Joseph McClellan lived alone in a modest house on a tree-lined street in a quiet neighborhood not far from the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. Had it been located anywhere else in the country, it would have been described as idyllic. But it was inside the Beltway, the boundary defined by Interstate 495 that separated the world of Washington from the rest of the world, and that put it within the perpetual political tornado that spun ceaselessly around the nation’s capital. A place where quiet only described the surface appearance of things. A place where things were never what they seemed. A place where tectonic forces were always at work just beneath the surface, forces with which Joe McClellan was well acquainted.
On this particular afternoon, his mind was anything but quiet. The phone call itself had not surprised him. He had half expected it to come sooner or later. What surprised him was that it was the girl who called him. That would be Miss Womak, Mr. Max’s live-in girlfriend. He had hoped the boy would have gotten rid of her, because she was going to be a liability in the days ahead. But of course that would have required the wisdom of the old, not the impetuousness of the young.
“Oh to be young and foolish again, eh Leonardo?” He scratch the chin of the long-haired black and orange cat stretched out across his lap. “To charge in where angel’s fear to tread. Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, all in the valley of death rode the six hundred. That’s Tennyson, in case you missed the reference.” The cat’s ears twitched at the raspy sound of the old man’s voice but he kept his counsel to himself.
Joe had seen too many dreams shattered on the unforgiving rocks of reality. Including some of his own. When he was young, he thought he could change the world, take it by the scruff of the neck and shake it into behaving better. He had been a mover-and-shaker in his day. A loose cannon, some would say. A thousand pound behemoth broken loose from its moorings and rolling around the deck, wreaking chaos and havoc. Yes, he had been one of those young firebrand dreamers in his day.
It was not all for naught. He had made a difference. He had helped uncover conspiracies, reveal corruption in high places, head off foolish military adventures before they got off the ground. Perhaps most important, he had shaped young minds, instilling in them a basic sense of right and wrong, a sense of sacrifice, a belief that mankind can be much more noble than he sometimes appears if only good men will stand up and challenge the powers that be and do the right thing. Neil Anderson had been one of those young minds.
Now came Jerrod Max. Of what stuff was he made? What inner resources lay beneath the surface, waiting to be called forth. He had in his possession a thing of great power. Power that could change the world. How would Mr. Max use that power? And how would it change him? In Joe’s experience, power always changed people, for better or for worse. Or perhaps it merely revealed what was already there, hiding behind the masks we all wear. What would it reveal in Mr. Max?
He gently edged Leonardo off his lap, and made his way into the kitchen, cane in hand. He filled the teapot and put it on a burner, and set out three cups for tea.
“Unless I very much miss my guess, Leonardo, we are going to have guests this evening. Do try to be on your best behavior.” The cat, watching from the living room, tilted his head to one side as if to ask, “Is there any other kind of cat behavior?”
He couldn’t be sure they would come, of course. Whether or not Mr. Max showed up would depend on how desperate he was, as well as how resourceful and intelligent. But Joe was optimistic. Mr. Max had evaded a manhunt, figured out how to use the artifact rescued Miss Womak from an FBI holding cell, thrown Atwood’s team off their trail, and found Joe. There was more to this young man than met the eye.
“Jen,” he said to no one in particular. “I’ll bet you spat acid when you found out the boy could use the artifact.”
He carried the tray with the cups, and milk and sugar, out to the living room, and set it on the coffee table in front of the couch. He settled into his easy chair, opened a book called Spooks, Spies and Saddam: The Failure of the American Intelligence Community, and continued reading where he had last left off.
* * *
The sun hung low in the sky when Jerrod and Trish materialized in a park a few blocks from Dr. Joe’s house. Jerrod used the device to study the neighborhood around McClellan’s house. Not that he was likely to see anything suspicious. The people who were after them were presummably good at what they did. He examine each room in the house to be sure McClellan was alone. He didn’t see anything amiss, but his anxiety level was off the chart. He didn’t know what he was walking into. He took several deep breaths.
“I’m going with you,” Trish said matter of factly.
“That’s not what we agreed to. This could be a trap.”
“What do you think I’m going to do if it is? Run? Where would I run to?”
It was the kind of logic that Jerrod loved and hated about her. She had a way of cutting through all the crap and getting right to the point.
He jumped them into McClellan’s back yard and knocked on the back door. After a few moments, it was opened by an elderly-looking man with short gray hair. He leaned on his cane and looked them over. He was not at all what Jerrod had expected. Great, he thought, we got the wrong house.
“You must be Jerrod,” the man said. “And you would be Trish.”
They must have looked stunned. Jerrod certainly was. How did he know their names?
A wisp of a smile appeared briefly at one corner of his mouth. “Come in,” he said. “Leonardo and I have been expecting you.”
They were ushered in through a back porch and the kitchen and on into the living room, where he motioned for them to sit on a couch with flower print upholstery.
“Tea?” He asked.
Jerrod wasn’t sure what to make of the man’s nonplussed reaction, but Trish took over. “Yes, tea would be wonderful, Dr. McClellan. Thank you.”
“Please. Call me Dr. Joe,” he said. “After all, that is who you came to see, is it not?”
He shuffled into the kitchen, leaving them a few minutes to look around. It was a small, single-story house, old but well kept. The style was eclectic and dated, crowded with old furniture and objects probably collected from many places over many years. It reminded Jerrod of his grandmother’s house, right down to the slightly musty smell. A black and orange tortoise-shell cat guarded a hallway off the living room, staring at them with a mixture of curiosity and distrust; it was a feeling Jerrod could relate to. Who was this Dr. Joe? Could they trust him?
The old man returned with a copper tea kettle. As he poured hot water into the cups and pushed a small basket of tea bags toward them, he said, “Just to satisfy an old man’s curiosity, I wonder if I might see it?”
Jerrod hesitated. He didn’t actually know the man, and he really had no reason to trust him. On the other hand, he obviously already knew about the device, and he didn’t look like he could take it by force. He took it out of his jacket pocket and held it in the palm of his hand. The first indentation obediently formed.
Dr. Joe stared at it for a few seconds. “How far did you travel to get here?”
Jerrod had to think for a moment. “About five hundred miles, I think.”
“A long way to travel. Unless, of course, you have a teleportation device.” He smiled at his own joke. “Does it have any kind of waypoint capability? Or the ability to save previous jump points and then recall them later?”
“Not that I have found.”
“What it’s range it?”
Jerrod thought about their jump from Cheyenne to Nova Scotia. “The farthest we’ve jumped is about two thousand miles.”
“Hmm. Has anyone else used it? Besides Neil, I mean.”
Jerrod frowned. This man certainly knew a lot. “Not that I know of.”
The old man looked at Trish. “Have you tried it, dear?”
Jerrod could see from her expression that Trish wasn’t especially happy being called “dear.” But she was too polite to say anything.
“No. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
He nodded. “Would you be willing to humor an old man by just holding it in your hand? You don’t have to do anything with it.”
Trish looked at the device in Jerrod’s hand. Her expression shifted from determination to trepidation to curiosity. She would make a terrible poker player.
She held out her hand and Jerrod placed the device in her palm. No indentation appeared.
Dr. Joe stared at it intently. “Is it supposed to do something to indicate it’s active?”
“A thumb-sized indentation should appear,” Jerrod said. “But it’s not responding to Trish.” He took the device back; she looking relieved.
Dr. Joe said, “Would you be willing to let me try?”
Jerrod tensed. If it responded to him, and if he knew how to use it, he could abscond with it. On the other hand, maybe that would be a good thing. After all, this was the man Neil Anderson had wanted them to give it to. So far, it had caused nothing but trouble for him and Trish.
He glanced at her and she nodded. He placed the device in Dr. Joe’s outstretched hand. Nothing happened. At least, not as far as Jerrod could tell.
Dr. Joe turned it over several times, examining it from different angles. Then he gave it back.
“It appears that the artifact is very particular about who it responds to,” he said. “Neil reported something similar. It may be that you and he are the only people it has responded to.”
“You seem to know an awful lot about it,” Trish said. The same thought was running through Jerrod’s mind.
Dr. Joe looked at her and then Jerrod. “What did Neil Anderson tell you about it?”
“He said it was a weapon. That they couldn’t be allowed to get it back because it was too dangerous. Whoever they are; the Navy I guess. And something about them going after the President and taking over. I don’t now what the connection between that and the device is. Then he said to take it to Dr. Joe. That he — you, I guess — would know what to do with it.”
The tick-tick-tick of a clock somewhere in the house marked the passing of several silent seconds. The old man sighed. “Neil was my friend. Tell me how he died, if you don’t mind. I know the official story, but I want to hear your version.”
Jerrod shrugged. “We’re driving home late at night when he suddenly appears right in front of us. I swerved, but still clipped him. When we get to him, we discovered he’s been shot. Twice. In the back.” Jerrod shuddered. The scene was etched graphically and permanently in his mind. “I don’t know where he came from. He just appeared out of thin air.”
Dr. Joe rubbed his chin with the finger and thumb of his left hand. “His cover must have been blown. Apparently he used the artifact to escape, and was shot as he teleported out of the lab with it. We’re lucky you two happened along when you did.”
“Lucky?” Trish said, putting down her tea cup. “It was horrible.” Her voice was rising. “And now we’re wanted for murder, and the FBI is after us. And the Navy. And who knows who else.” She stopped and sucked in a deep breath. “I wish none of this had happened to us.”
The old man nodded. “I understand how you feel. But had you not found the device, it would have ended up back in the hands of the people Neil took it from, people he believed could not be trusted with it. This way there is still hope that we can keep it from falling into the wrong hands.”
“Whose hands would that be?” Jerrod asked.
“I think you mean, Who can you trust with it? Or maybe, Can you trust me?”
“Well, yeah. I wouldn’t trust our government with it. Or any other government that I can think of. I don’t even trust myself with it.”
A smile flitted across Dr. Joe’s face and was gone. “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. But people are more complicated than that. They always turn out to be some mixture of good and bad. Some mixture of black and white. So many shades of gray.
“Besides, you’re inside the beltway now. Things here are rarely what they seem to be, and people are rarely who they claim to be. Your problem is that you have to trust somebody, and you don’t know who it should be. I’m afraid I can’t help you with that. You’ll have to trust your own instincts.”
Jerrod wanted to ask what he met by Anderson’s cover being blown, but Trish spoke first. Pointing to the device in Jerrod’s hand, she said, “What I don’t understand is: Who in the world has that kind of technology.”
Dr. Joe’s eyes moved back her. “No one,” he said.
Trish’s face scrunched into a confused frowned.
“He means no one in this world has that kind of technology,” Jerrod said.
Trish still looked confused. Then her eyes grew large and she said, “Ooooh.”
The thought that it might be of alien origin had, of course, crossed Jerrod’s mind. But he had settled on the theory that it was man made, which was a lot easier to believe since it didn’t require the existence of aliens. Thinking back to how the device had responded to him almost as though it were alive, he knew that Dr. Joe was right. It was alien. A technology light years beyond anything the human race was capable of. He found this frightening and reassuring at the same time; reassuring to know that it was not a human invention; frightening to know that there was someone out there who could make stuff like this.
Dr. Joe drained his cut and set it down. He clasped the fingers of his hands together and formed a steeple with his index fingers. “Three months ago, a submersible belonging to the United States Navy reached the wreckage of a spaceship two miles beneath the surface of the Southern Ocean. Inside they found the remains of an alien, and evidence that two others may have been onboard when it came down. They also discovered the artifact — your teleportation device.
“The Navy pulled together a research team to study it. Neil was brought on to the team a few weeks later because he was one of the Navy’s top troubleshooters; he had a knack for thinking outside the box, which enabled him to find solutions nobody else had thought of. Up to that point, nobody had been able to learn anything about it except that is was impervious to physical damage. The first thing Neil noticed was that they wore gloves whenever they handled it. A safety precaution I suppose. He picked it up without gloves, and it responded to him, just like it responds to you.
Everyone else on the team — some twenty people — tried it too, but it wouldn’t respond to anyone else. Their best guess was that it required a unique DNA signature, one that not many people had. In any case, once they had someone it would respond to, it took only a few hours for them to realize what it was.
“Of course, Neil immediately recognized the artifact’s potential as a weapon. Think about its uses in intelligence gathering, clandestine operations, assassinations — ”
Jerrod held up his hand to interrupt. “What did you mean when you said Anderson’s cover was blown?”
The old man suddenly looked tired, as though the wind had gone out of his sails, leaving him adrift. The cat jumped up on a lamp table beside his chair, and oozed into his lap. He stroked it’s back.
“Neil was my friend,” he said. “But he was also my protege. I trained him.”
“Trained him? In what?”
Espionage. That was just great. He had gotten Trish and himself mixed up in some kind of spy thing. Who was he spying for? Some other country?
He must have had a shocked expression on his face, because Dr. Joe laughed. “It’s not as dramatic as it sounds. I really am a professor of history at the University of Maryland. Or, I was. I’m retired from that now. I specialized in military history. Specifically, the history of intelligence organizations and intelligence gathering. I also taught espionage means and methods for the FBI. Now days I am responsible for an intelligence gathering and analysis team under the auspices of the Secret Service.”
“Wait,” said Trish. “You work for the Secret Service? They protect the President and his family. And go after counterfeiters.”
His gray eyes turned to her and he nodded. “And they gather intelligence.” He absent-mindedly scratched behind the cat’s ears. “It’s not well publicized; we try to maintain a low profile.”
Something clicked in Jerrod’s mind. “The Secret Service doesn’t trust the other intelligence agencies.”
Dr. Joe smiled. “It’s not really a matter of trust; it’s a matter of biases and agendas. Let’s just say we like to double-check what they tell us, to apply our own unique perspective to it.”
“So Neil Anderson learns how to be a spy from you,” said Jerrod. “Then he ends up in the Navy. The he ends up on this special research time. Why did he tell me to bring the device to you?”
“Neil was one of my agents; a mole, if you will, in the Office of Naval Intelligence. His job was to keep us apprised of significant technological and intelligence discoveries.”
Trish snorted. “Parker would love this.”
“A friend of ours,” said Jerrod. “Majorly into conspiracy theories.”
The old man tilted his head to one side and raised an eyebrow. “What can I say? This is Washington. Anyway, Neil reported to me. I can only assume that his cover was compromised and he used the artifact to escape.”
Jerrod was having trouble absorbing all this information. “He said something about the President. How does that figure into this?”
Dr. Joe stared at the floor for a few seconds while he scratched Leonardo’s chin. He looked up and said, “There are elements within the military that are unhappy with what they perceive to be a dangerous leftward drift under the current administration. The Secret Service has reason to believe that these elements are involved in a plot to assassinate the President and install someone more to their liking. Given that the Vice President was forced to resign, the current Speaker of the House would assume the Office of President in the event of the President’s death. The current Speaker is something of a hardline Conservative. You can think of it as an almost-bloodless coup.
“It’s worth nothing that in less than two months, we will have a new House of Representatives. The House leadership will go to the other party. So if they are planning a coup, it has to happen before then.
“Either Neil thought Atwood was in on the coup and was going to give the artifact to them, or he thought we could use it to head off the coup.”
“Who’s Atwood?” Trish asked.
“Lieutenant Commander Jennifer Atwood. It was one of her teams that retrieved the artifact from the spaceship, and she is in charge of the team that was studying it. It is very likely that you are being pursued by one of her special ops units. She is a formidable opponent.”
Trish said, “It sounds like you know her pretty well.”
He looked at the ceiling for a moment. “Let’s just say we have crossed swords a few times.”
Dr. Joe coaxed the cat off his lap, and started gathering the empty tea cups and putting them on the tray.
Trish stood. “Let me do that.” He let himself fall back into the chair.
“Well that’s all very interesting,” Jerrod said, “but Trish and I didn’t sign up for any of this. We just want to get rid of the device, and get the FBI and the Navy off our backs.”
He pulled the device out of his pocket and set it on the coffee table. “You can have it. Maybe you can convince this Atwood person that we don’t have it anymore.”
Trish stopped at the door to the kitchen and turned to see what Dr. Joe would do. He was quiet for several moments.
“You are offering it to me,” he said.
“I don’t want it.”
“Arguable the most powerful piece of technology in the world, and you’re willing to just give it up.”
Jerrod smirked. “I’m not cut out for this. I’m not smart enough. I’m not brave enough. I don’t want to get me and Trish killed.”
Dr. Joe studied him for what seemed like an inordinately long time. Finally he said softly, almost as if he were talking to himself, “It is in the cauldron of the crisis that the dross is burned away and one’s true character is revealed.”
He continued more firmly. “I’m afraid I can’t take it off your hands. In fact, there is no one on Earth you can safely give it to. Neil was right. It is too dangerous for anyone to have.”
“Then what are we going to do?” Trish said.
“You are going to wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“For the aliens, my dear.”
Trish disappeared into the kitchen and returned a moment later without the dishes. She sat down beside Jerrod on the couch.
Dr. Joe said, “They are bound to come looking for their missing spaceship. And for the artifact. We just need to keep the two of you and the artifact safe until they show up. Then you can return it to them.”
Jerrod frowned. “That could be a long time. I don’t suppose you have a plan for keeping us safe until then.”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Dr. Joe said. “I’ll make you a deal. I will put you in a safe house — a location that very few people know about — with round-the-clock protection. With any luck, neither Atwood nor the FBI will find you. Even if they do, you will still have the option of using the artifact to flee again.”
“What do you want in exchange?” Jerrod asked.
“Your help uncovering and thwarting a plot to assassinate of the President of the United States of America.”
Jerrod mulled it over for a few moments, and said, “Give us a day to think about it.
McClellan nodded. “In the meantime,” he said. “Lie low. Do not use the artifact to teleport unless you absolutely have to. If the FBI doesn’t have a nation-wide alert out for the two of you, they soon will have. And Atwood has a lot of resources to draw on as well. The last thing you want is to draw attention to yourselves by mysteriously appearing and disappearing.”
It sounded like a fair offer. He and Trish had been lucky so far, but they couldn’t keep running forever. If McClellan could hide them until the aliens showed up — if the aliens showed up — it would be dumb to turn him down.
What bothered him was McClellan’s story about an assassination plot and a coup. It was bizarre. It smacked up conspiracy theories, and Jerrod was never one for conspiracy theories. But he knew someone who was.