27

They approached the hotel from the rear, careful to stay close to the thick tree line. The two were dressed identically and moved in tandem. They waited a bit at the edge of the trees, scanning the area ahead for signs of anyone. Satisfied, they moved out, quickly covering the ground between the forest and the fence surrounding the hotel. Scrambling over, they dropped on the other side. One of the pair pulled a pistol, and then they made their way down the rear face of the hotel. They found a side door that they forced open. In another moment they disappeared inside the dark space.

King and Michelle parked a good distance away from the Fairmount Hotel and covered the rest on foot. As they approached the building, they ducked back into the woods as the chopper, its searchlight racing over the ground, shot across overhead.

“This is actually exciting,” said Michelle as they emerged from the trees and threaded their way to the hotel. “You know, sort of being on the other side of the badge for a change.”

“Yeah, it’s a thrill a minute. Just think, I could be at my house with a nice glass of Viognier in front of a blazing fire reading Proust instead of skipping merrily through the environs of Bowlington, North Carolina, while dodging police choppers.”

“Please tell me you don’t actually read Proust while drinking wine,” she said.

“Well, only if there’s nothing good on ESPN.”

As they drew near to the hotel, King ran his gaze along the jumbled facade. “This place always struck me as something Frank Lloyd Wright might have designed if he’d been strung out on heroin.”

“It is pretty ugly,” agreed Michelle.

“Just so you understand Clyde Ritter’s sense of aesthetics, he thought the Fairmont was beautiful.”

The gap in the fence Michelle had used on her earlier visit had been sealed. So they were forced to go over the fence. King looked on a little enviously as Michelle clambered over with much greater ease than he would probably demonstrate. He was right. He almost fell on his face coming down the other side when his foot caught in one of the links. She helped him up without comment and led him down the side of the building. They entered through the same place she’d used on her first visit.

Inside she pulled out a flashlight, but King held up a warning hand. “Wait a minute. You said there was a guard.”

“Yes, but I didn’t see him around when we came through.”

King looked at her strangely. “Actually as I recall, you said the second time you came you ran into the guard, but the first time there wasn’t anyone.”

“He could have been making his rounds on the other side. They probably just patrol the perimeter.”

“Yeah, probably,” said King. He nodded for her to turn on the flashlight, and they made their way toward the lobby.

“The Stonewall Jackson Room is just down this hall,” she said.

“Oh, is it? I had no idea.”

“I’m sorry, Sean. It was so long ago and I was just here.”

“Forget it,” he said. “I’m just being a jerk.”

“Do you want to go there now?”

“Maybe later. There’s something I want to check first.”

“The closet Loretta Baldwin hid in?”

“Great minds really do think alike. The next thing you know you’ll be drinking fine wine and reading thought-provoking literature. And maybe, just maybe, that might lead you actually to clean out your truck, if you find you have a spare year or two.”

They went to the closet and pulled open the door. Taking the flashlight from Michelle, King went inside and looked around. He zeroed in on a small crevice in the very back, then turned to her.

“Loretta was small?”

“Almost skeletal.”

“So she could have gotten back there with no problem. She didn’t actually say where she was hiding in here?”

“No, but she could have just stood anywhere.”

King shook his head. “If I was a terrified person in the middle of murder, mayhem and screaming, panicked people, and I ran into a closet to hide, I think I’d burrow in as deeply as possible. It’s sort of instinctive, like pulling the covers over your head. She wouldn’t have known at that point what the hell was going on. For all she knew, some guy with a gun would come running in here to hide too and—” He stopped and stared at the spot where Loretta might have hidden.

“What is it, Sean?”

He simply shook his head. “I’m not sure.” He stepped back out of the closet and shut the door.

“Okay, where now?” asked Michelle.

He drew a long breath. “To the Stonewall Jackson Room.”

When they arrived there, Michelle silently watched, shining the light along his path as King stepped off the room’s parameters precisely, his gaze sweeping every point. Then he looked at the spot where he’d stood eight years before. Letting go of another deep breath, King walked over and seemed to take up his old post there, his hand creeping up on the imaginary back of a sweaty, coatless Clyde Ritter.

King was now firmly back in September 1996 as his gaze went to the imaginary people, the potential troublemakers, babies being kissed, the jibe from the back and Ritter’s response to it. He even found himself mumbling into his mic, relaying intelligence. He glanced at the clock at the back, though there wasn’t one there, and he couldn’t have seen it in the darkness anyway. Only three more minutes and the meet-and-greet would be over. Amazing when you thought about it. If Ramsey had been late or Ritter had ended the event early, none of it would have happened. How different King’s life would have been.

He wasn’t quite aware of it, but his gaze was now on the elevator bank. He heard the ding over and over. In his mind’s eye the doors opened over and over. It was as though he were being sucked into that vacuum.

The bang startled him badly, but his hand flew to his holster, and he pulled out his imaginary gun, his eyes going to the floor where Ritter’s body was. Then he looked over at where Michelle was standing with the flashlight, having just slammed the door shut.

“Sorry,” she said, “I just wanted to see your reaction. I guess I shouldn’t have done it.”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” he said firmly.

She came and stood beside him. “What were you thinking just now?”

“Would it surprise you if I told you I wasn’t really sure?”

“Talk it out, then. It might be important.”

He thought for a few moments. “Well, I remember staring at Arnold Ramsey. He had this expression on his face that was not the look of a man who’d just assassinated a presidential candidate. He didn’t look scared or defiant, or angry or nuts.”

“What did he look like?”

King stared at her. “He looked surprised, Michelle, as though he hadn’t expected to kill Ritter.”

“Okay, that truly makes no sense. He’d just shot the man. Do you remember anything else?”

“After they took away Ritter’s body, I remember Bobby Scott coming over to me, to check my injury.”

“Under the circumstances that was pretty remarkable.”

“Well, he didn’t know what had happened. He just knew he had a wounded agent. All the crap hit later.”

“Anything else?”

King studied the floor. “When they were taking me out later, Bobby and Sidney Morse were going toe-to-toe out in the corridor. There was another guy with them, someone I didn’t recognize. Morse was about five-ten and two hundred fifty pounds of mostly blubber, and you had ex-marine-built-like-an-oak-tree Bobby Scott, and they were really going at it. It was quite a sight. Another time it might have made me laugh.”

“What were they arguing about?”

“Ritter was dead and it was Scott’s fault—I’m sure that’s what Bobby was hearing from Morse.”

“Did you see either of them after that?”

“I only saw Bobby at some official hearings that took place afterwards. We never spoke privately. I always thought about calling him up, telling him I was sorry for what had happened. But I never did.”

“I read where Sidney Morse was committed to a mental institution.”

“Yep. I don’t think he really cared what Ritter’s politics were. For Morse, it was all a show, a big production. He was in show business or something way back when. And I did overhear him telling someone that if he could propel a guy like Ritter to the national spotlight, it would make him—Morse—an icon.”

Michelle looked around and shivered. “It’s so quiet in here. It reminds me of a tomb.”

“Well, in a way it is. Two men died here.”

“I’m glad it wasn’t three.”

Wasn’t it? King thought.

She drew a line on the floor with the beam from the flashlight. “The rope to hold back the crowds was right about here, wasn’t it?” King nodded. “So it would have pretty much run from that wall to about a foot behind the edge of the wall for the elevator bank. And on the video I remember that it ran catty-cornered. Do you remember who placed the rope there?”

“It would have been the Service.”

“So the detail leader, Bob Scott?”

“I doubt that Bobby got into those sorts of details.”

“So how do you know the Service did it, for sure?”

He shrugged. “I guess I don’t. I just knew Ritter and I were going to be behind that rope.”

“Exactly.” She handed the light to King and positioned herself where King had stood and looked over at the elevators. “Okay, with the rope there and you here, you’d be the only one in the room who could see the elevators. That seems prearranged. And, by the way, the elevator was certainly holding your attention again.”

“Forget the elevator,” he snapped. “Why the hell am I even here? Ritter was a jerk. Hell, I’m glad he’s dead.”

“He was still a presidential candidate, Sean. I didn’t like John Bruno, but I guarded the man like he was the president of the United States.”

He said curtly, “You don’t need to lecture me on agency standards. I was guarding presidents while you were spending all your time rowing a boat for a hunk of metal.”

Michelle said slowly, “Is staying up all night screwing another agent when you’re posting the next day part of Secret Service protection standards? If it is, I must have missed that one in the manual.”

“Yeah, it’s right next to the rule about never leaving a protectee alone in a room. I guess you missed that one too,” he shot back.

“I hope Joan was worth it.”

“Loretta Baldwin told you about the panties on the ceiling light, so draw your own conclusion.”

“That was a bad judgment call. I wouldn’t have slept with you before a shift no matter how tempted I might have been. Not that I would have been.”

“Thanks. That’s good to know… Mick.

“In fact,” Michelle continued boring in, “your being distracted I can accept a lot more than your sleeping around before going on duty.”

“This is all really interesting. Now, do you want to check this place out, or do you want to continue dissecting my life decisions?”

“I tell you what, why don’t we just leave?” she said abruptly. “I’m suddenly sick of the atmosphere here.”

She strode off, and King, shaking his head wearily, slowly followed.

Outside the room, she was already out of sight. King called after her and shone the light and finally picked her out of the shadows. “Michelle, wait up. You’ll kill yourself getting out of here without a light.”

She stopped, her arms crossed over her chest, and scowled back at him. Then she stiffened, and her head snapped in the other direction. King saw a blur come from out of the darkness, and Michelle cried out. He rushed forward as the two men came into the beam of his flashlight and descended on Michelle.

“Watch out!” yelled King as he raced forward. Before he could get to them, a gun one of the men was brandishing went flying away, the result of a precise kick executed by Michelle. Next her left foot crunched the face of the other guy, and he flew against a wall and slumped down. Like a dancer practicing a carefully choreographed routine, she spun and dropped the other guy with a wicked snap kick to the kidney. Both men tried to get back up, but she laid one of them out with an elbow smash to the back of his neck, while King knocked the other one out with his flashlight.

Breathing hard, he looked over as Michelle searched in her bag. She produced two pairs of Tie-Tights and ingeniously bound the unconscious men together. The woman hadn’t even broken a sweat. She looked up at King and his inquiring look.

“Black belt. Fourth-degree,” she said.

“Of course,” King said. He shone his light on the pair still dressed in their blue inmate jumpsuits. “Looks like our friends the escaped prisoners. Guess they couldn’t find any new duds.”

“I’ll call it in, do the locals a favor. Anonymously, of course.” She pulled out her phone.

“Hey, Michelle?”

“Yeah?”

“I just want you to know that I feel very safe with a big, strong woman around to protect me.”

After she called the police, Michelle and King hustled to her Land Cruiser, getting to it about the time the chopper came soaring over on its way to the hotel. Michelle followed the path of the aircraft and then the swath its light cut through the woods. When she saw him, she gasped.

Revealed off on a side road was a truck, and sitting in the truck was a man, sharply exposed now by the light. And then in an instant the light was gone and so was the man. Michelle could hear the truck being started, and then it sped off.

Michelle jumped into her truck, screaming for King to follow.

“What is it?” he yelled, closing the door after him as she fumbled with her keys.

“There was a man in a truck. Didn’t you see him?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Didn’t you hear his truck take off?”

“With that chopper going over? Who was it?”

“He looked different, because he must have been wearing a disguise when I saw him the first time—and maybe he’s wearing one now—but I could see his eyes clearly. The eyes don’t lie. It was him, I could swear to it.”

“Who!”

“Officer Simmons, the rent-a-cop at the funeral home, the man who kidnapped Bruno and killed Neal Richards.”

King looked at her, bewildered. “Are you really sure?”

She put the truck in gear. “Sure enough.” She turned the truck around and was about to head down the side road after the other vehicle when a number of police cars appeared and blocked their way.

Michelle slammed her fists against the steering wheel. “Damn it, what a time for the local cops to show.”

As one of the car doors opened and the man got out, King shook his head and said, “It’s not the locals, Michelle.”

The man came over to the driver’s side and motioned Michelle to put her window down. She did so, and he leaned in and looked first at her and then at King.

“You two mind stepping out of the vehicle?” said Jefferson Parks.

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