“Where?” Nash asked in surprise. He didn’t do a lot of briefings at the White House, and none so far with this president, but when he did they were always down in the Situation Room.
“Not sure,” Rapp lied. He started up the stairs and hoped no one was loitering in the halls. This was all a bit like delivering the honoree to a surprise party. When they got to the main floor they took a U-turn and headed down the hall past the Cabinet Room. Straight ahead two big Secret Service agents in dark suits stood post outside the main door to the Oval Office. Each agent widened his stance a bit and tracked the two visitors with unblinking eyes.
Rapp knew having a couple of guys like him and Nash in the building always put these guys on edge. He locked eyes with the one on the left and said, “Gentlemen.”
They nodded, but said nothing. Rapp hung a left just before he got to them and ducked into an outer office where the president’s administrative assistant sat. He looked at the woman behind the desk and said, “Good morning, Teresa. I have Mr. Nash here to see the president.”
“He’s expecting you. Go right in.”
“Thanks.” Rapp moved to his right and stopped at the door. He stuck his left eye up against the peephole and took in the scene. They were all there—Maggie, Shannon, Rory, Jack, and Charlie, as well as most, if not all, of the president’s National Security team and the requisite pool reporters. Rapp smiled to himself, opened the door, motioned for Nash to go in first, and then as soon as Nash had crossed the threshold, Rapp closed the door behind him and put his eye back to the peephole.
MIKE Nash stopped as if he’d just stepped into a foot of thick wet cement and looked at the smiling faces staring back at him. Some he’d never met, but recognized, and a few he knew intimately. He heard the door behind him click shut and he whipped his head around, expecting to share his surprise with Rapp. Instead, he found himself alone, staring at the door, and in that split second he realized he’d been set up. He felt his face flush with embarrassment and for a brief moment considered leaving, but knew he couldn’t. As badly as he wanted to, it would be against everything the Marine Corps had taught him about being an officer. Leaders gritted their teeth and took it, while cowards ran. As he slowly turned around, he felt he would rather have taken on an enemy platoon than this crowd.
They were all smiling, and some of them weren’t exactly known for having a happy-go-lucky demeanor. There was the secretary of defense, secretary of state, national security advisor, director of national intelligence, FBI director, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a few people he didn’t recognize but was sure were important, his boss, and the biggest surprise of all, his family. They were all assembled in perhaps the world’s most famous office, all eyes on him, his wife holding Charlie and blushing almost as much as her husband.
It all started to fall into place. Maggie picking out his suit, shirt, and tie, which she rarely did, making sure the kids were all bathed and in clean uniforms, and Rapp—that Judas—distracting and then delivering him like some suburban Joe to his surprise fortieth birthday party. Despite his discomfort and the bad thoughts coursing through his brain about what he’d like to do to Rapp, Nash was still smiling from ear to ear. He had no idea why, but he felt like a jackass. Everyone else was grinning back at him, nodding to each other in recognition that the surprise had worked. Nash made a promise to himself right on the spot that however long it took he would get even with Rapp.
“Mr. Nash,” the president said as he walked across his own office. “I was just informed that this is a bit of a surprise to you.”
Nash tried to speak but his mouth was too dry, so he just nodded and took the president’s extended hand. Irene Kennedy was suddenly at President Alexander’s side.
“I’m sorry, Mike, but we knew you would never have gone along with this if you’d known in advance.”
Nash licked his lips and croaked, “What exactly am I going along with?”
“This,” the president said, “is a medal ceremony. For your bravery under fire last week.”
Nash looked past his boss and the president and smiled awkwardly at his wife and kids. Off to his right someone began snapping photos, which for an intelligence officer was a close second to someone shooting at you with a large- caliber gun. “Is that a reporter?” he asked nervously.
“Yes,” the president said.
“But I’m Non-Official Cover,” Nash protested. “I can’t have my photo taken.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the president continued casually, “you’re being promoted.”
“Enjoy it, Mike,” Kennedy said, “Very few of us get this chance.”
“What chance?” Nash asked out of the side of his mouth.
“Receiving an award in the Oval Office.” The president stepped aside and placed a hand on Nash’s elbow. “Usually, you guys have to die to get something like this. Relax and enjoy it.”
“I’m not sure I want it,” Nash muttered.
“Nonsense. The CIA could use a little boost in morale . . . Hell after last week, we all could.” The president started walking Nash toward his family. “Your wife is lovely, and so are your kids. They’re very proud of you.”
Kennedy grabbed his other arm. “We’re all proud of you, Mike. You deserve a little recognition.”
Nash turned to Kennedy and snarled, “What about Mitch?”
Kennedy looked straight ahead and said, “We’ll talk about that later. Just try to relax and enjoy.”
Nash wanted to talk about it now, but his wife was already moving toward him with the kids. Nash was still trying to figure out how Rapp had gotten out of this when he noticed the tears in his wife’s eyes. His anger toward Rapp was shoved aside as Maggie reached up and planted one on his lips. Charlie, the cussed little towhead, managed to wiggle out of his mother’s arms and latch on to his dad. The other three kids all came up for a hug, and then it was on to the individual members of the president’s National Security team. It took a good five minutes to get through all the handshakes and backslapping. By the time the rounds were done Nash was feeling considerably better.
When they got down to the actual medal ceremony, Nash handed Charlie back to Shannon, his fifteen-year-old, and Maggie took her position on his right side in front of the celebrated fireplace. Things turned serious when Kennedy handed the president the citation and opened the blue velvet box. As the president read the words aloud, Nash felt as if he were having an out-of-body experience.
“On behalf of a grateful nation it is my honor to present to you the highest award achievable by a member of the intelligence community, the Distinguished Intelligence Cross, for a voluntary act of extraordinary heroism involving the acceptance of existing dangers with conspicuous fortitude and exemplary courage.” The president paused and looked at Nash and Maggie and smiled. “Thank you for your dedication, service, and sacrifice. Your decisive and brave actions during the terrorist attack on the National Counterterrorism Center saved the lives of countless individuals. You stand before us as a living, breathing example of honor, valor, and heroism. This great nation will forever be in your debt, and we hope that future generations of Americans will look to your actions for inspiration during turbulent times.”