danielsteven.com

home

about dan

novels


Clinical Trials
by Daniel Steven
 

-PROLOGUE-

   Jason Conner walked along the most photographed fence in the world, putting his hand inside his surplus Army jacket to feel the envelope. Twice before he had tried to mail it, once actually putting his hand into the letterbox.
    Tall and gaunt, his cropped blond hair sticking straight out from his head, Conner looked like a forlorn stork. He stopped to cough into his handkerchief, then sucked in the frigid air, fighting a wave of nausea.
    A few moments later, he felt better and replaced the handkerchief in his hip pocket, considering his options. Mailing the letter was definitely out. Phone calls, too -- he would never convince a White House operator that he was a friend of the new President. It was strange, he thought, that any human being could be so isolated. Yesterday, before his inauguration, Thomas Banfield had been a free man. Today he was a prisoner of his position, in a constantly moving cocoon of handlers, aides, advisors, and agents.
    Around Conner was the usual crowd of tourists, snapping pictures, gawking at the mansion. Pennsylvania Avenue was closed to vehicles, and the street was a mini-mall for pedestrians and bikers, even in January. The crowd was good-natured and the President was too new to have any protesters. The only reminders of past troubles were the uniformed Executive Service cops patrolling the sidewalk.
    An idea formed in Conner's mind. If he 't so weak and light-headed, he might have rejected the idea instantly -- but in his present frame of mind, it seemed logical, almost a fait accompli. Adrift in his illness, in a stream-of-consciousness world, Conner's logical connections were facile, the hard edges of reality blurring easily into magical thinking.
    He looked hard at the fence -- 300 yards of black wrought iron. In deference to one of the symbols of American democracy, there was no barbed wire or other impediment to climbing. He assumed there was some sort of sophisticated monitoring system -- video cameras, motion detectors, sensors -- but that was okay; his action was not meant to be covert.
    Conner waited until the nearest cop looked in the other direction. Then, with the grace of a former athlete, he took two giant steps and leaped onto the fence. His adrenaline compensated for muscle weakness, and he was up and over the top in seconds, landing softly on the ground. He cringed, expecting the sound of alarms and sirens, but there was nothing, not even a shout from the guards. No one seemed to notice.
    Directly in front of him was the massive fountain, shut down for the winter. Conner walked forward, steadily and slowly, deliberately not running. He wondered how far he could get before being challenged.
    Ahead of him was a wide expanse of lawn leading to the north gate, and now he noticed a flurry of activity. Men in suits came down the steps; cars rushed up the driveway. He continued walking.
    About 50 yards from the driveway, two uniformed cops and a man in a dark suit came around the end of the hedges directly in front of him. "You!" one of them shouted. "Freeze right there! Get down on the ground!"
    Conner kept walking. They could see he was no threat. He was startled, however, to see the men kneel and pull guns out of holsters. It was weird -- like being in a movie he'd seen a thousand times. He was close enough to see their faces, and realized they looked scared. Of him! He placed his empty hands in clear sight, palms facing outward. "It's all right," he said. "I just want to deliver something. For the President. This is the only way."
    He felt weak and lightheaded again. He knew he might faint, that he only had a few seconds. With his right hand, Conner reached into his jacket for the envelope. Everything happened slowly: he felt the paper between his fingers and began pulling it out of the pocket. Then there was a tremendous blow, like the kick of a horse, in the center of his chest. He pitched backward, at the same time hearing the boom of the pistol.
    Conner fell hard onto the frozen grass. There was no pain. He stared up at the cloudless sky, marveling at the blueness. The blood to his brain ebbed and he felt himself drifting away. He realized, with great regret, that he would never know how it ended.

# # #

    Craig Hagen, Special Counsel to the President, walked away from his very first meeting in the Oval Office, mind full of schemes. He clutched a heavy black briefing book under his arm as he nodded to the Marine sentry and headed down the hallway toward an appointment in the East Room.
    The White House was still in chaos -- everyone only partly moved in -- and the new President was in a foul mood. Tom Banfield was always slightly testy in the morning, anyway, and when everything was going wrong, he could be intolerable. Hagen smiled, remembering how Banfield had pointed his finger at him like a gun, demanding answers to his questions about the delay in vetting his nominee for Secretary of State. Perversely, Hagen took Banfield's anger as a compliment: it meant that Hagen, not Turk Finnegan, continued to be the person on whom he relied.
    Roger "Turk" Finnegan was the new Chief of Staff -- traditionally the second-most powerful person in Washington. But he was, and always would be, an interloper in the Banfield administration, chosen only because Banfield needed a Washington insider to guide him through the Congressional shoals.
    Short, balding, and intense, Hagen had known Banfield since their college days at the University of Minnesota. He had been the County Attorney in the administration of County Executive Banfield, and had managed both of Banfield's campaigns for Governor. Hagen, T.J. Markham, and a few others popularly known as the "Minnesota Mafia" had suffered through the bad times as well as the good. That meant something to Tom Banfield.
    As Hagen scurried down the hallway, passing the wide windows facing Pennsylvania Avenue, something on the periphery of his vision caught his attention. Through the windows he saw a tall, thin man walking toward the White House. The man was dressed in black pants and a military jacket too thin for the cold. At the same instant he heard the boom! of a large-caliber pistol and saw the man crumple to the ground.
    "Jesus Christ!" muttered Hagen. Almost instantly, alarms sounded and a Secret Service agent rushed by, nearly knocking him into the window. Hagen spun around and followed the agent, jogging down the hallway, out the main entrance and onto the front steps.
    T.J. Markham, former FBI agent and Minnesota state trooper, now the brand-new director of the President's Secret Service detail, was already on the driveway behind the hedge. He spoke into his wireless intercom. "Yeah, yeah, I know," he said. "It's just one guy -- that we know about. I still want Point Guard in the safe room."
    Point Guard -- the President -- would be even grumpier now, thought Hagen. His first day in office, and he was locked up in an underground bunker. But T.J. was right -- this could be a diversion from a real attack.
    Markham saw Hagen and put up his hand. "Stay there, Craig. We'll handle this."
    "The hell you will," Hagen said. "You handle the cop stuff. I've gotta represent Point Guard."
    Markham locked eyes with him for a moment, then conceded. "All right, just don't get in my way." He turned and walked quickly onto the lawn, Hagen following.
    Two cops and a plainclothes agent were around the body. The plainclothes agent was kneeling next to the man, giving CPR. He looked up as Markham approached and shook his head. "He's gone."
    "The paramedics are coming," Markham said. Keep going."
    The man shook his head again. "Forget it. He took it right in the heart." He pointed at the entrance wound in the man's chest.
    "Shit!" Markham said. "Who fired?"
    One of the uniformed Executive Service cops, a burly young man with a crewcut, spoke up. "Chris Potter, sir," he said, gulping air. "I . . . I thought he was going for a weapon. He reached into his pocket."
    "You idiot," Markham said tiredly, and sighed. "Give me your gun." The man complied, looking ready to cry. Markham made sure the safety was on, then shoved it into his waistband.
    Hagen looked down at the intruder. He was very thin, in his late thirties, with pale, delicate features. His blue eyes were open but he had a relaxed, almost peaceful expression.
    Markham put on a pair of surgical gloves and patted down the outside of the man's jacket. He slowly pushed aside the blood-soaked front, exposing what once might have been a white t-shirt. The jacket had an inside pocket, and sticking out of it was something red. Markham pulled on the object, revealing a standard business envelope with the upper third blood-stained. It was addressed to "The President, White House, Washington, D.C." There was a first-class stamp on it.
    "This what he was reaching for?" Markham said meaningfully, glaring at Potter.
    "I . . . guess so," Potter said.
    "Yeah," Markham said. "A fucking letter." He tipped the body on its side and pulled the man's wallet out of his hip pocket, rifling through it quickly. He announced, "Jason Conner. Age 38. Lives in Minnesota."
    Putting aside the wallet, Markham opened the bloody envelope, unfolded the letter and skimmed it disdainfully. His eyes widened and he stood up straight, his jaw working.
    "What is it?" Hagen said, but Markham waved him to silence until he finished reading. Then, with a strange expression, he handed the letter to Hagen.
    Hagen read the letter, then looked at Markham. "Oh, my God," was all he could think to say.

# # #

    The landlady was an old woman named Mrs. McGee, and maddeningly slow as she climbed the steps to the second floor apartment.
    "He seemed like such a nice young man," she whined nasally, laboriously removing a large key ring from the side pocket of her robe. "Always paid the rent right on time, never gave me any trouble."
    They reached the top of the stairs, and the old lady fumbled with the lock. Markham had to restrain himself from throttling her; he consoled himself with the thought that she hadn't asked for a search warrant. Finally the door opened and Markham pushed past her into the apartment, trailed by three agents.
    The apartment was tastefully decorated with Scandinavian-style furniture, all wood and light fabric. A high counter separated the living room from a small kitchen. Against the far wall was a home office consisting of a computer desk and bookcase.
    In the short time since Conner had been shot, Markham had learned a great deal about the man. Conner had worked for the County as a zoning inspector until he took a leave of absence for illness. He had never been married, never owned a home, and drove a ten-year old Volvo. He was, apparently, a loner with few friends and no close family. It was just possible, thought Markham, that he hadn't told anyone what was in the letter.
    Well, they would know soon enough.
    Markham watched impassively as his men methodically searched the apartment, ripping open drawers, looking behind pictures and under furniture. The old woman stepped forward. "What are you doing?"
    "We're searching," Markham said patiently.
    "Oh, my."
    "Did Mr. Conner tell you why he went to Washington?"
    The old woman blinked, her wrinkled face creasing in surprise. "Why, no, not really. He told me he had to go away for a while, and asked if I would take care of his goldfish." She sniffed. "I told him I don't like fish, and he got all huffy."
    "Mrs. McGee," said Markham, very quietly. "Please think about this very carefully. Did he leave anything with you, or ask you to mail anything, or contact anyone for him?"
    "Nope," she said with assurance. "We weren't all that friendly."
    Markham nodded as Timson and Brent approached. Brent said, "Found this in the bedroom behind the dresser." He handed Markham a thick leather-bound book.
    "It's Conner's," Timson said, pointing to the name embossed in gold script on the cover.     "His diary."
    Markham quickly thumbed through it. The first entry was almost ten years ago, and it looked like Conner kept it pretty regularly for a while, averaging at least a few entries every week. Then, after a couple of years, the entries tailed off for long periods, followed by intervals of intense writing. He flipped forward until he found the approximate date--and there it was. He snapped the journal shut. "Good work, Brent."
    "You need an evidence bag?"
    "No, thanks," Markham said grimly.
    The red leather of the journal was dry and cracked. It would burn easily.

Copyright 1998 Daniel Steven

home | about dan | contact
2002, Daniel N. Steven