Stone Barrington enters a cutthroat game where only the canniest player can come out on top in this exceptional thriller from #1 New York Times bestselling author Stuart Woods.
When Stone travels to Los Angeles for the biggest political convention of the year, he finds the scene quite shaken up: a dazzling newcomer—and close friend of Stone’s—has given the delegates an unexpected choice, crucial alliances are made and broken behind closed doors, and it seems that more than one seat may be up for grabs. And amid the ambitious schemers and hangers-on are a few people who may use the chaotic events as cover for more sinister plans...
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Stuart Woods is the author of more than sixty novels, including the #1 New York Times bestselling Stone Barrington series. He is a native of Georgia and began his writing career in the advertising industry. Chiefs, his debut in 1981, won the Edgar Award. An avid sailor and pilot, Woods lives in Florida, Maine, and New Mexico.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Stone Barrington was about to leave his house for Los Angeles and the Democratic convention when the phone rang. “Just put the bags in the car and I’ll be right down,” Stone said to Fred Flicker, his factotum.
“Righto, sir,” Fred replied, and started moving cases.
Stone answered the phone on the third ring. “Hello?”
“It’s Ann.” He had been seeing a lot of Ann Keaton. She was deputy campaign manager for the presidential effort of Katharine Lee.
“Hi, I’m just leaving the house to pick you up.”
“Something has come up.”
Stone hated those words; he didn’t like changes in his plans, especially when they involved a transcontinental flight. “What is it?”
“Kate needs a lift.”
Katharine Rule Lee, in addition to being a candidate for president, was also the first lady of the United States, running to succeed her husband, William Jefferson Lee, and she never needed a lift anywhere.
“What, to the airport? Has the Secret Service run out of black SUVs?”
“No, to Los Angeles.”
“Whatever happened to Air Force One?”
“It’s just fine, thank you, but the Marine helicopter sent to take her to Dulles, where she was to meet Air Force One, is down with a broken wing, or something, and it would be much more convenient for her if she could fly with us. Is there room?”
“How big a party are we talking about?”
“Her secretary and two Secret Service agents.”
“No further entourage?”
“Just me, and I was going with you anyway.”
“Hold the phone and I’ll call Mike.”
Stone pressed the hold button, chose another line, and called the cell phone of Michael Freeman, chairman and CEO of Strategic Services.
“It’s Stone. I have a request—feel free to say no, but you’ll regret it the rest of your life.”
“In that case, yes.”
“You have just agreed to fly the first lady of the United States, her secretary, and two Secret Service agents to Los Angeles on your Gulfstream with us.”
There was only the briefest of silences. “Yes,” Mike said again. “I can do that.”
“Thank you, kind sir. See you at the airport.”
“I’m already at the airport.”
“Am I late?”
“No, I’m meeting with a client who’s passing through.”
“All right, I and my party will be on time. I can’t speak for the first lady.”
“That’s the beauty of owning an airplane—our ETD is whenever I say it is.”
“See you there.” Stone disengaged and pressed the hold button again. “The answer is a resounding yes.”
“Oh, good,” Ann said with a sigh.
“Next question, is she ready to leave for Teterboro?”
“She’s sitting in a black SUV at the East Side Heliport and she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. She may beat us there.”
“Tell her to meet us at Jet Aviation. It’s the one with the very large white airplane parked just outside the door. I’ll let them know she’s coming.”
“Don’t do that, she doesn’t like any fuss. She’ll just want to pee and get on the airplane.”
“Tell her she can pee on the airplane, it’s equipped for that, and she’ll save the bother of the Secret Service throwing everybody out of the ladies’ room at Jet Aviation.”
“I’ll pass that on,” Ann said.
“I’m leaving and I’ll be there in ten minutes,” he said. “Let Dino and Viv know, will you?” Dino Bacchetti, Stone’s old NYPD partner, now chief of detectives, and his wife, Vivian, were coming to the convention with them, and, conveniently, they lived in the same Park Avenue apartment building as Ann.
Stone hung up, grabbed his jacket, and followed Fred and the luggage down to the street, where the Bentley Flying Spur sat idling at the curb, Fred already at the wheel. Stone got in. “Go. We’re picking up Ann Keaton and the Bacchettis on the way.”
“Righto, sir.” The car glided away. “By the way, sir, my New York City gun license arrived in this morning’s mail.”
“All I need now is a gun.”
“There’s a gun shop downtown that all the cops use. Joan will give you the address. Take your license with you. And bring me the bill for whatever you choose.”
“Thank you, sir. And please thank Chief Bacchetti for me.”
HALF AN HOUR after collecting his guests, they pulled to a halt at the Jet Aviation FBO (fixed base operator). Dino, Viv, and Ann went ahead to the airplane while the doorman and a lineman unloaded all their luggage. Stone took the doorman aside. “Have you seen a couple of”—he looked up to see three black SUVs pull into the parking lot—“those?”
“I see them, Mr. Barrington.”
“One of them contains the first lady of the United States. Please take a couple of carts and whisk her straight through the terminal and onto the G650 on the ramp.” He gave the man a hundred, which always brought a doorman to attention.
“Yes indeed, sir!” The man grabbed two carts and pushed them quickly toward the caravan.
Stone waited for Kate to get out of the car and make sure all her luggage was aboard the carts, then she came and kissed him on a cheek. “Stone, you’re so kind to do this.”
“Save your thanks for Mike Freeman, who’s waiting for us aboard the airplane.”
“You haven’t met my secretary, Molly Cannon.” She and Stone shook hands. “And these are my Secret Service detail, Tom Brennan and Christy Thomas.” He shook their hands, too.
He offered Kate an arm. She took it, and they practically sprinted from the front door to the back door, without attracting too many stares, and out onto the ramp, where the big jet sat, one engine running. The linemen got the luggage stowed while the two Secret Service agents raced aboard and made sure that no members of al-Qaeda were flying with them. Shortly, they were all settled aboard and introduced, and the airplane’s other engine started.
“I’m sorry it’s not Air Force One,” Mike said.
“Oh,” Kate said, “it will do very nicely. And for purposes of this flight, we can call it Air Force One-point-Five.” She took the aisle seat next to Stone and across the table from Ann. “May I join you?” she asked.
“There’s something I want to talk to you about while we’re en route.”
The airplane began to taxi up the ramp toward Taxiway Lima. As they reached it, Stone saw a dozen jets lined up and waiting for the Gulfstream to take the runway while ground control cleared it for immediate takeoff. “That’s something I’ve never seen before,” Stone said, nodding toward the waiting airplanes.
“I expect the Secret Service had a word with the tower,” Kate said. “They hate my waiting in line on the ground. Somebody might take a shot at us.”
“Now, that’s a thought that had never crossed my mind,” Stone said as the Gulfstream began accelerating, pressing him back in his seat. A few seconds later they were climbing and turning to the west.
“Oh?” Kate said. “We’ll be cleared direct to Burbank. No routing or delays.”
Twenty minutes later they leveled at cruising altitude, and mimosas were served.
“From now on,” Stone said, “I’m going to tell Air Traffic Control that you’re aboard all my flights.”
“Feel free,” Kate replied with a big smile.
Kate Lee waited until they had finished a salad-and-omelet lunch before placing her hand on Stone’s arm. “Now,” she said, “to business—or rather, to politics.”
“Tell me all.”
“I know from Will’s experience at conventions that after our arrival and throughout our stay there will be people who will wish to talk with me who I will wish not to talk with—not because I don’t like or respect them, but because their messages will sometimes be so important that they are better conveyed through intermediaries. Sometimes my messages to them will fall into the same category. Do you understand?”
“Of course. It’s one of the principal reasons why people have attorneys.”
“Exactly. On these occasions I will not want a campaign or staff member to act as intermediary. That would add a political edge to conversations that might be better conducted in a more civilian manner. That’s why I would like you to represent me on these occasions.”
“I would be very pleased to help in any way I can,” Stone replied.
“Sometimes you may receive messages, at other times you may send them—sometimes both.”
“I will always try to alert you when a call will be coming, but I won’t always be able to. If someone calls you, that means he very likely got your number from me, so don’t blow him off—at least, not immediately.”
Stone nodded. “So if someone calls me and asks if you would accept the vice presidential nomination . . .”
“Let’s hope it will be me offering it to someone else. But I hear there are other things brewing that may not surface for a few days, so be on the qui vive.”
“I haven’t heard that expression for decades.”
“Now you’re making me feel old.”
“You haven’t met my chief of staff, Alicia Carey, have you? She works out of my Washington office.”
“I believe I may have shaken her hand on a visit to the White House.”
“Of course you would have. I hope you will have an opportunity to get to know her this week. When Alicia speaks, she speaks for me.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. I hope you and Will can come to dinner at my house—maybe tomorrow evening?”
“We’d both like that, but let me clear it with him.”
“And, by all means, bring Alicia and whoever she’d like to bring. We’ll do a buffet by the pool.”
“That sounds lovely. Oh, my ears just popped, we must be descending into Van Nuys.”
Molly came over. “I’ve just had a message—the president has landed at Van Nuys and will wait for you there. We’re twelve minutes out.”
“Thank you, Molly, that’s good. One caravan is enough.”
Stone noticed that the airplane never turned until it lined up on Runway 34 left. This was the way to travel. They touched down with a nearly imperceptible squeak of tires on pavement, and as they exited the runway, Stone saw the big 747, Air Force One, parked on the ramp, surrounded by people with weapons.
The Gulfstream came to a stop, the engines died, and the airstair door was opened. Kate was the first out of the airplane and into the arms of her husband.
“Hi, Stone,” the president said, offering his hand. “Thanks for giving a girl a lift.”
Stone shook his hand. “Hello, Mr. President. Thank Mike Freeman.”
“It was a wonderful flight,” Kate said to her husband. “Mike’s food is better than ours.”
A line of cars pulled up to the airplane and someone held open the door of the presidential limousine. The Lees got in. Ann kissed Stone goodbye. “See you later.”
“We’ve got your luggage,” he said.
She and Molly got into the car, following the president, and the procession moved away. Two Bentley Mulsannes from The Arrington moved into place and linemen loaded their luggage. Shortly, they were on their way.
Stone and Mike took one car, the Bacchettis the other.
“Thank you again for taking Kate,” Stone said to Mike.
“It was a pleasure having her on board.”
“I’ve asked them to dinner tomorrow night. And of course Ann and I would like you there, too.”
“Mind if I bring a date?”
“Why would I mind?”
“I was thinking of asking Charlene Joiner.” She was a big-time movie star who, many years before, had had a brief fling with Will Lee when he was a Senate staffer and still single.
“Ah, Mike,” Stone said, “Charlene’s presence near Will seems to put things a bit on edge. Do you know someone else?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks for understanding. Charlene always seems to have an ax to grind when she sees Will. For the longest time she was trying to get him to commute the sentence of her old boyfriend who was on death row for rape and murder.”
“And did she get it?”
“Yes, but not from Will. When he declined, she moved down a couple of rungs and got herself fixed up with the governor of Georgia, who was happy, after a night with her, to commute the sentence to life.”
“That sounds like Charlene,” Mike said.
They drove on toward The Arrington.
Security was already tighter than usual at the gate to The Arrington, and Stone, even though he was a major stockholder and board member, was not spared. The search of the cars was thorough.
The hotel was built on land that had been owned by Arrington’s first husband, the movie star Vance Calder, and his house had been incorporated into the guest-arrival center. As part of the lease of the land to the hotel corporation, Stone had negotiated the building of a new house for Arrington. Completed after her death, he had used it as his L.A. base since the hotel opened.
His car was met by the now elderly Manolo, who had been Vance Calder’s butler, and he oversaw the unloading and routing of luggage to the various rooms.
“Drinks in half an hour,” Stone said to everybody, and they went to freshen up.
When he had the opportunity, Manolo approached Stone. “A man from the Secret Service was here half an hour ago,” the Filipino said.
“Details?” Stone asked.
“He said he would return to brief you after the arrival of the president,” Manolo said.
Brief him? About what? Stone went upstairs to his bedroom and got into some casual clothes, then he went back downstairs. A man in a suit with a lapel button was waiting to see him.
“Mr. Barrington, I’m Special Agent Mervin Beam of the Secret Service. I’m in charge of the L.A. office.” They shook hands. “May I speak with you in private?”
Stone took the man into his study and they sat down. He didn’t bother offering the man a drink since he knew it would be declined. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“It arrived as an e-mail sent to me personally.” Beam took a sheet of paper from an inside pocket and handed it to Stone. “This is a copy.”
Stone read the message: At some time before the end of the Democratic convention, Katharine Rule Lee will die. We are patriots who have sworn to return the United States to a strict, constitutional republic, and we regard Mrs. Lee as a clear and present danger to her country, since she will slavishly support the criminal policies put into effect by William Jefferson Lee.
We have supporters in both houses of Congress and in the government bureaucracy, and even in the Secret Service, and we have the means and expertise to carry out our promises. We are quite willing to die in pursuit of our ideals, if that should become necessary.
There will be nothing you can do to stop us. It was signed, The Patriots.
“WHAT DO YOU make of this?” Stone asked.
“I’m no psychologist,” Beam said, “but I’ve seen a lot of this stuff over the years. The writer is probably an individual and there is probably no group involved. He exaggerates or, more likely, simply lies about his support in the Congress and the government.”
“What about his claim of someone in your service?”
“I believe that is in the realm of preposterous.”
“And his claim of the means to kill Mrs. Lee?”
“Anybody with a gun has the means to kill anybody else.”
“Do you believe this man is a serious threat or just ...
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