Rachel blushed, her skin tingling. "Thanks."
The agent led Rachel down the impeccably appointed hallway to a plain-looking doorway nearby.
"The Lincoln Bedroom," the agent said. "And as I am always supposed to say outside this door, 'Sleep well, and beware of ghosts.'"
Rachel nodded. The legends of ghosts in the Lincoln Bedroom were as old as the White House itself. It was said that Winston Churchill had seen Lincoln's ghost here, as had countless others, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Amy Carter, actor Richard Dreyfuss, and decades of maids and butlers. President Reagan's dog was said to bark outside this door for hours at a time.
The thoughts of historical spirits suddenly made Rachel realize what a sacred place this room was. She felt suddenly embarrassed, standing there in her long football jersey, bare-legged, like some college coed sneaking into a boy's room. "Is this kosher?" she whispered to the agent. "I mean this is the Lincoln Bedroom."
The agent winked. "Our policy on this floor is 'Don't ask, don't tell.'"
Rachel smiled. "Thanks." She reached for the door-knob, already feeling the anticipation of what lay beyond.
"Rachel!" The nasal voice carried down the hallway like a buzz saw.
Rachel and the agent turned. Corky Marlinson was hobbling toward them on crutches, his leg now professionally bandaged. "I couldn't sleep either!"
Rachel slumped, sensing her romantic tryst about to disintegrate.
Corky's eyes inspected the cute Secret Service agent. He flashed her a broad smile. "I love women in uniform."
The agent pulled aside her blazer to reveal a lethal-looking sidearm.
Corky backed off. "Point taken." He turned to Rachel. "Is Mike awake, too? You going in?" Corky looked eager to join the party.
Rachel groaned. "Actually, Corky... "
"Dr. Marlinson," the Secret Service agent intervened, pulling a note from her blazer. "According to this note, which was given to me by Mr. Tolland, I have explicit orders to escort you down to the kitchen, have our chef make you anything you want, and ask you to explain to me in vivid detail how you saved yourself from certain death by... " the agent hesitated, grimacing as she read the note again. "... by urinating on yourself?"
Apparently, the agent had said the magic words. Corky dropped his crutches on the spot and put an arm around the woman's shoulders for support, and said, "To the kitchen, love!"
As the indisposed agent helped Corky hobble off down the hall, Rachel had no doubt Corky Marlinson was in heaven. "The urine is the key," she heard him saying, "because those damned telencephalon olfactory lobes can smell everything!"
The Lincoln Bedroom was dark when Rachel entered. She was surprised to see the bed empty and untouched. Michael Tolland was nowhere to be seen.
An antique oil lamp burned near the bed, and in the soft radiance, she could barely make out the Brussels carpet... the famous carved rosewood bed... the portrait of Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd... even the desk where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
As Rachel closed the door behind her, she felt a clammy draft on her bare legs. Where is he? Across the room, a window was open, the white organza curtains billowing. She walked over to close the window, and an eerie whisper murmured from the closet.
"Maaaaaarrrrrrrry?" the voice whispered again. "Is that you?... Mary Todd Liiiiiincoln?"
Rachel quickly closed the window and turned back toward the closet. Her heart was racing, although she knew it was foolish. "Mike, I know that's you."
"Noooooo... " the voice continued. "I am not Mike... I am... Aaaaabe."
Rachel put her hands on her hips. "Oh, really? Honest Abe?"
A muffled laugh. "Moderately honest Abe... yes."
Rachel was laughing now too.
"Be afraaaaaaid," the voice from the closet moaned. "Be veeeeeery afraid."
"I'm not afraid."
"Please be afraid... " the voice moaned. "In the human species, the emotions of fear and sexual arousal are closely linked."
Rachel burst out laughing. "Is this your idea of a turn-on?"
"Forgiiiive me... " the voice moaned. "It's been yeeeeeeears since I've been with a woman."
"Evidently," Rachel said, yanking the door open.
Michael Tolland stood before her with his roguish, lopsided grin. He looked irresistible wearing a pair of navy blue satin pajamas. Rachel did a double take when she saw the presidential seal emblazoned on his chest.
He shrugged. "They were in the drawer."
"And all I had was this football jersey?"
"You should have chosen the Lincoln Bedroom."
"You should have offered!"
"I heard the mattress was bad. Antique horsehair." Tolland winked, motioning to a gift-wrapped package on a marble-topped table. "This'll make it up to you."
Rachel was touched. "For me?"
"I had one of the presidential aides go out and find this for you. Just arrived. Don't shake it."
She carefully opened the package, extracting the heavy contents. Inside was a large crystal bowl in which were swimming two ugly orange goldfish. Rachel stared in confused disappointment. "You're joking, right?"
"Helostoma temmincki," Tolland said proudly.
"You bought me fish?"
"Rare Chinese kissing fish. Very romantic."
"Fish are not romantic, Mike."
"Tell that to these guys. They'll kiss for hours."
"Is this supposed to be another turn-on?"
"I'm rusty on the romance. Can you grade me on effort?"
"For future reference, Mike, fish are definitely not a turn-on. Try flowers."
Tolland pulled a bouquet of white lilies from behind his back. "I tried for red roses," he said, "but I almost got shot sneaking into the Rose Garden."
As Tolland pulled Rachel's body against his and inhaled the soft fragrance of her hair, he felt years of quiet isolation dissolving inside him. He kissed her deeply, feeling her body rise against him. The white lilies fell to their feet, and barriers Tolland had never known he'd built were suddenly melting away.
The ghosts are gone.
He felt Rachel inching him toward the bed now, her whisper soft in his ear. "You don't really think fish are romantic, do you?"
"I do," he said, kissing her again. "You should see the jellyfish mating ritual. Incredibly erotic."
Rachel maneuvered him onto his back on the horsehair mattress, easing her slender body down on top of his.
"And seahorses...," Tolland said, breathless as he savored her touch through the thin satin of his pajamas. "Seahorses perform... an unbelievably sensual dance of love."
"Enough fish talk," she whispered, unbuttoning his pajamas. "What can you tell me about the mating rituals of advanced primates?"
Tolland sighed. "I'm afraid I don't really do primates."
Rachel shed her football jersey. "Well, nature boy, I suggest you learn fast."
The NASA transport jet banked high over the Atlantic.
Onboard, Administrator Lawrence Ekstrom took a last look at the huge charred rock in the cargo hold. Back to the sea, he thought. Where they found you.
On Ekstrom's command, the pilot opened the cargo doors and released the rock. They watched as the mammoth stone plummeted downward behind the plane, arcing across the sunlit ocean sky and disappearing beneath the waves in a pillar of silver spray.