54

12:54 P.M.

“Zimmer!” Ben shouted. “He’s missing!”

Barely a second later, Agent Zimmer was inside the small briefing room. “Where’s Rybicki?”

“Exactly.”

Zimmer crouched down beside his fallen comrade. “Gioia’s not dead. Just unconscious. Rybicki must’ve had some kind of weapon. Or improvised a blunt instrument. Picked up a paperweight or something. Probably what he used on the breaker box, too.”

Zimmer opened another door and entered the small foyer that led to the elevator. “He must have gone topside.”

“You’ve got men up there, don’t you?”

“Yes. But they don’t have any reason to stop the secretary of defense. He has clearance to pass through the building as he wishes.” Zimmer barked orders into his headset. Ben was impressed once more at how levelheaded Zimmer was. Even a snafu of this magnitude didn’t faze him.

“He’s left the premises,” Zimmer updated him. “I’m sending people after him. There’s not much he can do now that Zuko has lost control of the missiles.”

“Unless he gets his hands on that nuclear suitcase.”

“Wasn’t he planning to use that in the Persian Gulf?”

“He was. But he can’t do that now. God knows what he might try instead.”

Zimmer frowned. “I’ll double the detachment looking for him. Don’t worry. We’ll find him.”

And Ben knew they would find him. Eventually. The question was whether they would find him in time.

President Kyler entered the room. “What’s going on? Where’s Rybicki?” He saw the bloodstained body on the floor. “What in the name of-?”

Ben filled him in as best he could as Zimmer continued to receive updates over his headset.

“We have to find that madman,” President Kyler said.

Ben agreed. “But our first priority has to be the recovery of that suitcase.”

Kyler nodded grimly.

“We have another problem,” Zimmer said. He was frowning, which might be the most emotion Ben had seen him register all day.

“What’s wrong?” Ben asked.

“I’m not quite sure how to tell you this. Probably best just to get out with it. Your wife was upstairs. At the rear receiving gate.”

Ben’s eyes bulged. “Christina? Where is she now?”

Zimmer swallowed. “She went with Rybicki.”

Ben seized him by the arms. “What? Why?”

Zimmer shook his head, still listening to words streaming in from the other side. “I don’t know the details. Sounds as if he offered to take her to you.”

“Christina? With that… that lunatic? The one who thinks he can solve the world’s problems with a bomb?” His voice fell. “The one who still has a bomb stashed somewhere nearby?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Ben opened the door to the corridor and walked outside. A moment later he punched the elevator button. “I’m going up.”

Zimmer stepped in front of him. “I can’t allow that. We haven’t gotten the all-clear signal yet.”

“The president believes the crisis is over. The one from Colonel Zuko, anyway.”

“If there’s a potential nuclear threat, I can’t-”

“The president needs to stay down here. I don’t.”

Zimmer held his ground. “Ben, I’m sorry, but I can’t allow you to endanger yourself”

“I’m sorry, Zimmer,” Ben said, looking him straight in the eye, “but you can’t stop me, unless you’re planning to draw your weapon. Is that what you’re going to do?”

Zimmer’s hand went to his holster.

“Really?” Ben asked. “After all I’ve done down here? You’re going to pull a gun on me?”

Zimmer hesitated. “Mr. President?”

Kyler looked at Ben sternly. “I can’t authorize the premature release of anyone from the bunker. I can’t be held accountable if some tragedy should occur.”

Zimmer pulled out the gun.

“Please,” Ben said. “Just let me-”

“On the other hand,” the president continued, walking back toward the main room, “I’m not in charge of Robert Griswold’s legal staff. I can’t keep track of everyone. How am I supposed to know what some renegade lawyer does?” He closed the door behind him.

Zimmer put the gun back in the holster.

The elevator doors opened. Ben stepped inside.

“Thanks,” Ben said breathlessly.

“Godspeed,” Zimmer said quietly as the doors closed between them.

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