Hardesty looked at her charges. “Come on, guys. Have a little faith.”
Taylor nodded. “I do. I just ... think we could use some help.”
“Trained, adult help,” Bidwell added almost under his breath, and Hardesty laughed out loud.
“Den leaders,” she murmured.
Bidwell caught her eye in the rearview mirror and winked. He checked the dash, frowned, and said mildly, “We need gas.”
“Yeah, I ...” Hardesty swallowed. “...burned some, this morning. Let's go ahead and fill up.”
The Vice President blinked and his son's tutor smiled into the mirror at him. Jason Bidwell had seen, in the past several days, this woman competent, worried, flirting shamelessly for public display, exhausted, delighted, frightened, haggling, scrambling and sapiently patient. He had not, in his memory, seen her smile like this. He had known for some while now that he liked her – a lot – and that Taylor adored her. It dawned on him now that he could share his son's assessment of Hardesty, without much effort.
They stopped; Taylor trotted into the cashier's domain with one of the last of their $50 bills in his fist while Hardesty pumped gas and scrubbed windshield, windows and back glass. She glanced in at Bidwell before reaching through the open passenger window, thumbing open the glove box and picking up a digital tire gauge. While the pump continued running relentlessly through their funds, Hardesty checked the pressures in all four tires. She made a motion at Bidwell and he pulled the hood release; Hardesty popped the hood and checked the oil. She thumbed the radiator cap release and peered into the overflow reservoir, then put everything back where it belonged and disconnected the Plymouth from the gas-pump umbilical.
“Looks good all around,” she said casually as Taylor arrived with the change.
Bidwell nodded, turned the key, and said to his passengers, “Buckle up.”
Five minutes later, heading down a major street, Hardesty said mildly, “We're taking a little detour. Make a left, and then in seven blocks make a right.”
They pulled up in front of The Palmer School. A couple of black SUVs, a half-dozen police vehicles, two media vans and a crowd surrounded the police barricades in front of the sturdy old brick structure. Hardesty raised an eyebrow at Bidwell.
“Think they're still inside?”
“Somebody is,” he answered. “What do you have in mind?”
“Bustin' 'em out,” Taylor said happily. “I knew you would, Miss Angel.”
Hardesty raised an eyebrow at him. “With what army, Taylor? Take a look at all this.”
“Uh huh,” Taylor said. “Just like the hotel, this morning.” Bidwell chuckled wryly and Hardesty swallowed a groan of dismay. But the boy grinned trustingly up at the adults who had, as far as he could tell, behaved like super heroes for the past several days flawlessly. “It'll be a piece of cake.”
His guardian angels' eyes met over his head, and both of them shook their heads almost imperceptibly. But for Taylor, neither would show the self-doubt tsunami each could see in the other's eyes.
“This might be easier said than done, Taylor,” Bidwell murmured.
“Might be, at that,” Hardesty muttered, looking at the hotel staff uniform Wilson had discarded in the back seat. “Pull on around behind the building, boss, and let's think about this a minute.”
On the reverse side of the surrounded school the cordon lacked media reinforcement; otherwise it appeared just as formidable as the frontal array – except for the huge old trees flanking the building. Rows of them marched away along the property line from either end, and several actually overhung the dormered roof. Hardesty considered.
“People look around, and sometimes down,” she pointed out. “Up, not so much. If I'm not back in an hour I'm not coming, so go on to Bethesda and make yourselves as safe as you can when you get there.” She slid out the passenger door and walked across the street to the side of one of the trees farthest from the building; a convenient limb six inches around jutted out at shoulder-height, and Hardesty hoisted herself into the fork and climbed.
Taylor elbowed his father. “Look at that, Dad.”
“I am,” he answered, surprised anew at Hardesty's athletic ability. She moved from her tree to the next in line by the simple expedient of walking along branches thirty feet above the ground as if she were walking a balance beam. Another tree, then another; he lost her in the foliage halfway to the building.
“Now what do we do?”
He glanced at the dashboard clock. “We give her an hour. If she doesn't come back we go see Uncle Ben.”
Fifty-three minutes later Hardesty pecked on the glass behind him. Bidwell sat up and stared at her, and her trailing companions: a beautiful but haggard-looking woman shepherding two daughters. “What did you do?”
“My job,” she said. “Let us in and let's blow out of here.”
“Jason! We've got to get moving – girls, sit in the back and buckle up,” the First Lady said firmly. “Taylor, sit in the middle – you're the shortest.”
“This is a heap,” Tasha said conversationally, but she obeyed her mother despite her wrinkle-nosed expression.
Bidwell glanced at Hardesty. “You driving?”
“Naw,” she answered. “Let's get these ladies home where they belong.”
“Sounds like a plan,” he said. He started the car, pulled away along the shady street, and had made a turn past the corner of the school before he let himself ask one of the questions boiling up inside him. “How ...”
“Basement,” Hardesty said. “Side away from all the crowds had a boiler room.”
“There's a couple of Secret Service agents who are going to be really annoyed with you when they wake up,” Mikaela said softly. “If they wake up. You hit that second one awfully hard.”
Bidwell glanced at the rear mirror, where a police cruiser had just turned into traffic behind them; it fired up lights, and he groaned. “Hang on, everybody.”
Four lefts, two rights and a cut through an alley later they had shed all the police cars, but Bidwell now had no idea exactly how to get back to a major thoroughfare. Mikaela, however, had a cell phone in her purse.
“I can get directions with this,” she said. “Where are we?”
They rolled slowly down the alley, Bidwell crossing intervening streets carefully, watchfully. Presently he called out the name of a couple of cross streets. The First Lady typed rapidly on the little keyboard that folded out of the side of her device, stared at the card-size screen, and said firmly, “I don't think Mapquest knows where we are.”
Bidwell shrugged and rolled through another block. Hardesty glanced over at the screen.
“Take the next left, then go three blocks and do it again,” she said gravely. Bidwell obeyed, and then flashed a scimitar smile over his shoulder.
“Oh, I know how to get anywhere, from here,” he said. In the distance the Capitol building rose, appearing to block the street ahead. Seven minutes later they were pulling through the gates of the White House. Bidwell slowed to flash his driver's license at the guard.
“Sir,” the Marine said. “I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to wait here.” He gestured quickly; a pair of armed men in similar uniforms appeared, one barring the road with a rifle leveled at the windshield and the other, similarly posted directly behind the car.
Mikaela Benton's door opened and she stood straight up, turning to stare at the uniformed guard. “Lance Corporal,” she said in a command voice so crisp it yanked Hardesty to attention too, “what is the meaning of this?”
“Ma'am, I have orders to detain this man for Colonel Robertson,” the Marine answered firmly.
“This man? What for?”
“Colonel Robertson didn't give me that information, ma'am,” the Marine said.
The First Lady nodded decisively. “I want to speak to the Colonel.”
“I'm afraid I can't do that, ma'am,” the Marine said.
“He's not available,” the Marine said.
“Who's your immediate supervisor?”
“Gunnery Sergeant Martinez, ma'am.”
“Is he available?”
“She is, ma'am, a radio call away,” the Marine said.
“I'd like to speak to her immediately,” Mikaela told him.
“Yes ma'am,” the marine said. “PFC Quinones.”
Another Marine, this one in an undress green uniform, appeared. “Yes, Corporal.”
“Escort this lady to the comm station and put through a call to our NCOIC,” Lance Corporal Sharon commanded. The PFC said only, “Yes, Corporal. Ma'am, if you'll come with me.”
Mikaela glanced at Bidwell. “I'll be right back.”
“Sure,” he said easily. He kept his hands on the wheel and his foot off the gas. Hardesty slid over and closed the passenger door.
“Boss,” she said in a low voice, “plan B is for me to take out the sentry behind us and you to get yourself to the Senate floor ASAP.”
“The news was on inside the school. A quorum is assembled, and at two o'clock this afternoon they're going to vote on declaring the President incapacitated. If you're not on the Senate floor by the time that vote starts, the next person in line to take over ...”
Bidwell went white. “I wish Ben hadn't reappointed that skunk.”
“Bad decisions happen,” she said philosophically. “We have an hour and twenty minutes to get you to the chamber and put a stop to this little coup.”
“Or get shot trying, at least,” Bidwell said. He glanced at her and suppressed a smile. “Never thought I'd have to make a decision like that, at my age.”
She looked up at him and grinned again. “Your age doesn't look too bad from where I'm sitting.”
“You're just saying that,” he joked, “to break the tension.”
“Still wouldn't lie to you,” she answered. “Especially not in front of the kids.”
He checked the rear view mirror, rolled his shoulders and sucked in his breath. “Thanks, Angela.”
Minutes went by. The kids in the back seat relaxed from round-eyed, breath-holding silence through furtive glances at each other, the adults in the front seat, and the armed troops guarding the car. Hardesty blew out a breath and tightened her grip on the door handle. “Plan B starts in 3, 2 ...”
“Hold on,” Bidwell said, as Mikaela and her Marine escort reappeared. Hardesty waited, every muscle tense as a guitar string.
“Jason,” Mikaela Benton said. “Colonel Robertson is on his way here.” She did not smile. Her voice trembled, but whether from fear or rage neither Bidwell nor Hardesty could tell.
“I have a very bad feeling about this,” Hardesty murmured.
Bidwell said softly, “That makes three of us.”
PFC Quinones stepped back onto the curb. “Corporal, we're to take these people up to the house to wait for Colonel Robertson.” She caught Bidwell's eye, her back to Sharon and her profile to the other Marine at the front of the car, and winked broadly with the eye the armed guard could not see.
Sharon nodded, and Hardesty opened the door, sliding into the middle of the seat as Mikaela folded back into her former spot. “Walk up with the vehicle, Quinones.”
The PFC nodded, and the armed men moved aside, still covering the vehicle.
Bidwell dropped the car into reverse and floored the gas; Quinones missed her step from the curb and stumbled, but before anything worse could occur Bidwell swung the car over a curb, circling tightly. The back tires cut deep into the grass before grabbing traction. Mikaela Benton made a half-smothered noise and Bidwell swung back onto the road, changing gears with a panache that made Hardesty laugh out loud.
If the Marines chose to fire, nobody in the Plymouth heard the shots.
Eighteen minutes later the Vice President of the United States walked into the Senate Chamber and smiled broadly at the Sergeant in Arms. “Joint session, eh?”
“Yes sir.” The man considered his interlocutor and then added quietly, “They'll not be looking for you. I wouldn't miss this for the world.”
Jason Bidwell chuckled. “I bet.”