Jack pushed open the glass door expecting to tell his crew what had happened. Instead, he met a wall of voices and clatter. Keyboards clacked, monitors blazed and people chattered on headsets. Branson was already on his feet, walking towards him. Jack rolled his eyes.

Branson grabbed Jack by the elbow and pulled him back through the door and into the hallway. Jack felt the rancid yellow light bouncing off gloss-painted cinderblock walls. Their shoes squeaked against ancient black and white tiles that were still polished daily.

“What the hell, Jack?”

“Somebody got to him. We’re on it.”

Branson stopped, grabbed Jack by the shoulders and pinned him to the wall. “Anybody gets that close, you’re supposed to shoot and ask questions later. It’s not complicated. Your man screwed it up.”

Jack batted Branson arms away and rebuttoned his jacket. “Slow down. Ballistics might have a different story. Windows up 10 and over 10 at a good 100. We can’t cover every corner, especially when they go down to The Place.” He poked Branson in the chest. “We warned him about that. He didn’t listen.”

Branson studied him for a moment, grunted and continued walking down the hall. Jack pushed away from the wall and fell in step next to his boss.

“Did he have The Thing?” Branson asked.

“Falconcrest is on it, hasn’t she reported in?”

“Yeah. She says it’s in his coat pocket.” He stopped walking again, tilted his head and glared at Jack. “But that’s not what I asked you, is it?”

Jack tried to glare back, but he knew he couldn’t bring himself to lie to the man. He let his shoulders relax, felt his head slump forward just an inch. “I know a guy,” he said.

“Goddammit Jack. We’re exposed here.” Branson worked his jaw, looked at the ceiling and put his hands on his hips. “The President is exposed here.”

“Like I said, I know a guy.”

Branson let out a sigh. “Because we can’t go looking for it. We’ve got a window here. And I don’t know how long.”

“Yeah, I know the drill. Does the President know?”

“Of course not.”

“Yeah, well, we keep it that way, yeah?”

Branson looked around, took a hard glance at a Special Agent walking towards them – looked hard enough to convince her to turn back around. “If your girl is on the ball and gives us All Green.”

“Falconcrest knows the Tangerine drill.”

“She better.” Branson shook his head, frowned. “So, yeah, we keep it quiet for now.” He took a step closer to Jack, lowered his voice. “Just so we’re clear, this isn’t about covering your ass, either.”

“I know,” Jack said. “We don’t want a panic on our hands. We’ll get it.”

Branson opened his mouth to say something more when a crew-cut Special Agent opened the glass door, stuck his head out and let out a shrill whistle. “You guys need to see this,” he yelled.

The two men ran back to the glass door and hustled back into the ops center. The chatter and noise from before was gone. Everyone stood still. Jack looked at the main monitor hanging on the wall.

YA115B 8ZZ517

Jack’s left hand started to tremble. He planted his hand on a nearby desk, hoping Branson hadn’t caught it.

“And so it begins,” his boss said.

“Where did this come from?” Jack asked the room. Nobody said anything. “Answer me. Now,” he yelled. The Special Agent Branson had sent scurrying with just the look in his eye quietly stepped up to stand next to Jack. “He called it in,” she said.

Jack whipped his head around and stared at her. “Over a regular line?”

“Verizon account,” she said. Instinctively she leaned away from him because she didn’t know how well he would take that.

Jack forgot to breathe for a few seconds and started to feel his head swim.

“Once he gets to a certain point, we won’t be able to keep a lid on this any longer,” Branson said.

“Yeah, I know,” Jack said. “And he knows that, too. He’s going to want something.”

“God, I sure hope so,” Branson said. “What’s your plan?”

“Like I said, I know a guy.”

“You gotta’ do better than that, Jack.”

Jack studied the letters and numbers, still not quite believing they were out there for the world to see. “It’s all I got.”

Branson turned to look at him. Jack wanted his boss to threaten his job. He wanted to hear him say something about being stationed at the Carter Presidential Library for the rest of his life. But the man couldn’t be that kind. Not under these circumstances.

“Then he better know what the hell he’s doing,” Branson said, and walked away.

To nobody in particular, Jack said, “Yeah, well, I have to get him to pick up the phone first.”


©2021 Michael J Lawrence

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