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Chapter 131

The Washington morning was clear and crisp.

A breeze sent eddies of leaves skittering around the base of the Washington Monument. The world’s largest obelisk usually awoke to its own peaceful image in the reflecting pool, but today the morning brought with it a chaos of jostling reporters, all crowding around the monument’s base in anticipation.

Senator Sedgewick Sexton felt larger than Washington itself as he stepped from his limousine and strode like a lion toward the press area awaiting him at the base of the monument. He had invited the nation’s ten largest media networks here and promised them the scandal of the decade.

Nothing brings out the vultures like the smell of death, Sexton thought.

In his hand, Sexton clutched the stack of white linen envelopes, each elegantly wax-embossed with his monogrammed seal. If information was power, then Sexton was carrying a nuclear warhead.

He felt intoxicated as he approached the podium, pleased to see his improvised stage included two “fameframes”-large, free-standing partitions that flanked his podium like navy-blue curtains-an old Ronald Reagan trick to ensure he stood out against any backdrop.

Sexton entered stage right, striding out from behind the partition like an actor out of the wings. The reporters quickly took their seats in the several rows of folding chairs facing his podium. To the east, the sun was just breaking over the Capitol dome, shooting rays of pink and gold down on Sexton like rays from heaven.

A perfect day to become the most powerful man in the world.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” Sexton said, laying the envelopes on the lectern before him. “I will make this as short and painless as possible. The information I am about to share with you is, frankly, quite disturbing. These envelopes contain proof of a deceit at the highest levels of government. I am ashamed to say that the President called me half an hour ago and begged me-yes, begged me-not to go public with this evidence.” He shook his head with dismay. “And yet, I am a man who believes in the truth. No matter how painful.”

Sexton paused, holding up the envelopes, tempting the seated crowd. The reporters’ eyes followed the envelopes back and forth, a pack of dogs salivating over some unknown delicacy.

The President had called Sexton a half hour ago and explained everything. Herney had talked to Rachel, who was safely aboard a plane somewhere. Incredibly, it seemed the White House and NASA were innocent bystanders in this fiasco, a plot masterminded by William Pickering.

Not that it matters, Sexton thought. Zach Herney is still going down hard.

Sexton wished he could be a fly on the wall of the White House right now to see the President’s face when he realized Sexton was going public. Sexton had agreed to meet Herney at the White House right now to discuss how best to tell the nation the truth about the meteorite. Herney was probably standing in front of a television at this very moment in dumbfounded shock, realizing that there was nothing the White House could do to stop the hand of fate.

“My friends,” Sexton said, letting his eyes connect with the crowd. “I have weighed this heavily. I have considered honoring the President’s desire to keep this data secret, but I must do what is in my heart.” Sexton sighed, hanging his head like a man trapped by history. “The truth is the truth. I will not presume to color your interpretation of these facts in any way. I will simply give you the data at face value.”

In the distance, Sexton heard the beating of huge helicopter rotors. For a moment, he wondered if maybe the President were flying over from the White House in a panic, hoping to halt the press conference. That would be the icing on the cake, Sexton thought mirthfully. How guilty would Herney appear THEN?

“I do not take pleasure in doing this,” Sexton continued, sensing his timing was perfect. “But I feel it is my duty to let the American people know they have been lied to.”

The aircraft thundered in, touching down on the esplanade to their right. When Sexton glanced over, he was surprised to see it was not the presidential helicopter after all, but rather a large Osprey tilt-rotor airplane.

The fuselage read:

United States Coast Guard

Baffled, Sexton watched as the cabin door opened and a woman emerged. She wore an orange Coast Guard parka and looked disheveled, like she’d been through a war. She strode toward the press area. For a moment, Sexton didn’t recognize her. Then it hit him.

Rachel? He gaped in shock. What the hell is SHE doing here?

A murmur of confusion went through the crowd.

Pasting a broad smile on his face, Sexton turned back to the press and raised an apologetic finger. “If you could give me just one minute? I’m terribly sorry.” He heaved the weary, good-natured sigh. “Family first.”

A few of the reporters laughed.

With his daughter bearing down fast from his right, Sexton had no doubt this father-daughter reunion would best be held in private. Unfortunately, privacy was scarce at the moment. Sexton’s eyes darted to the large partition on his right.

Still smiling calmly, Sexton waved to his daughter and stepped away from the microphone. Moving toward her at an angle, he maneuvered such that Rachel had to pass behind the partition to get to him. Sexton met her halfway, hidden from the eyes and ears of the press.

“Honey?” he said, smiling and opening his arms as Rachel came toward him. “What a surprise!”

Rachel walked up and slapped his face.

Alone with her father now, ensconced behind the partition, Rachel glared with loathing. She had slapped him hard, but he barely flinched. With chilling control, his phony smile melted away, mutating into an admonishing glower.

His voice turned to a demonic whisper. “You should not be here.”

Rachel saw wrath in his eyes and for the first time in her life felt unafraid. “I turned to you for help, and you sold me out! I was almost killed!”

“You’re obviously fine.” His tone was almost disappointed.

“NASA is innocent!” she said. “The President told you that! What are you doing here?” Rachel’s short flight to Washington aboard the Coast Guard Osprey had been punctuated by a flurry of phone calls between herself, the White House, her father, and even a distraught Gabrielle Ashe. “You promised Zach Herney you were going to the White House!”

“I am.” He smirked. “On election day.”

Rachel felt sickened to think this man was her father. “What you’re about to do is madness.”

“Oh?” Sexton chuckled. He turned and motioned behind him to the podium, which was visible at the end of the partition. On the podium, a stack of white envelopes sat waiting. “Those envelopes contain information you sent me, Rachel. You. The President’s blood is on your hands.”

“I faxed you that information when I needed your help! When I thought the President and NASA were guilty!”

“Considering the evidence, NASA certainly appears guilty.”

“But they are not! They deserve a chance to admit their own mistakes. You’ve already won this election. Zach Herney is finished! You know that. Let the man retain some dignity.”

Sexton groaned. “So naive. It’s not about winning the election, Rachel, it’s about power. It’s about decisive victory, acts of greatness, crushing opposition, and controlling the forces in Washington so you can get something done.”

“At what cost?”

“Don’t be so self-righteous. I’m simply presenting the evidence. The people can draw their own conclusions as to who is guilty.”

“You know how this will look.”

He shrugged. “Maybe NASA’s time has come.”

Senator Sexton sensed the press was getting restless beyond the partition, and he had no intention of standing here all morning and being lectured by his daughter. His moment of glory was waiting.

“We’re through here,” he said. “I have a press conference to give.”

“I’m asking you as your daughter,” Rachel pleaded. “Don’t do this. Think about what you’re about to do. There’s a better way.”

“Not for me.”

A howl of feedback echoed out of the PA system behind him, and Sexton wheeled to see a late-arriving female reporter, huddled over his podium, attempting to attach a network microphone to one of the goose-neck clips.

Why can’t these idiots arrive on time? Sexton fumed.

In her haste, the reporter knocked Sexton’s stack of envelopes to the ground.

Goddamn it! Sexton marched over, cursing his daughter for distracting him. When he arrived, the woman was on her hands and knees, collecting the envelopes off the ground. Sexton couldn’t see her face, but she was obviously “network”-wearing a full-length cashmere coat, matching scarf, and low-slung mohair beret with an ABC press pass clipped to it.

Stupid bitch, Sexton thought. “I’ll take those,” he snapped, holding out his hand for the envelopes.

The woman scraped up the last of the envelopes and handed them up to Sexton without looking up. “Sorry…,” she muttered, obviously embarrassed. Hunkering low in shame, she scurried off into the crowd.

Sexton quickly counted the envelopes. Ten. Good. Nobody was going to steal his thunder today. Regrouping, he adjusted the microphones and gave a joking smile to the crowd. “I guess I’d better hand these out before someone gets hurt!”

The crowd laughed, looking eager.

Sexton sensed his daughter nearby, standing just off-stage behind the partition.

“Don’t do this,” Rachel said to him. “You’ll regret it.”

Sexton ignored her.

“I’m asking you to trust me,” Rachel said, her voice growing louder. “It’s a mistake.”

Sexton picked up his envelopes, straightening the edges.

“Dad,” Rachel said, intense and pleading now. “This is your last chance to do what’s right.”

Do what’s right? Sexton covered the microphone and turned as if clearing his throat. He glanced discreetly over at his daughter. “You’re just like your mother-idealistic and small. Women simply do not understand the true nature of power.”

Sedgewick Sexton had already forgotten his daughter by the time he turned back toward the jostling media. Head held high, he walked around the podium and handed the stack of envelopes into the hands of the waiting press. He watched the envelopes disseminate rapidly through the crowd. He could hear the seals being broken, the envelopes being torn apart like Christmas presents.

A sudden hush came over the crowd.

In the silence, Sexton could hear the defining moment of his career.

The meteorite is a fraud. And I am the man who revealed it.

Sexton knew it would take the press a moment to understand the true implications of what they were looking at: GPR images of an insertion shaft in the ice; a living ocean species almost identical to the NASA fossils; evidence of chondrules that formed on earth. It all led to one shocking conclusion.

“Sir?” one reporter stammered, sounding stunned as he looked in his envelope. “Is this for real?”

Sexton gave a somber sigh. “Yes, I’m afraid it’s very real indeed.”

Murmurs of confusion now spread through the crowd.

“I’ll give everyone a moment to look through these pages,” Sexton said, “and then I’ll take questions and attempt to shed some light on what you’re looking at.”

“Senator?” another reporter asked, sounding utterly bewildered. “Are these images authentic?… Unretouched?”

“One hundred percent,” Sexton said, speaking more firmly now. “I would not present the evidence to you otherwise.”

The confusion in the crowd seemed to deepen, and Sexton thought he even heard some laughter-not at all the reaction he had expected. He was starting to fear he had overestimated the media’s ability to connect the obvious dots.

“Um, senator?” someone said, sounding oddly amused. “For the record, you stand behind the authenticity of these images?”

Sexton was getting frustrated. “My friends, I will say this one last time, the evidence in your hands is one-hundred-percent accurate. And if anyone can prove otherwise, I’ll eat my hat!”

Sexton waited for the laugh, but it never came.

Dead silence. Blank stares.

The reporter who had just spoken walked toward Sexton, shuffling through his photocopies as he came forward. “You’re right, senator. This is scandalous data.” The reporter paused, scratching his head. “So I guess we’re puzzled as to why you’ve decided to share it with us like this, especially after denying it so vehemently earlier.”

Sexton had no idea what the man was talking about. The reporter handed him the photocopies. Sexton looked at the pages-and for a moment, his mind went totally blank.

No words came.

He was staring at unfamiliar photographs. Black-and-white images. Two people. Naked. Arms and legs intertwined. For an instant, Sexton had no idea what he was looking at. Then it registered. A cannonball to the gut.

In horror, Sexton’s head snapped up to the crowd. They were laughing now. Half of them were already phoning in the story to their news desks.

Sexton felt a tap on his shoulder.

In a daze, he wheeled.

Rachel was standing there. “We tried to stop you,” she said. “We gave you every chance.” A woman stood beside her.

Sexton was trembling as his eyes moved to the woman at Rachel’s side. She was the reporter in the cashmere coat and mohair beret-the woman who had knocked over his envelopes. Sexton saw her face, and his blood turned to ice.

Gabrielle’s dark eyes seemed to bore right through him as she reached down and opened her coat to reveal a stack of white envelopes tucked neatly beneath her arm.

Chapter 132

The Oval Office was dark, lit only by the soft glow of the brass lamp on President Herney’s desk. Gabrielle Ashe held her chin high as she stood before the President. Outside the window behind him, dusk was gathering on the west lawn.

“I hear you’re leaving us,” Herney said, sounding disappointed.

Gabrielle nodded. Although the President had graciously offered her indefinite sanctuary inside the White House away from the press, Gabrielle preferred not to ride out this particular storm by hiding out in the eye. She wanted to be as far away as possible. At least for a while.

Herney gazed across his desk at her, looking impressed. “The choice you made this morning, Gabrielle… ” He paused, as if at a loss for words. His eyes were simple and clear-nothing compared to the deep, enigmatic pools that had once drawn Gabrielle to Sedgewick Sexton. And yet, even in the backdrop of this powerful place, Gabrielle saw true kindness in his gaze, an honor and dignity she would not soon forget.

“I did it for me, too,” Gabrielle finally said.

Herney nodded. “I owe you my thanks all the same.” He stood, motioning for her to follow him into the hall. “I was actually hoping you’d stick around long enough that I could offer you a post on my budgeting staff.”

Gabrielle gave him a dubious look. “Stop spending and start mending?”

He chuckled. “Something like that.”

“I think we both know, sir, that I’m more of a liability to you at the moment than an asset.”

Herney shrugged. “Give it a few months. It will all blow over. Plenty of great men and women have endured similar situations and gone on to greatness.” He winked. “A few of them were even U.S. presidents.”

Gabrielle knew he was right. Unemployed for only hours, Gabrielle had already turned down two other job offers today-one from Yolanda Cole at ABC, and the other from St. Martin’s Press, who had offered her an obscene advance if she would publish a tell-all biography. No thanks.

As Gabrielle and the President moved down the hallway, Gabrielle thought of the pictures of herself that were now being splashed across televisions.

The damage to the country could have been worse, she told herself. Much worse.

Gabrielle, after going to ABC to retrieve the photos and borrow Yolanda Cole’s press pass, had snuck back to Sexton’s office to assemble the duplicate envelopes. While inside, she had also printed copies of the donation checks in Sexton’s computer. After the confrontation at the Washington Monument, Gabrielle had handed copies of the checks to the dumbstruck Senator Sexton and made her demands. Give the President a chance to announce his meteorite mistake, or the rest of this data goes public too. Senator Sexton took one look at the stack of financial evidence, locked himself in his limousine, and drove off. He had not been heard from since.

Now, as the President and Gabrielle arrived at the backstage door of the Briefing Room, Gabrielle could hear the waiting throngs beyond. For the second time in twenty-four hours, the world was assembled to hear a special presidential broadcast.

“What are you going to tell them?” Gabrielle asked.

Herney sighed, his expression remarkably calm. “Over the years, I’ve learned one thing over and over… ” He put a hand on her shoulder and smiled. “There’s just no substitute for the truth.”

Gabrielle was filled with an unexpected pride as she watched him stride toward the stage. Zach Herney was on his way to admit the biggest mistake of his life, and oddly, he had never looked more presidential.

Chapter 133

When Rachel awoke, the room was dark.

A clock glowed 10:14 P.M. The bed was not her own. For several moments, she lay motionless, wondering where she was. Slowly, it all started coming back… the megaplume… this morning at the Washington Monument… the President’s invitation to stay at the White House.

I’m at the White House, Rachel realized. I slept here all day.

The Coast Guard chopper, at the President’s command, had transported an exhausted Michael Tolland, Corky Marlinson, and Rachel Sexton from the Washington Monument to the White House, where they had been fed a sumptuous breakfast, been seen to by doctors, and been offered any of the building’s fourteen bedrooms in which to recuperate.

All of them had accepted.

Rachel could not believe she had slept this long. Turning on the television, she was stunned to see that President Herney had already completed his press conference. Rachel and the others had offered to stand beside him when he announced the meteorite disappointment to the world. We all made the mistake together. But Herney had insisted on shouldering the burden alone.

“Sadly,” one political analyst on TV was saying, “it seems NASA has discovered no signs of life from space after all. This marks the second time this decade that NASA has incorrectly classified a meteorite as showing signs of extraterrestrial life. This time, however, a number of highly respected civilians were also among those fooled.”

“Normally,” a second analyst chimed in, “I would have to say that a deception of the magnitude the President described this evening would be devastating for his career… and yet, considering the developments this morning at the Washington Monument, I would have to say Zach Herney’s chances of taking the presidency look better than ever.”

The first analyst nodded. “So, no life in space, but no life in Senator Sexton’s campaign either. And now, as new information surfaces suggesting deep financial troubles plaguing the senator-”

A knock on the door drew Rachel’s attention.

Michael, she hoped, quickly turning off the television. She hadn’t seen him since breakfast. On their arrival at the White House, Rachel had wanted nothing more than to fall asleep in his arms. Although she could tell Michael felt the same, Corky had intervened, parking himself on Tolland’s bed and exuberantly telling and retelling his story about urinating on himself and saving the day. Finally, utterly exhausted, Rachel and Tolland had given up, heading for separate bedrooms to sleep.

Now, walking toward the door, Rachel checked herself in the mirror, amused to see how ridiculously she was dressed. All she had found to wear to bed was an old Penn State football jersey in the dresser. It draped down to her knees like a nightshirt.

The knocking continued.

Rachel opened the door, disappointed to see a female U.S. Secret Service agent. She was fit and cute, wearing a blue blazer. “Ms. Sexton, the gentleman in the Lincoln Bedroom heard your television. He asked me to tell you that as long as you’re already awake… ” She paused, arching her eyebrows, clearly no stranger to night games on the upper floors of the White House.

Rachel blushed, her skin tingling. “Thanks.”

The agent led Rachel down the impeccably appointed hallway to a plain-looking doorway nearby.

“The Lincoln Bedroom,” the agent said. “And as I am always supposed to say outside this door, ‘Sleep well, and beware of ghosts.'”

Rachel nodded. The legends of ghosts in the Lincoln Bedroom were as old as the White House itself. It was said that Winston Churchill had seen Lincoln’s ghost here, as had countless others, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Amy Carter, actor Richard Dreyfuss, and decades of maids and butlers. President Reagan’s dog was said to bark outside this door for hours at a time.

The thoughts of historical spirits suddenly made Rachel realize what a sacred place this room was. She felt suddenly embarrassed, standing there in her long football jersey, bare-legged, like some college coed sneaking into a boy’s room. “Is this kosher?” she whispered to the agent. “I mean this is the Lincoln Bedroom.”

The agent winked. “Our policy on this floor is ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.'”

Rachel smiled. “Thanks.” She reached for the door-knob, already feeling the anticipation of what lay beyond.

“Rachel!” The nasal voice carried down the hallway like a buzz saw.

Rachel and the agent turned. Corky Marlinson was hobbling toward them on crutches, his leg now professionally bandaged. “I couldn’t sleep either!”

Rachel slumped, sensing her romantic tryst about to disintegrate.

Corky’s eyes inspected the cute Secret Service agent. He flashed her a broad smile. “I love women in uniform.”

The agent pulled aside her blazer to reveal a lethal-looking sidearm.

Corky backed off. “Point taken.” He turned to Rachel. “Is Mike awake, too? You going in?” Corky looked eager to join the party.

Rachel groaned. “Actually, Corky… ”

“Dr. Marlinson,” the Secret Service agent intervened, pulling a note from her blazer. “According to this note, which was given to me by Mr. Tolland, I have explicit orders to escort you down to the kitchen, have our chef make you anything you want, and ask you to explain to me in vivid detail how you saved yourself from certain death by… ” the agent hesitated, grimacing as she read the note again. “… by urinating on yourself?”

Apparently, the agent had said the magic words. Corky dropped his crutches on the spot and put an arm around the woman’s shoulders for support, and said, “To the kitchen, love!”

As the indisposed agent helped Corky hobble off down the hall, Rachel had no doubt Corky Marlinson was in heaven. “The urine is the key,” she heard him saying, “because those damned telencephalon olfactory lobes can smell everything!”

The Lincoln Bedroom was dark when Rachel entered. She was surprised to see the bed empty and untouched. Michael Tolland was nowhere to be seen.

An antique oil lamp burned near the bed, and in the soft radiance, she could barely make out the Brussels carpet… the famous carved rosewood bed… the portrait of Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd… even the desk where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

As Rachel closed the door behind her, she felt a clammy draft on her bare legs. Where is he? Across the room, a window was open, the white organza curtains billowing. She walked over to close the window, and an eerie whisper murmured from the closet.

“Maaaarrrrrrrry… ”

Rachel wheeled.

“Maaaaaarrrrrrrry?” the voice whispered again. “Is that you?… Mary Todd Liiiiiincoln?”

Rachel quickly closed the window and turned back toward the closet. Her heart was racing, although she knew it was foolish. “Mike, I know that’s you.”

“Noooooo… ” the voice continued. “I am not Mike… I am… Aaaaabe.”

Rachel put her hands on her hips. “Oh, really? Honest Abe?”

A muffled laugh. “Moderately honest Abe… yes.”

Rachel was laughing now too.

“Be afraaaaaaid,” the voice from the closet moaned. “Be veeeeeery afraid.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Please be afraid… ” the voice moaned. “In the human species, the emotions of fear and sexual arousal are closely linked.”

Rachel burst out laughing. “Is this your idea of a turn-on?”

“Forgiiiive me… ” the voice moaned. “It’s been yeeeeeeears since I’ve been with a woman.”

“Evidently,” Rachel said, yanking the door open.

Michael Tolland stood before her with his roguish, lopsided grin. He looked irresistible wearing a pair of navy blue satin pajamas. Rachel did a double take when she saw the presidential seal emblazoned on his chest.

“Presidential pajamas?”

He shrugged. “They were in the drawer.”

“And all I had was this football jersey?”

“You should have chosen the Lincoln Bedroom.”

“You should have offered!”

“I heard the mattress was bad. Antique horsehair.” Tolland winked, motioning to a gift-wrapped package on a marble-topped table. “This’ll make it up to you.”

Rachel was touched. “For me?”

“I had one of the presidential aides go out and find this for you. Just arrived. Don’t shake it.”

She carefully opened the package, extracting the heavy contents. Inside was a large crystal bowl in which were swimming two ugly orange goldfish. Rachel stared in confused disappointment. “You’re joking, right?”

“Helostoma temmincki,” Tolland said proudly.

“You bought me fish?”

“Rare Chinese kissing fish. Very romantic.”

“Fish are not romantic, Mike.”

“Tell that to these guys. They’ll kiss for hours.”

“Is this supposed to be another turn-on?”

“I’m rusty on the romance. Can you grade me on effort?”

“For future reference, Mike, fish are definitely not a turn-on. Try flowers.”

Tolland pulled a bouquet of white lilies from behind his back. “I tried for red roses,” he said, “but I almost got shot sneaking into the Rose Garden.”

As Tolland pulled Rachel’s body against his and inhaled the soft fragrance of her hair, he felt years of quiet isolation dissolving inside him. He kissed her deeply, feeling her body rise against him. The white lilies fell to their feet, and barriers Tolland had never known he’d built were suddenly melting away.

The ghosts are gone.

He felt Rachel inching him toward the bed now, her whisper soft in his ear. “You don’t really think fish are romantic, do you?”

“I do,” he said, kissing her again. “You should see the jellyfish mating ritual. Incredibly erotic.”

Rachel maneuvered him onto his back on the horsehair mattress, easing her slender body down on top of his.

“And seahorses…,” Tolland said, breathless as he savored her touch through the thin satin of his pajamas. “Seahorses perform… an unbelievably sensual dance of love.”

“Enough fish talk,” she whispered, unbuttoning his pajamas. “What can you tell me about the mating rituals of advanced primates?”

Tolland sighed. “I’m afraid I don’t really do primates.”

Rachel shed her football jersey. “Well, nature boy, I suggest you learn fast.”

Epilogue

The NASA transport jet banked high over the Atlantic.

Onboard, Administrator Lawrence Ekstrom took a last look at the huge charred rock in the cargo hold. Back to the sea, he thought. Where they found you.

On Ekstrom’s command, the pilot opened the cargo doors and released the rock. They watched as the mammoth stone plummeted downward behind the plane, arcing across the sunlit ocean sky and disappearing beneath the waves in a pillar of silver spray.

The giant stone sank fast.

Underwater, at three hundred feet, barely enough light remained to reveal its tumbling silhouette. Passing five hundred feet, the rock plunged into total darkness.

Racing down.

Deeper.

It fell for almost twelve minutes.

Then, like a meteorite striking the dark side of the moon, the rock crashed into a vast plain of mud on the ocean floor, kicking up a cloud of silt. As the dust settled, one of the ocean’s thousands of unknown species swam over to inspect the odd newcomer.

Unimpressed, the creature moved on.

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