I understand."
And the First Lady stormed out.
HURRIEDLY DRESSING, Harold Smith then walked down to the Oval Office in the West Wing of the White House. It felt strange to walk these pale halls so freely, but these were strange times.
Standing before the white door was Remo Williams, dressed in a slate gray Brooks Brothers suit and dark sunglasses.
"I hate this," Remo grumbled when Smith stepped into view. "I haven't worn a suit in years and now I remember why."
"Your credibility as a Secret Service agent is very important to this mission. Now I must speak with the President. Is he alone?"
"No. Chiun is trying to con him into something, as usual."
"My God," said Smith, knocking in the door.
"It's Smith. I must see you, Mr. President."
The twangy voice called, "C'mon in."
Harold Smith stepped into the Oval Office. He saw that it had been redecorated and wrinkled his nose at the change in tradition. Then he noticed the desk. It was the Resolute desk, constructed from the timbers of the British warship Resolute-the same desk at which President Kennedy had sat when Smith had first met with him three decades before. Smith had read that Johnson had banished it from the White House. It was a shock to see it again after so many years. He shook off the tidal current of memories and cleared his throat noisily.
The President brightened when he saw Smith and waved him over. "Smith! Come join us."
The President was seated in the middle of the deep blue rug before the desk, over the Great Seal of the President stitched into the nap in gold. The Master of Sinanju sat facing him, shimmering in a gold silk kimono.
"Shouldn't you be at your desk, Mr. President?" Smith asked.
"He is less a target seated on the floor," said Chiun.
"It's more relaxing, too," the President added.
Smith cleared his throat. "I just received a visit from the First Lady."
"Don't mind her. She thinks she's co-President. Took over half the West Wing before we even got all moved in."
"She asked me if I were Smith."
"Why wouldn't she? You are Smith."
"Smith at CURE," Smith said firmly. "Mr. President, I must ask for an explanation."
"Oh, that. Shucks. Don't you fret none. She don't know who you really are, except that you're a guy who contacts me from time to time on the net."
"Have I your solemn word that you have never told her about the organization?"
"Haven't breathed a word. And speaking of breathing, have you ever tried any of these breathing exercises my good buddy Chiun is showing me?"
"No, I have not."
"Makes a fella feel like a million bucks. Why, I don't even feel like my after-breakfast snack."
"That is good, Mr. President," said Smith stiffly.
"And he has an idea I really like."
"What is that?" asked Smith, concern edging his voice.
"Chiun thinks we don't really need the Secret Service."
"When you have the best at your beck and call," said Chiun, magnanimously, "all others are superfluous."
The President grinned broadly. "I can go along with that."
"There is only one boon I crave," Chiun said blandly. "A minor trifle."
Smith suppressed a groan.
"I have toiled in this land for many years, along with my pupil, Remo."
"America appreciates your loyalty," said the President.
"A loyalty that has hitherto been paid for in gold."
"So I understand."
"Gold is good. But I am an old man, having seen more than eighty summers. I crave something, a minor token of respect that no Master-not even the Great Wang-has been granted by an emperor."
"Just name it."
"No pharaoh, no caliph, no emir of old has ever offered this to Sinanju."
Chiun raised a hopeful finger. He beamed.
"Universal health care is the boon I crave."
"I'm working on that right now. In another year or two, we may be able to ram something through the Hill."
Chiun shook his aged head. "I care not for your hills. I wish only that my pupil and I receive adequate health care in return for our dangerous service."
"Smith, see to it."
"Yes, Mr. President," said Harold Smith, relieved that the Master of Sinanju had not asked for something difficult, like a state capital for his personal use.
The phone on the President's desk rang, and he reached up to take the receiver down.
"What is it?" he asked brightly.
The President listened intently. His buoyant mood quickly darkened. "Just what I needed," he said unhappily. "Thanks, George." The President turned to Harold Smith. "If we don't have enough troubles, that tub of guts Thrush Limburger just blew into town to stir the embers."
"Speak the word, and his head will adorn your highest flagpole," cried Chiun.
The President brightened. "Can he do that?" he asked Smith.
"Under no circumstances can I permit this," Smith said quickly.
"Maybe we can just kinda embarrass him a touch."
Chiun bowed his aged head. "I am your eternal servant, O generous dispenser of universal health care."
Smith interrupted, "Mr. President, I strongly disagree with that idea. We will need Remo and Chiun to follow any leads to the person or organization behind these attempts on your life, and frivolous expenditures of their time are contrary to the operational parameters of CURE."
"Shucks," said the President of the United States. Turning to the Master of Sinanju, he said, "Tell me more about how I remind you of Emperor Nero ...."
Thrush Limburger plopped his three-hundred-odd pounds into the heavy-duty swivel chair of the mobile broadcast RV parked on the concrete plaza in front of the Capitol Building.
He cleared his throat noisily.
His assistant, Cody Caster, threw him a cue, and the red On Air sign went on. Thrush leaned into the microphone, and his basso profundo voice boomed out clear as controlled thunder.
"From occupied Washington, this is Thrush Umburger, the voice of the Tell the Truth network. Welcome, friends. We've braved the urban perils of the District of Columbia to bring you the truth. Something is rotten in the White House, and we're going to get to the bottom of it. Let's start by asking a few deceptively simple questions."
Thrush tapped a chime with a small hardwood mallet. It hit middle C.
"Why has the White House started a smear campaign against my good friend and fellow champion of right, the esteemed congressman from Georgia, Gila Gingold?"
Thrush tapped the chime again.
"Why has the President refused to make a public appearance since the alleged-note that underscore-alleged attempt to pot him yesterday?"
Thrush tapped the chime a third time.
"Are things what they seem to be? Well, my friends, if you know anything about Washington politics, you know that just isn't so."
The chime reverberated again.
"The President is on the ropes on this health-care thing. You know it and he knows it. Most of all, the First Lady knows it."
Thrush made his voice confidential.
"Suppose-just suppose, mind you-the President, looking to revive his doomed health-care scheme, arranges for a little artificial sympathy. Now, I'm not suggesting that a Secret Service agent was sacrificed to bring this about-accidents do happen-but consider these incontrovertible facts.
"Number one, the President returned to the White House and everyone goes into bunker mode. The first to go were the White House press corps. Tossed into the street like so much garbage.
"Normally you want to reassure the nation that you're okay. Unless-you're not okay.
"Why doesn't the President come out and show his face? Is he dead? Is he afraid? Has there been a coup? Is the clumsy attempt to tar the good name of Congressman Gingold a smoke screen to cover up what's really going on? We here at the Triple-T network are not just throwing out these questions to hear the dulcet tones of our own voice-enthralling though they may be-but to get the cold, hard facts. To that end, I hereby issue a challenge to the President to show himself to the American people and prove that it is indeed he and not some nefarious double occupying the Oval Office. If the President would like to call in, we'll put him on the air. In the meantime, I want to hear your thoughts on this latest-dare I say it?-whitewash. First caller."
"Thrush," said a hoarse voice.
"Do you recognize my voice?"
"You do sound suspiciously like the President." Thrush admitted with a chuckle. "But, of course, so do half a dozen stand-up comics these days."
The hoarse voice acquired an edge. "Thrush. Get stuffed."
"That, of course, was not the Chief Executive, appearances to the contrary," said Thrush Limburger. "But we do encourage him to call in."
IN THE OVAL OFFICE the President of the United States hung up the phone.
"I've always wanted to do that," he said, giving his desktop Don Imus souvenir bobble-head a hard tap.
Harold Smith cleared his throat unhappily. "Mr. President, that was in questionable taste."
"You kidding? You should hear how that bag of wind bashes my wife and daughter. I have half a mind to go on his fool program and give him a piece of my mind."
From the desktop radio the booming voice of Thrush Limburger continued. "Our next caller comes from right here in the District of Columbia. Caller, what do you think?"
"I think the medical-industrial complex is out to get the President," a soft voice said.
"The medical-industrial complex."
"I've heard of the military-industrial complex, but not the medical-industrial complex. You don't mean military-industrial, do you?"
"I mean the big hospitals, the insurance companies and fat-cat pharmaceutical industries. They are all different sides of the same coin called the establishment. And they will do anything to stop universal health care from coming into law."
"The establishment!" Thrush exploded. "Well-haw-I-thought people stopped talking about the establishment back around the time Saigon fell. What proof do you have of this rather fanciful theory, my fine antediluvian friend?"
"I don't have the proof. But the Secret Service does. Once the facts of their investigation come out, all America will know the truth behind the terrible events in Boston."
Thrush Limburger made a scoffing noise.
"I have a question for you, Thrush," the caller said.
"And what is that?"
"If you could be any kind of animal in the world, what kind would you be?"
"I'd have to think about that, caller."
"Would you be an elephant?"
"Well, I don't know about that, but I will venture to suggest the pachyderm is a much-maligned creature. Often called fat, much like-ahem-myself, when in fact it is a reasonably agile and dare I say svelte creature."
"An excellent choice, Thrush," said the soft-voiced caller, abruptly hanging up.
The President snapped off the radio. "Did you hear that?"
"Yes," said Smith and Chiun.
"That caller said the medical-industrial complex is after me. How would he know that unless he had inside information?"
"I do not know, Mr. President. But it is not impossible for a crank caller to touch upon the truth unwittingly."
"Do you think the medical-industrial complex is after me?"
"There is no such thing."
"Ever see those anti-health-care TV ads?"
Chiun spoke up. "That man was no crank," he said.
"What do you mean, Master Chiun?" asked Smith.
"Because he asked Thrush Limburger a certain question. "
"What question is that?"
"He asked what kind of animal Thrush would like to be."
"Probably a loud one," laughed the President. But no one else joined him.
A knock came at the door, and Remo's voice called through the panel, "The First Lady is here. Do I let her in or not?"
"Of course you let me in, damn it," the shrill voice of the First Lady said.
"Let her in," said the President in a weary voice.
"Mr. President-" Smith started to say. Then the door opened and the First Lady entered, her hands clutching loops and coils of black electrical cord dotted with red Christmas-tree lights.
"I have a problem with these decorations," she began.
Then she saw the President and the Master of Sinanju on the blue rug and Harold W. Smith trying to look inconspicuous.
"That's the Cure Smith, isn't it?" she asked the President.
"Will someone tell me what Cure is?"
There was an awkward silence lasting some forty seconds. The President threw Harold Smith a look that said, "It's in your court."
"It is an acronym," Smith said, knotting his tie uncomfortably.
"Committee on Urban Refugee Empowerment," Smith said hastily.
"I want to be on it!" the First Lady said quickly.
"I'll arrange it," the President said quickly. "Now, what's your problem?"
"I'm getting ready for the Christmas-tree lighting ceremony tonight-"
"Yes, tonight. Don't tell me you've forgotten."
"Damn. That means we'll have to let the press in."
"Not necessarily," said the First Lady, dropping the heavy coil of Christmas-tree lights on the Presidential lap with a rattle of insulated cord.
"I've decided that we're going to have a multicultural Christmas tree. The first in White House history."
"I never heard of a multicultural Christmas tree," said the President.
"It will represent every ethnic group and creed that makes up the nation. All the trimmings have been handcrafted. But it's these lights I'm concerned about. I had them flown in from California."
The President fingered the tiny light bulbs strung along the cord. They were red but very long and tapered at the end.
"They look like little chili peppers," he said.
"Exactly. They're supposed to represent the Hispanic community, but my press secretary says they might be construed as insensitive. What do you think?"
"I think they're kinda cute," the President admitted.
"Cute, yes. But are they politically correct?"
"Don't ask me. You're the diva of inclusive politics. I'm only Commander in Chief."
"You just don't want to make the decision."
"And you want someone to pass the buck to if it backfires," the President fired back.
"May I make a suggestion?" Harold Smith said. "If you do not wish to offend the Hispanic community, why not leave them off?"
"They'll scream if we ignore them."
"Then a traditional Christmas tree is your only logical alternative."
"There's nothing traditional about this White House," the First Lady snapped, "and if I have any say, there never will be!"
"Who died and made you empress?" muttered the President.
The First Lady's face turned red under her blond bangs, and she made a tiny red mouth in the President's direction.
"You're not going to help me with this, are you?" she told the President.
"Flip a coin," suggested the President.
"Honestly," the First Lady snapped, grabbing up the coils of cord. "How did you ever get to be President?"
The door slammed on the President's "People like you voted me into office."
The door reopened, and the First Lady poked her bangs back in and said, "I almost forgot. Your press secretary is having an acute attack of spin fatigue over this Oswald conspiracy rumor. Maybe you should give a speech tonight or something."
The door slammed.
"I'm going to do better than that," the President said angrily. "I'm going back to Boston to finish my damn speech."
"Mr. President," Harold Smith said gravely, "I think it would be unwise to make a public appearance at this time."
"I can't let Thrush Limburger and the press boot me around like an old football," the President said, rising from the rug. "And I have to continue the push for health-care reform."
"May I ask why?"
The President glanced toward the still-vibrating Oval Office door. "Because my wife will have my butt if I don't."
Arising from the floor like a sunflower lifting toward the sun, the Master of Sinanju intoned, "Beware the Shrill Queen. Ambition smolders in her eyes. For she covets your throne."
"Tell me something I don't already know," the President muttered.
The director of the Secret Service was manning the electronics-packed nest that was the White House command post when Harold W Smith walked in.
The director looked up, saw Smith and shot out of his seat, leveling an accusing finger. "I checked the Dallas district office. There's a Special Agent Remo Eastwood on file in the personnel records, all right, but nobody up there has ever seen or heard of him. He's a damn ghost!"
"It would have been better had you not checked."
"And Dallas has no records of any Smith."
"That is not true," Smith said coolly.
The director deflated. "All right, there are three Smiths on file in Dallas. Which one are you?"
"That is no longer your concern."
"I'm your fucking superior."
"Technically no. I am retired."
The director of the Secret Service sputtered inarticulately.
"The President has asked that you call him," Smith added.
The director sat down and dialed the President's inhouse line. He was put through immediately.
"Yes, Mr. President?" he asked.
His craggy face paled almost at once. He sat down hard. "I protest in the highest possible terms. Yes, sir, I understand the service did not acquit itself perfectly yesterday, but look, man- I mean, sir-you're still alive. That counts for something, doesn't it?"
The director listened with shoulders slumping like a wire coat hanger being warped. "I understand, Mr. President. I will vacate this office as instructed, but-"
The director stared at the buzzing receiver in his hand.
"Damn! He hung up on me."
"I will be taking over this office for the remainder of the crisis," said Harold Smith.
The director jumped out of his seat. "You can't fool me, Smith. You're not Secret Service. You're CIA. You have spook written all over your smug face."
"Before you go," Harold Smith said crisply, "have the latest reports come in from the FBI forensics lab?"
"On my desk, damn you," said the director.
At the door he paused to snarl, "At least the President is showing some good sense."
"He asked Secret Service Agent Capezzi to stay on board. He's our best man."
Smith nodded and the door closed. He went to the desk, skimmed the reports and immediately phoned the FBI crime lab.
"This is Smith, temporarily in charge of the White House Secret Service detail. Why hasn't the collar of the Socks double been sent over here as requested?"
"We found something unusual and we're analyzing it."
"I am on my way," said Smith.
A WHITE HOUSE cart whisked Harold Smith to FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue. His Secret Service ID got him into the crime lab where whitesmocked forensics agents were puzzling over the collar that had been taken off the Socks double after it had been shot dead.
"It's an ordinary collar in all outward respects," an FBI agent was saying as Smith joined the circle of tight-faced men. "It's red leather with hollow tin studs all the way around. You can buy one in any five-and-dime or pet store in the nation"
"Then why is it unusual?" asked Smith.
"Inside each stud is a tiny reservoir. See these pinholes?"
"Nozzles. One to a stud. And inside, a tiny heating element. I mistook them for a manufacturing defect until I put one under the microscope. The workmanship is exquisite. Evidently a liquid was contained in the studs."
Another lab man said, "It was reported that before the subject cat went crazy, it hissed and began sniffing itself. Someone triggered the collar by radio control, vaporizing its contents, and the cat inhaled the resulting gas."
"What kind of gas?" Smith asked.
"We're still working on that. But there's more." The agent brought up a black ball the size of a marble that hung off the lower end of the collar in lieu of a cat tag. He pressed a catch, and the black ball popped apart, revealing a tiny black lens.
"Miniature spy camera and transmitter. Whoever sent this cat into the White House grounds was recording everything it did from a cat's-eye view. "
"Strange," said Smith, frowning severely.
"We suspect a steroid or mind-altering substance. The cat was not rabid. The brain scan was normal. But something made it wild. A chemical would explain everything it did."
"But not how strong it became," said Smith.
"When you have the substance in the studs identified," he said, "phone me at the White House. Report to no one else."
REMO WILLIAMS was walking the White House grounds feeling strange.
It wasn't just the fact that he was patrolling the North Lawn virtually in camera range of the stillbarred White House press corps that made him feel strange, although that was a good start.
He had come out when Secret Service Agent Vince Capezzi reported for duty. That gave Remo a chance to check out the White House grounds. There was no telling what might crop up next.
It was a cool December day, yet Remo felt uncomfortably warm. It was the suit. He was not used to wearing so many layers of clothes. The discipline that was Sinanju had given him near total mastery over his own body, and even in the most bitter weather he was comfortable in his usual uniform of T-shirt and chinos.
It had been even worse in the well-heated White House.
Out here it was just annoying. Remo had grown used to the way his skin acted like a giant sensory organ. The pressure of an approaching attacker or the advance edges of the shock wave of a bullet were things his bare forearms alerted him to-sometimes before his other senses kicked in their warnings.
A full night of guarding the President had made him itch to get out. It was not his kind of duty. He was more of an in-and-out guy. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am. Give me a target, and I'll do the job, Remo thought. Pulling bodyguard duty isn't my style.
Chiun had done his job too well. Maybe Remo had to be an assassin. Maybe it was so deeply ingrained in his nervous system that there was no avoiding it.
The White House press corps was on the sidewalk in front of the White House filming a National Parks Service crew erecting the thirty-foot-tall Maine blue spruce that was to be the centerpiece of tonight's Christmas-tree lighting. A blue crane held it suspended over its steel base, and they were maneuvering it down by hand.
All around the tree folding chairs were arrayed before a podium still under construction. The workmen going about their work tried to ignore the shouting of the press.
"Is the President alive or dead?"
"Who is trying to kill him-if he's still alive?"
"Can you give us the full name and Social Security Number of the impostor President now occupying the White House?"
The workmen pretended not to hear.
"Is your silence a no-comment? Or are you ignoring us?"
"They're ignoring you," Remo said, immediately regretting it. The press turned their attention to him.
"Why has the President fired his Secret Service detail?" a reporter shouted.
Remo said nothing.
"Is the Vice President in charge, or the First Lady?"
Remo started to walk away.
"Can you at least give us a no-comment so we have some audio for airing?"
Sticking his thumbs in his ears, Remo wiggled his fingers and tongue at the press.
As Remo drew near the East Wing of the White House, he felt a vague pressure on the small of his back. As soon as the feeling hit, he ducked behind a huge red oak tree.
When the bullet his subtle senses expected did not come, Remo knelt and peered up through the high branches.
Up on the roof of the Treasury Building, something moved.
Remo whipped off his sunglasses, making sure his face was turned away from the cameras, so he could see more clearly. Sunglasses were a hindrance to someone whose eyes took the natural sunlight and used it to full advantage for seeing.
Up on the Treasury Building roof, the unmistakable silhouette of a man with a scoped rifle skulked. It had been the sniper laying the cross hairs of his scope on his back that had tripped Remo's assassin's reflexes.
"Damn," said Remo, looking toward Pennsylvania Avenue. He could flash across East Executive Ave. and ascend the classical Greek Treasury facade in less than ninety seconds. But not with the press crawling all over the place. All those cameras couldn't help but track him, no matter how fast he moved.
Then a White House car came slithering out of the parking garage, and Remo ran to intercept it. All White House vehicles were equipped with running boards and wide rear bumpers for the convenience of Secret Service agents. Without breaking stride, Remo ran parallel to the left running board and hopped aboard. His weight didn't even compress the suspension springs.
Remo rode the big black vehicle through the White House gate and onto Pennsylvania Avenue. No one questioned him, but the press, seeing a Secret Service agent clinging to the vehicle, jumped to a hasty conclusion. They thought the President was slipping out of the White House.
They gave chase. As the car turned onto Madison Place, Remo casually stepped off and made for the Treasury Building. He looked back once. Not a single camera was tracking him, he saw.
"Two birds with one stone," he said.
Grinning tightly, he went up the broad staircase of the Treasury Building and kept going. The façade carried him up to the roof, and not the other way around. Some of it was momentum, some the steely strength of his fingers and toes. All of it was Sinanju.
On the roof Remo fixed his target and moved on him with the stealth of a ghost.
The sniper was wearing a blue-black windbreaker and crouched low. From time to time he swept the White House with his rifle, sighting through the scope as if scoping out a bit.
Remo slipped up on him and took his skull in one hand and the rifle barrel in the other. He brought them together, and they made a hollow thunking before the sniper started rolling on the roof, holding his head in his hands.
Remo examined the rifle. It was no Mannlicher-Carcano, but a modern Beretta. Holding the stock in one hand and the barrel in the other, Remo flexed his wrists in opposite directions.
The rifle made a grunk of a sound and shattered like painted glass.
"Time for straight talk, pal," Remo told the man on the roof.
"Who the hell are you?"
"Secret Service. The jig's up."
"You idiot, I'm Secret Service, too!"
"Nice try. But I don't buy it."
"Check my wallet if you don't believe me."
Remo set one foot on the man's chest, emptying his lungs of air with two quick pumping motions of his leg. The man made a bellows sound, then turned green and glassy eyed.
Remo pulled the wallet, and it fell open, revealing a gold Secret Service badge.
"What the hell were you doing up here with a rifle?" Remo demanded, removing his foot from the man's chest and tossing the wallet on his breastbone.
"I'm a countersniper, damn it. You should know that."
"I'm new at this."
Remo hauled the Secret Service agent to his feet.
"The director thought it would be a good idea to place a man up here in case there was more trouble. I can take out any subject trespassing the White House grounds from up here."
"Makes sense." Remo grunted. "Countersniper, huh?"
"That's right. What are you?"
"Me," said Remo. "I guess you could say I'm a counterassassin. "
"Never heard that designation."
Remo grunted. "It's new. I'm the prototype. Sorry about the rifle."
The Secret Service countersniper looked down at his disintegrated weapon and blurted, "What'd you do to it?"
"I countered it," said Remo.
When the agent looked up, he saw that he was alone on the roof.
Ten minutes later Remo was back in the White House grounds, whistling "Deck the Halls." He felt good about himself again. He just hoped the feeling would last.
In her office at ANC News Washington headquarters, Pepsie Dobbins was reviewing video of the past twenty-four hours of the network's Presidential coverage.
There was a lot of it. Virtually every step of the President's travels from the White House to the JFK Library in Boston was covered in excruciatingly boring detail. And that was only ANC footage.
The reason was simple. Ever since Dallas, the networks were determined to capture the next Presidential assassination on tape or film. One confiscable Zapruder film was enough. So whenever the President traveled, the press filmed every mile and rest stop. It was called "the body watch."
Thus, Pepsie had a virtually unbroken chain of film up until the chaos at the JFK Library, after which the press had become the frightened tail of a very desperate comet, and all footage after that consisted of white-faced reporters asking breathless questions of off-camera anchors and vice versa.
A full morning of reviewing footage revealed nothing significant.
"So why does the Director want footage?" she muttered to herself.
Buck Featherstone poked his head into the office and whispered, "There's some guy named Smith here wanting to see those tapes you're looking at."
"Did you say Smith?"
"Did he say who he was with?"
"He flashed a Secret Service badge."
Pepsie frowned. "Probably not that Smith."
"Couldn't hurt to ask. He's coming this way."
Pepsie grabbed her minicassette recorder off her desk, thumbed the Record button and dropped it into a desk drawer, which she did not close.
A gaunt-faced man with white hair stepped in and said, "Ms. Dobbins?"
"Of course," said Pepsie, wondering what kind of a stiff wouldn't recognize her famous face.
"Smith. Secret Service."
"I never reveal my sours, so you can forget it," Pepsie snapped. "My lips are sealed."
"I am here to review the tapes of yesterday's Presidential coverage," Smith said stiffly. "Your news director has given his permission."
"Oh," said Pepsie, sounding vaguely disappointed.
"I would like privacy."
"Then you're going to have to wait until I'm through."
"This is a national-security matter. I must ask you to leave."
"Suit Yourself," said Pepsie, half closing the drawer and exiting the room. "Feel free to use the telephone if you need to."
"Thank you," said Smith, dropping his lanky frame into Pepsie's chair.
Harold Smith frowned at the stack of half-inch videocassettes. It was criminal how much tape the networks consumed and wasted on trivia. Examining the labels, he sorted the death-watch footage from those of the assassination attempt itself.
Smith popped the tape marked JFK Shooting into the deck, his mouth thinning over the irony of the label.
The footage was raw and unedited. Of course, only the gruesome head shot had been aired, which was the main reason Smith had been making the rounds of the networks all morning. Perhaps some clue could be gleaned from the unaired tape stock.
Smith watched the decoy Secret Service agent step out of the Presidential limousine six times before he spotted something strange in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
Rewinding the tape, he hit the Pause button. Instantly the picture froze, wiggling in the middle as if the tape stubbornly resented being freeze-framed.
The corner remained perfectly clear.
Smith saw a man with a Minicam. He wore aviator sunglasses, jeans and a red-checker work shirt. The camera caught him as he was taping the Presidential car door opening. But as the door came open, abruptly he turned his camera away and seemed to be shooting something high and to the west.
Smith hit Pause. The tape resumed. Immediately the crack of the rifle shot came, and the unfortunate Secret Service agent's head came apart.
The cameraman instantly swung his camera toward the Secret Service agent lying facedown in a pudding of his own blood and brain matter. Pandemonium broke out, and the agent was hauled into the Presidential limousine. The cameraman was quickly lost in the bedlam that followed.
From his coat, Smith drew a diagram of the University of Massachusetts campus and Kennedy Library complex and fixed the spot where the cameraman had been standing when the fatal rifle shot came. He traced the camera angle with a bony finger.
There was no mistaking it. The man with the camera had swung around to film the sniper's nest atop the Science Center a full four seconds before the first and only shot came. He had foreknowledge of the attempt. His cue had been the opening of the limousine door. There was no other possible explanation for his unprofessional actions.
Smith rewound the tape and hit the Pause button again. He advanced the footage frame by frame. At no point did the man's face show clearly. What could be seen was heavy beard stubble on cheeks that looked as plump as a chipmunk's mouth pouches. Beneath an L.A. Dodgers baseball cap, impenetrable Ray-Ban sunglasses covered his eyes. He could be anyone.
"Why would someone film an assassination in which he is a co-conspirator?" Smith muttered.
There seemed no logical answer, so Smith ejected the tape and returned it to its black plastic case.
Exiting the office, he told a loitering Pepsie Dobbins, "I am confiscating this tape."
"Which one?" asked Pepsie.
"National security forbids me from answering, but here is a receipt."
Pepsie accepted the receipt and said, "Good luck."
Smith said nothing as he left the building.
After he was gone, Pepsie hissed, "Did you get him?"
"Yeah," said Buck Featherstone, popping up from behind a row of steel file cabinets. "I shot through the crack between these files. Hope he comes out okay."
"Let's see what my tape recorder tells us."
Pepsie listened to her minicassette recorder play back the sound of Smith popping videotapes in and out of the office deck.
"He keeps watching the footage just before that Secret Service guy gets nailed," Buck muttered as they listened.
Then came Smith's lemony mutter.
"Why would someone film an assassination in which he is a co-conspirator?"
"What does that mean?" Buck wondered.
"Let's find out," said Pepsie. "We have backup on all tapes."
They played the JFK Shooting tape, rewinding the footage before the sound of the gunshot for exactly as long as the minicassette tape recording told them Smith had rewound it.
"Whatever he found," Pepsie murmured, "it's coming up soon."
They both saw it at once. Smith's muttered question gave them the hint.
"Look at that," Buck said. "The guy in the L.A. Dodgers cap is trying to film the shooter."
"Yeah. Before the guy even shoots."
"You know what this means? He was in on it. That's proof of a conspiracy."
"There's only one question."
"Why would he film the assassination in the first place?"
"To prove to the guy who hired them they pulled it off okay?" said Buck.
"Crap. That's the President of the United States. The proof airs over every network and cable news service the same day."
"Maybe he's a video hound?" suggested Buck.
"All I know is if we find that guy we can start working back along the chain of the conspiracy."
The phone rang and Pepsie grabbed it. "Pepsie Dobbins."
The familiar soft voice asked, "Have you got any footage for me?"
"Yeah. But I have something more."
"A big key to the conspiracy."
"I think we should meet."
"When and where?"
"Tonight. After dark. I'll be sitting on a park bench on the Potomac within sight of the Lincoln Memorial. Come at six. And don't forget the tapes."
"Wait! How will I recognize you?"
But the line was already dead.
Pepsie turned to Buck. "I'm going to meet him," she said.
"Yeah. I want you to come, but discreetly."
"You mean hide in the bushes?"
"And film everything," Pepsie added.
"Because I think that guy knows more than he's letting on and when we compare notes, we may have a big piece of this puzzle."
"Suits me," said Buck Featherstone.
HAROLD SMITH next showed up at the District of Columbia Coroner's Office, where the body identified as Alek J. Hidell had been autopsied.
"I would like to examine the body," Smith told the medical examiner, displaying his Secret Service identification badge.
"Again," said Smith.
"All right, but this has got to be the most examined corpse in the history of this building."
Smith was escorted to the morgue, and the sheeted body was rolled out on a squealing marble slab.
The M.E. drew back the sheet exposing the upper body.
The man looked remarkably like Lee Harvey Oswald, Smith saw. He was prepared for that. But somehow seeing him in the flesh, seemingly aged thirty years, brought unfamiliar goose bumps to Smith's loose gray skin.
Donning a pair of disposable rubber gloves, Smith examined the man's hair. After satisfying himself that there was no surgical scar on the scalp, he examined the mastoid scar and the slash marks at each wrist.
"How recent would you say were these scars?"
"Recent?" the M.E. repeated blankly.
"You heard me?"
"With scarring, it is difficult to say precisely."
"Thirty years old?" prompted Smith.
The M.E. shook his head. "No, not even ten, I should judge."
Smith compressed his mouth and said nothing. He next went to the man's hands, drawing the sheet down farther to expose them.
The body had already begun to stiffen, so Smith had to give the arm a hard jerk to lift the right hand.
"You should not do that!" the M.E. exploded.
Smith brought the limp, cold fingers to his own face and turned the wrist with difficulty. He examined the fingertips, which were black with ink from the posthumous fingerprinting.
"I found it difficult to believe this is really Lee Harvey Oswald," the M.E. muttered.
"I find it impossible to accept," said Harold Smith, using a fingernail to scratch residual ink from the dead man's thumb. The flesh beneath was cold and unresponsive. Smith kept scratching.
"What are you doing?" the M.E. asked, leaning in curiously.
To his horror, Harold Smith took up a loose flap of skin and began peeling the thumb as if it was a tiny white banana.
The M.E. gasped. Smith's grim gray face went grimmer.
Smith let the hand go. It dropped slightly, then froze in a macabre lifting gesture, as if the dead man were stirring back to life. Smith paid the arm no attention. He was looking at the perfect shell of the last joint of a thumb between his gloved fingers.
"Latex," said Smith. "Grooved with Lee Harvey Oswald's perfect fingerprints."
"The same material as these gloves," said Smith, stripping off the disposable rubber gloves.
"I cannot believe these were overlooked during the autopsy."
"The latex fingertips were expertly fitted so no seam showed, just as the body scars were designed to create the illusion of an older Lee Harvey Oswald."
"Then how did you discover these things?"
"I looked for them," said Smith.
The M.E. winced. "If this man is not Oswald, who is he?"
"After you have his true fingerprints, fax them to me at the White House, but tell no one else. Do you understand?"
"Yes," said the puzzled medical examiner.
SMITH NEXT went to St. Elizabeth's Hospital, where his false identification got him access to the insane patient who bore a strong resemblance to Congressman Gila Gingold.
There were two Secret Service special agents on duty. Smith asked them, "Why hasn't this man been fingerprinted as ordered?"
"We can't get him out of the tub," one agent admitted.
"Every time we try, he tries to bite us," the other added.
"Show me," said Smith.
The patient-his name was now Gila Doe on the bedside clipboard-was in a private room, and it had a private bath.
The attending doctor showed up and began explaining. "He wet the bed repeatedly, so we had orderlies carry him into the bathroom to sponge him down. He took one look at the tub filled with water and threw himself in. We haven't been able to pry him out after that."
Smith found the patient still in his jungle fatigues soaking in the tub. He wasn't soaking on his back, but on his stomach.
When Smith peered over the edge of the oversize tub, he felt his skin crawl involuntarily. The patient's limbs were splayed out. His head was almost entirely submerged except for the white hair on top. His green eyes shifted to fix Smith with a cold lizardlike regard. Bubbles dribbled up from the thin, submerged lips.
Experimentally Smith reached toward a tiny bald spot in the white hair that resembled the burr hole found on the skull of the Socks replica.
Abruptly the patient reared up. He tried to snap the hand off. Smith withdrew his fingers just ahead of the jaws. The man eased back into the water and returned to dribbling slow bubbles, as if nothing had happened.
"See what we mean?" one agent said.
"Distract him, please," Smith told the agents as he removed his coat and rolled up one shirt sleeve.
The agents moved to the end of the tub, and the cold green eyes shifted to follow.
Ducking low, Smith slipped up on one side and snaked his bare arm into the tub. He reached under and carefully began tickling the man on his stomach.
The frozen face betrayed no notice at first. Then a slow, satisfied smile crept over the thin mouth. The eyes grew sleepy and pleased.
"Quickly," hissed Smith. "Turn him over on his back."
The agents hesitated.
"Now!" said Smith.
Eyes afraid, the agents moved in and, reaching around Smith's tickling hand, upended the man.
Smith continued tickling the stomach. The man lifted his arms like a contented kitten. They hung in the air, bent and boneless.
"Print him now," Smith ordered.
The agents cracked open a pen and smeared raw ink on the fingers of one limp hand. The man in the tub appeared oblivious to the entire procedure.
They pressed each fingertip to a sheet of hospital stationery and when they had all five prints of one hand, Smith said, "Step back quickly."
They did. Smith ceased his methodical tickling and pulled away.
Slowly the man in the jungle fatigues rolled over onto his stomach again. His head slipped under the ink stained water, and he returned to blowing slow bubbles.
"Run those prints and contact me at the White House," Smith told the two agents, returning his sleeve to normal.
"How did you know he was ticklish?" the attending doctor asked Smith on the way out.
"All alligators are ticklish," said Smith.
Orville Rollo Fletcher was getting tired of waiting in his corner room in the Washington Holiday Inn on Wisconsin. It was nerves. Sheer nerves. He was a bundle of nerves. A big bundle. A very big bundle. Three hundred and twenty pounds, to be exact.
It had been very exciting at first. Orville had never been to Washington before. Not Washington, D.C. He came from Washington State. Spokane, to be exact.
It had been a very uneventful life in Spokane for Orville Rollo Fletcher until the advent of Thrush Limburger.
At first there had been no problem. Thrush Limburger had been a radio voice. His voice bore no resemblance to the voice of Orville Rollo Fletcher, unless you considered the deep resonance that typically emanated from the guts of very large men.
Then Limburger had launched his TV show. After that, Orville's life became a living hell. It had begun at work. Orville owned a hardware store in downtown Spokane. Fletcher's. Nothing fancy, nothing big. He stocked the basics of home maintenance-nails, shovels, paint and tools. The home warehouse superstores with their deep-discount seed spreaders and submersible sump pumps had not yet come to Spokane, so the competition consisted of upstart hardware stores who could not compete with Fletcher's Hardware, a local institution established in 1937 by Orville's grandfather, August Orville Fletcher.
Customers began to come into his store, saying, "Roger, Thrush."
The first time it happened, Orville had simply ignored it. A case of mistaken identity. It happened, even to 320-pound men like Orville Rollo Fletcher.
But when longtime customers started doing it, Orville became annoyed. He was hypersensitive about his weight, his oversize ears and the size-18 double-E orthopedic shoes his forefathers' generous genes had burdened him with. He was also sensitive about his lifelong bachelorhood, and so when the women customers began to poke fun at him, he was beyond being offended. He was mortified.
"Why don't you watch Thrush Limburger?" one asked.
"I have never heard of the gentleman," Orville said, mustering up his best Raymond Burr tone of dismissal. Raymond Burr had been a favorite actor of his. The man carried his weight with great dignity.
"He's a scream. When they call in to his talk show, people say 'Roger, Thrush.' That means, 'I read you, politically speaking-'"
"I abhor politics."
"You look so much like him you could be his brother."
"I have no siblings," said Orville. "I am an only child." It was another sore point with the forty-four-year-old hardware-store owner.
The ribbing and kidding and tiresome jokes and comparisons very quickly became unendurable. It was enough for Orville to consider closing down the store he had inherited from his father.
Then the Home Depot hit Spokane, and within six months, Orville Rollo Fletcher was sitting in the modest clapboard home he had also inherited, wondering what sort of future would be the lot of an asthmatic ex-hardware-store owner who had known no other trade.
Everything had changed with the ringing of his home telephone.
"Orville Fletcher?" a soft, confident voice had asked.
"Orville Rollo Fletcher," he had corrected. His father had been Orville August Fletcher. He still received bills in that name. Another quiet indignity.
"I represent the Ixchel Talent Agency."
"I buy nothing from telephone solicitors," he said, starting to replace the receiver.
"No. I'm not selling. I'm buying."
"I understand you look a great deal like Thrush Limburger, the political commentator."
"I would not dignify what that man does with such a description," Orville had said.
"My agency specializes in celebrity doubles."
The soft voice had no need to go any further. Orville sat home a lot and had fallen into the evil habit of watching TV talk shows from Nancy Jessica Rapunzel to Copra Innisfree.
"If it is my wish to join a circus," Orville had said with measured dignity, "I shall contact the Ringling Brothers myself. Good day."
"The pay is phenomenal," the soft voice said quickly.
Orville hesitated. "How do you define phenomenal?"
The soft voice had quoted a figure as substantial in its own way as Orville was in his.
"That is a different matter," said Orville, who had inherited a mortgage to go with the family homestead. "What exactly would I have to do?"
"Practice Thrush Limburger's voice to start."
"I confess I have no such aptitude."
"We'll take care of that for you."
And so the man had. A voice trainer had arrived within two days, bearing a cashier's check that constituted a year's retainer.
It was the work of six weeks before Orville Rollo Fletcher had mastered Thrush Limburger's walk, talk and rich vocabulary.
The soft voice called often. "We should have your first gig soon."
"I prefer a more dignified term, sir. I am a professional."
"But before we send you out, you'll have to submit to a complete medical examination."
"For what purpose?"
"To satisfy our insurers."
"Very well," said Orville, who dreaded the very thought of exposing his excess poundage to a doctor's scrutiny. They were forever trying to get him to cut down on his comfort foods.
A local doctor had performed the examination. It was astonishingly thorough, and included a PET scan.
The results came by Federal Express from the offices of the Ixchel Talent Agency in Hollywood, California.
Despite the fact that he was not anywhere near a chair, Orville Rollo Fletcher sat down very hard when he read the evaluation and saw the dreaded words "Brain tumor."
He was sobbing when the soft voice called him.
"I am going to die," he said in a strangled voice.
"Not if we can help it."
"Wh-what do you mean?"
"We have access to the finest medical facilities. Put yourself in our hands and kiss that tumor goodbye."
"Why would you do that for me?"
"Because," said the soft voice, "Thrush Limburger is the hottest thing going, and you're the next best thing. This is an investment in the future."
"I will be only too happy to take you up on your kind offer," Orville had choked out tearfully, taking a hit of Vanceril from his asthma inhaler.
It had involved a plane flight to Jalisco, Mexico, where a waiting car whisked Orville through dusty streets to what looked like an old abortion mill. Inside there was a doctor with a thick accent and an operating room with some of the finest surgical equipment Orville could imagine.
The PET scan results were already in the doctor's hand.
"We can shrink this tumor with radiation, senor," the doctor assured him. "It will be no problem whatsoever."
"I cannot believe my good fortune," Orville said, weeping openly with relief.
They prepped him by shaving his head bald and wheeled him perfectly conscious into the operating room that very afternoon. As he lay there, he saw the jars of specimens on racks, and a dusky nurse reached for one labeled in Latin, Loxodonta Africana.
The doctor stopped her with a sharp order in Spanish, and she took up the one labeled Elephas Maximus instead. She walked it carefully over to the shelf where the surgeon's tools had been laid out.
Orville had taken Latin in high school. A long time ago, but his dimming memory dredged up something.
He wondered what elephants had to do with his brain tumor when the anesthetic mask was clapped over his mouth and all questions were smothered by the rolling fog overtaking his mind.
When he awoke, Orville felt fine. But there was a bandage atop his shaven head.
"Your brain did not take well to the operation," the Mexican doctor had informed him. "It swelled up, and so it was necessary to open a hole in the skull to release the pressure."
Horror clouded Orville's eyes. "I have a hole in my skull."
"A small one. It is called a burr hole. It will heal. As for your tumor, it is dying. By the time the bandages come off, it will be no more than a bad memory."
Every ounce of him shook with the relief of his weeping.
"I hear you pulled through with flying colors," the soft voice said over the long-distance line the next day.
"I owe it all to you and I don't even know your name."
"J. D. Tippet."
"Thank you, Mr. Tippit, from the bottom of my exceedingly grateful heart."
WHEN HE HAD HEALED, Orville Rollo Fletcher returned to Spokane feeling renewed. His hair grew back, he had actually lost some weight, despite being bedridden for nearly a month.
He quickly gained it all back. For some reason, he had developed an unquenchable craving for peanuts.
One day first-class plane tickets to Washington, D.C., came by Federal Express, along with hotel-reservation information.
That had been four days ago. Upon arrival, Orville Fletcher had found a note had been slipped under the hotel-room door.
It said simply, "Wait for my call. Tippit."
So he waited. Four days. He grew more nervous every day. He passed the time listening to Thrush Limburger's radio program and the TV show, parroting the words that sometimes escaped his own mouth before they came from the TV speaker. His florid gestures expertly emulated Limburger's own.
Standing before the dresser mirror, with the TV screen behind him, Orville Rollo Fletcher watched the double reflection-his own and the true Limburger's-and let a satisfied smile expand his otherwise glum face.
"A perfect replication, if I do say so myself," he murmured. He just hoped his public debut was not some cheesy mall opening, or worse, a sleazy bachelor party. A man had to have his dignity. Without it, he was nothing.
At four in the afternoon, a bellman showed up with a boxy package secured with stout twine.
"Thank you, my good man," said Orville, tipping as generously as his girth.
When he undid the paper and twine and opened the box, Orville Rollo Fletcher's heart sank.
He had been sent a red-and-white Santa Claus outfit. A perfect size 50, but perfect in no other way. There was even a snowy wealth of whiskers and size 18-EE orthopedic boots.
"Why on earth should I wear this? I will be unrecognizable."
But he tried the costume on anyway. Perhaps he would be in luck, and it would not fit properly.
"On reflection," Orville said, regarding himself in the dresser mirror, "this might be for the best."
The phone rang, and the soft voice he had come to know said, "It's tonight."
Orville swallowed his disappointment. After all, he awed the Ixchel Talent Agency his life. "Excellent. Where and when do I appear?"
"Eight-fifteen sharp. The White House."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Tonight is the annual Christmas-tree lighting ceremony on the White House lawn. And you're the official Santa Claus."
"I am going to the White House?"
"Present yourself at the East Gate at eight-fifteen. Don't be early and don't be late. They have security concerns over there."
"I fail to understand."
"It's the First Lady's little joke. You and the President will together throw the switch that lights the tree, then you pull off your hat and beard and do your Thrush Limburger bit."
"What shall I say?"
"It doesn't matter. Ad-lib. Just see if you can get a rise out of the President. Make him laugh."
"I don't know if I am up to this," Orville said.
"You are. It'll all be over in fifteen minutes. Just go get a good dinner and a stiff drink or two if you need it and be at the East Gate at eight-fifteen on the dot."
"I will do my best," Orville promised solemnly.
"Don't forget your asthma inhaler."
"I always carry it in case of an attack."
"When you go through the gate, take a good shot. The steroids will give you that boost that'll get you through the ceremony."
"A very good idea. I will be sure to remember it," said Orville Rollo Fletcher.
He took his meal in the hotel restaurant, happy to be out of the room, and ordered the prime rib, baked potato and kernel corn. And two helpings of peanutbutter pie.
On the way back from the restaurant he was accosted by a panhandler in a shabby coat and taped-together Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses. "Spare a dollar?" the beggar asked in a low whine of a voice.
"I am very sorry, my good man."
The beggar was obviously drunk because he lurched into Orville, then went stumbling away.
Orville patted his bulk and was relieved to find his wallet where it should be. But his patting fingers failed to find his asthma inhaler.
Heart pounding, he searched the pavement at his feet, backtracked to the restaurant and experienced no luck.
He was greatly relieved to discover it on the bed stand of his hotel room, although he had been virtually certain he had taken it with him before leaving.
"Mustn't forget my Vanceril," he said, pocketing the inhaler. In the lobby he purchased a large packet of salted peanuts. They had become his latest comfort food.
Remo Williams found the Master of Sinanju in the White House kitchen hectoring the Presidential chef.
"What are these sauces you inflict upon your liege?" he demanded.
"These are French sauces. I am a French chef."
"Liar. You are not French."
"I did not say I was French. I am a French chef. I cook according to the French way. I am Italian."
"Then you cook the Italian way!" said Chiun. "And the Italian way is the Borgia way. Are you a Borgia?"
"I resent the implication that my cooking is poisonous."
Chiun noticed Remo at the entrance to the White House kitchen and said, "Look at these concoctions. It is no wonder the President is grossly fat."
"He has lost ten pounds since I have began cooking for him," the chef said, his tall white hat shaking with indignation.
Chiun held two bottles, one in each hand. He carried them over to a stainless-steel sink and gave then a squeeze. The bottles broke. Chiun's hands withdrew so quickly his fingers were neither spattered with hollandaise sauce nor touched by flying glass.
He stabbed the garbage disposal button, and it was impossible to say which howled more loudly, the glass in the disposal or the chef at the sight of it.
Chiun fixed the chef with glittering hazel eyes.
"From now on you will serve steamed rice. No cow tallow or spices will despoil your rice. Duck will be your only fowl. You may serve any fish that you do not ruin with your gross ways. No chicken. No beef."
"The First Lady enjoys shellfish."
"No shellfish. Proper fish do not have shells. Insects and turtles do."
The White House chef sputtered. "I will resign first."
"You will be doing your country a great boon," said Chiun.
"Then I refuse to resign."
"If you cook acceptable food and the food tasters do not sicken and die, then you may be allowed to remain," retorted Chiun.
The White House chef pawed his tall hat off his head and started chewing off pieces of the starched fabric in rage.
"Can I see you a minute, little Father?" Remo said.
Chiun left the chef fighting with the garbage disposal.
"What is it, Remo?"
"I'm not an assassin anymore."
Chiun's hazel eyes narrowed briefly. His smooth brow grew furrowed. Then the tiny wrinkles radiating from the hub of his face, his button nose, went smooth in shock.
"You are Sinanju. You will be an assassin until the day your lazy bones lie moldering in the dirt."
"I've got a new job description."
"Don't call me names."
"Is that not your new description?"
"Don't be like that. You're looking at the new Remo Williams."
"You look like the old Remo Williams."
"The old Remo Williams was an assassin."
"And what are you?"
"A counterassassin. "
Chiun regarded his pupil stonily.
"You assassinate counters?" he squeaked. "Is that like the karate dancers who break boards with their hands because boards do not fight back?"
"No. I'm a counterassassin-as in an assassin who foils other assassins."
Chiun made a face. "There are no other assassins except you and I. All others are inferior and therefore not worthy of the name."
"I like the sound of it. Remo Williams, counterassassin. "
"Schmuck," said the Master of Sinanju, dredging up a word he had picked up on a Florida beach so long ago he hadn't used it on Remo in many years. "You are a schmuck."
"I am not a schmuck."
"Counterschmuck, if the distinction pleases you."
"Look, I'm just trying to find myself. Okay?"
"It is too late. I found you many years ago. You have been found and made whole by my largesse. And what do I get in return? No gifts, no gratitude, no respect. Putz."
"Don't call me that."
"Then do not call yourself anything other than what you are-a Sinanju assassin."
"I'm a counterassassin."
Chiun puffed out his tiny cheeks. "That is the same as saying anti-Sinanju."
Remo blinked. "I never thought of it like that."
"You never think. That is the problem. Come, I am not finished rooting out those who conspire against the puppet President."
"What have you uncovered so far, besides the chef?"
"The Shrill Queen."
"I don't think it's her. The President dies, and she's out on the street."
"There are ways to circumvent the line of succession. Have you noticed that the President of Vice is nowhere to be found since the events of yesterday?"
"According to Smitty, the Vice President had been told to stay clear of the White House for the duration."
"Ha! The puppet suspects him."
"No, it's just that things are so crazy no one wants them to be in the same place at the same time in case a bomb goes off."
"Who is next after him?"
"The Speaker of the House, I think."
"Then he should die."
"If he dies and the madness ceases, we will be vindicated."
"Better check with Smith before you do the Speaker of the House," said Remo.
"Where is Smith?"
"The culprit skulks within these walls. It is always thus."
"We'll see," said Remo.
THEY FOUND Harold Smith in the Secret Service command post within the hour.
"Who is guarding the President?" Smith asked sharply.
"Capezzi. The President's trying to plan his trip to Boston, and Chiun kept distracting him."
"I did not," Chiun flared.
Remo noticed Smith had two video monitors set side by side on a desk and was reviewing a tape on one.
"Got anything?" he asked Smith.
"I am reviewing the White House roof-camera tapes from yesterday."
"Looking for anything in particular?"
Smith nodded his gray head. "For whoever inserted the fake Socks into the White House grounds."
Remo and Chiun watched Smith watch tape for some twenty minutes before a moving camera panned across the Pennsylvania Avenue fence and they saw the homeless man in the taped sunglasses and black baseball cap.
He was walking along between the iron fence and the concrete bollards set in the sidewalk and linked by segments of chain to foil truck bomb attacks.
The camera panned back and forth, losing the homeless man several times. When it swept back, it caught him kneeling at the fence. His hand came out of his shabby rain coat, and a black-and-white cat was shoved between the fence rails.
"Hey!" Remo said. "That's gotta be the fake Socks."
Smith hit the Pause button.
The image blurred the man's body severely. Smith advanced the tape frame by frame. Finally he got a still picture of the man's face.
Remo and Chiun leaned into the screen.
"That's a big help. All I see are sunglasses and beard stubble."
"On the contrary, it is a very big help," said Smith, hitting the Play button on the adjoining machine. The second the tape rolled, he stabbed Pause.
Smith tapped the face of a cameraman on the second tape and asked, "Would you say that this man is the same as this other man?"
"Hard to see with all that stubble," said Remo. "One's wearing a Dodgers cap and the other says CI something."
Chiun said, "Yes, they are the same. You can tell by the jowls. "
Remo said, "Yeah, the shape of the lower face is about the same. Kinda fatty and soft. Who is he?"
"I do not know," said Smith, releasing the Pause button to show the man filming the opening of the Presidential limousine door. "But observe his actions."
The door opened, the cameraman swung his camera away and pointed it skyward.
Then the Secret Service agent stepped out and got his head shot clean through.
"Hey!" said Remo. "That guy took a picture of the sniper."
"Exactly," said Smith, shutting down both machines.
"He knew the shot was coming," said Remo.
"Whoever he is," said Harold Smith, rising from his seat, "he is at the heart of the conspiracy to assassinate the President of the United States."
"Then he must die!" cried Chiun.
"Only if we can determine his identity," said Smith.
"That is your task, O Harold of Gaunt."
Remo looked his question.
"A power behind the throne of Richard I," explained Smith.
"Just as you are the true power behind the puppet President," added Chiun magnanimously.
"Not if we lose him," said Smith glumly.
"That's where I come in," said Remo.
"What do you mean?" asked Smith.
"Just call me counterassassin."
The Master of Sinanju groaned like a canvas mainsail tearing in a gale.
AT 6:00 p.m. Pepsie Dobbins stepped from the taxi near the Lincoln Memorial, which was white with light under a frosty early-evening moon.
She walked to West Potomac Park and the D.C. bank of the Potomac, and struck south along a treelined path, eyeing each park bench as she came upon it.
Most were empty. It was a chilly night, and the wind out of Arlington National Cemetery was brisk. No night to sit on benches unless you had your Christmas shopping done and were cuddling with a lover.
Pepsie saw no lovers as she passed the benches. She was looking for a man, but as she walked along she started to wonder about that. The voice on the phone had been soft. Was it necessarily the voice of a man? Pepsie, whose own on-air voice was once described by TV Guide as "mannishly alluring," realized that she might just be looking for a woman.
When she came to the bench on which the wino sat bundled up and taking pulls from a green bottle wrapped in a paper bag, she hurried on.
A soft voice said, "What is past is prologue."
The wino was beckoning with a dirty forefinger poking out from a black knit glove without fingertips. He wore a black baseball cap, and impenetrable sunglasses shielded his eyes. The frames were held together with duct tape, and stitched onto the front of the cap were three white letters: CIA. He sat with bowed head so his face couldn't seen discerned.
"What took you so long?" he asked.
"Traffic. Is that you?"
"Sit. Not too close. Don't look at me. Look toward Lincoln."
Keeping her eyes averted, Pepsie sat in the middle of the bench. "Who are you?" she whispered.
"I could give you a phony name but I won't. Just call me Director X."
"You look like a homeless guy."
"I wear the rags I do to express my solidarity with the dispossessed of the earth, the homeless, the forgotten, the disenfranchised, the uninsured."
"Did you bring the tapes?"
"In my handbag."
"Good. Set them on the bench beside you."
"First you have to tell me what this is all about."
"I already did."
"There's more to it than the medical-industrial establishment trying to kill the President."
"You found something?"
"On the shooting tape. A cameraman did something strange. He seemed to turn his camera on the sniper's nest before the shot rang out."
"Maybe he spotted the sniper."
"Not at that range. Not with all eyes on the President's car door opening. No one would be looking anywhere else except-"
"The Secret Service," breathed Pepsie. "Oh, my God. The Secret Service. It's headed by a director."
"I am not the director of the Secret Service."
"But you told me before that the establishment is behind this. The Secret Service is part of the establishment."
"This is bigger than the Secret Service," said the soft voice. "It is bigger than the government itself."
Pepsie had been sitting with her head fixed in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial. But her eyes, with the geckolike faculty to move independently of one another, were busy. One went to a clump of bushes where Buck Featherstone was supposed to have concealed himself. He had an excellent angle on Pepsie and Director X sitting on the bench-if he didn't blow it.
Carefully Pepsie let her right eye drift sideways. The profile of the wino seated on the other end of the bench became clear. Pepsie's heart skipped a beat as she took in the heavy beard stubble on the man's plump cheeks. If those cheeks belonged to a woman, she decided, the woman belonged in a circus sideshow between Dog Boy and the Human Crab.
"How big is this?" she asked.
"This," the wino said, "is colossal."
"There's more to this than you can dream. It's a mystery wrapped inside a riddle inside an enigma. Behind it is something I will call RX."
"I'm a journalist. I'm interested in who-what-when-where-how and why."
"That's the real question, isn't it? Why. The how and the who is just scenery for the public. It keeps them guessing like some kind of parlour game. Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefited? Who had the power to cover it up?"
"Kennedy? We're talking about the President here. Not Robert."
"I was talking about Jack."
"What does Jack Kennedy's murder have to do with the attempt to kill this President?"
"Help me break this story, and I'll do anything you want."
"I want footage, all you can get. Especially of tonight."
"The Christmas-tree lighting. The President will be making his first public appearance since Boston tonight. Be there. Film it all."
"Will something happen?"
"The fortes converging on this President will not rest until every player has found his mark and the full script has been acted out."
"Who wrote the script? The Secret Service? The CIA?"
"Like Caesar, he is surrounded by enemies but they have no face. Take the tapes out of your bag and leave them on the bench. Then go. I will be in touch."
Pepsie walked away with her spine feeling as cold and inflexible as a giant icicle.
She hailed a cab, which took her to her Georgetown town house.
Buck Featherstone showed up twenty-three minutes later with a happy look on his face.
"Did you get him on tape?"
"Yeah," he said. "But at that range, there's no sound."
Pepsie upended her bag on the coffee table. Out slid her minicassette recorder.
"I have the audio," she said.
"So, what did he tell you?"
"Let's play the video and audio at the same time. I have a hunch this may be the most important footage since the Zapruder film."
"Why do you say that?"
"I think Director X is involved in the conspiracy," Pepsie said thickly.
"What makes you say that?"
"He reminds me of that cameraman up in Boston."
Orville Rollo Fletcher told the cab driver to let him off in front of Blair House, across the street from the White House. He pulled back the white fur on his scarlet cuff and checked his watch. Eight-ten. He prided himself on his punctuality. He had exactly five minutes to cross the street and present himself at the East Gate. He took a deep breath and tried to steady his quivering limbs. It was the most nervous he had been since he took Pamela Sue Hess to the high school prom back in 1967. It had been his first and only date. He didn't even get a good-night kiss.
Crossing against the traffic, Orville Rollo Fletcher shook off one of his black Santa mittens and dug his blue plastic inhaler from a voluminous coat pocket.
Nervously uncapping it, he brought the square plastic nozzle to his open mouth and pumped the cartridge once. A steroid jet moistened his drying tongue, and his nose and taste buds both quivered before the very unfamiliar taste and smell.
And through Orville Rollo Fletcher's eyes, the world began to change ....
WHEN THE WHITE HOUSE East Gate was opened, the Washington press corps stormed through it like lemmings seeking the sea. The uniformed Secret Service could hardly pass them through the gate fast enough.
Barred from entering, the White House press corps had chained themselves to the fence all along Pennsylvania Avenue in protest.
Up on the platform, the President of the United States looked at his watch while the First Lady fumed.
"Where's that damn Santa?" she said through tight teeth. "I need him to represent traditional Western Christian values."
"Watch your language. You never know how many shotgun mikes are out there pointed at us."
Beside them, the White House Christmas spruce loomed up stark and grim. No lights burned in the darkness created by dousing the protective floodlights on the White House facade and throughout the grounds, and the tree's trimmings were indistinguishable.
"I told that agency to have him here at eight sharp. The press is getting restless. They want to ask you a ton of questions."
The President turned to Secret Service Special Agent Vince Capezzi beside him and said, "When I light the tree, you alert Marine One. After I've spoken my piece, tell them to take off. That will give us enough time to get to the South Lawn and make a quick getaway."
"Yes, sir," said Capezzi.
On the other side of the podium, standing behind the Chief Executive and out of camera range, Remo Williams hovered worriedly, scanning the crowd, looking toward the high rooftops of the Treasury to the east and Executive Office Building to the west, where Secret Service countersnipers crouched behind their nightvision scopes.
It was the worst possible exposure for the President. But there was nothing anyone could say or do to convince the President not to go through with the ceremony. The only good thing about it was the fact that Marine One would pluck the President from the South Lawn and to the relative safety of Air Force One unannounced, and therefore before anyone could create a problem.
Once the President was back in Boston, there would be an entirely new headache, as far as Remo was concerned.
By 8:14 the rent-a-Santa hadn't shown, and the President signaled for the ceremony to begin. He stepped up to the dual microphone on the portable podium emblazoned with the Presidential seal.
"My fellow Americans," the President said without preamble. "In this season of joy and caring, I want to convey to you all the gratitude myself and my wife feel to be here with you-especially in light of the tragedy that nearly befell the office yesterday. I want you to know that no danger, no peril, will sway myself or the First Lady from prosecuting the cause of universal health care to the fullest. To symbolize the universality of our cause, and the diversity of the America we serve, I hereby inaugurate the Christmas season by the lighting of this magnificent tree."
The President and the First Lady laid hands on the lever set on a table beside the podium. In unison, they threw it.
The magnificent blue spruce lit up like a crazy Roman candle trying to blast off. Flashbulbs popped. Videocams whirred.
Only when the initial commotion abated did people's eyes begin to register the uniqueness of the White House Christmas tree.
The brilliant Star of David on top drew the first gasps. As the eye was drawn down from that, it encountered Kachina dolls, Egyptian ankhs, Kwanzaa candles, Buddhas, signs of the Zodiac and a solitary plastic poinsettia. Strings of red-hot chili peppers glowed on every evergreen bough, groaning under the political weight of inclusiveness.
At the base of the tree, a neon sign flashed seasons greetings in dozens of alternating languages:
Sheng Dan Kaui Le
Kellemes Kardcsonyi Unnepeket
A reporter flung out the first question: "Mr. President-if you are indeed the President and not an impostor as rumored-was this idea yours or the First Lady's?"
The President hesitated. He looked to his wife. She stared daggers at him. He flushed as red as the poinsettia flower itself.
Before the President could insert his foot in his mouth, Santa Claus arrived at the East Gate, exactly fifteen minutes late, but as far as the Chief Executive was concerned, in the exact nick of time.
KIRBY AYERS of the uniformed Secret Service had been told to expect Santa Claus at eight sharp. He knew the timetable for the President's travel plans, and when Santa didn't arrive, he became nervous. That Santa was expected was one thing. He would still have to present his temporary White House pass, verifiable personal ID, submit to a patdown and be walked through the other security procedures.
By 8:10 Ayers knew that the damn Santa was close to throwing the Presidential itinerary into a stocking cap. By 8:12 he understood Santa had screwed up royally. At 8:14 he figured whether Santa showed up or not, he was going to be joining the ranks of the jobless by New Year's.
So when 8:15 came and Santa Claus came across Pennsylvania Avenue at a shuffling dead run, head held low between hunched shoulders, Kirby Ayers got ready to give him a piece of his mind.
"Where the hell-" he started to shout.
The lumbering Santa Claus lowered his head and made the most god-awful sound Kirby Ayers had ever heard issue from a human mouth. It was a bellow, low to start but achieving a blood-freezing higher register as the Santa hit the sidewalk before the East Gate.
Kirby Ayers saw the tiny red-rimmed eyes, saw the big ears wriggling in seeming anger and the way the long, goatlike white beard swung madly beneath the angry red features, giving him a momentary flash of confused recognition.
I've seen this particular Santa somewhere before, he thought. And for some reason his mind harkened back to the Washington Zoo.
That thought was uppermost in his mind when Santa Claus dropped his head and butted Kirby in the exact center of his chest.
Kirby Ayers was thrown off his feet and flung backward. The air whoofed from his stunned lungs. He saw stars. His brain disconnected for several all-important seconds.
He got his senses back just in time to fully appreciate the rib-splintering, lung-flattening, eyeball-bugging experience of being tramped to death by the stomping size-18 double-E black boots of the heaviest Santa Claus that probably ever walked the face of the earth.
This guy weighs as much as a damn elephant, Ayers thought wildly in the moment before his heart was pulped by his own compressing rib cage.
FROM HIS POST guarding the President of the United States, Remo Williams spotted the commotion at the East Gate. He was the only one to see it clearly. The lights of the press were blinding everyone else.
Remo saw a Secret Service guard on his back and a three-hundred-pound Santa come charging up the circular path toward the tree-lighting ceremony.
There was something not right about the Santa. He carried his head too low, and his eyes were too slitted. And he came in a crazy gallop with his head seemingly fixed in place, the long white beard and tail of his red Santa cap whipping and jingling madly with every pounding step.
The way Santa moved didn't compute. It wasn't the body language of a man, but something else. Something Remo instinctively understood to be dangerous.
Remo lifted his Secret Service wrist mike and said, "Trouble coming up the East Gate. I gotta check it out."
In his earphone the lemony voice of Harold Smith said, "I have just called for Marine One."
Remo ducked out, circled the crowd and moved on an intercept line with the charging Santa Claus.
The guy was stomping to beat the band. The ground actually quivered under each step. Small wonder, Remo thought. He weighed three hundred pounds if he weighed a gram.
He was charging toward an outlying clot of reporters when he paused and did a strange thing. Throwing back his head, one foot lifted, he made a sound from deep inside himself that could only be described as a trumpeting.
When he settled back down, he continued his charge. On all fours.
Remo veered toward him and got in his path.
"Hold it, Santa. Where's your pass?"
The Santa dropped his head and stuck out his ears. Remo almost laughed. He stood his ground until the last possible minute, then stepped aside like a matador evading a lunging bull.
The charging Santa blew past him. Remo reached out to snap a fistful of the back of the scarlet coat. He dug in his heels, his brain calculating the opposite pull needed to arrest three hundred pounds of charging fury.
He snatched the fabric. It was solid stuff. It would hold. Remo felt the first pulling-away tension and was ready. Or so he thought.
Remo was yanked off his feet as if he'd taken hold of a Mack truck. Surprise washed over his face. Before his brain got organized, his reflexes took over.
Digging in his heels, he found his balance again. The fabric in his hand ripped away.
Recovering, Remo swept around and got in front of the Santa. Santa reared up, and Remo launched a low kick at the man's red right kneecap.
The kick connected. Remo heard the bone crack with the disabling impact. Santa charged on, unfazed.
Remo got out of the way just ahead of the earthshaking boots.
Then the Master of Sinanju appeared as if from nowhere.
"What is wrong with you?" Chiun hissed at Remo.
"He's stronger than he looks."
"He is only a fat white in a pagan costume."
"Then you take a crack at him."
The Master of Sinanju slipped up behind the broad red back and inserted a single fingernail into the spine. He withdrew the nail, stepped back and waited.
The Santa lumbered on.
Remo caught up with Chiun, whose mouth lay open in shock.
"See?" he said.
Chiun made a mean mouth. "I severed his spinal cord."
"Obviously his brain hasn't gotten word yet."
There was a microwave van parked in the lawn, and when the Santa came to it, he didn't bother to go around it. He rammed into it.
His skull should have caved in. Instead, the cab rocked on its wheels. Santa reared back bellowing and tried again. This time the wheels on one side left the ground. They fell back complaining.
The third time, Santa screamed in defiance, his white beard whipping wildly with each jerk of his head, and the van went over on its side with a resounding crash.
That caught the attention of the press. The blaze of videocam lights swung their way, and Remo and Chiun broke in opposite directions to escape being filmed.
Remo called into his wrist mike, "Capezzi. We got a rogue Santa out here."
"The Santa. He's off his rocker. Better get Big Mac out of here."
"Roger," said Vince Capezzi. Into his hand mike, he said, "Marine One. Where are you?"
"ETA ten minutes," a thin voice said.
THE WHITE HOUSE lawn became bedlam as the press turned the glare of their lights on the weird figure of Santa Claus climbing atop an upended microwave van and throwing his head back to the moonlit sky, bellowing and screaming and growling in a way that froze everyone's blood.
Especially the President's.
"What the hell is wrong with that guy?" he asked. Vince Capezzi laid a hand on the President's shoulder. "Mr. President, I think we should get you to the Rose Garden right away. Marine One is en route."
"If you say so," the President said worriedly.
"No," the First Lady shouted. "He can't go now. He'll look like a coward running from danger."
Then the Santa reared back and began stomping the flat side of the microwave van. The steel panel began to dent up under his boots. The metal complained. The dent grew wider, then deeper, and even the press who had surged closer to get better coverage found themselves falling back.
In that moment Remo started in again, one hand a spear, prepared to deliver a death blow nothing living could withstand.
The snipers started firing before he had cleared half the space.
The shots came from opposite directions-one from the Treasury Building, the other from the Executive Office Building.
Transfixed in the camera lights, the figure of Santa Claus started coming apart. One arm, in the act of being flung up, kept on going, separated at the shoulder. The arm lanced like a hank of ham bone, and the color of its blood was indistinguishable from the scarlet sleeve.
Rounds began ripping into his back and coming out the paunch of his stomach, carrying stringy shreds of viscera with them.
The Santa gave a last trumpeting of pain and horror and fell where he stood.
The dented white van began turning red in a puddle around the quivering bulk.
But it wasn't over yet. Santa struggled to rise, but only the head obeyed. The reddish eyes, full of pain, looked out over its tormentors.
They saw nothing except a darkening light. Then the head fell with a heavy thud. The chest continued to heave like a great red bellows.
"Did you see that?" Remo whispered to Chiun.
"Yes. Its eyes looked into mine at the last."
"Its? You mean his."
"That was no man, but a musth, wounded, confused and maddened with pain."
"When Hannibal of Carthage crossed the Alps, it was on the back of one such as this. The Greekling Alexander defeated the Persians with great armies of such beasts."
"Are we talking rogue elephant here?"
Chiun indicated the white beard slowly turning crimson, saying, "That is its trunk. Notice the great ears, the small eyes. When attacked, it used its head as a ram. It is an elephant."
"That explains the way he charged around," said Remo, "but not much else."
The press was creeping around the other side of the van, so Remo and Chiun slipped up to the dead hulk in the Santa suit.
Remo plucked off the stocking cap and beard, exposing smooth black hair. The blood-soaked whiskers came off with a snap of a rubber band.
"Look, Remo! It is Thrush."
Remo canted his head to see.
"Damn. Thrush Limburger. The press will have a field day with this."
The great body shuddered and gave out a final pungent exhalation.
"Whew!" said Remo, backing away. "That's gotta be the worst case of peanut breath west of Africa."
"India. He thought he was an Indian elephant."
Then the clatter of helicopter rotor blades made the suddenly still night air quiver and shake.
Remo looked toward the Washington Monument, a brilliant stone finger behind the White House, and told Chiun, "That's Marine One. We'd better get a move on if we're going to Boston with the President."
Secret Service Agent Vince Capezzi heard the clatter of Marine One's rotors as an answer to a silent prayer.
"This way, Mr. President," he urged, hustling the Chief Executive from the podium. The First Lady followed, complaining, "This is going to look awful on CNN."
They entered the White House and walked quickly through to the South Portico. Capezzi checked his watch. Marine One was five minutes ahead of schedule. It was one of those minor miracles that happen when they are most needed.
"We'll have you in the air shortly," he told the President, and they stepped out onto the South Lawn.
The blazing floodlights limned Marine One as she settled heavily into the Kentucky bluegrass of the South Lawn, and her green-and-white shape had never been more welcome, Capezzi thought. The rotors continued winding as the bluecarpeted steps dropped into place.
Retired Secret Service Agent Smith stepped out from nowhere and said, "You must hurry, sir."
"Smith, you come with us."
"I cannot, Mr. President. I must remain here to continue the investigation. But Remo and Chiun will accompany you to Boston. You will be in good hands."
The President started up the blue-carpeted steps, the First Lady holding his arm. Their faces were drained white under the glare of the floodlights.
Vince Capezzi, his MAC-11 at the ready, covered the stairs.
REMO CAME AROUND the corner of the White House in the shelter of the open breezeway, Chiun pumping along at his side.
"There's Smitty," he said. "Looks like the President's on board already."
Chiun nodded. They crossed the rotor-wash-flattened lawn to the waiting helicopter.
"Stay with the President every step of the way," Smith told Remo over the whine of the impatiently turning rotors.
"Gotcha," said Remo.
"No harm will befall the puppet while Sinanju stands beside him," cried Chiun in a firm voice.
"Shh," said Smith, indicating Vince Capezzi with a tilt of his head. "Security."
"Advertising always pays," said Chiun.
Remo started up the stairs, but Chiun blocked him.
"As Reigning Master, I have the honor of going first."
"Suit yourself," said Remo. Chiun floated up the steps, and Remo turned to Vince Capezzi, "You go next."
Capezzi climbed aboard, relief making his face go slack.
Remo turned to Harold Smith, "You know that Santa?"
"I pulled his cap and whiskers off. Guess who he was?"
"It's probably another double," said Remo.
"Let us hope so," said Harold Smith fervently.
Then Remo started up the stairs.
The pilot was looking over his shoulder at Remo through the Plexiglas side port. Something about his face made Remo pause.
Something was wrong. Something serious. He wore the impenetrable Ray-Ban Aviators of a Secret Service agent. But on his head sat a black baseball cap emblazoned with the letters CIA.
"What is wrong?" Smith called.
Remo said nothing, but his senses were keying up. The rotor noise drowned out any subtle infrasounds. A pungent scent came to his nostrils over the residual scent of gasoline. The smell resembled gasoline, but wasn't. Not quite. It was an astringent smell Remo associated with dry-cleaning establishments.
It took a moment for Remo's brain to put a name to the strong odor. Naphthalene.
Then he looked down.
The blue-carpeted steps under his feet looked too new. They were pristine, as if they had never known the regular tread of feet.
Then Remo realized something was missing.
"Damn!" he said, plunging in.
Inside Marine One, the President and First Lady were buckling up.
"There goes my-I mean your-chance for reelection," the First Lady was saying.
"Evacuate!" shouted Remo.
The President and First Lady looked up, eyes going round, faces stark.
"This thing is booby-trapped! Get out now!"
They stared at him in disbelief. Remo reached down toward an empty seat that stank of astringent chemicals and tore the cushions open with steel-hard fingers, exposing heavy plastic sacks filled with an evil red fluid. He slashed one open with the edge of a sharp fingernail, and pungent naphthalene flowed out.
"That stuff will go up like flash paper."
Abruptly the rotors wound up. The craft started to rock and lift.
Remo moved in. His fingers grabbed the safety belts, and they parted like cheesecloth.
"C'mon, Chiun," urged Remo.
The Master of Sinanju moved quickly, pushing the stunned First Family out of their seats.
They got them out of the helicopter just as the wheels lifted off. They had to jump from the steps, which were still in the down position and rising off the grass.
The steps pulled away into the night.
"Remo! What is it?" Smith asked hoarsely.
"Look at those steps. Where's the Welcome Aboard Marine One sign?"
"Damn," said Vince Capezzi. "I should have noticed that." Lifting his MAC-11, he added, "We can't let him get away."
"No," said Smith. "We'll have it tracked. It may lead to the conspirators."
But the fake Manne One didn't make it as far as the Ellipse between the White House and the Washington Monument. It was rattling over Constitution Avenue when it burst apart in a flat whoof of a sound. It hung there for an awful, indecisive moment.
In flames, it cascaded to the ground, after which it burned merrily. The black smoke soon carried in their direction, smelling of naphthalene.
The President of the United States stared at the crackling pile of twisted metal and said, "I don't understand ...."
"That, Mr. President," Harold Smith said grimly, "was the ultimate escalation. The real thing."
Then, past the blinking red light atop the white obelisk of the Washington Monument, a clattering noise resolved itself into a great olive-green-and-white military helicopter.
"That looks like Marine One," Vince Capezzi breathed.
"It is," said Remo. "The real one."
Grim-faced, Harold Smith turned to the President and said, "Mr. President, we have just witnessed conclusive proof that the conspiracy to kill you is a massive one, involving many persons prepared to trade their lives for your own."
"Don't I know it," the President said thickly.
"I have a suggestion."
"Order Marine One back. Let out word that you've died."
"What good will that do?"
"It may flush the conspirators out into the open."
"You're asking me to lie to the American people."
"I am asking you to save your own life. This conspiracy is deep, broad and well capitalized. It will stop at nothing to unseat you. We cannot unravel it if we are spending all our energy trying to preserve your life."
The First Lady said, "What does the Committee on Urban Refugee Empowerment have to do with any of this?"
She was ignored.
Smith went on, "This conspiracy has a definite goal in mind. Some thing or some aim that can only be achieved by your death. Let's give them what they want and see who steps from the shadows to claim victory."
"Then we will harvest their heads and display them as a warning to any who would contemplate similar perfidy," cried Chiun.
The First Lady regarded the Master of Sinanju with horrified eyes, so he added, "And insure universal health care for one and all!"
The First Lady grabbed the President's sleeve. "Do what he says," she hissed. "He makes perfect sense."
Remo rolled his eyes skyward.
Finally the President of the United States said, "I'm in your capable hands, Smith."
PEPSI DOBBINS was beside herself.
Hunkering down in an ANC broadcast van parked on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, she found herself a witness to history with no clue as to what was going on.
She grabbed her walkie-talkie. "Buck. Talk to me. What's happening out there?"
"I got it all on tape," Buck said excitedly.
"What did you get?"
"The Secret Service just shot the shit out of Santa Claus."
"But it wasn't really Santa. It was Thrush Limburger in disguise."
"Oh, my God. Did he try to kill the President?"
"That's how it looked."
"The conspiracy thickens."
"That's not all. You remember the old Oriental and the guy with thick wrists from the airport?"
"They were here. They helped hustle the President off as the shooting started."
"Where did he go? The President, I mean."
"Did you hear that dull thump a moment ago?"
"No one's saying, but we think it was Marine One. It blew up."
"I'm shooting toward the Washington Monument right now. I think I was the only guy smart enough to sneak off. Everyone else started taping Thrush Limburger's corpse and asking idiot questions."
"There's no such thing as an idiot question in the pursuit of a story," Pepsie snapped.
"I caught Marine One flying off," Buck said breathlessly. "Then it blew apart and dropped straight down like a flaming sack of potatoes. I'm filming the wreck right now."
"Was the President aboard?"
"He was supposed to be."
"Then he's dead," Pepsie breathed. "He's really dead this time. We've got to go on the air with this."
"They'll never let us. Not after the last time you said he was dead over the air."
"Hold on," Pepsie said. Turning to a technician in the cramped broadcast van, she said, "Can you snoop in on the Secret Service transmission frequency?"
"We're not supposed to."
"That's not what I asked," said Pepsie.
The technician handed Pepsie a set of earphones.
Clapping one earphone to her head, she heard an ominous white noise. There were absolutely no Secret Service transmissions. All was static.
"Buck, what's going on?" Pepsie said into her walkie-talkie.
"White House staffers are booting us off the grounds. They look kinda scared."
"Okay. Meet me at the van."
"You got it."
Grabbing her cellular phone, Pepsie dialed ANC News. "Greg. I'm at the White House. Something big just happened."
"I though you were barred from the ceremony."
"That's why I'm hiding out in the news van. But my camera guy slipped in. Get this, Thrush Limburger just tried to kill the President. But the Secret Service got him first."
"That's what CNN is reporting. Do we have film?"
"Do we ever. But there's more. Marine One lifted off from the South Lawn not two minutes ago and blew up. Isn't that great?"
"CNN didn't report that."
Pepsie burbled excitedly, "I think we have an exclusive."
"Was the President aboard?"
"He was supposed to be," Pepsie said evasively.
"Supposed to be doesn't cut it, Pepsie. You know that."
"Look, we can do a live remote on the crash while the competition is still stuck on the 'cased Santa' angle. This is my big chance."
"This is career suicide if you go out on another limb."
"Trust me on this one. I have film."
"Start feeding the raw tape, and we'll see."
"You won't regret this," said Pepsie, hanging up.
She came out of her seat at the first knock on the van door.
"Hand it here," she said, grabbing the tape out of Buck Featherstone's fingers. She loaded it, hit Rewind, then told the technician, "Start feeding this as soon as it's racked."
Then she clapped the headphones over her ears, telling Buck, "We can't go on the air until we have proof the President's dead."
"From where I stood, it looked like the Secret Service snipers might have been trying to shoot the President."
"Are you sure?"
"What the hell," said Pepsie. "It'll make a better story that way. We can always air a retraction later. It's all coming together." Pepsie pushed one earphone tighter to her head. "Wait a minute. Something's happening."
A thin voice over the Secret Service frequency said, "Tin Woodman enroute to Crown. Repeat, Tin Woodman enroute to Crown."
"They just said the Tin Woodman is coming here. That's the Vice President. Maybe they're going to swear him in!"
FIVE MINUTES LATER a black Lincoln Continental limousine slithered through the West Gate and stopped before the diplomatic entrance in the South Portico of the White House.
The press continued to pour out of the East Gate, oblivious.
Then the hearses arrived. There were three. They remained in the White House garage less than a dozen minutes and then wound back out in a sedate line.
"Three hearses," Pepsie whispered. "Three bodies."
"The President, the First Lady and maybe Thrush Limburger," said Buck.
"Or the First Daughter." Pepsie dialed ANC again. "Greg. The Vice President just went in. Then three hearses left."
"We're still reviewing film," Greg told her tensely. "The other networks are still sorting out the shooting. They report the President has left for Andrews Air Force Base and Air Force One."
"The hearse traffic has been coming in and out of the West Gate. I think we're the only ones to spot it. We own this story."
"Hang on, Pepsie."
"By my fingernails."
AT THE NORTH PORTICO diplomatic entrance, the Vice President of the United States was greeted by the White House usher.
"What the hell is going on?" he hissed.
"Come this way, sir," the usher said solemnly.
The Vice President allowed himself to be escorted to the Oval Office. He had been dining with his family when word came that his presence was urgently required at the White House.
They were intercepted in the Oval Office reception area by the President's chief of staff. "ANC has just declared the President dead."
For the Vice President of the United States, it was as if an anvil had landed on his head. A million hectic thoughts raced through his reeling brain. His vision actually dimmed. There was a roaring in his ears.
Then the grim face of the President himself poked out of the Oval Office door.
"Don't believe everything you see on TV," he said. "But for the forseeable future, you're confined to the White House."
"What's going on? A coup?"
"We're trying to tree a possum."
"I'm dead, and you don't know any different. Got that?"
"Yes, Mr. President," said a very confused and only slightly disappointed Vice President of the United States.
BEHIND THE CLOSED DOORS of the Oval Office, the President of the United States faced Harold W. Smith.
"Everything's in place."
"We have only to wait," said Smith.
"I hate deceiving the American people like this."
"Better that they temporarily mourn a living man than bury another dead President for all time."
"You know," said the President, "I ordered the Secret Service to stand down."
"Yet they had snipers on every roof overlooking the place."
"The director of the Secret Service no doubt considered it prudent."
"Makes me wonder if those shots weren't meant to hit me. "
"That possibility cannot be discounted at this juncture," s