Tom Clancy – Op Center 7 – Divide And Conquer

Battat tried to push himself off the ground. As he did, he felt as though a spike had been hammered through the back of his neck. He dropped, waited a few seconds, then tried again even more slowly. He managed to get his knees under him, then sat looking out across the dark water.

The Rachel was gone. He’d blown this big time. Like it or not, he’d have to let Moscow know as soon as possible.

Battat’s head throbbed, and he lowered himself back to the ground. He rested on his forearms, placed his forehead on the cool earth, and tried to get a handle on the pain. He also tried to make sense of what had happened.

Why was he still alive? Battat wondered. The Harpooner had never let anyone live. Why him?

Then it occurred to him that maybe he went down before the Harpooner even arrived. Maybe some waterfront thug had happened by, saw his camera and backpack, and decided to steal them. Battat couldn’t decide which was worse: letting his target sneak up on him or being mugged. Not that it mattered. They were both bad.

The operative took a long breath, then rose slowly, first to his knees again and then to his feet. He stood unsteadily as his head pounded. He looked around for his backpack. That was gone, too. No flashlight, no chance to look around for footprints or other clues.

He looked at his watch. His wrist was trembling, and he used his free hand to steady it. It would be dawn in less than three hours. Fishermen would be setting out soon, and Battat didn’t want to be seen here. Just in case he wasn’t meant to survive, he didn’t want anyone to know that he had. He walked slowly from the shore, his head drumming. Each swallow was painful, and the collar of his turtleneck chafed his bruised neck.

But the worst pain was none of those.

The worst pain was the knowledge that he’d failed.

Washington, D.C.

Sunday, 8:00 p.m.

As he entered the White House through the East Appointment Gate, Paul Hood remembered the first time he brought his children here. Hood had come to Washington for a conference of mayors. Harleigh was eight at the time, and Alexander was six. Alexander was not impressed by the imposing G. P. A. Healy painting of Abraham Lincoln or the magnificent Blue Room chairs bought by James Monroe or even the secret service officers.

Alexander had seen paintings and chairs and police officers in Los Angeles. The spectacular chandelier in the State Dining Room was barely worth an upward glance, and the Rose Garden was just grass and flowers.

But as they crossed the lawn toward E Street, the young boy finally saw something that impressed him.

Horse chestnuts.

The dark green chestnuts growing from the stout trees resembled nothing so much as little floating mines with Herz horns projecting from all sides. Alexander was convinced that they were little bombs to keep prowlers out. They’d bump their heads, and the chestnuts would explode.

Alexander’s father played along with the idea, even snatching a few of the chestnuts–carefully, of course–so they could plant them in the ground back at home. Harleigh finally busted her dad by stepping on one of the newly planted chestnuts and failing to blow up.

Sharon had never approved of the deception. She felt that it encouraged militarism. Hood felt that it was just a boy’s imagination at work, nothing more.

It was rare that Paul Hood came to the White House without thinking of the horse chestnut trees. Tonight was. no different, except that for the first time in years. Hood had the strong desire to go out back and pluck a few.

Bring them to his son as a token, a memory of a good time shared.

Besides, walking around the grounds would have been preferable to what he was doing.

He had dressed in his tuxedo, driven to the White House, and presented his calligraphic invitation at the East Appointment Gate. A junior secret service agent met Hood there and escorted him to the Red Room, which adjoined the State Dining Room. The president and First Lady were still in the Blue Room, which was the next room over. Though no one said so, the smaller Red Room–typically used for entertaining by the first ladies–was for the B-level guests.

Hood recognized but did not really know many of the people who were there. He knew some of them from conferences, some from briefings, and many from other dinners he attended here. The White House had two hundred fifty state dinners every year, and he was invited to at least fifteen of those. His background in Los Angeles government–which really meant knowing movie stars–finance, and espionage made him an ideal dinner guest. He could talk to generals, world leaders, diplomats, reporters, senators, and their spouses, informing and entertaining them and also not offending them. That was important.

Sharon usually came with him to those dinners. Being in the health-food business, she was generally unhappy with the fare, though she always loved the settings, which were from different administrations, different centuries.

When Sharon couldn’t make it, Op-Center’s press liaison Ann Farris went with Hood. She liked any food that was put in front of her and, unlike Sharon, enjoyed talking to whoever she was seated with.

This was the first time Hood had come stag. Regardless of how the White House might try to position it, Hood did not consider Mala Chatterjee as his date. The UN secretary-general was also coming alone and was assigned a seat at Hood’s table, directly to his left.

Hood opened the door and looked into the long, chandelier-lit dining room. Fourteen round tables had been brought into the dining room. Each one was set for ten people. Hood’s invitation had said that he was seated at table two, near the center of the room. That was good.

He was rarely seated so close to the president. If things got tense between him and Chatterjee, Hood would be able to exchange knowing glances with the First Lady.

Megan Lawrence had been raised in Santa Barbara, California.

She had spent time with Hood when he was mayor of Los Angeles, and they got to know each other quite well. She was a smart, classy lady with a dry sense of humor.

While senior staff members watched, liveried White House wait staff hurried around, making last-minute adjustments to the rose centerpieces.

They were dressed in black jackets and were multiethnic, which was to be expected at an affair of this kind.

The White House selected from a large pool of security-cleared hourly employees. And though no one liked to admit it, the composition of the staff was determined by the nature of the dinner. The young and attractive personnel were filling crystal water glasses and making sure the flatware was spaced exactly alike from setting to setting.

Straight ahead was the towering 1869 portrait of Abraham Lincoln that hadn’t impressed Alexander. It was the only painting in the dining room. Directly across from him, inscribed on the mantel, was a passage written by John Adams to his wife Abigail before they moved into the newly completed executive mansion. Franklin Roosevelt had read the lines and liked them so much that they became the official White House prayer. The inscription read:

I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it.

May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof- Sorry, Mr.

Adams, Hood thought. We managed to blow that one.

One of the senior attendants walked over. Dressed in white trousers and a white waistcoat with gold braid, he politely but insistently shut the door. Hood stepped back into the Red Room. It had grown noisier and more crowded as people began filing in from the Blue Room.

He couldn’t imagine what it was like in here before air-conditioning.

Hood happened to be facing the door to the Blue Room as Mala Chatterjee entered. She was on the arm of the president, who was followed by the First Lady and two delegates. The vice president and Mrs. Cotten came in next followed by California Senator Barbara Fox. Hood knew Fox well.

She looked uncharacteristically confused. Hood didn’t get to ask why.

At almost exactly that moment, the door to the State Dining Room opened.

There was no more rushing around inside the hall. The twenty members of the wait staff were lined up along the northwest wall, while attendants stood in a row by the door to show guests to their tables.

Hood made no effort to link up with Chatterjee. She was an intense woman, and she seemed caught up in her conversation with the president.

He turned and went back into the dining hall.

Hood watched as the glitterati entered beneath the golden light of the chandelier. There was something almost ghostly about the procession: people moving slowly, stiffly dignified, and without much expression;

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Categories: Clancy, Tom