The End Game

The End Game

The End Game 33

  He opened his mouth to tell her about his stint in MI6, the Brit equivalent to the CIA, when his mobile vibrated in his pocket. He held it up. “Excuse me a moment, ma’am.”

  “Certainly. Take it to the kitchen. The reception in here is piss-poor. If you lose the signal, find Tony, he’s in there bossing the chef around, getting caviar for Agent Caine, who tells me it’s a favorite in Omaha. He’ll get you a house phone.”



  The vice president was right, the reception was piss-poor. Nicholas crossed the room, accepted pats on the shoulder and well-wishes as he did. When he reached the surprisingly empty kitchen, he took a deep breath and glanced down at the screen. It was a text, from Adam Pearce.

  911. I’ve tried to call, phones down. Plans Damari received in Baltimore were for Camp David. Be on alert. The cavalry is on its way.

  He’d known, somehow he’d known to his bones, something wasn’t right. His heart began to pound. Damari was here, close, he had to be.

  He tried to call Adam, but there was no cell service. He hurried deeper into the kitchen, wondering where all the staff were, looking for a landline. He spotted one, put it to his ear. The line was dead. He had to warn everyone, get the president and vice president to safety. He spun on his heel, and his foot slipped. He nearly went down but managed to catch himself with the edge of the granite counter.

  And he saw the blood on the floor.

  There was a closed door opposite him, blood seeping out. He pushed it open, met with resistance. He gave it a shove with his shoulder.

  There were two people inside, both unconscious, both bleeding. One was the chef, his white hat beside his head on the floor, and the other was Tony Scarlatti.

  Nicholas felt for a pulse in each man’s throat. Both were thready, but both were still alive.

  Nicholas ran to the kitchen door and looked out. He knew the guards were all outside the lodge, patrolling. He’d have to get across the large living room crowded with laughing, chatting men and women, and open the door to alert them.

  First the president. The brief his father sent flashed in his head as he moved quickly back into the living room.

  Master makeup artist.

  Tony down in the pantry.

  And of course he knew.

  His eyes roved the room to search out the president and vice president. Mike saw him, her eyes fixed on his face. Then she looked over her shoulder as if Damari would be right there.

  Which he was, across the room, laughing with the president and vice president, hovering at her right hand where he always was. And that was surely impossible, since Tony was bleeding in the pantry.

  Nicholas started toward them, dodging people who were trying to intercept him then moving out of his way, still speaking to him, but he was focused, moving as quickly as he could.

  He never took his eyes off Zahir Damari, a part of him amazed at the transformation, a part of him counting the seconds, praying Damari wouldn’t pull a gun or a knife, and it would be all over. No, no gun or knife, he’d never get out alive. Then what?

  He was still ten feet away when he saw Tony—Damari—coming up on the far side of the president. It took a moment for his mind to register—the champagne. He’d handed them glasses of champagne for a toast, and the president was raising his glass, clicking it against Callan’s and the two of them lifted their glasses to their lips.

  Nicholas shouted, “Don’t, don’t!” but someone had turned up the music and it drowned out his words, or maybe it didn’t, but they didn’t register, or they didn’t hear enough to understand.

  Nicholas was shoving people out of the way, screaming now, “Don’t drink the champagne!” People were grabbing at him, asking him what was wrong, becoming alarmed. No one knew what was happening, but they kept getting in his way. He saw the Secret Service agents had heard him yelling, and were looking through the windows at him, and then they were inside, now charging across the room toward him, as if he were the threat.

  “Don’t drink it, don’t drink it, it’s Damari!”

  Callan heard him, finally, and she looked up, saw him racing toward her, yelling, and her glass was halfway to her mouth, her head cocked to one side, puzzled, but the president, the president.

  “Stop him, stop him!” It was one of the Secret Service and he grabbed at Nicholas. Still five feet away, Nicholas dove in the air like he was after a football, eyes focused only on the glasses. His arm swept across their bodies, slapping the glass right out of Callan’s hand. He caught the bottom edge of the president’s glass, but he’d already tipped his head back before Nicholas had begun his charge across the room; the champagne was in his mouth.

  “Don’t swallow!” he shouted, then crashed hard against the fireplace beside the president. Glass shattered, people started to scream. The president grabbed at his throat, fell to his knees. The Secret Service were on Nicholas, pinning him to the floor, and the soldiers flooded the room.

  No more than five seconds had passed.

  Nicholas struggled to get to his feet, pulling two Secret Service agents with him, a small cut on the forehead trickling blood into his left eye. He pointed, shouted to Mike, “It’s Damari, it’s Damari, he’s made up to look like Tony Scarlatti, he poisoned the champagne!”

  There was a long moment, the space between a heartbeat, when Damari turned and made eye contact with Nicholas. His face looked so much like Tony it was eerie, but his hairpiece had been knocked askew.

  In that second, Mike understood, pulled her Glock out of her boot holster, and yelled, “Stop!”

  But Damari ignored her, moving fast toward the glass door to the back terrace. His hand was outstretched to grab the door handle when Mike pulled the trigger three times without hesitation, and he was slammed against the glass, his head cracking it, smearing it with his blood as he collapsed.



  The security team circled Mike in a heartbeat, and she stood there, not moving, seeing the lights, hearing shouts and screams coming from all corners of the room. And over the chaos, she heard the rotors of a helicopter drawing closer.

  Mike held out her ankle gun, butt first, her arm outstretched, then she tossed it to the floor and put her hands on the top of her head. She dropped to her knees, knowing if she didn’t the guards and agents would throw her down.

  She heard Nicholas shouting, but couldn’t understand his words over the yells and commands from the security team. Then she heard him. “It’s Damari. She shot Damari, Tony is in the pantry, he’s been stabbed. We need medics, we need medics, the president is down!”

  Secret Service was already swarmed around the president; Nicholas was being held to the side, struggling against the agents holding him back from Mike.

  One agent wrenched Mike’s shooting arm behind her back. “Stay on your knees, don’t you move, keep your hands on your head!” She didn’t resist, it would be suicide to do anything other than what they were telling her right now. She felt the cold steel of an agent’s weapon pressing into the base of her neck, heard a woman’s voice, clear and strong. “The president’s down. Where is the medic?”

  The vice president? Yes, Callan was okay.

  A young naval officer with a huge medical kit in a red bag burst into the living room, yelling, “Here, ma’am! What happened? Was the president shot?”

  “He’s been poisoned. It was in the champagne. It smelled somehow off to me, I hadn’t had any yet but he got some in his mouth before Agent Drummond knocked it from our hands. It was a fast one, given the speed at which the president had grabbed his throat and fell to the floor.”

  Mike stayed on her knees, her heart pounding, and she prayed the president would be all right. She looked over to the blood-smeared glass door, at Damari’s body in the fetal position against the door. So much blood. He was dead. She’d shot him. It was ov
er, but strangely, she couldn’t get her brain around it, couldn’t accept it yet. A measure of shock, she supposed, and knew it would pass.

  How like Tony he’d looked, but not now. She’d shot him in the back and in the head. Staring at him, she felt huge relief. Now you’re dead, you monster. She drew a deep breath and waited. If she hadn’t had her ankle gun, who knew if they would have stopped him escaping. No, surely the Secret Service would have grabbed him. Though they’d only seen their guy—their agent—not Damari. Now that he was dead, she could give him the credit for coming up with a remarkable plan.

  She sucked in a deep breath and smiled up at the soldier with his gun trained on her face. Another soldier spoke to him and he pulled his gun away, holstered it. He was young, not older than she was and he was pale, adrenaline raging through him. He flicked a gaze toward Damari. “You killed him dead. Excellent shooting on the move like that.”

  “Yes, thankfully, yes. It’s not Tony, it’s Zahir Damari.”

  “You did good,” another soldier said, and pulled her to her feet and formally handed her back her small Glock.

  Then Nicholas was there and he stood beside her and together they watched two soldiers roll Damari over and stare down at a man who looked like Tony’s double. But not in death. No, not in death. The prosthetic nose was inches off-center, knocked sideways when he’d slid down the glass. An agent pulled the wig off as he felt for a pulse. When he shook his head, Mike’s heart slowed.

  An agent pulled a wrist mike from Damari’s suit jacket cuff, lifted it to his ear, and said, “It’s live. This is a frigging live comms unit. He could hear everything we did, every move we made since he managed to sneak into Camp David.”

  They turned from the ruin of the man to see the medic working on the president. He already had an IV started, and was pumping in something from a syringe.

  “Nicholas, you said it was poison. How can they treat if they don’t know what the poison is?”

  “They can’t. I imagine they’re most likely giving him Narcan. I don’t know if it will work on whatever this poison is, but it generally reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. They have to try something.”

  Mike heard the medic say, “He’s not responding to the naloxone, continue chest compressions. I’m going to push flumazenil.”

  Nicholas looked on, not moving, except he took her hand. “Damari succeeded, Mike. I was a second too late.”

  Mike said matter-of-factly, “If you hadn’t knocked the glasses away, he’d surely be dead already, Callan, too. They have to figure out what was he given. It worked fast, so fast, he went down almost immediately.”

  Nicholas suddenly jerked her after him. “Let’s get to the kitchen, maybe Damari left something behind.”

  They found nothing except more chaos, more soldiers, pulling Tony and the chef from the pantry, a medic tending them.

  Callan rushed into the room, knelt at Tony’s side as they worked on him.

  “Will he make it?” Mike heard the awful deadening fear in her voice. She knew too well what Damari was capable of. She wondered idly why Damari hadn’t simply killed them.

  “We’re doing our best, ma’am,” the medic said, not looking up. “He’s lost a lot of blood, but he’s still with us. Chef’s gonna be okay, he’s knocked out is all. Medevac is on the way, we’ll get them to the hospital, get them patched up.” He finally looked up at the vice president’s face. “The president, ma’am, will he live?”

  Callan swallowed. “I don’t know.”

  She looked over at Mike and Nicholas leaning against the counter, the cut on Nicholas’s forehead still trickling blood down the side of his face and onto the collar of his shirt from his collision with the fireplace. Callan walked to them, ignored the blood and embraced them both. They felt her shaking. Then she raised her head and smiled at them.

  “Now I owe you my life, too.” She grabbed a towel from the kitchen counter and wiped the blood from Nicholas’s face. “The president will pull through this. He will.” And she raised her head at the sound of the Medevac helicopter landing on the back lawn. “And Tony will live.”


  8 a.m.



  The White House Pressroom

  Chief of staff to the vice president of the United States Quinn Costello gave her boss one last hair fluff, handed her a ChapStick, waited for her to smooth it on, then, “Are you ready, Madam Vice President?”

  Callan was dressed to kill in a cream suit, heels. She was ready, more than ready. She handed the ChapStick back to Quinn. “I am. Let’s do it.”

  The pressroom was packed full, easy to do considering how small it was. Callan had been shocked the first time she saw it—the iconic views were angled beautifully, didn’t show the foreshortened wall in the back of the room, the angle of the seats, the slope of the eastern and western walls. Everyone was smashed in like sardines, every D.C. reporter in their seats already, the room humming, all anxiously awaiting her.

  There was no announcement. Callan simply walked in and stepped in front of the lectern. There was a brief moment of shuffling, as every person facing her leaned forward slightly.

  She took a breath and said without preamble, “At five o’clock this morning, coalition forces launched air strikes against Iran’s key nuclear sites Arak, Isfahan, Qom, Natanz, and Bushehr, as well as research reactors in Bonab, Ramsar, Tehran, and Parchin. Simultaneously, military sites and identified hideouts of known Hezbollah leaders in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon were struck as well.

  “These coordinated strikes are in direct retaliation for Iran’s attempted assassination of President Jefferson Bradley and myself at Camp David.

  “I am proud to say our Middle Eastern partners in this action come from all sectors of the region. As you know, President Bradley was in talks in Geneva this past week with representatives of all the countries in the Middle East, trying to find a way to address Iran’s nuclear efforts and to bring peace to this long war-torn region. It was his greatest wish to find a path to the future for those living in the past.”

  She looked at the cameras in the back of the room, and away from the reporters, who sat in various states of shock.

  And now she spoke directly to those who’d paid Zahir Damari to kill both her and the president, assuming, she thought, any of them had survived the attacks.

  “All of you out there who wish us ill, who wish to kill us, make no mistake. We will no longer sit idly by while you plot against us. The strikes this morning are simply a first step toward eradicating the hatred and destruction you spawn throughout the region.

  “There will be no more negotiations, no more concessions, no more compromises that are always from our side. We have sent you our first message. If need be, there will be more. You cannot hide. You cannot run. We are coming for you. We are doing all we can to minimize collateral damage in these attacks, unlike you, our enemies.”

  She took a sip of water, looked from face to face. You could hear a pin drop in the room.

  “Iran’s movement against us was an open declaration of war. To that end, I say, yes, this is a war. It will be swift, and it will be just, and at its conclusion, perhaps, then, we can make peace.

  “As you have already heard, President Bradley was gravely injured in the assassination attempt. He continues to be treated in an undisclosed location, for his safety. He is in a medically induced coma while the doctors endeavor to save his life. I am happy to report he is showing signs of improvement this morning, and I have no reason to feel he will not make a full recovery.

  “For the moment, though, he is unable to discharge the duties of his office. I am following the steps set forth in our Constitution under the twenty-fifth amendment to lead this country in its time of need. When the president is capable of returning to active duty, I will return to my role as vice president.

nbsp; “In the meantime, I will execute the duties of the office, and continue to punish those who dared attack us on our own soil.

  “May God watch over our coalition forces in this endeavor. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.”

  The room exploded with shouted questions as Callan stepped away from the lectern. Quinn gave her a smile and a thumbs-up, and the press secretary took the stand to handle the questions.

  Nicholas and Mike were waiting outside the pressroom, watching Callan on the monitors in the small hallway. They heard a reporter yell after Callan, “Madam Vice President, what happened to the person who tried to kill you?”

  They watched her turn, raise her hand, and instantly there was silence. She said in a loud, clear voice, “He was shot and killed.” And then she came out of the room and was walking quickly toward them. “Walk with me,” she said, not pausing, and they followed her to the Cabinet Room. The long table was full. Discreet brass placards with the names of the president’s cabinet identified those Mike didn’t recognize.

  The room erupted into applause as they entered. Every cabinet member got to their feet.

  Callan brought Mike and Nicholas to the head of the table, a hand on each back.

  “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce you to the people who saved the life of President Bradley—not once, but twice—and saved me, as well. Special Agents Nicholas Drummond and Michaela Caine are shining examples of the heroes this country is honored to employ in our law enforcement services. We owe them both a debt of gratitude, and when the president is back on his feet, I will be recommending them for the Medal of Honor for their intelligence and their incredible bravery.”

  More applause, shouts, and whistles, decorum completely lost after Callan’s words.