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New Orleans, Thursday March 23, 11.23 CST

His voice wavering, Doug Sanchez explained that two joggers had found Stuart’s body at six o’clock that morning in Rock Creek Park. Initial examination suggested he had died after swallowing thirty tablets of Dextropropoxyphene – a painkiller whose packaging warned against use by those with a history of ‘depression with suicidal tendency’ – and then slashing his left wrist. The police were about to issue a statement saying they were not looking for anyone else in connection with his death. The President had already spoken to Stuart’s wife. Doug was about to face the press for an off-camera briefing.

Maggie was too stunned to speak. She had worried about Stuart’s life expectancy almost from the first day she had known him. She thought his very existence – carrying that enormous weight, burdening himself with the most intense stress – represented a kind of challenge to science, as if he were pushing the boundaries of the possible. She often imagined him standing at the back of a high school gym at some campaign rally, chomping on a corn dog and keeling over with a massive coronary. But suicide? The very idea of Stu Goldstein, who gobbled up life the way he gobbled up food, killing himself would have seemed absurd.

Until last night. That last conversation they had had unnerved her. She had never heard Stuart sound so exhausted, so utterly defeated before. She heard his voice in her head, softer than usual. There wouldn’t be much left of me, would there? And then: Without Baker, there’s no Goldstein.

Get some rest. That was the best she’d been able to come up with. What sort of a friend was she? Why hadn’t she recognized that he was a man on the edge? She felt the strong need for a drink.

Sanchez was still speaking. ‘Listen, Maggie, I’ve got to go do this briefing. But here’s what’s happening. The President has told me what you and Stuart were working on. About Forbes. He’s asked me to-’ He hesitated, apparently embarrassed. ‘He’s asked me to continue Stuart’s work. From now on, you and I are to liaise.’ Ordinarily there would have been a flirtatious frisson attached to that sentence. But not now.

Sanchez went on: ‘Except where there are things for you to discuss directly with him, apparently.’ He sounded put out. ‘In fact he told me to transfer you over to him once we’d spoken. OK? We’ll talk later.’

‘OK.’ The news was still sinking in. She felt nauseous…

‘And Maggie, listen. I’m sorry I had to be the one, you know, to-’

There was a click and the sound of more hold music. Telegraph Tim and the other reporters were looking over at her now. They appeared curious, maybe even a little annoyed by her deliberate separation from the pack: why was she ignoring them? Who was she talking to so earnestly on the phone? Had she found out something they hadn’t? When she waved for them to go on without her there were a couple of hard stares, but they went, which was a relief. She found a quiet spot by a tree. The cemetery was almost empty now, save for one or two stragglers, including a white man in a dark suit standing by the gates, also talking into his cellphone.

‘Please hold for the President,’ came the faraway voice on her BlackBerry.

‘Thanks.’

Another click and then: ‘Maggie, I’m very glad we’ve reached you.’ It was the same voice she had heard when Baker talked to his children in the kitchen at the Residence, or to her during the early days of the campaign. Warm, gentle, full of empathy. The voice of a strong, protective father.

‘Yes, Mr President.’

‘This is a terrible blow for all of us. I know how close you were to Stuart.’

‘You were too, sir.’

‘Yes. I was.’ He paused, as if fighting to keep the lid on his emotions. ‘But I think we both know what Stuart would have wanted. He would have wanted us to fight this thing, Maggie. Especially now.’

‘I’m not sure that was the mood he was in, Mr President.’

‘He was not himself yesterday, I know that. But Stuart was not a quitter. He was a fighter.’ His tone changed. ‘I just can’t believe…’ The sentence trailed away. ‘Suicide: not Stu-’

‘You’re not saying that…someone might have done this?’ It came out as barely more than a whisper.

‘I’ll tell you what I think, Maggie. I think this presidency is under assault. I think we are facing nothing less than an attempted coup d’?tat. And we have to fight that with all we’ve got. It’s not about me or my presidency any more, Maggie. This is about the Constitution of the United States. If they can remove an elected president, then they can do anything.’

‘Who’s “they”, sir?’

She heard him sigh. ‘We don’t know that yet, do we? And even to talk about it sounds nuts. But we need to find out who they are. I’m relying on you, Maggie. Keep digging at the Forbes thing. We need information, fast.’

‘I understand.’

‘We’re going to do what we can at this end. I’ve taken four straight days of this shit, on the defensive. We’re going back on offence right now. We’re going to start working the phones, telling those Democrats on Judiciary to grow a pair and start defending their president.’

‘I’m glad to hear it, sir.’

‘Now what have you got?’

Maggie tried to focus, to put Stuart out of her mind, to act as if she were briefing the President on an outbreak of violence in the West Bank. She braced herself, extracting a crumb of confidence from the little information she had so far unearthed. ‘Sir, it’s unconfirmed but I strongly suspect that Vic Forbes was in fact Bob Jackson, a former agent of the CIA.’

A sharp intake of breath at the other end of the phone. ‘Jesus Christ. Where did this come from?’

‘I’ve just been at the funeral. I met a former colleague of his who repeatedly referred to “the Company”. He was much older than Forbes, but he said they worked together in Honduras, Salvador and Nicaragua. He said they were both retired.’

There was a silence, two or three beats. ‘You know what Stuart would say, don’t you? “At least with Kennedy, they waited a few years. Gave the guy a chance.”’

‘You don’t think-’

‘Well, what does it look like, Maggie? An ex-CIA agent? That’s who they use, for God’s sake. That’s who they always use.’

‘Who?’

‘I can hear Stuart saying it. “The Watergate break-in? Who were the Plumbers, Stephen? Who were the dirty tricks squad? They were ex-CIA. Howard Hunt, those guys.” Jesus.’

‘So you think Forbes was working for-’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Well, there can only be two possibilities. Either the CIA had hired Forbes to blackmail you – or he was working for someone else.’

The President spoke more softly now. ‘We’re missing Stuart already, aren’t we, Maggie? I relied on him so much.’

‘I know, sir.’

‘He would say that Hunt and the others – the Plumbers – they were ex-CIA but they weren’t working for the CIA.’

‘Which leaves the key question: who was Forbes working for?’

‘That’s what you need to find out, Maggie. Tell me again, when was Forbes in the Agency?’

‘He was Jackson then. Bob Jackson. Started decades ago. He would have been in his twenties. He was forty-seven when he died.’

‘I’ll put Sanchez on it. See if he can get that confirmed. The Secretary of State is waiting for me. Talk to Sanchez. And stay safe, Maggie. We need you strong, we need you healthy. I’m relying on you: we all are.’

‘Thank you, Mr President. I’ll do everything I can.’ She said the words, accepted the burden, but they rang hollow. What could she do, on her own? She wasn’t a detective. She wasn’t a spy or an investigator. She was just Maggie Costello, failed diplomat, failed White House staffer, failed friend, failed…everything.

Her hands were trembling. She was standing at the gates of a cemetery, rain was in the air and Stuart Goldstein was dead. She felt a desperate, urgent need to be away from here. To be back home, in a hot bath, with a whiskey in her hand and none of this happening.

She headed for the roadside and, as she climbed into a passing cab, she reached for her BlackBerry. Without thinking, led only by instinct and by need, she entered the area of her phone’s alphabetized contacts where she only rarely dared tread: U. For Uri.

The phone rang three times. She knew that, if it went to voicemail, she would hang up. But, as so often in the past, he surprised her. He picked up. Without missing a beat, he said: ‘Hi. How’s my favourite ex-White House official?’

She paused, not wanting her voice to betray her.

‘Maggie? You OK?’

She nodded, knowing the uselessness of the gesture. She swallowed, determined to get a grip.

‘Maggie? What is it?’

‘Stuart’s dead.’

‘Oh, God. I’m so sorry. What happened?’

‘I don’t know.’ She could feel her nose twitching now, the sign that tears were about to follow. ‘They say it’s suicide. But I just can’t believe it.’

‘I know how close you were, Maggie. You always said he had such a big heart.’

At that, she let out a full sob. These last few days had, she realized, left her like a coiled spring; she had been wound so tight.

‘Where are you, Maggie?’

‘I can’t say,’ she said, which only made her want to cry more. ‘In a cab.’

‘Do you want me to come down to see you?’

She wanted to say that was what she wanted more than anything in the world – but it was impossible. ‘I just needed to hear your voice.’

‘OK, so I’ll talk,’ he said. Just hearing his accent, still alien even after all the time he had spent in the States, triggered something in her – despite everything that had passed between them.

‘You know what,’ he said. ‘I was thinking of you today. I was looking at some footage of Baker at the Iowa State Fair-’ The change in his tone suggested he was shifting the subject away from Stuart to safer ground, giving her something else to focus on. He was like that, Uri: sensitive to her moods. Too sensitive sometimes: he knew her too well.

She tried to pull herself together, engage in the conversation. ‘Was I in the pictures?’

‘No,’ he said, the word dipping down in the sing-song voice you’d use to tell a child that the world doesn’t revolve around him. ‘No, none of you. But it did remind me of you. That’s where you first met him, wasn’t it?’

‘You make it sound like a love affair,’ she sniffed. ‘“First met him”.’

‘Well, there were always three of us in that marriage, Maggie,’ he said gently, the smile still in his voice. ‘You, me and the future President of the United States.’

‘Where are you?’

‘I’m in an editing suite in Manhattan, listening to a million hours of interviews all on the same subject.’

‘You doing the Baker film?’

‘Didn’t I tell you? When did we last speak? It happened last month. PBS want ninety minutes. The full life story. Baker the man.’

She did her best to sound enthusiastic. ‘Wow. That’s really good, Uri. Big job.’

‘Thanks, Maggie.’

‘You’d better hurry, though.’

‘It’s not looking good, is it? I don’t get it. The guy was Mr Invincible and now he’s fighting for his life.’

That was too close to the bone. She felt the tears rising again. ‘It’s good to hear your voice, Uri.’ It came out as a gulp.

‘Yours too. You sure you’re OK?’

She wanted to tell the truth, she wanted to let it all out, to hear what sense he could make of Stu’s apparent suicide, of what she had just heard in the cemetery, to piece it together, like co-conspirators, just as they had when they first met, back in Jerusalem. Those days had been terrifying – and violent – and yet she looked back on them now as among the happiest times in her life. Despite herself, and when she hadn’t really been looking, she had fallen in love.

‘I wish I could talk about it. But I’m on assignment. You know, usual rules apply.’ With an iron will she staunched the tears.

‘Mother’s the word.’

Mum’s the word.’

‘Oh, yeah? And how’s your colloquial Hebrew getting on?’

Despite everything, she smiled, imagining the dark curls of hair on his head, remembering the smell of him next to her. And that nearly undid her resolve. ‘I’d better go, Uri. There’s another call coming in.’

‘OK.’

‘Thanks, Uri.’

‘Anytime. And if you want to talk, you know where I am. Day or night.’

She pressed the red button, ending the call. A moment later, as if to keep her honest, the phone rang. Sanchez.

‘We need to meet, Maggie. Urgently. Come back to Washington. Not here. I’ll text you the time and place. There’s something I need to give you. As quick as you can.’

She hung up, her heart pounding, thinking, Now what?

And thousands of miles away a man she had never met was listening to every word.

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