She embraced Hood warmly.
“Thank you for coming down,” Hood said. Megan put her arm through his and turned toward the elevator. That gave her a reason to stand close to Hood and talk quietly. The secret service man was behind them.
“How are you going to handle this?” she asked.
“It’s going to be a tough, uphill fight,” Hood admitted.
“Back in the Oval Office, the president was very focused. If your husband has had doubts about his ability to function, then what Fenwick and the others have given him is the perfect remedy. A crisis. They couldn’t have planned it better. The president seemed to be putting a lot of trust in what Fenwick was telling him. He needed to. It was helping him get his confidence back.”
“So you said,” the First Lady remarked.
“And they’re all lies.”
“I’m certain of it,” Hood assured her.
“The problem is, I don’t have hard evidence.”
“Then what makes you so sure they are lies?” the First Lady asked.
“I called Fenwick’s bluff when we were alone in the Cabinet Room,” Hood said.
“I told him we had the terrorist who orchestrated the situation overseas. I told him the terrorist is going to tell us who he was working for. Meaning Fenwick. Fenwick told me I’ll never get the information to the president.” They reached the elevator. Megan gently put her thumb on the screen. There was a faint hum behind it.
“Fenwick will deny he ever threatened you,” she pointed out.
“Of course he will,” Hood said.
“That’s why I need you to get the president away from the meeting. Tell him you need to see him for five minutes. If I did that, Fenwick and his people would chew me up. But they’ll be very reluctant to attack you. That would turn the president against them.”
“All right,” Megan replied. The door slid open. The First Lady and Hood stepped in. She pressed button Sl–Sublevel One. The door closed, and the elevator began to move.
“There’s a guard downstairs,” Megan said.
“He’s going to have to call ahead. I don’t have access to the Situation Room.”
“I know,” Hood replied.
“Hopefully, someone other than Fenwick or Gable will answer the phone.”
“What if I can only get my husband alone? Just the two of us,” Megan asked.
“I get his attention. Then what?”
“Tell him what you’ve noticed over the past few weeks,” Hood said.
“Talk to him honestly about what we’re afraid of, that Fenwick has been manipulating him. Buy me time, even if it’s only two or three hours.
I need that to get the evidence to stop a war.” The elevator stopped.
The door opened. Outside was a brightly lit corridor. The walls were white and lined with paintings of American military officers and famous battles from the Revolution to the present. The Situation Room was located at the end of the corridor behind two black double doors.
A young, blond, fresh-faced marine guard was seated at a desk to the right of the elevator. There was a telephone, a computer, and a lamp on the desk. On a metal stand to his left were several security monitors.
The guard rose and looked from Hood to Megan.
“Good morning, Mrs. Lawrence,” he said.
“Up kind of early for a swim,” he added with a smile.
“Up kind of late. Corporal Cain,” she smiled back.
“This is my guest, Mr. Hood. And I’m not going for a swim.”
“I didn’t think so, ma’am,” he replied. The guard’s eyes shifted to Hood.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Good morning,” Hood said.
“Corporal, would you please phone the president?” Megan said.
“Tell him I need to speak with him. Privately, in person.”
“Certainly,” the guard said. Cain sat and picked up the phone. He punched in the extension of the Situation Room. Hood did not often pray, but he found himself praying that someone other than one of Fenwick’s people was there to answer the phone.
A moment later, the guard said, “The First Lady is here to see the president.” The guard fell silent then. Hood and Megan stood still in the quiet corridor. The only sound was a high faint whine that came from the security monitors. After a moment, the guard looked up.
“No, sir,” he said.
“She’s with a gentleman. A Mr. Hood.” The guard fell silent again.
That wasn’t a good sign. Only one of Fenwick’s people would have thought to ask that question. After several seconds the guard said, “Yes, sir,” and hung up. He rose and looked at the First Lady.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’ve been told that the meeting can’t be interrupted.”
“Told by whom?” she asked.
“Mr. Gable, ma’am.”
“Mr. Gable is trying to keep Mr. Hood from delivering an important message to the president,” Megan said.
“A message that may prevent a war. I need to see my husband.”
“Corporal,” Hood said.
“You’re a military man. You don’t have to take orders from a civilian.
I’m going to ask you to place the call again. Ask to speak to an officer, and repeat the First Lady’s message.”
“If Mr. Gable gives you trouble, I will take responsibility,” Megan said. Corporal Cain hesitated, but only for a moment. He picked up the phone and remained standing as he punched in the extension.
“Mr. Gable?” he said.
“I would like to speak with General Burg.” General Otis Burg was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“No, sir,” Cain said after a moment.
“This is a military matter, sir. A security issue.” There was another pause. Hood tasted something tart in the back of his throat. He realized, after a moment, that it was blood. He was biting his tongue.
A few seconds later, Corporal Cain’s voice and demeanor changed. His posture was stiffer, his tone formal. He was speaking with General Burg.
Cain repeated the request. Several seconds after that, the young Corporal hung up. He looked at the First Lady.
“Your husband will see you both,” he said proudly. Megan smiled and thanked him. Hood and Megan turned and hurried down the corridor to the Situation Room.
Baku, Azerbaijan Tuesday, 11:22 a.m.
Unsteadily, David Battat made his way down the stairwell. Because of the late morning hour, not many people were exiting the hotel. Several of the people who did pass Battat asked if he needed help. The American told them that he had inhaled some smoke but would be all right. Hugging the iron banister, he made his way slowly down the concrete stairs. When Battat reached the lobby, he leaned against a wall near the house phones. He did not want to sit down. He was weak and dizzy and afraid he would not get back up. One of the hotel staff members, an assistant manager, asked him who he was and what room he was staying in. He said he was not a guest but had been visiting a friend. The young woman told him that firefighters wanted everyone to go outside. Battat said he would go out as soon as he caught his breath. Battat looked across the lobby. It was crowded with people, mostly hotel staff, along with about fifty or sixty guests. The guests were concerned about their belongings and asking questions about security. They did not seem in a hurry to leave. There was no smoke in the lobby, and firefighters were just pulling into the circular drive in front of the hotel. Battat was concerned about how Odette was making out. He had been proud of her when she left the hotel. If she had been afraid, she did not show it. He wished he were a little steadier. He did not like the idea of her having to face the Harpooner alone. There was a side exit down the corridor to Battat’s right. The parking lot was to the right, the front of the hotel to the left. Since the fire trucks were out front, he felt he stood a better chance of catching a taxi in the parking lot. If not, there was a major thoroughfare beyond the parking lot. He had seen it from the upstairs window. He could probably catch a bus there. Pushing himself off the wall, Battat shuffled down the carpeted hallway. He felt feverish again, though he did not feel worse than he had before. His body was fighting whatever he had been injected with. That probably meant it was viral rather than chemical. He could finally get medical attention and start to shake this. Battat’s vision was misty as he moved past the bank of telephones. There were several shops beyond, their picture windows reflecting each other. There was no one inside, either customers or employees. The displays of shirts and trinkets, of luggage and toys, all seemed to merge as Battat neared. He tried to blink them clear. He could not. The sickness plus the exertion had worn him down much more than he thought. Battat gave serious thought to going back to the lobby and asking the fire department medics for a ride to the hospital. He had been afraid to go there lest someone recognize him from the night before and ask about the dead man in his room. But he was beginning to doubt that he could make it from the hotel, let alone reach the embassy. Suddenly, someone appeared in Battat’s line of vision. The American stopped and squinted. It was a man wearing jeans and a white shirt. There were straps around his shoulder.