She touched it with a fingertip—one spot matched the color of her skin. Well, it wasn’t pretty, but at least it covered her.
Back in the lobby, the redhead waited with a question. “Are you all right?”
Because the woman had been a help, Jewel smiled and said yes.
Red offered a brochure. “Maybe you’d be interested in the Alliance?”
“Sorry, I’m not buying anything, and I’ve got to get to work.”
“Oh, we’re not selling anything, just trying to, uh . . .” She shrugged and grinned. “This’s gonna sound really corny, but to make the world better.”
Jewel snorted. “You want to do that, you start with a great big match.”
Red laughed. “It’s all in the brochure.”
Jewel took it. A silver square reflected her face; below it a caption said, “You’re looking at someone who can make life better.” At the bottom was a smaller version of the Alliance logo.
Probably a con that promised to turn your life around quick and easy, no sweat, no strain, all-you-gotta-do-is-believe-and-buy-our-salvation-program-complete-with-a-free-poster, only $289.95.
Red handed her a slip of yellow paper. “This is about tonight’s rally. I hope you’ll come.”
Not meaning it, but not wanting to cloud the sunny woman’s enthusiasm, Jewel stuffed it and the brochure in her purse and said, “Sure.” She checked her watch. “Damn, they’re gonna fire my ass.”
In the presidential suite, Marion Smith-Taylor finished a cigarette, glanced at the No Smoking sign on the door, lit another one from the butt, and paced. She wasn’t happy about having to come to Chicago—she hated tiptoeing around, but these days too many eyes in D.C. were on the attorney general of the United States, and the president would have her scalp if word of this meeting got out.
She wasn’t happy about having to include Kurt Dengler, either. Being in the same room with the White House chief of staff’s arrogance was galling. She thought the allegation by the president’s minister buddy that the Alliance was a religion was no more than some kind of harassment, but when the president asked you to do something, you did it. There were times when doing his bidding left bruises on her soul. Still, she’d been itching to dig into the Alliance, and maybe she’d find a way to stop their attack on the Constitution.
Her watch alarm beeped—ten minutes until they were due. She slipped into her gray blazer and checked her appearance in the dresser mirror. She had to stoop a little to see all of her head because the damned thing was set too low for somebody six feet tall. Hair looked okay, but she didn’t like the gray starting to show. On the other hand, she didn’t like the deceit of coloring it, either.
Time enough for one last Hail Mary—she opened her cell phone and auto-dialed her office. Suzanne Fisher answered. “Ms. Smith-Taylor’s office, how may I help you?”
Marion pictured Suzanne, not in an office outfit but bundled up in her pale blue terry-cloth robe, blond hair tousled, fair cheeks flushed. If Marion had her druthers, Suzanne would be helping her to a tumbler of scotch—but that would have to wait until she was home. “Hi, Suze, it’s me.”
“I was just thinking about you.”
That was one of the things Marion loved about Suzanne—no games, she just said how she felt. “Me, too. Listen, they’re about to get here. Anything on the Alliance from Joe Donovan or Sally Arnold?”
“Damn.” She’d been praying for better information on the Oregon situation before the meeting. But she wasn’t surprised; Joe and Sally had been less than helpful for months. Something had changed with them. “If you hear from them in the next hour, call.”
* * *
In his hotel room, Kurt Dengler knotted his tie and then cocked his thumb and aimed an index-finger gun barrel at Noah Stone’s smile.
Stone looked up at the fingertip muzzle from the cover of a Time magazine on the dresser; the headline read, “The Alliance’s Pied Piper.”
Kurt squeezed the trigger and wished for a hole in the enemy’s forehead.
Like Daddy used to say, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. He shook his head.
His cell phone rang. The president’s gravelly voice said, “New poll in, Kurt, and that Alliance son of a bitch’s killing us out West. Have you got Marion moving on Noah Stone yet?”
“Meeting in just a few minutes, Mr. President.” His gut tightened the way it always did when the president was upset. He pulled a mini–Tootsie Roll from the stash in his pocket. The rush of chocolate eased him even though it meant trouble with his ulcer. For the millionth time, he wished smoking wasn’t bad for people. Not that Tootsie Rolls were much better.
The president said, “This is a matter of national security, Kurt.”
Damn right it was. Their opponents were campaigning on repealing half the things they’d worked so hard for four years to put in place. As far as Kurt was concerned, weakening America in this troubled world amounted to treason. “Do you want me to tell Marion that?”
“No, we’d better stick to our preacher friend’s idea that the Alliance is a church.” A short, bitter laugh. “I couldn’t have asked for a sharper, more honest attorney general, although there are times I wish Marion was a little more . . . flexible, too.”
Kurt didn’t mind telling a little white lie to Smith-Taylor. Hell, he wouldn’t mind telling her a big fat one. “She’s just going to want to investigate, sir. I don’t see her doing anything unless she finds evidence.” Although digging up even a hint of something crooked could do the job. Noah Stone’s image was so unbelievably clean that it wouldn’t take much dirt to force him to retreat. Maybe Born-Again Bobby’s religion-tax dodge allegation was true. He smiled at the thought. A bust by the feds would do it.
Kurt flicked a glance at the Time cover. “I’ll do whatever it takes, sir.” Noah Stone was an evil bastard. His ideas were toxic, and his initiatives stole basic American rights. If ever there was a man who was an enemy of freedom, that man was Noah Stone. It was his duty to stop him.
The president was silent. No doubt thinking about evidence. But their cell phones were secure and scrambled. “Keep this private. Small. Very small. It has to be deniable.”
“Like we agreed, I told Marion to use a freelancer.” Yeah, the way the press and those damned bloggers lived in the administration’s shorts, they didn’t dare use government resources on political opponents until after November. If something happened to Noah Stone, it couldn’t be seen as the administration’s doing.
“Okay. Get ’er done, and soon.”
* * *
Marion slipped a pewter flask from her overnight case for a warming hit of scotch. Mid-swallow, a knock sounded on her door. She crammed the flask away, took deep breaths to flush out the odor of alcohol, and opened the door.
Dengler stood there. Except for his bald pate, so opposite the president’s white hair, the two men could be brothers—same stocky, strong-looking body, same sun-weathered skin. Prosperous looking in a designer suit that belied his redneck beginnings, Dengler projected the image of a wealthy, powerful politician. But it was the president who radiated the real strength she needed to see in a leader; even though Dengler was a strong personality, she sensed softness that she had a hard time trusting.
And damn the man for coming early.
She exchanged phony smiles with him. “Good to see you, Kurt.” He nodded, went to the minibar, set his briefcase on it, and poured a bourbon. She wouldn’t mind another sip from her flask, but Dengler would probably find a way to use it against her with the president.
Sirens from the street below cut into the uneasy silence—the damn things had been continuous during the night and had cost her considerable sleep. Marion checked her watch. Where was Jake Black?
Dengler sipped his drink and then said, “You sure this guy can do the job?”
She answered with a look that let him know his question didn’t deserve a reply.
Dengler lived up to his reputation for being a persistent bastard. “The info you sent on him wasn’t clear about why he went from the Secret Service to mercenary.”
She flashed on what she’d read in Black’s file about killing his wife, and why. She’d had to fight back tears. “A personal tragedy.”
“We don’t need a guy with personal problems.”
Marion shook her head. “My friends at the Service tell me he’s ruthless. It’s as if he doesn’t feel anything.”
“Sounds good.” When she glanced at Dengler, he said, “It’s good that he’s, well, neutral. He’ll be objective.”
Certain that he didn’t mean that—he was the most partisan man she’d ever met—her irritation boiled over. She went to him and confronted him, eye to eye, hands on her hips. “Listen, Kurt, you got me here, and I’ll do what the president tells me to do, but what’s going on? This is political, isn’t it?”
Dengler didn’t even blink.
“And why in hell do I have to go outside to—”
A knock on the door. She opened it, and a man dressed in jeans and a windbreaker stepped in. His gaze swept the room—Marion sensed power coiled to spring.
Nothing struck her about his size: average height, perhaps broader in the shoulders and deeper in the chest than ordinary. She resented his lack of proper attire—he could at least have put on a tie. He was in his early thirties, brown eyes, brown hair, ordinary features that she thought were pleasant but not striking. His capacity for violence wasn’t apparent . . . but then his gaze settled on her with probing intensity. Even more unsettling, there was no emotion in his expression. It was absolutely neutral, as if he were looking at a thing instead of a person.
She girded herself with the armor of her rank and offered a handshake. “Mr. Black, I’m Marion Smith-Taylor.”
He didn’t take her hand. “Yeah.”
Feeling like a dolt, she turned her outstretched arm into a gesture toward Dengler. “And this is—”
Black said, “Kurt Dengler, the president’s front man.”
“Did I get that wrong?” The coolness of his gaze said that he didn’t think so.
She wanted to say no, but couldn’t afford to alienate the president’s buddy. She didn’t want to hear Black’s summary of her, either. “Like some coffee?”
“I’d like to know why a freelancer, and why me?”
She glanced at Dengler to see if he would handle the question—he was the one who had insisted on somebody outside her department. But Dengler just sipped his bourbon. She said, “You have a reputation for discretion and getting the job done.”
“Bullshit. You’ve got good people.”
Dengler said, “Who haven’t been much help.”
Black raised an eyebrow at Marion. She hated being caught in an evasion. She looked him in the eye. “That’s true. And I need to know why.”
“Is that my mission?”
Dengler opened his briefcase and handed him the Time magazine with Noah Stone on the cover. It pissed Marion off that she’d gotten more information out of the Time article than she had from her agents at the scene.
Dengler said, “This man is.”
Black studied the cover. “Pied piper? He’s charming rats?”
Dengler frowned, apparently not in a mood for humor. Come to think of it, she’d never seen him in the mood for humor. He said, “You heard of the Alliance?”
Black said, “Those people downstairs?”
Marion nodded. “The reason you’re here.”
“And Stone is . . . ?”
Dengler slammed the magazine onto the bar, a rare show of emotion for him. “The Alliance’s preacher.”
Black said, “All right. I know the Alliance exists, but that’s about all.”
Marion said, “Time isn’t far wrong in calling Noah Stone a pied piper. A half million people have joined the Alliance, most of them in its home state, Oregon. The politicians it backs win elections. It’s stronger than the old Tea Party movement was.”
Dengler glanced at Marion. “It’s a damned religion.”
Marion shot a look back. “I was getting to that.” She said to Black, “We’re investigating an allegation that it is secretly a religious organization. The Alliance could be subject to criminal charges.”
Dengler smiled. “Yeah, and maybe somebody will go to jail.”
Was that a hidden agenda she was hearing?
Black raised a brow at her. “Your people?”
She sensed she’d better be straight with him. “I have a team of two in his headquarters town. Their reports are, well, too positive. I believe they’ve been compromised.”
Black turned to Dengler. “What’s the president’s interest?”
“Constitutional rights of United States citizens. You haven’t heard they banned guns out there?”
The lawyer in Marion compelled her to keep the record straight. “Technically, it’s not a ban. But Oregon law slaps you with an automatic felony conviction if you get caught with a lethal firearm. And they confiscate them when you enter the state.”
Black said, “That’s legal?”
“They think so.”
Dengler slammed his fist on the bar. “It’s not right!”
Black examined the Time cover. “So this Stone is the enemy?”
Dengler nodded. “If he isn’t, I don’t know who is.”
Black aimed his gaze at him. “You raise an interesting question, Kurt—is it all right if I call you Kurt?”
To Marion, Black sounded like he’d said, “Is it all right if I call you asshole?”
Dengler shrugged. “Sure.”
“Just who is the enemy? For example, on my way here two punks dragged a woman into an alley to rape her.”
Marion said, “My God. Was she . . . Did you . . . ?”
Black shifted to her; she thought she saw a hint of surprise in his expression, as if he didn’t think she’d care, and then he was back to cool. “Her attackers have retired from hurting people.” His gaze returned to Kurt. “So, those guys are the enemy, right?”
“A cop watched it happening and then walked away. One punk had a gun, but even so, the cop had a duty.” His gaze bored in on Dengler. “Now, I’m thinking that the cop is the enemy, too.”
“He should have blown those punks away. That’s why cops carry guns. Why it’s a good idea for everybody to carry one.”
“So where does it stop? Is there anybody who isn’t an enemy?”
Although Marion didn’t mind watching Black torment the president’s toady, she wanted this meeting over. “Stone is speaking at McCormick Place tonight. You can see what he’s all about there.”
“All right. My retainer?”
She took a fat envelope from her purse and handed it to Black. “As requested: fifty thousand in cash.”
He pulled a packet of currency from the envelope and thumbed the bills. He stuffed it back in and slipped the money into an inside pocket.
Black turned his gaze toward her. “Just a little private-eye work? Nothing wet?”
God, what kind of a man was he? “Never.” She shook her head. “Never.”
Dengler said, “Does ‘wet’ mean what I think it means?”