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Chapter Eight

"Where is my daughter," Arensky said as the van drew to a stop.

"Nearby." The man who had been "handling" him had not been introduced and had not offered a name. He just told Arensky where to go, or more often simply grunted and pointed. "And if you'd like us to send you some pieces it can be arranged. Or pictures of her being raped by a dozen men. Out. Into the building. Don't look around. Don't make eye contact if anyone is nearby. Just get out and go in the door."

Arensky's face tightened but he did as instructed, picking up the briefcase containing the "samples" and exiting the van. The "building" was shabby, made of roughly dressed stone with a slate roof and small, wooden shuttered, windows. The interior was dark since the shutters were closed. There was a trickle of light coming in from around the shutters and it took his eyes a moment to adjust. When they did his face tightened even more.

"Ah, Dr. Arensky, come in."

"Sergei," Arensky replied, walking to the table in the center of the room and setting down the case. There was the table with a couple of rickety chairs, two metal beds without mattresses and a gas camping stove. Other than that the room was bare. "Where is my daughter."

"In a nearby town," "Sergei" said, calmly. "She is unharmed, guarded by my men, tended to, I might add, by local women. Frightened, but I have assured her that as long as you cooperate she will remain that way. And I so assure you. I will arrange for you to talk to her, briefly, very soon. Not in person, you understand. We have, now, to wait. You will wait here. She will wait there. When the transfer is completed she will be moved to where you are going."

"So she can be used against me by your employers," Arensky spat. He started to take off his coat but refrained; the room was colder, it seemed, than the out-of-doors. Much colder than the stuffy van.

"My contractors, yes," the man said.

"Sergei, this is madness," Arensky said, again, with desperate resignation. "What is in there..." he added, pointing to the case, "that is death as you cannot possibly imagine. If that gets out, if these Islamic black-asses use it, it is the end of the world. Not only their enemies will die, you will die, everyone you know will die. The fucking world will die."

"Everyone dies," Sergei said, standing up from the chair. "Everyone dies eventually. Societies die. Species die. The weak make way for the fit. If it is mankind's time to die, then die it will. Besides," he added with a grin, "I've been inoculated. And so have all of my men."

"Inoculation doesn't work with this," Arensky said, slumping into one of the chairs. "Nothing does. And it lingers."

"For what I am being paid for this job, I can retire to a remote island staffed entirely by willing women," Sergei replied, shrugging. "I can restart the human race single-handed. Every man's fantasy, yes? Gregor will see to your needs," he added as the morose guard entered the room. "And in time, if you're very good, you can hear that your daughter is well."


* * *

Mike had to admit that he was ready to get out of Georgia. He enjoyed the various perks of being "Kildar" but he also missed modern civilization. He'd been "deployed", as he thought of it, for over a year. It was time to get back to the World.

But as he considered the traffic outside the window he had to admit there were more benefits to being in Georgia than he'd remembered. Tbilisi could get some traffic jams, but nothing like DC. And he was going to have to put up with all that protocol bullshit and probably ritual dickbeating.

The car had been waiting for them at the airport, a discreet government luxury four-door, like a thousand others in the city. A "ride-along" had met them at the exit from security, handled the bags and whisked them to the car.

There wasn't anything they could do about the traffic, though.

"Anastasia, honey," Mike said, looking at his watch. "I'm running on short time. I've got a meeting at the Pentagon in about an hour. Given the traffic..."

"Should you go directly there?" Anastasia asked. "I will be fine."

Mike suspected that was true. A person doesn't get dropped off at the White House and then just get left. Somebody would make sure she went where she was supposed to. If she looked as if she was wandering, at the very least the Secret Service was going to step in. But that was the last thing he wanted to happen.

"No, I'm going to the House," Mike said. "I'll make sure you're settled. But I'm going to have to do that as quickly as possible and then scoot."

He knocked on the divider, not knowing quite which control worked it, then leaned over the seats.

"Okay, I need some cards laid down," Mike said. "Secret Service or just drivers?"

"DOD transport," the rider said.

Fuck. Mike wasn't sure what that meant.

"I know diddly about your group," Mike said. "But I've got a problem and it's a secure issue..."

"Your cover is Mr. Michael Ford," the rider said. "A businessman currently working a start-up business in Georgia and a former fundraiser for President Cliff. Also a personal friend from long back, something about baseball." He reached back and handed Mike a folder. "I was wondering when you were going to ask."

Mike flipped through the documents and nodded.

"Thanks," he said. "My brief on this was lousy."

"You're welcome, Mr. Ford," the rider said. "We're going to be driving you to your next destination. Given the traffic you're on short time for the meet at the White House. I'll ensure that Miss Rakovich has an escort but I'd suggest that you cut any conversation at the House as short as possible. And for your general comfort level, I'm former CAG, the driver is a Green Beanie and from your utter cluelessness and tan I'd say either SEAL or Recon."

"Glad to finally be back in the warm," Mike said, chuckling as the divider went back up.

* * *

They rolled up to a side entrance to the White House and the rider got out to open Mike's door.

"Your luggage will be taken care of Mr. Ford," the former Delta said. "You've just got time to shower and change if you need to."

"Love to," Mike said. "Even a Gulfstream gets kinda rank after a twenty hour flight."

Mike took Anastasia's arm and led her to the door where he was greeted by an aide and two uniformed Secret Service. He did the ritual dump of keys and spare change then walked through the scanner followed by Anastasia. He'd left all his knives and guns behind, much to his chagrin.

The aide nodded to them as soon as they were through the security screen.

"Mr. Ford," the man said, smiling and shaking Mike's hand. "Miss Rakovich? I'm Thomas Johnson. I understand you are in a hurry so I'll show you to your rooms. I'm aware that Mr. Ford has a priority meeting but the First Lady would like to talk to you for a moment before you leave."

"Of course," Mike said. "I'd love a shower, though."

"Not a problem, sir," the man said. "We installed plumbing back in the early 1900s."

* * *

Mike was surprised at the size of the room. He'd only ever stayed in Camp David which was cramped enough but this room wasn't much bigger than one of the harem girls' rooms at the caravanserai.

But then he had to think that the White House was built back in the days when large rooms weren't made unless they were ballrooms. In summer, big rooms were not much cooler than small and in winter they were impossible to heat. Ballrooms were kept warm in the "season" as much by dancing bodies as by the roaring fires.

The service, though, was first rate. Somehow, the White House staff had managed to get their bags up to their room, unpacked, everything put in drawers or hung up and toiletries in the bathroom, before they'd gotten to the room. And probably every bit of it had been swept by the Service for threats.

"Honey," Mike said, shaking his head, "you need to be taking notes."

"I am," Anastasia said, clearly just as impressed. "I wonder if I can hire anyone away."

"I'm getting in the shower," Mike said, stripping off the clothes he'd been wearing since yesterday.

"I'll do your back if you'll do mine," Anastasia said, unzipping her dress.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Mike said. "But what the hell. Pierson can wait."

"It's not Colonel Pierson I'm worried about," Anastasia said. "You're supposed to meet the First Lady."

"We are going to meet the First Lady," Mike said. "So do your makeup fast."

* * *

The shower had, alas, involved a minimum of grab-ass and Anastasia could dress and put on makeup fast when she had to.

So in no more than thirty minutes they were back out of their room, Mike in a suit and carrying a briefcase while Anastasia had changed into a different dress, this one a light blonde color just a shade darker than her hair.

"This way, sir, ma'am," Johnson said. "The First Lady is in the Green Room."

"Amanda," Mike said when they walked in the room.

The Green Drawing Room was originally used by Thomas Jefferson as a small intimate dining room. Sometime in the early 1800s it was restructured and refurbished into a parlor for relaxed, personal meetings and renamed the Green Drawing Room by John Quincy Adams. With walls lined by green silk, beautiful paintings and an Italian marble fireplace it was one of the most favored rooms of many of the First Ladies over the years.

"Michael," the First Lady said, smiling and shaking his hand then giving him a hug. "It's so good to have you in the House at last. You really shouldn't stay away so much."

"It's Washington, ma'am," Mike said, shaking his head. "I really shouldn't come here at all."

"Nonsense," Amanda said. "And this must be Miss Rakovich."

"Ma'am," Anastasia said, shaking the First Lady's hand. "It is a pleasure to meet you."

"And you," the First Lady said. "I know that Michael has to go to an appointment and I won't keep him longer. But you are my guest and I'd like to talk for a bit if you don't mind. I know you've been flying for a while so if you'd prefer to rest..."

"I'd love to sit and chat, ma'am," Anastasia said, smiling. "I got some sleep on the plane. Quite a lot, actually."

"Then, Michael, I look forward to seeing you when you get back," the First Lady said.

"Yes, ma'am," Mike said, wondering just how bad this was going to be. The First Lady grilling his harem manager could be very bad indeed. "I look forward to it as well."

* * *

"You are Russian, Miss Rakovich?" the First Lady said, sitting on the divan. "Please," she added, gesturing to one of the antique chairs.

"Yes, ma'am," Anastasia said, easily. The door opened and a small, thin black lady came in with a tea service.

"I made the assumption that tea would be acceptable," the First Lady said, nodding at the maid in thanks and pouring for both of them.

"Yes, ma'am," Anastasia said.

"Please call me Amanda," the First Lady said, smiling. "Ma'am and First Lady grow tiresome quickly and I consider Michael a friend. Sugar?"

"Then could you call me Anastasia?" Anastasia said. "Or even Stasia if you wish. Two lumps."

"Stasia it shall be," the First Lady said, preferring the cup. "Russian? Or perhaps Ukraine?"

"Russian, Amanda," Anastasia said. "But I hardly remember it. I left when I was twelve."

"And then?" the First Lady said, sipping her tea.

"Uzbekistan," Anastasia said, picking up her own.

"You waited until I took the first sip," the First Lady said, smiling. "Where did you train?"

Anastasia paused and then set down her cup.

"In a harem," she replied. "I was married, an arranged marriage, to a sheik in Uzbekistan at the age of twelve."

She had expected at least mild shock. The First Lady just nodded and took another sip.

"Not exactly what I'd expected, but close," she said. "I would say something like 'I'm sorry' but that doesn't quite cover it, does it?"

"It's not really that bad," Anastasia admitted, picking up her tea again. "I was raised on a small and very poor farm. Given the conditions, then, and my looks, I would probably have ended up as a prostitute if I hadn't been noticed by one of the sheik's scouts."

"But far outside my own experience, and therefore fascinating," the First Lady said. "For one thing I had not expected that harems trained quite so precisely in manners."

"I was, among other things, Sheik Otryad's harem manager," Anastasia said. "I was given advanced training. But there is a good bit of what can be called 'manners' to being in a well run hareem. It is not all about...that. It is about creating a quiet and comfortable place for the sheik to retreat to."

"Now that I can understand," the First Lady said. "One reason that it's wise for presidents to have a really good spouse is to create that refuge."

"Yes, for Presidents that would be vital," Anastasia said, nodding vigorously. "The pressures of such a position are very nearly killing. They need that one place where there is no pressure, where they know that they are accepted just as they are. That is the true purpose of the hareem and I have the hardest time explaining that to anyone. It sometimes drives me nearly to distraction, yes?"

"I believe I touched a nerve there, Stasia, sorry," the First Lady said, grinning. "But I think you are good for Michael as well. He has some of the same problems, I think."

"Yes, he does," Anastasia said, calming. "In a way he has no one that tells him what to do but there are so many politics, yes? He has to keep his Keldara on his side. He must deal with the Georgians and the Americans and the Russians, friend to all but never so close that any own him. I try to give him that quiet place. But even there he puts so many pressures on himself sometimes I want to tear my hair out. He is so... American."

"That he is," the First Lady said.

"I am sorry to be so strong," Anastasia said, shaking her head. "I am not normally like this."

"I tend to cause people to talk," the First Lady said. "It is one of my talents. Very useful in politics, I might add."

"Where is your place?" Anastasia asked. "Where do you go for comfort?"

"Oh, books," the First Lady replied. "And David. We are very good for each other. And I think you are good for Michael. Michael Ford this time. It's always so cloak and dagger."

"I think that the idea is that if his normal name ever comes up in connection with something, no one will connect it to the White House."

"That is to be hoped," the First Lady said. "But I've wanted him to come to the House for some time. We had him at Camp David, of course, but he's never made it to the House. Of course, officially, I don't know why he was at Camp David. Or why my husband thinks that he walks on water. But it was rather easy to determine, given the timing."

"I would not know," Anastasia said. "I have only known him as the Kildar. The years before...? I know he is American. I surmise, from his friendship with Master Chief Adams, that he was in the Navy commandoes, the SEALs. Other than that I know very little. I know not to ask."

"Smart girl," the First Lady said, leaning forward and patting her on the leg.

"And that explains," Anastasia said, smiling.

"Yes, it does," the First Lady said. "That was why I made sure someone passed the word that I wanted to meet Michael's 'assistant.' But I'll say that that is no longer the reason. I like you, Stasia. I like you very much. Mi casa is su casa as we say in Texas."

"Gracias, Senora," Anastasia replied, smiling. "Usted es bien amable."

"¿Usted habla español?" the First Lady said, smiling back.

"Si," Anastasia said. "Dominó en Español. Tambien Deutsche, Russkiya, Arabi, Francais y Uzbek."

"And English," the First Lady said.

Anastasia just shrugged and held up one hand, palm up.

"I'm glad we've met," the First Lady said. "David holds him in such high esteem, I felt it was vital that he, and you, come to visit."

"I'm just his assistant," Anastasia pointed out.

"If you were just his assistant, Stasia, the protocol recommendation would have suggested two rooms," the First Lady said. "But I am glad to meet you. I wanted to know who the woman was in his life." The First Lady paused then smiled. "Or should that be 'women'."

"Oh, most definitely 'women'," Anastasia replied. "But for the purposes that you mean, the woman that he looks to for most such things, that would be me."

"There are arrangements into which, I have learned, it is unwise to pry," the First Lady said, smiling disarmingly. "Has coming out of the hareem been difficult? Do you find it hard to deal with cities and people?"

"Very," Anastasia admitted. "I can attend a formal function with ease. But put me on the street of even a small town, much less a city, totally on my own and I am at a loss. I am to do shopping while we are here. The Kildar has given me a credit card with... too much money available on it. What I did not wish to tell him is... I have never used a credit card except online. I can barely haggle with the merchants in the small town near where we live. It is all very confusing. A new world. One I want to enter, to enjoy, to understand, but, yes, it is hard. Even frightening."

"When were you planning on going shopping?" the First Lady said.

"I'd hoped to do so this afternoon," Anastasia said. "I had hoped that Michael would be back but he has another appointment this afternoon, after his meeting. We are definitely committed to spending the night, but given the urgency with which he was summoned, I doubt we will have more time. So I think I'll need to go out on my own."

"Not to be born," the First Lady said, firmly. "Amelia Weston."

"Pardon me?" Anastasia said.

"Even if Michael was available, men rarely enjoy shopping," the First Lady said. "And they're never good at it unless they are gay. So. Amelia Weston is the wife of General Weston, commander of the Military District of Washington. Which should mean, frankly, that she is the compleate bitch. But she's not, she's a very gracious lady of the old Southern school. Hard as nails, mind you, but very gracious as long as no one is trying to stick a knife in her or General Weston's back. I will call her, we've become friends, and ask her to take another friend shopping. She knows just where to go."

"Thank you, ma... Amanda," Anastasia said, blinking.

"You are most welcome, Stasia."

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