Page 110 of Deception Point

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Sexton had no idea what the man was talking about. The reporter handed him the photocopies. Sexton looked at the pages-and for a moment, his mind went totally blank.

No words came.

He was staring at unfamiliar photographs. Black-and-white images. Two people. Naked. Arms and legs intertwined. For an instant, Sexton had no idea what he was looking at. Then it registered. A cannonball to the gut.

In horror, Sexton's head snapped up to the crowd. They were laughing now. Half of them were already phoning in the story to their news desks.

Sexton felt a tap on his shoulder.

In a daze, he wheeled.

Rachel was standing there. "We tried to stop you," she said. "We gave you every chance." A woman stood beside her.

Sexton was trembling as his eyes moved to the woman at Rachel's side. She was the reporter in the cashmere coat and mohair beret-the woman who had knocked over his envelopes. Sexton saw her face, and his blood turned to ice.

Gabrielle's dark eyes seemed to bore right through him as she reached down and opened her coat to reveal a stack of white envelopes tucked neatly beneath her arm.


The Oval Office was dark, lit only by the soft glow of the brass lamp on President Herney's desk. Gabrielle Ashe held her chin high as she stood before the President. Outside the window behind him, dusk was gathering on the west lawn.

"I hear you're leaving us," Herney said, sounding disappointed.

Gabrielle nodded. Although the President had graciously offered her indefinite sanctuary inside the White House away from the press, Gabrielle preferred not to ride out this particular storm by hiding out in the eye. She wanted to be as far away as possible. At least for a while.

Herney gazed across his desk at her, looking impressed. "The choice you made this morning, Gabrielle... " He paused, as if at a loss for words. His eyes were simple and clear-nothing compared to the deep, enigmatic pools that had once drawn Gabrielle to Sedgewick Sexton. And yet, even in the backdrop of this powerful place, Gabrielle saw true kindness in his gaze, an honor and dignity she would not soon forget.

"I did it for me, too," Gabrielle finally said.

Herney nodded. "I owe you my thanks all the same." He stood, motioning for her to follow him into the hall. "I was actually hoping you'd stick around long enough that I could offer you a post on my budgeting staff."

Gabrielle gave him a dubious look. "Stop spending and start mending?"

He chuckled. "Something like that."

"I think we both know, sir, that I'm more of a liability to you at the moment than an asset."

Herney shrugged. "Give it a few months. It will all blow over. Plenty of great men and women have endured similar situations and gone on to greatness." He winked. "A few of them were even U.S. presidents."

Gabrielle knew he was right. Unemployed for only hours, Gabrielle had already turned down two other job offers today-one from Yolanda Cole at ABC, and the other from St. Martin's Press, who had offered her an obscene advance if she would publish a tell-all biography. No thanks.

As Gabrielle and the President moved down the hallway, Gabrielle thought of the pictures of herself that were now being splashed across televisions.

The damage to the country could have been worse, she told herself. Much worse.

Gabrielle, after going to ABC to retrieve the photos and borrow Yolanda Cole's press pass, had snuck back to Sexton's office to assemble the duplicate envelopes. While inside, she had also printed copies of the donation checks in Sexton's computer. After the confrontation at the Washington Monument, Gabrielle had handed copies of the checks to the dumbstruck Senator Sexton and made her demands. Give the President a chance to announce his meteorite mistake, or the rest of this data goes public too. Senator Sexton took one look at the stack of financial evidence, locked himself in his limousine, and drove off. He had not been heard from since.

Now, as the President and Gabrielle arrived at the backstage door of the Briefing Room, Gabrielle could hear the waiting throngs beyond. For the second time in twenty-four hours, the world was assembled to hear a special presidential broadcast.

"What are you going to tell them?" Gabrielle asked.

Herney sighed, his expression remarkably calm. "Over the years, I've learned one thing over and over... " He put a hand on her shoulder and smiled. "There's just no substitute for the truth."

Gabrielle was filled with an unexpected pride as she watched him stride toward the stage. Zach Herney was on his way to admit the biggest mistake of his life, and oddly, he had never looked more presidential.


When Rachel awoke, the room was dark.

A clock glowed 10:14 P.M. The bed was not her own. For several moments, she lay motionless, wondering where she was. Slowly, it all started coming back... the megaplume... this morning at the Washington Monument... the President's invitation to stay at the White House.

I'm at the White House, Rachel realized. I slept here all day.

The Coast Guard chopper, at the President's command, had transported an exhausted Michael Tolland, Corky Marlinson, and Rachel Sexton from the Washington Monument to the White House, where they had been fed a sumptuous breakfast, been seen to by doctors, and been offered any of the building's fourteen bedrooms in which to recuperate.

All of them had accepted.

Rachel could not believe she had slept this long. Turning on the television, she was stunned to see that President Herney had already completed his press conference. Rachel and the others had offered to stand beside him when he announced the meteorite disappointment to the world. We all made the mistake together. But Herney had insisted on shouldering the burden alone.

"Sadly," one political analyst on TV was saying, "it seems NASA has discovered no signs of life from space after all. This marks the second time this decade that NASA has incorrectly classified a meteorite as showing signs of extraterrestrial life. This time, however, a number of highly respected civilians were also among those fooled."

"Normally," a second analyst chimed in, "I would have to say that a deception of the magnitude the President described this evening would be devastating for his career... and yet, considering the developments this morning at the Washington Monument, I would have to say Zach Herney's chances of taking the presidency look better than ever."

The first analyst nodded. "So, no life in space, but no life in Senator Sexton's campaign either. And now, as new information surfaces suggesting deep financial troubles plaguing the senator-"

A knock on the door drew Rachel's attention.

Michael, she hoped, quickly turning off the television. She hadn't seen him since breakfast. On their arrival at the White House, Rachel had wanted nothing more than to fall asleep in his arms. Although she could tell Michael felt the same, Corky had intervened, parking himself on Tolland's bed and exuberantly telling and retelling his story about urinating on himself and saving the day. Finally, utterly exhausted, Rachel and Tolland had given up, heading for separate bedrooms to sleep.

Now, walking toward the door, Rachel checked herself in the mirror, amused to see how ridiculously she was dressed. All she had found to wear to bed was an old Penn State football jersey in the dresser. It draped down to her knees like a nightshirt.

The knocking continued.

Rachel opened the door, disappointed to see a female U.S. Secret Service agent. She was fit and cute, wearing a blue blazer. "Ms. Sexton, the gentleman in the Lincoln Bedroom heard your television. He asked me to tell you that as long as you're already awake... " She paused, arching her eyebrows, clearly no stranger to night games on the upper floors of the White House.

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