Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton
he man takes the seat next to me without a word, his head down as he moves past me and sits to my immediate left, settling in as if we are strangers who happened to get tickets for adjacent seats.
We are, in fact, strangers. I know nothing about him. The unexpected is so common in my job as to be expected, but whenever something comes up, I have a team of advisers to help me analyze it, to collect everything we know and break it down, to impose some order amid the chaos. This time, I’m alone and clueless.
He could be nothing but a courier, delivering information that he may not even understand, impervious to interrogation because he has nothing of value to spill. If that’s true, he was misrepresented to me, but it’s not as if I can trust the source, the woman known as Nina.
He may be an assassin. This whole thing could be a ruse to get me alone and vulnerable. If so, my daughter will be without a living parent. And I will have tainted the office of the president by allowing myself to be suckered into a secret meeting by a simplistic ploy.
But I had to take the chance, all because of those two words,
He turns and gets his first look at me up close, at the man he understands to be President Duncan but who, with the red beard and glasses and baseball cap, doesn’t look much like the clean-shaven, suit-wearing commander in chief he sees in the media. He gives a slight nod of his head in approval, which I take to be approval not at my disguise per se but at the fact that I’m wearing a disguise at all. It means I’m playing along—so far, at least. I’ve agreed to a secret meeting. I’ve already acknowledged his importance.
It’s the last thing I wanted to concede, but I had to. As far as I’m concerned, this man could be the most dangerous person in the world right now.
I glance around us. No one sitting on either side of us, nobody directly behind us, either. “Say the words,” I tell the man.
He is young, like his partner, Nina, maybe in his early twenties at most. Slim, like her. Bone structure suggesting eastern European, like hers. He is Caucasian, but with a darker complexion than his partner. Possibly a Mediterranean influence in his heritage, possibly Middle Eastern or African. His face is largely obscured by a long, ratty beard and thick, ropy hair that juts out from the baseball cap. His eyes are set deeply, as if bruised. His nose is long and crooked—possibly genetic, possibly the result of having been broken.
He is wearing a solid black T-shirt, dark cargo pants, and running shoes. He brought nothing with him in terms of a bag or backpack.
He doesn’t have a gun. He wouldn’t have made it past security. But there are plenty of things that can be weaponized. You can kill someone with a house key, a piece of wood, even a ballpoint pen if you insert it with surgical precision into your target’s body. In Ranger training before I shipped out to Iraq, they showed us things—self-defense tactics, opportunistic weapons—that never would have occurred to me. One quick movement with a sharp edge into my carotid artery, and I’d bleed out before medical help could arrive.
I grab his arm, my hand wrapping completely around his bony limb. “Say the words.
He is startled by the move. He looks down at my hand clutching his biceps, then back up at me. Startled, but—I take careful note—not particularly shaken.
“Son,” I say, reminding myself to keep my facial expression and voice volume in check, “this is not a game. You have no idea who you’re messing with. You have no idea how far in over your head you are.”
I wish my position was as strong as I’m making it out to be.
His eyes narrow before he decides to speak. “What words would you like me to say?” he asks. “Armageddon? Nuclear holocaust?”
The same accent as his partner. But his command of English appears stronger.
“Last chance,” I say. “You’re not going to like what happens next.”
He breaks eye contact. “You say these things as if I want something from you. Yet it is you who wants something from me.”
That last point is undeniable. My presence here confirms it. But the converse is also true. I don’t know what it is he has to tell me. If it’s nothing more than information, he has a price. If it’s to communicate a threat, he wants a ransom. He didn’t go through all this for nothing. I have something he wants, too. I just don’t know what it is.
I release the grip on his arm. “You won’t make it out of the stadium,” I say, rising from my seat.
“‘Dark Ages,’” he hisses, as if he’s uttered a curse word.
On the field, Rendon bounces a high chopper that the shortstop has to catch and throw on the run for the out at first.
I sit back down in my seat. Take a breath. “What do I call you?” I ask.
“You may call me…Augie.”
The defiance, the sarcasm, is gone. A minor victory for me. His cards are probably better than mine, but he’s a kid, and I play poker for a living.
“And what…should I call you?” he says, scarcely above a whisper.
“You call me Mr. President.”
I put my arm over his chair, as if we are old friends or family.
“Here’s how this is going to work,” I say. “You’re going to tell me how you know those words. And you’re going to tell me whatever else you came here to say. And then
going to decide what to do. If you and I can work together—if I’m satisfied with our conversation—then this could turn out very well for you, Augie.”
I give that a moment to sink in, the light at the end of the tunnel for him. There has to be one in any negotiation.
“But if I’m
satisfied,” I continue, “I’ll do whatever is necessary to you, to your girlfriend, to anyone else you care about in this world, to protect my country. There’s nothing I can’t do. There’s nothing I
His mouth curls into a snarl. There is hatred in that expression, no doubt, hatred of me and everything I represent. But he’s scared, too. He’s dealt with me thus far from a distance, using his partner to contact my daughter overseas, using his technology remotely, but now he’s here, in person, with the president of the United States. He’s passed the point of no return.
He leans forward, elbows on knees, an attempt to move away from me. Good. He’s rattled.
“You would like to know how I have come upon ‘Dark Ages,’” he says, his voice less certain, shaky. “You would also like to know why the electricity in the White House continues to…falter?”
I don’t respond to that outwardly. He’s saying he’s responsible for the flickering of the lights in the White House. A bluff? I try to remember if Nina saw them flicker while she was there.
“Is annoying, one would think,” he says. “Engaging in important matters of national security and economic policy and political…machinations in your Oval Office while the lights blink on and off as if you live in a shack in a third-world country.”
He draws a deep breath. “Your technicians have no idea why, do they? Of course they do not.” The confidence in his voice is restored.
“You have two minutes, kid. Starting now. If you don’t talk to me, you will talk to people who work for me who will not be as friendly.”
He shakes his head, though it’s hard to tell whom he’s trying to convince, me or himself. “No, you came alone,” he says, hope in his voice, not conviction.
The crowd roars at the sound of a bat hitting a ball, the people around us getting to their feet and cheering, then fading out as the long fly ball veers foul. Augie does not move, still leaning forward, a hard look on his face as he stares into the back of the seat in front of him.
“One minute, thirty seconds,” I say.
In the game, the batter takes a called third strike, a slider that paints the corner, and the crowd hoots and hollers its reaction.
I check my watch. “One minute,” I say. “And then your life is over.”
Augie leans back to face me again. I keep my eyes on the field, don’t accord him the respect of looking in his direction.
But eventually I turn to him, as if I’m now ready to hear what he has to say. His face is wearing a different expression now, intense and cold.
He’s holding a handgun in his lap, trained on me.
life is over?” he asks.
focus on Augie, not the gun.
He has it low in his lap, safe from detection by other ticket holders. I understand now why the seats on either side of us are empty, as are the four seats behind and in front of us. Augie bought them all to give us a semblance of privacy.
From its boxy shape I can see it’s a Glock, a gun I’ve never fired but a 9mm all the same, capable of firing a bullet into me at close range.
Once upon a time, I might have stood a chance of disarming him without suffering a fatal shot. But the Rangers was a long time ago. I’m fifty years old and rusty.
It’s not, by any means, the first time I’ve had a gun pointed at me. When I was a prisoner of war, an Iraqi prison guard put a pistol to my head every day and pulled the trigger.
But this is the first time in a long time, and it’s my first time as president.
Through the pounding of my pulse, I think it through: he could already have pulled the trigger if his plan was to kill me. He didn’t have to wait until I turned to look at him. He wanted me to see the gun. He wanted to alter the dynamic.
I hope I’m right about that. He doesn’t look like someone with a lot of experience in handling a firearm. I’m a nervous twitch away from a bullet in the ribs.
“You came here for a reason,” I say. “So put that gun away and tell me what it is.”
His lips purse. “Perhaps I feel safer this way.”
I lean forward, lowering my voice. “That gun makes you
safe. It makes my people nervous. It makes them want to put a bullet through your head right now, while you’re sitting there in your seat.”
He blinks hard in response, his eyes moving about, trying to remain in control. The notion that someone is training a high-powered rifle on you can be unsettling on the nerves.
“You can’t see them, Augie. But believe me, they can see you.”
There is risk in what I’m doing. It might not be the wisest move to scare the hell out of a man with his finger on the trigger of a gun pointed at you. But I need him to put that gun away. And I will continue to make him believe that he is not dealing with one man but with a country—one with overwhelming force, shock-and-awe capabilities, and resources beyond his comprehension.
“Nobody wants to hurt you, Augie,” I say. “But if you pull that trigger, you’ll be dead in two seconds.”
“No,” he says. “You came…” His voice fades out.
“What, I came alone? You don’t really believe that. You’re too smart to believe that. So put the gun away and tell me why I’m here. Otherwise I walk.”
The gun moves in his lap. His eyes narrow again. “If you walk away,” he says, “you will not be able to stop what is going to happen.”
“And you’ll never get what you want from me, whatever that is.”
He thinks about that. It’s the smart thing for him to do, all things considered, but he wants it to be his idea, not mine. Finally he nods and hikes up his pants leg, holstering the gun.
I release the breath I’ve been holding.
“How the hell did you get that gun past the metal detectors?”
He slides down his pants leg. He looks as relieved as I am.
“A rudimentary machine,” he says, “knows only what it is told to know. It has no independent thought. If it is told it sees nothing, then it sees nothing. If it is told to close its eyes, it closes its eyes. Machines do not ask why.”
I think back to the metal detector as I went through it. There was no X-ray, as there is at an airport. It was just a doorway, and it either beeped or didn’t beep as you passed through it, as the security guard stood by, waiting for an audible signal.
He jammed it somehow. He disabled it while he passed through.
He hacked into the electrical system at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
He downed a helicopter in Dubai.
And he knew “Dark Ages.”
“Here I am, Augie,” I say. “You got your meeting. Tell me how you know ‘Dark Ages.’”
His eyebrows rise. He almost smiles. Obtaining that code word is quite an achievement, and he knows it.
“Did you hack in somehow?” I ask. “Or…”
Now he does smile. “It is the ‘or’ that concerns you. It concerns you so much that you cannot bring yourself to say the words.”
I don’t argue the point. He’s right.
“Because if I was not able to obtain this remotely,” he says, “there is only one other way I could have obtained it. And you know what this means.”
If Augie didn’t learn “Dark Ages” through a hack—and it’s hard to see how he could have—then he got it from a human being, and the list of human beings with access to “Dark Ages” is very, very small.
“It is the reason you agreed to meet me,” he says. “You clearly understand the…significance.”
I nod. “It means there’s a traitor in the White House,” I say.
he crowd around us breaks into a cheer. An organ plays. The Nationals are running off the field. Someone inches down the row past us toward the aisle. I envy that person, whose greatest concern at this moment is taking a leak or heading to the concession stand to grab some nachos.
My phone buzzes. I reach for it in my pocket, then realize a sudden movement could cause alarm. “My phone,” I explain. “It’s just my phone. A well-being check.”
Augie’s brow furrows. “What is this?”
“My chief of staff. She’s checking that I’m okay. Nothing more.”
Augie draws back, suspicious. But I don’t wait for his approval. If I don’t respond to Carolyn, she will assume the worst. And there will be consequences. She will open that letter I gave her.
The text message, again, is from
. Again, just one number, this time,
I type back
and send it.
I put my phone away and say, “So tell me. How do you know ‘Dark Ages’?”
He shakes his head. It won’t be that easy. His partner wouldn’t hand over that information, and neither will he. Not yet. It’s part of his leverage. It might be his
“I need to know,” I say.
“No, you do not. You
to know. What you
to know is more important.”
It’s hard to imagine anything more important than whether someone in my inner circle has betrayed our country.
“Then tell me what I need to know.”
He says, “Your country will not survive.”
“What does that mean?” I ask. “How?”
He shrugs. “Truly, when one considers it, it is a simple inevitability. Do you think you can prevent forever a nuclear detonation in the United States? Have you read
A Canticle for Leibowitz
I shake my head, searching my memory bank. Sounds familiar, high school English.
The Fourth Turning
?” he says. “A fascinating discussion of the…cyclical nature of history. Mankind is predictable. Governments mistreat people—their own people and others. They always have, and they always will. So the people react. There is action and reaction. This is how history has progressed and how it always will.”
He wags his finger. “Ah, but now—now technology allows even one man to inflict utter destruction. It alters the construct, does it not? Mutually assured destruction is no longer a deterrent. Recruiting thousands or millions to your cause is no longer necessary. No need for an army, for a movement. It takes only one man, willing to destroy it all, willing to die if necessary, who is not susceptible to coercion or negotiation.”
Overhead, the first sounds from a turbulent sky. Thunder but no lightning. No rain yet. The lights in the ballpark are already on, so the darkening of the sky has little effect.
I lean into him, peering into his eyes. “Is this a history lesson? Or are you telling me something is imminent?”
He blinks. Swallows hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Something is imminent,” he says, his voice changing.
“A matter of hours,” he says.
My blood goes cold.
“What are we talking about, exactly?” I ask.
“You know this already.”
Of course I do. But I want to hear him say it. I’m not giving anything away for free.
“Tell me,” I say.
“The virus,” he says. “The one you saw for a moment”—he snaps his fingers—“before it disappeared. The reason for your phone call to Suliman Cindoruk. The virus you have not been able to locate. The virus that has baffled your team of experts. The virus that terrifies you to the core. The virus you will never stop without us.”
I glance around, look for anyone paying close attention to us. Nobody.
“The Sons of Jihad is behind this?” I whisper. “Suliman Cindoruk?”
“Yes. You were correct about that.”
I swallow over the lump forming in my throat. “What does he want?”
Augie blinks hard, his expression changing, confusion. “What does
“Yes,” I say. “Suliman Cindoruk. What does he want?”
“This I do not know.”
“You don’t…” I sit back in my seat. What is the point of a ransom demand if you don’t know what you’re demanding? Money, a prisoner release, a pardon, a change in foreign policy—something. He came here to threaten me, to get something, but he doesn’t know what he wants?
Maybe his job is to demonstrate the threat. Someone else, later, will make the demand. Possible, but it doesn’t feel right to me.
And then it comes to me. It was always a possibility, but as I contemplated the potential scenarios for tonight, it was never very high on my list.
“You’re not here representing Suliman Cindoruk,” I say.
He raises his shoulders. “My interests are no longer…aligned with Suli, that is true.”
“They once were. You were part of the Sons of Jihad.”
A snarl curls his upper lip, color rising to his face, fire in his eyes. “I was,” he says. “But no longer.”
His anger, that emotional response—resentment toward the SOJ or its leader, a power struggle, perhaps—is something I tuck away for later, something I might be able to use.
The crack of a bat on a ball. The crowd rises, cheers. Music plays from the speakers. Someone hit a home run. It feels like we are light-years removed from a baseball game right now.
I open my hands. “So tell me what
He shakes his head. “Not yet,” he says.
The first sprinkle of rain hits my hand. Light, sporadic, nothing heavy, bringing groans from the crowd but no movement, no rush for shelter.
“We go now,” says Augie.
A shudder passes through me. But I assumed this encounter would eventually move to a different location. It’s not safe, but neither was this meeting. Nothing about this is safe.
“Okay,” I say and push myself out of the seat.
“Your phone,” he says. “Hold it in your hand.”
I look at him with a question.
He stands up, too, and nods. “You will understand why in a moment,” he says.