Camp David, Catoctin Mountain, Maryland
"What are we doing here?" Laurel Stewart asked the man sitting next to her in the sanctuary of the presidential retreat's Evergreen Chapel.
"Praying for peace?" Max Kelly, a reporter from the Boston Globe, suggested.
"Granted, it's an admirable goal, but given that the Weather Service has declared this the hottest summer on record, what made the White House decide that August would be a good time to hold another round of Middle East Road to Peace meetings? Couldn't the State Department find a road map that leads to Maine?"
She slapped at yet another mosquito that had sneaked in through the window screen. "And how come they all invited us here to participate?"
She had to raise her voice to be heard over the huge pipe organ's rendition of "The Song of Peace." According to her program, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had sung the song with over a hundred thousand people at a peace rally in Tel Aviv minutes before his assassination.
"This from the reporter who's always bitching that we don't get enough access when the president hides out at Camp David?"
"Like you think anyone's going to nail down a scoop here today," Laurel scoffed. Her dark auburn hair, styled in a sleek, no-nonsense cut that ended at her earlobes, hinted at a redhead's temper she usually kept tightly controlled. Her eyes were a cool, intelligent green in a pale complexion, her nose was straight, her mouth generous, and her chin as stubborn as she herself was. "We're being herded around the place like a bunch of senior citizens on an If-It's-Wednesday-This-Must-Be-Camp-David bus tour from hell."
"Hey, it's not every day you can watch two world leaders knocking down ten pins in the Nixon bowling alley."
"Bowling for Peace," she muttered. "Now, that's going to catch on. I'm still trying to find out if those were new shoes they gave the prime minister, but no one's talking."
"Go get 'em, Lois Lane. That story's bound to get you a banner headline."
"That's my point, Max. There is no story here. At least nothing new, other than their refusal to release the president's scorecard and the chef's diplomatic faux pas of serving sun-dried tomatoes with the beef tenderloin. I mean, really, no one's eaten sun-dried tomatoes since the Clinton Administration."
"I thought they ate Big Macs."
"Cute." Actually, a big, juicy cheeseburger with fries sounded a lot better than the uninspired deli spread of sliced cheese and cold meat that had been laid out for reporters in the mess hall. "It's an evil plot cooked up by the politicos to do away with us."
She felt the sting at the back of her neck and slapped again, an instant too late. "The gang in the White House is probably hoping all of us nuisances in the press corps will be attacked by a swarm of West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes and drop dead before the election."
Unfortunately, the organ player wearing Marine dress blues chose that moment to pound out the last chord, which left Laurel's conspiracy theory hanging on the steamy air. The president and First Lady, displaying impeccable manners in the front row, did not turn around. Neither did the prime minister.
Her peers were not as polite.
Pretending vast interest in the flags on either side of the linen-draped altar at the front of the chapel, Laurel ignored their evil grins.
Two hours later, she was back in the Clinton Room at the Cozy Country Inn in nearby Thurmont, soaking in the Jacuzzi tub, when her cell phone started playing the theme from Jaws.
Buh dum. Buh dum.
"No one's home." She took a long swallow of the frozen margarita she'd brought up from the pub and savored the icy tartness.
Buh dum. Buh dum.
"Undoubtedly some jokers wanting to rag me about my big mouth." Journalism was a blood sport; she'd do the same thing if it'd been Max who'd jammed his Bruno Magli into his mouth.
Dum dum dum dum.
Some people might be able to ignore a ringing phone. Laurel was not one of them. Splashing water onto the floor, she lunged for the cell phone she'd left on the sink.
"Oh, hell." The caller screen identified her Washington Post editor. She punched Talk. "Yes, Barry, I'm afraid it's true," she admitted, not bothering to waste time with hellos. "I insulted the entire White House in front of a foreign dignitary. You can probably read all about it in tomorrow's Washington Times."
"That's already old news," he said, brushing off her ill-timed remark. "Don't worry about it -- I'm not calling to chew you out. I wanted to see if you've been keeping tabs on the AP wire."
"The Secret Service confiscated my computer and phone and held them hostage until we were finally released thirty minutes ago. Something about electronic bombs and homeland security."
Laurel noticed she was dripping on the floor. "What's up?" she asked as she pulled down a towel and wrapped it around her body, which was draped in fragrant white froth from the bubble bath she'd dumped into the tub.
"That's all they did?"
It was not unusual for Barry Yost to answer a question with a question. He was, after all, a newsman, more accustomed to delving for information than handing it out. "Yeah, which was too bad," she answered, "because there's this really cute, hot new agent I wouldn't mind being patted down by."
"Did they return your computer?"
"Of course." For a moment she thought her phone had dropped the call. "Barry?" she said into the silence of dead air. "Are you still there?"
"There's been a leak."
"There are always leaks in Washington." She retrieved the margarita from the rim of the tub and took a sip. "Which is probably why those Watergate guys were called plumbers."
"This one concerns the vice president."
"Don't tell me someone else has my story." The printed note that had landed on her desk from the confidential, obviously high-level source had promised exclusivity. The first article of a five-part series had run this morning.
Silence descended again, thick and, this time, a little unnerving.
"Not exactly?" she coaxed, trying to ignore the little frisson of nerves that skimmed up her spine.
"The vice president's people are alleging that papers were stolen from their offices."
"That's certainly not unheard of." If the confidential report had been meant to be for public viewing, it wouldn't have had to be leaked.
Barry Yost was one of the most articulate men Laurel had ever met, which, in a city populated by glib-tongued politicians, attorneys, lobbyists, and fast-talking, charismatic television reporters, was really saying something. She couldn't recall ever hearing him at a loss for words. Until now.
"The story hasn't gone beyond rumor stage at this point," he said. "But your name's being floated around town as a suspect."
"A suspect?" Laurel's fingers tightened on the stem of the glass. "As in, someone thinks I'm the person who stole the report?"
Her nerves began screeching like the civil defense siren Jamie Douglas continued to test once a year back in her hometown of Highland Falls on the Tennessee-
North Carolina border.
He blew out a breath. "Like I said, it's just a rumor, but -- "
"Hold that thought." An unmistakably authoritative knock had begun hammering on her door. Hopefully it was room service with the steak she'd ordered.
Oh, hell. It wasn't.
One look at the grim faces on the other side of the peephole and the idea of being patted down by the new Secret Service agent -- whose thrust-out jaw was wide enough to land Air Force One on, and who appeared neither as cute nor as hot as he had this morning -- suddenly lost its appeal.
"I'll have to call you back, Barry. I've got company."
The tart taste of lime and tequila turned coppery as Laurel tossed back the margarita, threw on a robe, sent a quick, abbreviated Hail Mary upward, then opened the door to face the inquisition.
Copyright © 2004 by The Ross Family Trust