Split Second skamm-1David Baldacci
( Sean King and Michelle Maxwell - 1 )
From #1 bestseller David Baldacci comes a new thriller reminiscent of his phenomenal bestselling debut, Absolute Power. It was only a split second—but that’s all it took for Secret Service agent Sean King’s attention to wander and his “protectee,” third-party presidential candidate Clyde Ritter, to die. King retired from the Service in disgrace, and now, eight years later, balances careers as a lawyer and a part-time deputy sheriff in a small Virginia town. Then he hears the news: Once again, a third-party candidate has been taken out of the presidential race—abducted right under the nose of Secret Service agent Michelle Maxwell. King and Maxwell form an uneasy alliance, and their search for answers becomes a bid for redemption as they delve into the government’s Witness Protection Program and the mysterious past of Clyde Ritter’s dead assassin. But the truth is never quite what it seems, and these two agents have learned that even one moment looking in the wrong direction can be deadly. Full of shocking twists and turns, and introducing a villain to rival Jackson in Baldacci’s The Winner, SPLIT SECOND is pure, mind-numbing adrenaline to the last page.
To my father, the greatest inspiration a son could have.
It only took a split second, although to Secret Service agent Sean King it seemed like the longest split second ever.
They were on the campaign trail at a nondescript hotel meet-and-greet in a place so far out you almost had to use a satellite phone to reach the boonies. Standing behind his protectee, King scanned the crowd while his ear mike buzzed sporadically with unremarkable information. It was muggy in the large room filled with excited people waving “Elect Clyde Ritter” pennants. There were more than a few infants being thrust toward the smiling candidate. King hated this because the babies could so easily shield a gun until it was too late. Yet the little ones just kept coming and Clyde kissed them all, and ulcers seemed to form in King’s belly as he observed this potentially dangerous spectacle.
The crowd drew closer, right up to the velvet rope stanchions that had been placed as a line in the sand. In response, King moved closer to Ritter. The palm of his outstretched hand rested lightly on the candidate’s sweaty, coatless back, so that he could pull him down in an instant if something happened. He couldn’t very well stand in front of the man, for the candidate belonged to the people. Ritter’s routine never varied: shake hands, wave, smile, nail a sound bite in time for the six o’clock news, then pucker up and kiss a fat baby. And all the time King silently watched the crowd, keeping his hand on Ritter’s soaked shirt and looking for threats.
Someone called out from the rear of the space. Ritter answered the jibe back with his own bit of humor, and the crowd laughed good-naturedly, or at least most did. There were people here who hated Ritter and all he stood for. Faces didn’t lie, not for those trained to read them, and King could read a face as well as he could shoot a gun. That’s what he spent all his working life doing: reading the hearts and souls of men and women through their eyes, their physical tics.
He keyed on two men in particular, ten feet away, on the right. They looked like potential trouble, although each wore a short-sleeved shirt and tight pants with no place to conceal a weapon, which dropped them several pegs on the danger meter. Assassins tended to favor bulky clothing and small handguns. Still, he mumbled a few words into his mic, telling others of his concern. Then his gaze flitted to the clock on the back of the wall. It was 10:32 in the morning. A few more minutes and they’d be on to the next town, where the handshakes, sound bites, baby kisses and face reading would continue.
King’s gaze had turned in the direction of the new sound, and then the new sight, something totally unexpected. Standing facing the crowd and behind the hard-politicking Ritter, he was the only one in the room who could see it. His attention stayed there for one beat, two beats, three beats, far too long. Yet who could blame him for not being able to pull his gaze away from that? Everyone, as it turned out, including himself.
King heard the bang, like the sound of a dropped book. He could feel the moisture on his hand where it had touched Ritter’s back. And now the moisture wasn’t just sweat. His hand stung where the slug had come out the body and taken a chunk off his middle finger before hitting the wall behind him. As Ritter dropped, King felt like a comet flying hell-bent and still taking a billion light-years to get where it’s actually going.
Shrieks from the crowd poured out and then seemed to dissolve into one long, soulless moan. Faces stretched into images one only saw in carnival fun houses. Then the blur hit him like the force of an exploding grenade as feet moved and bodies gyrated and the screams came at him from all directions. People pushed, pulled and ducked to get out of the way. He remembered thinking: there’s no greater chaos than when swift, violent death knocks on the door of an unsuspecting crowd.
And now presidential candidate Clyde Ritter was lying by his feet on the hardwood floor shot right through the heart. King’s gaze left the newly deceased and turned toward the shooter, a tall, handsome man in a tweed jacket and wearing glasses. The killer’s Smith Wesson .44 was still pointing at the spot where Ritter had been standing, as though waiting for the target to get back up so he could be shot all over again. The mass of panicked people held back the guards who were fighting to get through, so that King and the killer were the only ones at the party.
King pointed his pistol at the chest of the assassin. He gave no warning, called out not one constitutional right accorded the assassin under American jurisprudence. His duty now clear, he fired once, and then again, though the first time was enough. It dropped the man right where he stood. The assassin never said a word, as though he’d expected to die for what he’d done, and accepted the terms stoically like a good martyr should. And all martyrs left behind people like King, the ones who were blamed for letting it happen in the first place. Three men had actually died that day, and King had been one of them.
Sean Ignatius King, born August 1, 1960, died September 26, 1996, in a place he’d never even heard of until the final day of his life. And yet he had it far worse than the others who had fallen. They went tidily into their coffins and were forever mourned by those who loved them—or at least loved what they stood for. The soon-to-be-ex-Secret Service agent King had no such luck. After his death his unlikely burden was to keep right on living.
EIGHT YEARS LATER
The motorcade streamed into the tree-shaded parking lot, where it disgorged numerous people who looked hot, tired and genuinely unhappy. The miniature army marched toward the ugly white brick building. The structure had been many things in its time and currently housed a decrepit funeral home that was thriving solely because there was no other such facility within thirty miles and the dead, of course, had to go somewhere. Appropriately somber gentlemen in black suits stood next to hearses of the same color. A few bereaved trickled out the door, sobbing quietly into handkerchiefs. An old man in a tattered suit that was too large for him and wearing a battered, oily Stetson sat on a bench outside the front entrance, whittling. It was just that sort of a place, rural to the hilt, stock car racing and bluegrass ballads forever.
The old fellow looked up curiously as the procession passed by with a tall, distinguished-looking man ceremoniously in the middle. The elderly gent just shook his head and grinned at this spectacle, showing the few tobacco-stained teeth he had left. Then he took a nip of refreshment from a flask pulled from his pocket and returned to his artful wood carving.
The woman, in her early thirties and dressed in a black pantsuit, was in step behind t
he tall man. In the past her heavy pistol in the belt holster had scraped uncomfortably against her side, causing a scab. As a solution she’d sewn an extra layer of cloth into her blouses at that spot and learned to live with any lingering irritation. She’d overheard some of her men joke that all female agents should wear double shoulder holsters because it gave them a buxom look without expensive breast enhancement. Yes, testosterone was alive and well in her world.
Secret Service agent Michelle Maxwell was on the extreme fast track. She was not yet at the White House detail, guarding the president of the United States, but she was close. Barely nine years in the Service, and she was already a protection detail leader. Most agents spent a decade in the field doing investigative work before even graduating to protection detail as shift agents, yet Michelle Maxwell was used to getting to places before other folks.
This was her big preview before almost certain reassignment to the White House, and she was worried. This was an unscheduled stop, and that meant no advance team and limited backup. Yet because it was a last-minute change in plan, the plus side was no one could know they were going to be there.
They reached the entrance, and Michelle put a firm hand on the tall man’s arm and told him to wait while they scoped things out.
The place was quiet, smelled of death and despair in quiet pockets of misery centered on coffins in each of the viewing rooms. She posted agents at various key points along the man’s path: “giving feet” as it was called in Service parlance. Properly done, the simple act of having a professional with a gun and communication capability standing in a doorway could work wonders.
She spoke into her walkie-talkie, and the tall man, John Bruno, was brought in. She led him down the hallway as gazes from the viewing rooms wandered to them. A politician and his entourage on the campaign trail were like a herd of elephants: they could travel nowhere lightly. They stomped the earth until it hurt with the weight of the guards, chiefs of staff, spokespersons, speechwriters, publicity folks, gofers and others. It was a spectacle that if it didn’t make you laugh would at least cause you considerable worry about the future of the country.
John Bruno was running for the office of president of the United States, and he had absolutely no chance of winning. Looking far younger than his fifty-six years, he was an independent candidate who’d used the support of a small but strident percentage of the electorate fed up with just about everything mainstream to qualify for each state’s national ballot. Thus, he’d been given Secret Service protection, though not at the staffing level of a bona fide contender. It was Michelle Maxwell’s job to keep him alive until the election. She was counting the days.
Bruno was a former iron-balls prosecutor, and he’d made a great number of enemies, only some of whom were currently behind bars. His political planks were fairly simple. He’d tell you he wanted government off the backs of the people and free enterprise to rule. As for the poor and weak, those not up to the task of unfettered competition, well, in all other species the weak died and the strong prevailed, and why should it be any different for us? Largely because of that position, the man had no chance of winning. Although America loved its tough guys, they weren’t ready to vote for leaders who exhibited no compassion for the downtrodden and miserable, for on any given day they might constitute a majority.
The trouble started when Bruno entered the room trailed by his chief of staff, two aides, Michelle and three of her men. The widow sitting in front of her husband’s coffin looked up sharply. Michelle couldn’t see her expression through the veil the woman was wearing but assumed her look was one of surprise at seeing this herd of interlopers invading hallowed ground. The old woman got up and retreated to a corner, visibly shaking.
The candidate whirled on Michelle. “He was a dear friend of mine,” Bruno snapped, “and I am not going to parade in with an army. Get out,” he added tersely.
“I’ll stay,” she fired back. “Just me.”
He shook his head. They’d had many such standoffs. He knew that his candidacy was a hopeless long shot, and that just made him try even harder. The pace had been brutal, the protection logistics a nightmare.
“No, this is private!” he growled. Bruno looked over at the quivering woman in the corner. “My God, you’re scaring her to death. This is repugnant.”
Michelle went back one more time to the well. He refused yet again, leading them all out of the room, berating them as he did. What the hell could happen to him in a funeral home? Was the eighty-year-old widow going to jump him? Was the dead man going to come back to life? Michelle sensed that her protectee was really upset because she was costing him valuable campaign time. Yet it wasn’t her idea to come here. However, Bruno was in no mood to hear that.
No chance to win, and the man acted like he was king of the hill. Of course, on election day the voters, including Michelle, would kick his butt right out the door.
As a compromise Michelle asked for two minutes to sweep the room. This was granted, and her men moved quickly to do so while she silently fumed, telling herself that she had to save her ammo for the really important battles.
Her men came out 120 seconds later and reported everything okay. Only one door in and out. No windows. Old lady and dead guy the only occupants. It was cool. Not perfect, but okay. Michelle nodded at her candidate. Bruno could have his private face time, and then they could get out of here.
Inside the viewing room, Bruno closed the door behind him and walked over to the open coffin. There was another coffin against the far wall; it was also open, but empty. The deceased’s coffin was resting on a raised platform with a white skirting that was surrounded waist-high with an assortment of beautiful flowers. Bruno paid his respects to the body lying there, murmuring, “So long, Bill,” as he turned to the widow, who’d returned to her chair. He knelt in front of her, gently held one of her hands.
“I’m so sorry, Mildred, so very sorry. He was a good man.”
The bereaved looked up at him from behind the veil, smiled and then looked down again. Bruno’s expression changed and he looked around, though the only other occupant of the room was in no condition to eavesdrop. “Now, you mentioned something else you wanted to talk about. In private.”
“Yes,” the widow said in a very low voice.
“I’m afraid I don’t have much time, Mildred. What is it?”
In answer she placed a hand on his cheek, and then her fingers touched his neck. Bruno grimaced as he felt the sharp prick against his skin, and then he slipped to the floor unconscious.
Michelle paced in the hallway, checking her watch and listening to the somber music wafting over the sound system. If you weren’t sad, depressed or perhaps even suicidal before coming in here, you would be after five minutes of listening to this brain-numbing tripe, she concluded. She was livid that Bruno had closed the door, but she had let it go. You weren’t supposed to let a protectee out of your sight, but the realities of life sometimes trumped the rule book. Still, she looked at one of her men and asked for the fifth time, “You’re absolutely sure it’s clean?” He nodded.
After waiting a bit more she went over to the door and knocked. “Mr. Bruno? We need to get going, sir.” There was no answer, and Michelle let out an inaudible sigh. She knew that the other agents in her detail, all of them her senior in years with the Service, were watching her intently to see how she’d handle herself. Only seven percent of the approximately 2,400 field agents were women, with very few in positions of authority. Yes, it was not easy.
She knocked again. “Sir?” Another few moments passed, and Michelle felt her stomach muscles start to tighten. She tried the doorknob and looked up in disbelief. “It’s locked.”
Another agent stared at her, equally perplexed. “Well, he must have locked it, then.”
“Mr. Bruno, are you all right?” She paused. “Sir, either acknowledge me or we are coming in.”
“Just a minute!” That was Bruno’s voice; it was unmistakable.
“Okay, sir, but we need to get going.”
Two more minutes went by, and she shook her head and knocked on the door again. No response. “Sir, we’re already late.” She glanced at Bruno’s chief of staff, Fred Dickers. “Fred, you care to try?”
Dickers and she had long ago reached a mutual understanding. Basically living together twenty hours a day, the detail leader and chief of staff had to get along, at least mostly, for things to work. They still didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything, nor would they ever, but on this issue they were in agreement.
Dickers nodded and called out, “John, it’s Fred. We really need to get going. We’re way off schedule.” He knocked on the door. “John? Do you hear me?”
Again Michelle’s stomach muscles tightened. Something wasn’t right here. She motioned Dickers away from the door and knocked again. “Mr. Bruno, why did you lock the door, sir?” No answer. A bead of sweat broke on Michelle’s forehead. She hesitated for an instant, thinking rapidly, and then suddenly yelled through the door, “Sir, your wife is on the phone. There’s been a serious accident involving one of your kids.”
The response was chilling.
“Just a minute!”
She barked at the other agents with her, “Take it down. Take it down!”
They put their shoulders to the door, once and then twice, and then it gave way and they swarmed into the room.
A room that was empty except for a dead man.
A funeral procession had started off. There were only about a dozen cars in the column as it headed out along the tree-lined drive. Before the last car disappeared down the road, Michelle and her team had burst out the front door of the funeral home and spread out in all directions.