As they walked to the elevator, the old man said, "Sometimes all it takes to unravel something is a single strand. Perhaps we can find a way to eat away at NASA's victory from within. Cast a shadow of distrust. Who knows where it will lead?" The old man locked his tired eyes on Sexton. "I am not ready to lay down and die, senator. And I trust nor are you."
"Of course not," Sexton said, mustering resolve in his voice. "We've come too far."
"Chris Harper lied about fixing PODS," the man said as he boarded the elevator. "And we need to know why."
"I will get that information as fast as I can," Sexton replied. I have just the person.
"Good. Your future depends on it."
As Sexton headed back toward his apartment, his step was a little lighter, his head a little clearer. NASA lied about PODS. The only question was how Sexton could prove it.
His thoughts had already turned to Gabrielle Ashe. Wherever she was at the moment, she had to be feeling like shit. Gabrielle had no doubt seen the press conference and was now standing on a ledge somewhere getting ready to jump. Her proposition of making NASA a major issue in Sexton's campaign had turned out to be the biggest mistake of Sexton's career.
She owes me, Sexton thought. And she knows it.
Gabrielle already had proven she had a knack for obtaining NASA secrets. She has a contact, Sexton thought. She'd been scoring insider information for weeks now. Gabrielle had connections she was not sharing. Connections she could pump for information on PODS. Moreover, tonight Gabrielle would be motivated. She had a debt to repay, and Sexton suspected she would do anything to regain his favor.
As Sexton arrived back at his apartment door, his bodyguard nodded. "Evening, senator. I trust I did the right thing by letting Gabrielle in earlier? She said it was critical she talk to you."
Sexton paused. "I'm sorry?"
"Ms. Ashe? She had important information for you earlier tonight. That's why I let her in."
Sexton felt his body stiffen. He looked at his apartment door. What the hell is this guy talking about?
The guard's expression changed to one of confusion and concern. "Senator, are you okay? You remember, right? Gabrielle arrived during your meeting. She talked to you, right? She must have. She was in there quite a while."
Sexton stared a long moment, feeling his pulse skyrocket. This moron let Gabrielle into my apartment during a private SFF meeting? She stuck around inside and then departed without a word? Sexton could only imagine what Gabrielle might have overheard. Swallowing his anger, he forced a smile to his guard. "Oh, yes! I'm sorry. I'm exhausted. Had a couple of drinks, too. Ms. Ashe and I did indeed speak. You did the right thing."
The guard looked relieved.
"Did she say where she went when she left?"
The guard shook his head. "She was in a big hurry."
Sexton entered his apartment fuming. How complicated were my goddamn directions? No visitors! He had to assume if Gabrielle had been inside for any length of time and then snuck out without a word, she must have heard things she was not meant to hear. Tonight of all nights.
Senator Sexton knew above all he could not afford to lose Gabrielle Ashe's trust; women could become vengeful and stupid when they felt deceived. Sexton needed to bring her back. Tonight more than ever, he needed her in his camp.
On the fourth floor of the ABC television studios, Gabrielle Ashe sat alone in Yolanda's glass-walled office and stared at the fraying carpet. She had always prided herself on good instincts and knowing whom she could trust. Now, for the first time in years, Gabrielle felt alone, uncertain which way to turn.
The sound of her cellphone lifted her gaze from the carpet. Reluctant, she picked up. "Gabrielle Ashe."
"Gabrielle, it's me."
She recognized the timbre of Senator Sexton's voice immediately, although he sounded surprisingly calm considering what had just transpired.
"It's been one hell of a night over here," he said, "so just let me talk. I'm sure you saw the President's conference. Christ, did we play the wrong cards. I'm sick over it. You're probably blaming yourself. Don't. Who the hell would have guessed? Not your fault. Anyhow, listen up. I think there may be a way to get our feet back under us."
Gabrielle stood up, unable to imagine what Sexton could be talking about. This was hardly the reaction she had expected.
"I had a meeting tonight," Sexton said, "with representatives from private space industries, and-"
"You did?" Gabrielle blurted, stunned to hear him admit it. "I mean... I had no idea."
"Yeah, nothing major. I would have asked you to sit in, but these guys are touchy about privacy. Some of them are donating money to my campaign. It's not something they like to advertise."
Gabrielle felt totally disarmed. "But... isn't that illegal?"
"Illegal? Hell no! All the donations are under the two-thousand-dollar cap. Small potatoes. These guys barely make a dent, but I listen to their gripes anyway. Call it an investment in the future. I'm quiet about it because, frankly, the appearances aren't so great. If the White House caught wind, they'd spin the hell out of it. Anyhow, look, that's not the point. I called to tell you that after tonight's meeting, I was talking to the head of the SFF... "
For several seconds, although Sexton was still talking, all Gabrielle could hear was the blood rushing in shame to her face. Without the slightest challenge from her, the senator had calmly admitted tonight's meeting with private space companies. Perfectly legal. And to think what Gabrielle had almost considered doing! Thank God Yolanda had stopped her. I almost jumped ship to Marjorie Tench!
"... and so I told the head of the SFF," the senator was saying, "that you might be able to get that information for us."
Gabrielle tuned back in. "Okay."
"The contact from whom you've been getting all your inside NASA information these past few months? I assume you still have access?"
Marjorie Tench. Gabrielle cringed knowing she could never tell the senator that the informant had been manipulating her all along. "Um... I think so," Gabrielle lied.
"Good. There's some information I need from you. Right away."
As she listened, Gabrielle realized just how badly she had been underestimating Senator Sedgewick Sexton lately. Some of the man's luster had worn off since she'd first begun following his career. But tonight, it was back. In the face of what appeared to be the ultimate death blow to his campaign, Sexton was plotting a counterattack. And although it had been Gabrielle who led him down this inauspicious path, he was not punishing her. Instead, he was giving her a chance to redeem herself.
And redeem herself she would.
Whatever it took.
William Pickering gazed out his office window at the distant line of headlights on Leesburg Highway. He often thought about her when he stood up here alone at the top of the world.
All this power... and I couldn't save her.
Pickering's daughter, Diana, had died in the Red Sea while stationed aboard a small navy escort ship, training to become a navigator. Her ship had been anchored in safe harbor on a sunny afternoon when a handmade dory loaded with explosives and powered by two suicide terrorists motored slowly across the harbor and exploded on contact with the hull. Diana Pickering and thirteen other young American soldiers had been killed that day.
William Pickering had been devastated. The anguish overwhelmed him for weeks. When the terrorist attack was traced to a known cell whom the CIA had been tracking unsuccessfully for years, Pickering's sadness turned into rage. He had marched into CIA headquarters and demanded answers.