Summary: "Secretary McCord, we invite you to join us. Come alone. You have one hour. Fail to show up and the first hostage will be shot." When the State Department is seized and her staff taken hostage, Elizabeth must risk everything in order to save them. But will she make it out alive?
A/N: I could have spent months tweaking or completely rewriting this piece, but I wanted to post it—and the other two stories I've just published—before I go away on research for a few weeks. It's probably more suited to the small screen than to prose, but when it comes to writing, I'm always up for a challenge. I hope that you enjoy it, and if you have a minute, reviews are appreciated. Thanks!
The men dragged Elizabeth through the lobby of the State Department. The muzzle of the gun bit into her temple; each bump drove splinters of ice through her spine. The Hostage Rescue Team scuttled backwards, out through the main doors, and retreated towards the cordon at the edge of the concrete. Lights flashed, cameras snapped, reporters barged forwards and strained for the last shot. Overhead, helicopters whirred. Chhh-chhh-chhh-chhh. The sound hazed over the crisp blue skies.
"On your knees." The man shoved her down at the foot of the flagpole.
"Henry," her voice shook, "I'm sorry. I love you."
The Day Before
DONK. "Error. Invalid Command."
"What do you mean 'Invalid Command'? Stupid piece of…" Elizabeth muttered. She dragged the cursor to the exit button and clicked.
What? Come on. She clicked harder.
Seriously? You want to play that game? Fine. She hammered the mouse button with all the ferocity of a woodpecker drilling into a tree.
The windows on the computer juddered and proliferated, and they flooded the screen faster than you could say 'nuclear arms race'. ZSHHOW. The screen turned black.
Elizabeth stopped. Lips pursed, she cast a glance around her office, let go of the mouse and eased her chair away from the desk. No one saw that…right?
"Blake?" she shouted.
The tread of footsteps hastened towards the office, and within seconds, Blake appeared in the doorway. "Yes, ma'am?"
Elizabeth flapped at the screen. "The stupid computer just died again."
"Let me have a look." Blake strode into the room, the fingers of one hand fumbling with the button of his blazer as he crossed the floor. He skirted round to her side of the desk, and she wheeled the chair out of the way. He hunched over the wooden top, brow pinched in a frown. When a few taps of the keyboard and clicks of the mouse rendered no response, he twisted round to look at her, eyebrows arched. "Ma'am…when you say 'died'…?"
A prickle of heat crawled up Elizabeth's neck. "I didn't do it." She gestured to the screen again. "It just came up with an error message, then everything went black."
Blake stared at her, long enough for the blush to burn through her cheeks. "Right…" The word unrolled from his mouth. Then he knelt down and prodded the buttons on the base unit.
With his back to her, Elizabeth tugged at her silk blouse, and the puffs of air that it released fanned her throat. When did it get so hot in here? "Well, I for one blame those updates." Blake shot her a look over his shoulder, and she folded her arms across her chest. "You can't deny the system's been clunky ever since they installed that new software."
"I'm pretty sure that kicking it didn't help, ma'am." Blake stood up as the lights on the base unit blinked.
TT-CHUH. WHRRRRR. chhh-chhhh-chhhh. BEEP. chhh-chhhh-chhhh. The monitor light flashed lurid green, and the screen flickered back to life.
"That happened one time." Elizabeth held up one finger, but Blake eyeballed her, and a second finger crept up to join the first. "Okay, two times."
The log-in box popped up, and Blake stepped aside. Elizabeth gripped the edge of the desk and hauled herself closer. She punched in her username and password, and as she did so, Blake said, "I did have a call from the contractors to say that there's a known issue—"
Her eyebrows shot up. "See!"
"—and they're scheduled to come back later today." Blake's face tensed, and his eyes begged her. "If you can please just refrain from assaulting the hardware until then…"
Elizabeth shook her head, her chin drawn in. "Well, I'm not making any promises."
"Um…excuse me, ma'am." A voice squeaked from the doorway. One of the interns hovered in the shadows by the closet. Aimee, right? Her copper curls quivered as she shifted from foot to foot. "Sorry to disturb you…" Her cheeks pinkened. "It's just that the phone was ringing, and Blake wasn't there, so I picked it up…" She tugged at the cuffs of her sleeves.
God, this could take all day. Elizabeth wound her hand through the air. "And…?"
"…and Dr McCord's on line one for you."
A glimmer kindled in Elizabeth's chest. She flashed Aimee a smile. "Thank you."
Aimee's cheeks crimsoned, and she gave an awkward bow and then scuttled away.
Elizabeth turned to Blake, still stood next to her desk, his gaze fixed on the spot that Aimee had just fled. "Okay, I know I've had a few late nights recently, but am I really that terrifying?"
"Just imagine if she ran into Russell Jackson." Blake's eyes nurtured a faraway look, as though he were envisioning the scene playing out before him. "We'd probably find her curled up in the foetal position under her desk."
"Well, any encounter with Russell is enough to make me want to hide under my desk. If only this thing had a front." She edged back from the desk and glanced underneath—definitely no front—and then she looked up at Blake again and bit the inside of her cheek. "But we like her…right?"
Blake leant over and plucked one of the peppermint candies from the dish tucked between the telephone and the wooden trinket box. "I just need her to last six weeks, then the office pool is mine."
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows at him.
He popped the candy into his mouth. "What?" The word lolled around the contours of the sweet. "My niece and nephew are coming to stay, and unfortunately being fun Uncle Blake means being broke Uncle Blake."
"See, when I was growing up, a trip itself was considered a treat."
"With respect, ma'am, you grew up on a horse farm, they grew up on Xboxes, Ralph Lauren and VIP passes to Disneyland." He waved his hand as if tossing out the explanation. "My sister married a banker." His brow puckered, and he cocked his head to one side. "I said that with a B, right? One gets so used to saying it with a W."
Blake shrugged, and his frown eased away. "Anyhoo." He pinched a second piece of candy, stashed it in his blazer pocket and then retreated from the room.
Elizabeth called after him, "Tell the staff that we'll have the meeting in here. The conference room smells like something died in it."
Elizabeth lifted the phone from the cradle. She wedged the handset against her shoulder and swivelled round to face the window behind. The sunlight bled through the net curtains and infused the office with a soft peach glow. "Hey, you."
"Hey, babe." Henry's smile shone through his voice. "Blake sounds different."
Elizabeth chuckled. "That was an intern. Blake was sorting out my computer for me." She pivoted back and forth in her chair, and the light glinted off the photographs that cluttered the small table between the two windows.
"Babe…you've not been kicking things again, have you?"
A tingle swept up the back of her neck and across her face, until even her ears burned. "It's a legitimate method, I swear to God."
"Dare I mention the incident of '07?"
Elizabeth picked up one of the photographs—the three kids sat in a row on a fence back at the horse farm. "That depends. How'd you like sleeping on the couch?"
"That depends," Henry said, and his voice deepened. "If you were to join me, I'm sure we'd make it cosy enough."
Elizabeth smiled to herself, and she pictured the smirk that would be playing on Henry's lips.
"Look, my faculty meeting's been canceled, so I'm free over lunch, and I thought maybe I could take you out. We could go to the park, have a picnic…Just you, me…your DS agents."
Elizabeth laughed. "As romantic as that sounds, I'm meant to have a meeting with my staff." She pivoted back to her desk and positioned the photograph next to the computer monitor. On screen, the background shuddered and the icons winked. A dull ache spread through her head, like fog rolling in off the sea, but before it could settle, she reached out and turned off the screen.
"I'm sure they can cope without you for half an hour," Henry said. Then his tone softened. "I've missed you."
A twinge of guilt tweaked through her chest. Mmnnhh…He knew what he was doing.
"I'll bring sandwiches."
Elizabeth let out a huff of breath. "Fine." Just half an hour…and a girl's gotta eat, right? "Have security call up when you arrive, and I'll meet you in the lobby."
"Great." Henry's voice lit up. "See you later. Love you."
"You too." She blew a kiss into the phone. "Bye."
"My concern is that Congress is looking for any reason to reject this." Elizabeth flicked through the document that stuffed the lever arch file in her lap. Powdery wafts of toner lifted from the pages and mingled with the aroma of fresh coffee that bloomed from the array of mugs on the table. She glanced from Matt to Daisy to Kat, who had crammed onto the sofa opposite her, and then to Jay, in the armchair at her side. "They're going to want to know where every last cent is going, and if they consider even one of these projects a risk—"
Jay nodded along. "They'll throw the baby out with the bathwater."
Elizabeth thrust one hand up, fingers spiking the air. "Exactly."
Jay crossed his lower leg over the opposite knee and rubbed at his mouth. "We can go through each of the projects again—" He drummed his pen against the top of his own file. "—see if we can't weed out some of the less vital vital proposals."
"But none of them are exactly frivolous." Kat batted her hand, her elbow propped against the armrest of the couch, and then she rested her first two fingers against her temple. "And none of them come without some element of risk."
"Look, I know it's frustrating—"
Blake placed the phone down with a clunk. He stepped towards Elizabeth, mouth open.
But she stalled him with one hand. "—but the worst thing is that they reject it outright, then none of these projects will be given a chance." Her gaze skimmed over each of them again, their slumped shoulders and downcast eyes. "We can't let that happen." She lowered her hand. "Blake?"
"Ma'am, that was security. Your husband's waiting for you downstairs—"
"Already?" She glanced at her watch. Twelve o'clock. Shoot.
"Yes, ma'am. Also, the IT contractors have arrived and will be here shortly."
Elizabeth rubbed her brow. The aid package wouldn't sort itself out, but Henry…'I've missed you'…Her body sank deeper and deeper into the seat. Her fingers stilled, and she let out a terse sigh. "Can you let Henry know I need to cancel? Tell him I'll make it up to him another time."
Jay swiped a horizontal back and forth through the air with one hand—the gestural equivalent of 'No, no, no'—and he grimaced as he hurried to swallow his swig of coffee. "Ma'am, we'll be fine. You go have lunch, and we'll make a start."
"Are you sure?" She looked to him. "I don't want to burden you with all this—" She arched her fingers atop the file. "—then swan off."
"You've worked late every night this week." He waved her towards the door. "Go."
A weight lifted, and she flashed them all a smile. "Thank you." She closed the binder and then stooped down and pulled on her stilettos. Her staff stood up from their seats, but she flapped them back down. "No. Stay. Stay. I'll be half an hour max."
"Going anywhere nice, ma'am?" Matt asked.
"Just the park." She dropped the file on her desk with a whump. The silver bird figurine that perched atop the wooden trinket box jolted, toppled off the edge and chimed against the desk. She picked it up and balanced it on its roost, and then grabbed the grey cardigan that was draped over the back of her chair. "When we were at college, Henry used to track me down after lectures and surprise me with picnics."
"That's sweet," Matt said.
"A thermos full of coffee and a cheese sandwich from the canteen?" Elizabeth wrestled on the cardigan. "I think the word you're looking for is 'economical'."
Daisy clasped the edge of her binder and shrugged. "Well, I think it's romantic."
"You've obviously never frozen your ass off on a bench during January in Virginia," Elizabeth said, but she smiled to herself at the flutter in her stomach. Henry. She'd wanted the pink, bubbly happily ever after thing, and he'd shown her what romance was really about. She backed towards the door. "If you need me—"
"We'll be fine," Jay said. "Say 'Hi' to Henry from us."
An eddying breeze swept through the park, carrying with it the hint of a chill. It ruffled the boughs of cherry blossom and lifted the pink confetti from the path, causing the petals to tumble and swirl like the twirls of a Japanese parasol dance. Elizabeth snuggled closer to Henry's side as they sat together on one of the wooden benches.
"I'm just saying—" A mouthful of peanut butter sandwich muffled her voice. "—if control-alt-delete doesn't work, give it a tap." She swatted the air.
"And a tap is different from kicking it with one of these." Henry nudged her stiletto heel.
"I didn't—" She began, but then huffed, and her hand fell back to her lap. She shook her head to herself and turned her shoulder away from Henry. If he was just going to tease her…She took another bite of sandwich and chewed it over.
A troop of joggers chuffed past, the beat of music blaring from their earbuds. They wove through the DS agents who encircled the bench, and then dodged the string of preschoolers who chattered and skipped and squealed along the path, shepherded by adults in pink fluorescent vests—the radiance lost to the mellow glow beneath the cherry trees.
Henry pressed his coffee cup into her hand. She cradled it a moment, until the heat seeped through the paper and sent a blush of warmth to her fingers, and then she took a sip and passed it back. The liquid unfurled on her tongue, smooth with a dash of cocoa. She swallowed and then twisted round to face him. "So, how's academia?"
Henry clamped his lips together. He shrugged. "Fine."
"That great, huh?" The corners of her mouth quirked upwards.
His gaze lowered to the coffee cup in his hands.
Her smile withered. She touched his knee and leant in closer, head dipped. "If you're not happy—"
He turned to her, a smile so forced it made the Pan Am look positively perky. "I am happy."
She recoiled. "Spoken like a man who's been forced into a stress position."
Henry covered her hand. He looked into her eyes. "I love that I'm getting to spend more time with you and the kids."
"You mean, when I'm actually around." She arched her eyebrows, and he gave a half-shrug. She squeezed his thigh. "If something's bothering you…"
His gaze lowered again, and he shook his head. "I guess it just all feels a little mundane, petty even, after the work I was doing before."
Elizabeth pulled at the crusts of her sandwich. Her lips tensed. "The shift from espionage to teaching is a difficult one."
Henry hunched forward. "I just wish it had been on my own terms rather than feeling like I was backed into a corner and forced out." His fingers curled around the coffee cup, and the lid slid up and popped off the rim.
"Tell me about it." The words fell faint enough that they could have been lost to the breeze. If you go to Baghdad, I don't know what things will look like when you get back.
"What?" Henry twisted round, his brow furrowed.
"Nothing." Elizabeth shook the thought from her mind, and she offered him the wisp of a smile. "It just sucks that you felt forced to quit because Morejon can't see past the fact that you're married to me, or my friendship with Conrad." She dropped the leftovers in the brown paper bag wedged between her and the end of the bench, and then she rubbed Henry's lower back. "But the work you're doing at the War College is important, even if it doesn't always feel that way."
"I know." He sighed out a stream of breath and then sat back in the seat. He slung his arm around her shoulders, gathering her against him, and as he looked down at her, his eyes shone, their corners crinkled. "Plus, I have the chance to be part of something greater." He pressed a kiss to her forehead. "I'm sorry. I promised you a romantic picnic, then I've gone and put a downer on it."
"No." Elizabeth stroked his thigh. Her lips curled upwards. "Spouse to spouse communication? Very sexy."
Henry chuckled, and the lightness of that sound soothed the ache that still niggled in her chest. He leant in and brushed his lips against hers, a feather of a kiss. They lingered there. The scent of black pepper and the subtle spice of his cologne rolled off him and filled her lungs. She let out a low hum and then patted his chest and drew away. She leant back against the bench, and with her face turned up to the sky, the sunshine rained down on her through the petals and caressed her with its warmth.
"Everything okay with you?" Henry's fingers fluttered against her shoulder. "You seem a little…"
A little what? Barbed? Bitter? Stung? "Just tired, that's all." I just wish it had been on my own terms…She pinched the bridge of her nose. "I just hope that these tech guys actually fix the computers. I've got a mountain of work, and I really don't want to stay late again tonight." Henry's fingertips dug into her shoulder, and his gaze chafed over her. She turned her head to the side and cracked open one eye. "What?"
"Don't tell me that you've forgotten."
Her pulse pattered. "Forgotten what?"
Henry let go of her, and his elbow came to rest on the back of the bench as he twisted round to face her. "Dinner with my family."
She frowned; a vague something strummed in the background of her mind.
"We said that we'd meet up for a meal…" His eyes widened. "We even invited Sophie and Will."
Henry massaged his forehead. Then his hand fell back to his lap. "It's the first time we'll all be together since my dad died." The muscles of his jaw clenched. "You promised me you'd be there."
"And I will…" Elizabeth said, "…try my best."
"Elizabeth." His tone sharpened.
"I'll be there." She took his hand and ran her thumb back and forth over his knuckles. "I'll have to shuffle a few things round, but I'll make it work." She dipped and caught his gaze. "I promise."
His eyes had darkened; sunshine consumed in the shadows of clouds. He opened his mouth and then closed it again, lips bunched to one side. And he couldn't blame her, surely? Not when the job was what it was. But then the clouds skittered on, and he nodded and squeezed her hand. "Thank you."
The tightness in Elizabeth's chest eased. She nestled her head against his shoulder and laced their fingers together. A woman with a buggy sped past; her baby's howl peaked with a high-pitched crescendo before it died away again, only to be replaced by the wail of sirens and the drone of a helicopter flying overhead. Other couples strolled along the path, arm in arm, exchanging cryptic smiles and mothlike touches.
Henry raised their entwined hands to his lips and ambled kisses along the edge of her thumb all the way to her wrist. "Tell me a secret." The words vibrated against her skin.
Her stomach shivered. "A secret?" She eased away from his shoulder and drew back until she met his gaze.
His eyes harboured a glimmer, the whisper of a yearning. He nodded.
"But if I did that, I'd have to kill you," she said, "and the truth is I've grown rather fond of you, Henry McCord." She smirked.
He rolled his eyes, though his own smile still broke through. "Not a state secret." He tugged at her hand. "Just a piece of you."
Her gaze relaxed, and the park around them blurred. A secret? But what secret? It was silly, but what about…? She squeezed his hand. "Remember when you took me for picnics on the quad?"
"Of course I do. It's the only way I could tempt you away from—"
"Madam Secretary." Matt's voice cut through them, at once so sharp and blunt that it drove a shock of ice straight to Elizabeth's core. "You need to come with us now."
The circle of DS agents snapped in around the bench, as though someone had yanked on a drawstring.
Elizabeth's heart pounded. She clung to Henry's hand. "What's going on?"
"There's been an incident at the State Department." Matt urged them to their feet. "I can't tell you anything more."
The ice spilled out into her bloodstream. She opened her mouth, no sound, just words stuttering their way towards the tip of her tongue. The State Department? An incident? What incident?
Matt held up one hand. "We need to get you and Dr McCord to the White House right now."
"But…" Elizabeth looked to Henry. Just half an hour…and a girl's gotta eat, right?
"Ma'am, we need to go."