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A daring kidnapping turns a children’s birthday party at Camp David, the presidential retreat, into a national security nightmare.
Former Secret Service agents turned private investigators Sean King and Michelle Maxwell don’t want to get involved. But years ago Sean saved the First Lady’s husband, then a senator, from political disaster. Now the president’s wife presses Sean and Michelle into a desperate search to rescue a kidnapped child. With Michelle still battling her own demons, the two are pushed to the limit, with forces aligned on all sides against them-and the line between friend and foe impossible to define…or defend.
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More David Baldacci
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A daring kidnapping turns a children's birthday party at Camp David, the presidential retreat, into a national security nightmare.
Former Secret Service agents turned private investigators, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell don't want to get involved. But years ago Sean King saved the First Lady's husband, then a senator, from political disaster. Now the president's wife presses Sean and Michelle into a desperate search to rescue a kidnapped child. With Michelle still battling her own demons, the two are pushed to the limit, with forces aligned on all sides against them—and the line between friend and foe impossible to define… or defend.
BIRTHDAY BALLOONS and submachine guns. Elegant forks digging into creamy goodies while toughened fingers coiled around curved metal trigger guards. Gleeful laughter as gifts were unwrapped floated into the air alongside the menacing thump-thump of an arriving chopper's downward prop wash.
The facility was officially designated by the Defense Department as Naval Support Facility Thurmont, yet most Americans knew it as Camp David. Under either name, it was not a typical venue for a preteen's birthday party. A former recreation camp built by the WPA during the Great Depression, it was turned into the presidential retreat and named the U.S.S. Shangri-La by FDR, because it was essentially replacing the presidential yacht. It had acquired its current and far less exotic moniker from Dwight Eisenhower, who named it after his grandson.
The hundred-and-thirty-acre property was rustic and had many outdoor pursuits, including tennis courts, hiking trails, and exactly one practice hole for presidential golfers. The birthday party was in the bowling center. A dozen kids were in attendance along with appropriate chaperones. They were all understandably excited about being on hallowed ground where the likes of Kennedy and Reagan had trod.
The chief chaperone and planner of the event was Jane Cox. It was a role she was accustomed to because Jane Cox was married to Dan Cox, also known as "Wolfman," which made her the First Lady of the United States. It was a role she handled with charm, dignity, and the necessary elements of both humor and cunning. While it was true that the president of the United States was the world's ultimate juggler of tasks, it was also a fact that the First Lady, traditionally, was no slouch in that department either.
For the record, she bowled a ninety-seven without gutter bumpers while wearing patriotic red, white, and blue bowling shoes. She clamped her shoulder-length brown hair back into a ponytail and carried out the cake herself. She led the singing of "Happy Birthday" for her niece, Willa Dutton. Willa was small for her age, with dark hair. She was a bit shy but immensely bright and wonderfully engaging when one got to know her. Though she would never admit it publicly of course, Willa was Jane's favorite niece.
The First Lady didn't eat any cake; Jane was watching her figure since the rest of the country, and indeed the world, was too. She'd put on a few pounds since entering the White House. And a few pounds after that on the hell-on-a-plane they called the reelection campaign her husband was currently engaged in. She was five-eight in flats, tall enough that her clothes hung well on her. Her husband was an inch shy of six feet and thus she never wore heels high enough to make him look shorter by comparison. Perception did matter and people liked their leaders taller and more robust than the rest of the population.
Her face was in decent shape, she thought, as she snatched a look in a mirror. It held the marks and creases of a woman who'd given birth multiple times and endured many political races. No human being could emerge unblemished after that. Whatever frailty you possessed the other side would find and stick a crowbar in to lever every useful scrap out. The press still referred to her as attractive. Some went out on a limb and described her as possessing movie-star good looks. Maybe once, she knew, but not anymore. She was definitely in the "character actress" stage of her career now. Still, she had progressed a long way from the days when firm cheekbones and a firmer backside were high on her list of priorities.
As the party continued, Jane would occasionally glance out the window as serious-looking Marines marched by on patrol, weapons at the ready. The Secret Service had of course traveled up here with her, but the Navy officially ran Camp David. Thus all personnel, from the carpenters to the groundskeepers, were sailors. And the bulk of the security duties fell to the permanent barracks of Marines deployed here. In truth, Camp David was better protected than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, though you wouldn't find many who would admit that on the record.
Security wasn't uppermost in Jane's mind as she watched in delight while Willa blew out the dozen candles on her two-tier cake and then helped hand out slices. Jane moved forward and hugged Willa's mother, Pam Dutton, who was tall and thin with curly red hair.
"She looks happy, doesn't she?" said Jane to Pam.
"Always happy around her aunt Jane," replied Pam, patting her sister-in-law's back affectionately. As the two women stepped apart Pam said, "I can't thank you enough for letting us have the party here. I know it's not, well, it's not the norm, what with Dan, I mean the president not even being here."
Not being a blood relation, Pam still found it uncomfortable calling her brother-in-law by his first name, whereas the president's siblings, and Jane herself, often called him Danny.
Jane smiled. "The law provides for joint ownership of all federal property between the president and the First Lady. And just so you know, I still balance our personal checkbook. Danny's not that good with numbers."
Pam said, "It was still very thoughtful." She looked at her daughter. "Next year she's a teenager. My oldest a teenager, hard to believe."
Pam had three children. Willa, John, who was ten, and Colleen, seven. Jane also had three children, but all of them were older. The youngest was a nineteen-year-old son in college and her daughter was a nurse at a hospital in Atlanta. In between was another young man still trying to figure out what to do with his life.
The Coxes had had their family early. Jane was still only forty-eight while her husband had just celebrated his fiftieth.
Jane said, "Based on my own experience, boys will mess with your heart and girls with your head."
"I'm not sure my head's ready for Willa."
"Keep the lines of communication open. Know who her friends are. Gently insert yourself into everything that's going on around her but pick your battles cautiously. Sometimes she'll pull back. That's only natural, but once you've laid the ground rules it'll be okay. She's very intelligent. She'll get it pretty quickly. She'll be glad of the interest."
"Sounds like good advice, Jane. I can always count on you."
"I'm sorry Tuck couldn't make it."
"He's supposed to be back tomorrow. You know your brother."
She shot an anxious glance at Pam. "It'll be okay. Trust me."
"Sure, right," the woman said quietly, her gaze on happy Willa.
As Pam walked off, Jane focused on Willa. The girl was a curious mix of maturity coupled with frequent flashes of the preteen she still was. She could write better than some adults and discourse on subjects that would befuddle many folks far her senior. And she possessed a curiosity about things that was not limited to issues common to her age group. Yet if one watched her, one would see that she giggled impulsively, used "like" and "wow" liberally, and was just starting to discover boys with impulses of both disgust and attraction typical of the preadolescent girl. That reaction to the opposite sex would not change much when Willa became an adult, Jane well knew. Except the stakes would be far higher.
The party ended, goodbyes said. Jane Cox stepped on board the chopper. It wasn't designated as Marine One because the president wasn't riding on it. Today, it was strictly ferrying the B-team, Jane knew. And that was perfectly fine with her. In private, she and her husband were equals. In public, she walked the obligatory two steps behind.
She strapped in and the door was swung shut and secured by a uniformed Marine. Four stoic Secret Service agents shared the ride with her. They lifted off and a few moments later she was staring down at Camp David, or the "Birdcage," as the Secret Service had code-named the retreat, where it was cradled in the Catoctin Mountain Park. The chopper turned south and thirty minutes from now she would land safely on the lawn of the White House.
In her hand she held a note that Willa had given her before they'd left the party. It was a thank-you letter. She smiled. It was not unusual that Willa already had one prepared. The note was written in a mature voice and said all the right things. Indeed, some of Jane's staff could have taken a page from her young niece's etiquette handbook.
Jane folded the letter and put it away. The rest of the day and night would not be nearly as pleasant. Official duty called. The life of a First Lady, she had quickly learned, was one of a frenzied perpetual motion machine buffered often by bursts of tedium.
The chopper's skids touched grass. Since the president wasn't on board there was little fanfare as she made her way to the White House. Her husband was in his working office near the ceremonial oval one. She had made few demands on him when she'd agreed to stand by him in his run for the nation's highest office. One of them was that she could enter his inner sanctum without announcement, without being on the official visitor's list.
"I'm not a visitor," she'd told him at the time. "I'm your wife."
She approached the president's "body man," officially known as the Special Assistant to the President. He was at that moment looking through the peephole in the door to the Oval Office prior to going in and breaking up a meeting that was running behind. He was the person charged with keeping her husband on schedule and functioning at maximum efficiency. He did so by rising before dawn and devoting every moment of his waking life to whatever the man needed, often by anticipating these needs even before the president. In any place other than the White House, Jane thought, the "body man" would be simply called a wife.
"Get 'em out, Jay, because I'm coming in," she told him. He moved with alacrity to do just this. He had never once "peeped" her. And never would if he wanted to keep his job.
She spent a few minutes with the president and told him about the birthday party, before going to their living quarters to freshen up and change her clothes for a reception she was hosting. As darkness fell a few hours later she returned to her "official" home, tugged off her shoes, and drank a much-needed cup of hot tea.
Twenty miles away, newly twelve-year-old Willa Dutton screamed.
SEAN LOOKED at Michelle as they drove along. A brief look, a sizing-up glance. If she felt it, she didn't comment. Her gaze stayed straight ahead.
"When'd you meet them?" she asked.
"When I was in protection. Kept in touch. Really nice family."
"Okay," she said absently, staring out the windshield.
"Have you seen Horatio lately?"
Michelle's hand tightened around her cup of Starbucks coffee. "Why did you follow me down to his office?"
"Because I knew what you were going to do."
"Which is what exactly?"
"Break in to try and find out what you told him when you were hypnotized."
Michelle remained quiet.
"Did you find out?"
"It's pretty late to be going over to someone's house."
"Michelle, I think we need to talk this—"
"What you need to do, Sean, is not go there."
Sean stared out at a night that seemed to be closing in on him.
"You didn't answer my question," she said.
"You didn't answer mine either," he said in an annoyed tone.
"So about going over to their house this late?"
"It's not my call."
"I thought you were dropping off a birthday present?"
"I bought the present after she phoned. I suddenly remembered it was her birthday today."
"It might have to do with a job for us."
"Your really nice family needs a private investigator?"
"And she didn't want to wait."
They turned off the winding country road and pulled into the long drive, passing trees on both sides.
"Boondocks," muttered Michelle.
"Private," Sean amended.
The next instant the large house came into view.
"Nice place," she said. "Your friend obviously does well."
"Government contracting. The Feds apparently throw money at people."
"Wow, what a surprise. But the house is dark. You sure you got the time right?"
Sean eased the car to a stop in front.
Michelle put down her coffee and pulled out her pistol from its belt holster. "That was a woman's scream."
"Wait a minute. Don't go off half-cocked," he said, putting a restraining hand on her arm. The crashing sound from inside the house made him reach in the glove box for his own weapon. "Let's confirm before calling the cops."
"You hit the back, I got the front," Michelle said.
He climbed out and hustled to the rear of the brick colonial skittering next to the side-load garage and stopping for a few moments to scan the terrain before heading on. After doing her own recon of the area, Michelle was next to the front door a minute later.
No more screams or crashes. No other vehicles in sight. She could call out, see if everything was okay. Only if it wasn't she might be giving some bad guys a warning. She tried the front door. Locked. Something made her pull her hand back, she wasn't quite sure what, only she was glad she had.
The bullet blast ripped through the door, sending shards of painted wood spinning into the air. She could actually feel the slugs race past before they riddled Sean's car.
She leapt off the front porch and did a roll, coming up and hitting full sprint two steps later. Her hand dug into her pocket and her fingers drilled 911 on the keypad. The dispatcher's voice came on. Michelle was about to speak when the garage door blew open and the pickup truck cut a tight turn and bore down on her. She turned, fired at the tires, then the windshield. Her phone flew out of her hand as she catapulted to the side and rolled down an embankment. She landed in a pile of leaves and mud at the bottom of a runoff ditch. She sat forward and looked up.
Her aim, as usual, was unerring. The bullet hit the man dead in the chest. There was only one problem. Her jacketed 9mm round didn't drop him. He staggered back, then brought his weapon up, took aim, and fired back.
The only thing that saved Michelle Maxwell that night was that she deduced her attacker was wearing body armor, and then was nimble enough to roll behind a monster oak before the MP5 rounds headed her way. Dozens of slugs slammed into the tree, shredding its bark and sending pieces of oak tailings whipsawing away. Yet wood that thick always won out, even over submachine gun bullets coming in waves.
She didn't pause, because it only took a practiced hand seconds to eject and then slap in another clip on the MP. She jumped out, both hands on her pistol grip. This time she would aim for the head and drop him for good.
Only there was no one there for her to kill.
Mr. MP5 had pinned her down, then fled.
She cautiously made her way up the slope, her pistol pointed straight ahead. When she heard the truck start to race off she scrambled up, pulling at roots, branches, and vines. The pickup was out of sight by the time she reached the driveway. She hustled toward Sean's car thinking she would take up pursuit, but stopped when she saw steam rising from under the hood. Her gaze drifted to the bullet holes in the sheet metal. They weren't going anywhere.
"Sean," she screamed. "Sean!"
She sprinted up the steps, kicked open what was left of the shattered front door, and barreled into the living room, her gun making precise grid arcs.
Sean was kneeling on the floor, hovering over the woman. She was lying on her back. Arms and legs spread-eagled like she was frozen in a jumping jack. Her eyes were open but hard and flat because she was dead. The red hair touched her shoulders. It was easy to see what had killed the woman. Her throat had been shredded.
"Who is she?"
"Pam Dutton. The woman we were going to be meeting with."
Michelle noticed the writing on the woman's bare arms. "What's that?"
"I'm not sure. It's just a bunch of letters." He leaned closer. "Looks like they used a black Sharpie."
"Is anybody else in the house?"
"Let's find out."
"Can't screw up the crime scene for the cops."
He countered, "And we can't let someone die who we could otherwise save."
It only took a few minutes. There were four bedrooms on the top floor, two on each side of the hall set catty-cornered from one another. There was a young girl in the first bedroom they reached. She was unconscious but with no apparent injuries. Her breathing was steady and her pulse weak but steady.
"Colleen Dutton," said Sean.
"Drugged?" Michelle said as she gazed down at the little girl.
Sean lifted the girl's eyelid and noted the dilated pupil. "Looks to be."
In the second bedroom lay a young boy in the same condition as the girl.
"John Dutton," said Sean as he checked the child's pulse and pupil. "Drugged too."
The third bedroom was empty. The last bedroom was the largest. It wasn't empty.
The man was on the floor. He had on pants, a T-shirt, and was barefoot. One side of his face was swollen and badly bruised.
"It's Tuck Dutton, Pam's husband." Sean checked his pulse. "Knocked out but his breathing's okay. Looks like he took quite a blow."
"We really need to call the cops." Michelle grabbed the phone off the nightstand. "Dead. They must've messed with the outside box."
"Use your cell phone."
"I lost it when they tried to run me down."
"When who tried to run you down?"
"A driver and a guy with a submachine gun. Didn't you see anybody when you came in?"
He shook his head. "I heard gunfire, then I came in the back door. Then another loud sound."
"That was them crashing through the garage door. Looks like I had all the fun tonight."
"Pam dead. Tuck knocked out. John and Colleen drugged."
"You told me they had three kids."
"They do. Willa's apparently gone. Her bedroom was the empty one."
"In the truck? Kidnapping?"
"Can't be sure. What'd you see?"
"It was a Toyota Tundra, double cab, dark blue. Didn't see the plates because I was busy trying not to die. Driver and a shooter. Both guys. Oh, and there's at least one bullet hole in the windshield."
"Did you see them well enough for an ID?"
"No, but one of them was wearing some serious body armor, like military level. Took a jacketed round from my Sig with no problem. And he was wearing a black ski mask, which made an ID problematic."
"And no sign of a twelve-year-old girl in the truck?"
"Not that I saw. Probably drugged her too."
Sean used his cell to call 911 and relay all the information. He slipped it back in his pocket and looked around.
Michelle strode across the room to check out the piece of luggage that was sticking out of the closet. "Garment bag, half open." She bent lower. "It has a tag on it. United Airlines Flight 567 into Dulles with today's date on it." She used a washcloth snatched from the bathroom to cover her hand while she slid the zipper open a few inches and peered inside. "Men's clothes. Must be Tuck's."
Sean looked down at the unconscious man's bare feet and his T-shirt. "He gets home, probably sees Pam, heads up here to drop his bag, starts to change, and wham."
"Something is bugging me. That Tundra that came out of the garage. Either it belongs to the Duttons or the bad guys drove their own vehicle in there."
"They might have done it so no one would see them put Willa in it."
"In the boondocks? At this hour? You can't even see another house from here. I'm not even sure there is another house."
"And why take Willa and not one of the other kids?"
"And why would they kill the mom and leave everyone else alive?"
Sean tried to rouse Tuck, but got no response.
"Better leave him alone. He might have some internal injuries."
They walked back downstairs and then Sean veered toward the kitchen and through it into the garage. There were three garage doors. In one bay was a late-model Mercedes four-door sedan. In another bay was a Chrysler minivan. The third bay was empty.
Michelle pointed to the destroyed garage door. "Truck was parked in this space, obviously. Do you know if the Duttons owned a blue Tundra?"
"No. But the odds are it was theirs."
"Because the bay is clear?"
"Right. Just about every garage is packed with all sorts of crap, sometimes even including a car. The fact that all the bays were clean meant they had three vehicles, otherwise the third bay would be used for storage."
"Wow, you really are a detective."
Sean put his hand on the hood of the Mercedes. "Warm."
Michelle ran her finger over one of the car's tires. "Tread's wet. We had some rain this evening. Must be Tuck coming from the airport."
They walked back to the living room and stared down at Pam Dutton. Sean used his elbow to flick on the light switch, pulled out his notepad, and copied down the letters on the woman's arm.
Michelle bent lower and examined Pam's hands. "Looks like she's got some blood and skin under her nails. Most likely defensive trace."
"Noticed that too. Hope they can trip something on a DNA database."
Michelle said, "But shouldn't there be more blood?"
Sean examined the body more closely. "You're right. The rug should be covered. Looks like they severed her carotid. She would've bled out pretty fast."
Michelle saw it first, the plastic piece protruding out from under the dead woman's elbow. "Is that what I think it is?"
Sean nodded. "It's an empty vial." He glanced over at his partner. "Did they take her blood with them?"
TALBOT'S WAS HAVING A SALE. Diane Wohl had left work at four to take advantage. A new dress, a few blouses, maybe some slacks, a scarf. She'd just gotten a raise at work and wanted to put it to good use. There was nothing wrong with pampering yourself every once in a while. She parked her car in the shopping mall garage and walked about four hundred feet to the store. She left two hours later after trying on several outfits and buying two bags full of clothing, doing her patriotic duty to stimulate an otherwise lousy economy.
She hopped in the car after tossing her bags in the passenger seat. She was hungry and was thinking about picking up some Chinese take-out on the way home. She had just put the key in the ignition when she felt the small circle of metal against her head. A strong odor made her forget about kung pao chicken with all white meat and egg drop soup. It was a mixture of gun oil and cigarettes.
"Drive," the voice said quietly but firmly. "Or you're dead."
An hour later the suburbs had disappeared. The only thing visible was lined asphalt, a harvest moon, and walls of trees. Not another car, not another person. Diane Wohl was completely alone with whatever monster was sitting in the back of her Honda.
He spoke again. "Turn off here."
Her gut tightened and stomach acid driven by fear heaved up her throat.
The car bumped along the dirt road for a few minutes. The mass of trees seemed to swallow up the car.
Diane slid the gearshift lever to park. As she pulled her hand back the woman eyed her purse with a sideways glance. Her cell phone was in there. If she could somehow turn it on. Or her keys. She had a big wad of them. She could pull them; gouge him in the eyes like she'd seen on TV shows. Only she was so terrified she couldn't. Her entire body was trembling like she had Parkinson's.
The monster of few words said, "Out."
She didn't move. Her throat was crusted dry but she managed to say, "If you want my car and my money you can have them. Just please don't hurt me. Please."
The monster was not persuaded. "Out." He wedged the gun muzzle against the back of her head. A piece of her hair caught against the bump of the gunsight and was pulled out root and all. Tears trickled down the woman's cheeks as she confronted the last few minutes of her life. It was like all the warnings had said:
Know your surroundings. Be alert. It only takes a second.
From Talbot's to death on a lonely strip of dirt.
She opened the car door and started to slide out, her hand clutching her purse. She gasped and let go when the gloved fingers closed around her wrist.
"You won't need that."
She closed the door behind her.
Her hopes sank when he joined her outside the car. She had been praying that he would merely climb over the front seat and take her Honda, instead of stealing her life.
He was older, with thick, longish white hair that looked sweaty and dirty. And his face appeared carved from solid rock with rivulets running all over the surface. He was older, but he was also a big, tall man, well over two hundred pounds with broad shoulders and huge, veined hands. He towered over the petite Wohl. Even without the weapon she had no chance against him. His gun was pointed right at her head. The fact that he wasn't wearing a mask terrified her; she could clearly see his face.
He doesn't care. Doesn't care if I know who he is. He's going to kill me. Rape and then kill me. And leave me out here. She started to sob.
- "Plenty of action drives Baldacci's stellar fourth novel to feature Maxwell and King."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Fightening...shocking...Sean and Michelle [are] surely one of the more interesting teams of private investigators...Baldacci is a more subtle writer now, able to tell stories of deep moral ambiguity and to create characters who balance on the line between hero and villain...It will be fascinating to watch where he takes these two heroes from here."
"It's always a good thing when David Baldacci brings back former FBI agents King and Maxwell."
—New York Daily News
- "Mr. Baldacci's books are jigsaw puzzles of intersecting events, not simple whodunits. FIRST FAMILY is no exception."—Washington Times
- "What Baldacci does best is provide thrills, chills, and suspense. This novel is a total surprise from beginning to end."—Columbus Telegram
- "The story unfolds wonderfully. It's another top-flight thriller from this bestselling author, and it's good to see King and Maxwell again."—Oklahoman
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- Apr 21, 2009
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