by Daniel Steven
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
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
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
"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.
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
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
"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.
"Did Mr. Conner tell you why he went to
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
"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