january nineteenth. Hal Corwin crossed the Truckee Post Office parking lot with the slightest of limps, gingerly, as if not sure of his footing on the just-plowed surface. Here, at nearly six thousand feet of elevation on the Cal-Nev border, the frigid air bit hard at his bullet-damaged lung.
Janet Kestrel stepped down from the driver’s side of her old dark-green 4-Runner facing out from a far corner of the lot. Its motor was running as if for a quick getaway. Her tawny face was as brown as his, but from genetics, not weather. Today her ebony hair was piled on top of her head under a fur-lined cap.
Hal put his left hand on her arm, tenderly. The hand was missing two fingers. “Delivery tomorrow morning, guaranteed.”
“Know why that doesn’t make me happy? Tomorrow afternoon he’ll have all of the world’s resources at his command.”
“Doesn’t matter. He has to feel it coming.”
Before that night last November she had been avid, urging him on. She knew little about the deaths and was afraid to ask. Afraid to know what she might have helped drive him to.
They hugged. He was a rangy six feet; the top of her head fit just under his chin. Her blue eyes were tight shut. During four months last year, he had become the father she had lost, she had become the daughter he had . . . oh God, what had he done?
She had driven up here as he had asked, would go home and wait for his call. But she had written the letter. She stepped back from his embrace, purging all emotion from her voice.
“Page my cell phone when you need the 4-Runner.”
“I will. Just bring it back here and catch the first bus down the mountain. Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing.” He laid a gentle palm on her cheek. “I’ll call you afterward.”
She climbed into the 4-Runner. He bowed slightly and swept a courtly arm to usher her away. Any chance of seeing her again was probably nil, but setting it up now meant there could be no possible danger to her later.
Gustave Wallberg didn’t have George W.’s little-boy smiley eyes, nor Clinton’s testosterone-drenched good-old-boy appeal. Instead, he had the rugged good looks of, say, a retired pro quarterback, just right for this three-hundred-channel sound-bite era.
Protocol demanded that he wear a diplomat’s gray cutaway, but he had wanted a snap-on bow tie. Edith had insisted on hand-tied. Once in a lifetime, after all.
He pulled the offending tie apart yet again and said, “Dammit anyway,” without turning from the mirror. Edith appeared behind him in her Bill Blass original.
“Yes, dear,” she said gaily. “Turn around.”
The anteroom door banged open and Kurt Jaeger surged in like a charging bear, bigger than life. He had an unlit cigar in one hand, a flat blue and white Post Office EXPRESS MAIL envelope in the other. Seeing Edith, he slowed, found a grin.
“So, Edith. Ready for the big moment?”
“Yes, if this man would only stand still long enough for me to”—she gave her husband’s tie a final jerk—“get this right . . .”
Wallberg was slanting a look at the envelope. “Something?”
“The usual suspects—their undying love and devotion so they can be riding the gravy train as it leaves the station.”
Wallberg knew his man too well to believe this. It was in Jaeger’s heavy voice, in the small, hard eyes that dominated the meaty face. He waited patiently until the door to the suite’s bedroom closed behind his wife, then snatched the envelope from the hand of his Chief of Staff.
“Now let’s see what’s so damned important you had to—”
He ran down. One line, laser-printed on standard letter-sized paper so it had no identifying characteristics the FBI lab could analyze. Mailed yesterday from Truckee, California.
“Who has seen this?”
“Me. As one of the new boys in town, I was being shown how the White House mailroom guys x-ray all incoming for poisons and explosives and biohazards and all that crap. I saw his name on it and snagged it unopened after they ran it through.”
“What’s the temperature going to be for the ceremony?”
“Twenty above. With windchill, five above.”
“Tell Shayne O’Hara I agree with his Secret Service lads. At five above, it is more prudent to go with the closed limo.”
An hour later, Wallberg was standing before Chief Justice Alvin Carruthers, his right hand raised, his left hand flat on an open Bible. He was hatless, the icy wind ruffling his hair as he recited the oath of office after the aged jurist.
“I, Gustave Wallberg . . . do solemnly swear . . . that I will faithfully execute . . . the Office of the President of the United States . . . and will to the best of my ability . . . preserve, protect and defend . . . the Constitution of the United States.”
As he repeated the sacred words, that mad message burned in his brain: congratulations to a dead president. corwin.
Dear God. Would he have to shift priorities for his first weeks—months?—in office to accommodate the nearly unthinkable fact that Hal Corwin might still be alive?
The late March air was icy. Hal Corwin shivered as he crawled out of his sleeping bag to restart his fire. His campsite was a calculated quarter mile off the ridge trail above California’s Kings Canyon National Park, at the edge of the subalpine zone where ponderosa pines crept up to mingle with old-growth Douglas firs and Engelmann spruce.
He sat on the hollow fir log that dominated the clearing as he waited for snowmelt to heat for instant coffee. The log was six feet in diameter and twenty-five feet long. It had been rotting there for four hundred years. The scattered droppings of countless generations of tiny deer mice, shrews and voles living in its depths had nourished the root fungi that laced its open end.
As he breathed the icy air as deep as his damaged lung would allow, he massaged his bad knee.
He stepped away from the tree and was struck a terrific blow below the left knee. . . . The stalking beast of his dreams didn’t exist, but he knew in his gut that tomorrow the searchers, lesser men, would come.
At two minutes after midnight, a red Chevy Tracker turned off California 180 to stop in the puddle of pale light by the antique gas pumps fronting Parker’s Resort. Two men got out to walk toward the rustic bar-café. One was six feet and hard-bitten, the other short, round, red of face. Both wore insulated coats and hunting caps with the earflaps down.
Seth Parker had just finished scraping the grease into the trap underneath the grill. He was a tall, stooped, skinny man, with wary brown eyes and a drooping ginger mustache. The rolled-up sleeves of his long johns revealed tattooed forearms. He stepped into the open doorway, his shadow cast long before him. His 12-gauge leaned against the wall two feet away.
“No gas tonight, guys,” he called. “Sorry.”
Except for the café, he and Mae weren’t really open for the season until the weekend, yet here were these two showing up at midnight on this lonely stretch of highway.
Big Guy stopped, said disarmingly, “How about a cabin?”
“That we might be able to do. Depends on—”
“How about something to eat?” said Short and Round.
“Just closed down the grill.” But Seth’s wariness was gone. Obviously, for Short and Round, munchies were more important than mayhem. “Toasted cheese sandwiches?”
“With bacon in ’em? And fries?”
“Bacon we got. No fries tonight. Potato chips, pickles.”
While Seth grilled the sand...