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Echelon Press, May 2003
Excerpt From THE PLOT
The hollow echo of Cassandra's footsteps followed her through the semi-darkness of the cavernous parking garage. Squinting into every shadow, studying every broad concrete column, she watched for any movement, listened for any sound, and clutched the red canister of pepper gas in her right hand. It wasn't being alone that she feared as she hurried toward her car in the far corner. It was not being alone. Muggers and rapists haunted parking garages, and she cursed the committee that had decided security was only needed after dark. It was always dark in here.
As she neared her burgundy Mercedes, a sudden scuffling sound drew her attention to the left. Tensing, she searched the shadows for its source, acutely aware of the canister in her hand, then breathed again as a pair of pigeons scurried from beneath a car and flew into the eaves. Covering the remaining few steps to her car, she unlocked the door and slid gratefully onto the white leather seat, locking the door immediately. "What a world we live in," she sighed and, starting the engine, backed into the exit lane. She checked the clock on her dashboard. Deadline was fast approaching.
The cell phone rang as she pulled out onto the busy street. "Cassandra Hart," she answered, annoyed. It was probably her editor.
"Hi, Cassie. It's Daddy."
"Well, hi there, stranger," she answered, steering left-handed around a construction crew. "Are you still in Florida?"
"No, I'm at Reagan Airport. How about meeting me here? I need to talk to you."
She slowed her car to allow a jaywalker to cross in front of her. "Well, I'd like to, but I promised my editor I'd be back right after lunch. My article's due by four o'clock."
She could almost feel her father's frown. "Cassie, I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important."
Oh, boy. She recognized that tone. "Why? What's going on?"
He hesitated a moment. "I can't talk about it over the phone. Let's just say, I've got a story that's gonna blow the lid off the election."
Cassie pulled over into a No Parking zone. She couldn't talk intelligently and drive at the same time. "Can't you tell me about it this evening? We could have dinner."
"I won't be here this evening." He sounded tense. "I've gotta catch the three-thirty flight to New York."
"Well, couldn't we talk about it when you get back?" She'd missed last week's deadline and dreaded another scene with her editor.
"Honey, I'm racing against time. Even a few days..." He paused a long moment as if making up his mind, then gave a long sigh. "Cassie, I'm about to expose a conspiracy that's poised to rock the foundations of this nation. If I didn't have hard proof, even you wouldn't believe me." He hesitated again. When he spoke, his tone was even more serious. "This is the most important book I've ever written. It's a sure bet to win the Pulitzer--if I can find a publisher."
"What do you mean 'if'?" she asked. There wasn't a publisher in America who wouldn't jump at the chance to have Madison Hart on his list of authors. "It's so hot, nobody's gonna want to touch it," he said, almost whispering.
She pursed her lips, considering his words. The clock read "12:45." If she had lunch with him at the airport while they talked, she could probably make the deadline. Probably. "Well, I guess I can come--it's just that my editor has really been on my case."
"Don't worry about Sue, Cassie. She seems gruff, but she's really a good egg."
Overwhelmed by curiosity and the intensity in her father's voice, Cassie couldn't refuse. "Okay. I'm on my way. See you in about thirty minutes."
She heard the smile in his reply. "Good girl. I'll be waiting for you in front. Oh, and Cassie? Keep this under your hat." He hung up without saying goodbye.
Cassie contemplated calling her editor but decided against it. No point in getting her riled up. "All I have to do is get back by two-thirty," she told herself aloud. "That'll give me enough time to finish the article--in fact, Daddy might give me a good idea for the conclusion." She grinned. I can tell Sue I was tied up by some last minute research.
* * *
Traffic was always heavy when Congress was in session, and it seemed to take forever to get onto the Beltway. In a few days, they'd be leaving town for their August recess, and D.C. would be markedly more pleasant--if less interesting.
The blazing sun made water-mirages on the highway and beat through the windshield as she wound in and out of the slower traffic. "Daddy's story isn't the only thing that's hot in this town today," she grumbled aloud. Turning the air conditioner to maximum, she thought of the various conspiracies that littered history.
There was Watergate, of course. And Chinagate. The murder of Julius Caesar. The crucifixion of Christ could be termed a conspiracy. Had the assassinations of Lincoln, the Kennedys, and Martin Luther King been conspiracies? Lots of people thought so. Of course, there were those who were always looking for some conspiracy to explain the unexplainable. Their theories cluttered the Internet, many of them so far-fetched they were laughable.
But some conspiracies were real--and definitely not laughable. The attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon had been the worst. No. The embassy bombing was the worst. For me, anyway. The memory of Alan's sparkling eyes sneaked into her thoughts. She took a deep breath and shook her head, pushing the image away.
Conspiracies always involve power, she thought as she turned onto the road leading to Reagan Airport. And who wields it. Ronald Reagan, himself, was the target of an assassin, and there had been countless attempts on the lives of other world leaders. So why should I doubt it when Daddy says he's uncovered another one?
Passing the big sign announcing the airport entrance, Cassie pressed a little harder on the accelerator, then slowed the car as she turned off the highway and approached the terminal where her impatient father would be waiting.
The traffic ahead of her crawled, and Cassie grimaced. Typical D.C. foul up. The cars in the right lanes were at a complete standstill, and drivers jockeyed for position to get around the crush. Cassie waved her arm out the window as a cabbie drew up behind her in the left lane. He frowned but allowed her to squeeze her car in front of his, and she smiled at him. Salt of the earth, she thought, looking in the rear view mirror at the scowling cab driver. Yes, sir. Salt of the earth.
The pickup truck in front of her and a stalled airport van on the right spewing steam from its engine made it impossible to see the cause of the traffic jam until she was almost on top of it. A born rubbernecker, she stopped her car and looked over her shoulder toward the people milling around an ambulance and police car. Oddly, the crowd seemed to part, and Cassie found herself staring at her father's bloodied body lying on the asphalt.
Oh, my God! She strained to get a better look, but the crowd had knit itself back together as suddenly as it had parted. It can't be Daddy. My eyes are playing tricks on me. Frantic, she shifted into park and jumped out. Forcing her way through the gawkers, she caught a glimpse of short silver hair mottled with blood. Lots of men have short silver hair, she told herself, shoving past a heavy-set woman.
The man in front of her turned to speak to someone, and Cassie spied a worn, brown leather suitcase lying half open off to the left. It can't be him, her brain insisted, but her heart lurched at the sight of the hand-painted red, white, and blue striped necktie like the one she had given her father to wear on Independence Day. A policeman stepped in front of her and grabbed her arm, trying to pull her away, but she yanked it from his grasp.
"That's my father," she snapped, pushing the startled officer out of her way as she went to kneel beside the still figure, whose left side seemed sunken into itself and left leg lay at an odd angle to his body.
Disjointed voices filtered to her ears. "Hit and run...saw it all...black sports car...out of nowhere." Her own voice blended into the mix as she reached out to touch her father's bloody forehead. "Daddy? It's Cassie, Daddy. Oh, Daddy..." His blue eyes stared vacantly up at her. No. Not blue. Gray. His lips are blue. No. That's not right. Lips aren't blue. Eyes are.
A sudden movement drew her attention to the paramedic kneeling across from her. "No, don't," she objected, but he didn't seem to hear her as he gently closed the dead man's eyes, detached the monitors and handed them to his partner. When he turned to face her, his brown eyes were soft, his full lips drawn into a tight line. "I'm sorry, Miss. We were just too late. There wasn't anything we could do. I'm sorry."
Cassie stared blankly at him for a moment, then looked at the motionless body lying before her. Slowly, she withdrew her hand from her father's cold forehead and studied the sticky blood that clung to her fingers. Her stomach knotted. She felt sick. Dammit! Daddy's dead, and all I can feel is sick? She closed her eyes and shook her bowed head. Dear God. Help me.
A pair of strong hands closed around her elbows, lifting her to her feet, and she blinked, trying to bring the round face of a policeman into focus.
"Excuse me, Miss, but did you say that the victim is your father?" He motioned toward the limp body on the pavement as he spoke.
Victim? Daddy? She looked down at her father's ashen face, then back at the policeman, and nodded. "I need to get some information from you," he said. His voice was soft and deep, and he spoke with a slow drawl. Or maybe she was just hearing him slowly.
"I... What?" she asked, trying to make sense of his words.
Glancing at the crowd, he took her arm and guided her a few steps away. "You know. Your name and address," he said, taking a small notebook from the left breast pocket of his dark uniform. "Phone number. Victim's name, stuff like that. There'll be an investigation, and..." His pen was poised above the blue-lined paper.
Yes. An investigation. Somebody killed Daddy. Somebody killed him, and somebody has to find out who. She took a deep breath and gave him the information he asked for, then turned to watch the paramedics place her father's body onto the gurney, covering him from head to toe with a white sheet. When they wheeled him to the ambulance and placed him inside, she blinked hard against the tears that stung the corners of her eyes. We didn't even get to say goodbye.
An airport security guard approached as Cassie started toward the ambulance.
"Uh, Miss? I'm sorry, but, uh, your car is blocking traffic."
Cassie looked at him, then at the swarm of cars, and was suddenly aware of the honking and cursing of frustrated drivers. "The keys are in it," she replied. "But, I need to go with..." She gestured toward the ambulance.
"It's okay. We'll take care of it. Just give us a call when you're ready to pick it up." He patted her on the shoulder, then turned and picked his way through the chaos, motioning as he went for the angry drivers to calm down.
Everything was under control.
, Kathleen LaMarche
Echelon Press, May 2003
The preceding excerpt was taken from the book The Plot
complete approval by the author Kathleen LaMarche and/or the publisher Echelon Press. This
information may not be re-used or redistributed in any manner.
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