Posse Comitatus, Epilogue
C.J. looked out of the window of her taxi at Air Force One, which loomed large against the New York skyline. People were already ascending the airstairs, and the President was finishing up at the rope line. Leo stood by the motorcade, eyes narrowed like a hawk on search. Toby and Sam were with him, looking as well, but he shooed them off to Air Force One. C.J. watched them go and glanced at her watch. Wheels up was in fifteen minutes. She looked back at Leo as he scanned the tarmac and the sea of cars. She knew what he was looking for. Her.
All she wanted was to go home, to be alone, to not see another soul for the rest of the weekend. It was why she had taken one of the specially-designated press cabs to the airport, rather than traveling with the motorcade, and why she had ordered the cab driver to leave as soon as she got in the cab, rather than share it with other members of the press corps. They'd give her hell for that, but she didn't care. After what had happened tonight, she didn't care about anything.
"Are you getting out?"
C.J. blinked, and forced herself to smile at the cab driver. "Yes, thank you." She gathered her wrap and her handbag and opened the door. She stepped out and almost instantly fell into the clutches of Leo's gaze. And suddenly, she was aware of her position, her job, her duties, and for a moment, they felt so overwhelming, her knees grew weak. Lord, help me, she prayed. The thought of facing the press corps, of answering questions, of maintaining her professionalism—the thought of even facing Toby or Sam—threatened to tear her apart.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and forced her emotions down, down, so far down, she almost couldn't feel them anymore, and she mentally reviewed the flight plan and the President's schedule as she set off toward Leo. There was no avoiding him, so she might as well get it over with.
He stalked toward her, and hardly had her in earshot before he began. "Where the hell have you been?"
She slammed the lid on box where she'd shoved her emotions. "I missed the motorcade, so I took one of the press cabs."
"I see that," he snapped. "Did you also miss your cell phone? Sam, Toby, and I have been calling you. No one knew where you were."
The anger in his voice was more paternal than boss-like, and it threatened her control. "I'm sorry, Leo, the battery must be dead." It wasn't, of course. She simply hadn't the strength or the will to talk to any of them.
She just wanted to go home.
The President was walking toward them from the rope line. She cursed herself for making eye contact with him, cursed him for looking at her with a mixture of relief and sympathy, and ignored the silent communication he sent that clearly stated that he wanted to talk to her.
"C.J.—" Leo began.
He looked as if he was going to say more, to say something she could not bear to hear, yet. The President was still outside of conversational distance, too, so— "Wheels up is in ten, Leo. I really need to get onboard." And with that, she brushed by him, her heels clicking on the tarmac as she hurried to the airstairs.
She took the stairs two at a time, nearly tripped on her evening gown, the black Vera Wang, the one that— She pushed away the thought and gave a brief, tight smile to Carol as she took the President's updated schedule from her. She headed straight for the press section and locked down the lid to her emotions. A few obligatory questions, and then with any luck, some peace and quiet until they reached D.C. She scanned the schedule. The President wouldn't be speaking to the press at Andrews—he was going straight back to the White House. Even better. And if she moved the next press briefing to morning, it would be the end of her day. She could take a taxi directly home and avoid the motorcade and the staff back at the office altogether.
She parted the curtain to the press section and began without preamble. "Good evening, everyone. There is a slight change in the President's schedule. He will not be speaking to the press at Andrews; rather, he is going back to the White House."
Hands shot up. "Why the change, C.J.?"
"I don't know. I was just handed the schedule, and haven't had a chance to speak with him about it, yet." She smiled slightly. "Maybe he just wants to savor the performance tonight and not talk."
"Did the President enjoy the play?"
"Yes, he did, very much," she said. She had no idea, of course, but it was Shakespeare, and that was always a safe bet with the President.
More hands waved in the air. "C.J., does the President have any comment on the murder of Simon Donovan?"
She took a deep breath and swallowed hard. "The President is, understandably, very upset by this senseless tragedy." She listened to herself as if from far away, speaking the words as if by rote. "The White House will do everything in its power to make sure that the perpetrators are brought to justice." There was a tremble in her voice at the end, and she forced a smile to her face. "That's a full lid, folks. The next briefing will be at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. Enjoy the flight home. Wheels up is in under five minutes, and my feet are killing me, so I'm going to find a seat and take off these heels."
Without waiting for a response, and ignoring their subsequent questions of how she, personally, felt about Simon's murder, and did she have any comment, and why did she take one of their taxis to the airport, she pushed toward the back of the plane, away from the President's office, away from where the senior staff sat, away from everyone, to a dark corner that was usually reserved for someone the President wanted to "honor" by having on the plane but make clear that person was also in the dog house. No one would go there on their own, and since this was just a short trip to New York, that entire section of the plane was deserted.
The captain was giving instructions for takeoff, so she found a seat, kicked off her shoes, and hooked her seatbelt.
"Miss Cregg?" A steward poked his head in. "Do you want anything to eat?"
"No, thank you." She wasn't hungry. She couldn't imagine how she'd ever be hungry again.
He nodded and left, and she watched him go. How had he found her? Was she to have no privacy? She leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes as they sped off down the runway and lifted into the air. The flight was only an hour, but she'd take whatever silence she could get.
Simon was dead.
She still couldn't quite believe it, couldn't quite believe that he wouldn't be waiting for her at her office when she walked in tomorrow. How was it possible? How? She could still feel the warm, sweet taste of his lips on hers. He couldn't be dead. He just couldn't.
She felt something wet on her cheeks and lifted her fingers to brush away tears. Dammit. She didn't want to cry. Not here, not now. On the streets of New York was one thing—she was anonymous there—but here... she couldn't. She had to wait until she got home, where she had privacy and tissues and two bottles of wine in her refrigerator. She wiped her cheeks dry with the palms of her hands. It was a short flight. Less than an hour now. She closed her eyes and tried to think of something else.
She heard the soft brush of shoes against the carpet and held her breath. Maybe whoever it was would think she was asleep and leave her alone.
No. Please, God, no. Anyone but Charlie.
"C.J., I'm sorry, but he's asking for you."
She didn't open her eyes. "Tell him I'm sleeping, Charlie."
"I did. It didn't work."
C.J. opened her eyes and sat up. She met Charlie's sorrowful gaze and perhaps it was the light, but it seemed as if his dark eyes held a watery sheen. And then she remembered. He, too, knew what it was like to lose someone to violence.
She sighed. "I don't want to see anyone, Charlie."
"I know," he said. But he didn't move.
"This better be important," she grumbled, unhooking her seat belt. She stood and thrust her feet back into her heels and steeled herself to face the one person she couldn't avoid—well, not if she wanted to keep her job. She started to brush past Charlie, but he caught her arm, and wouldn't let go until she looked at him.
"You know I'm here for you, right?"
She felt the guarded expression on her face soften. "Yeah, I know. Thanks."
She followed Charlie as he maneuvered his way through the plane to the President's office, ignoring anyone who tried to talk to get her attention, even Toby and Sam. When they reached the office, he knocked once on the door and then opened it. "C.J.'s here, sir."
"Send her in. And Charlie—"
He let the sentence hang, but Charlie seemed to understand him perfectly. "Yes, sir." He stepped aside and gestured for C.J. to enter, then closed the door behind her.
She stood in front of the President's desk, waiting for him to finish reading whatever papers had demanded his attention. After a moment, her toe started to tap impatiently and she folded her arms across her chest as he signed one paper after another, seemingly ignoring her.
Finally, he glanced at her over the rims of his reading glasses. "Did you know that there's a lake in Kazakhstan that contains an underwater forest?"
She blinked, taken aback. That's what this was about? Obscure nature trivia?
He was looking at her expectantly.
He grinned, triumphant and energized, as he always did when he could impart useless knowledge to one of his staff. "The Sunken Forest of Lake Kaindy, formed by an earthquake in 1911. The tops of the spruce trees stick out of the water all over the place, like the masts of old sailing ships."
She just looked at him. What the hell? she wanted to scream. As if she cared about sunken forests and lakes and sailing ships! She just wanted to go home and be left alone!
He took off his glasses and tucked them into his suit pocket with a sigh. The look he had given her on the tarmac was back, the sympathetic look, the look she had seen him give Zoe when some boy she liked had broken her heart. "How are you doing, kid?"
"I'm fine, Mr. President, thank you." But her breath caught in her throat, and she stumbled over the words.
"Claudia Jean." And his tone was soft and sad.
Something was suddenly wrong with her vision. The President blurred, wavered as he stood up. For a brief, wild moment, she thought she was dying. She wanted to die. She wanted to curl up in a ball and go to sleep and never wake up again. But then the tears—the tears she had tried so hard to lock away—spilled onto her cheeks, and she realized she wasn't dying. Simon was the only one who died.
She burst into sobs. She tried to control them, to contain them, but she couldn't, and she sank into the couch and buried her face in her hands. She felt the couch cushion shift, and realized that the President had sat down beside her.
He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "I'm so sorry, C.J."
She lifted her face and as she caught sight of the door, a terrifying thought pierced her grief. At any moment, anyone could come walking through that door and see—
"Don't worry," he said, as if reading her mind. "Charlie won't let anyone in until I tell him to."
The fear had given back to her a measure of control, and she wiped her face with her hands, nodding.
"Here." He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her.
"Thank you," she whispered. She blotted her face and groaned inwardly at the black streaks on the cloth. Her mascara had run so badly, she probably looked like she'd been beaten.
The President took her hand. "Simon was a good man."
She nodded, not trusting her voice.
"We're going to find the person responsible for his death."
She nodded again, dried her eyes, and turned her head to meet his gaze. "It won't help."
"I know." And his eyes shimmered.
C.J. never considered herself to be impulsive. She couldn't afford to be impulsive, not in her job. One misplaced word could wreak havoc. But she looked in President's eyes, felt a sudden longing for home and the comfort of her father's touch, and threw herself into his arms.
He didn't even flinch, but folded her into a tight embrace. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart."
"Thank you, sir." She drew back, her cheeks warm. "I'm sorry, sir. I shouldn't have done that."
"It's all right, C.J." He favored her with a paternal smile. "It's been a... difficult... day for all of us."
She smiled, weakly. "Yes, sir."
He gestured to a door on the other side of the office. "You want to splash some water on your face?"
"Thank you, sir." She rose and crossed to the bathroom and locked herself in. She glanced in the mirror. Her face looked even worse than she'd imagined. She washed with soap and warm water and then finished with a splash of cold water. She no longer felt quite so raw and wounded. She patted her face dry with a towel and stepped back into the office.
The President was back at his desk, studying more papers, but he looked up as she came out of the bathroom.
She placed his handkerchief beside a stack of papers. "Thank you, sir."
He took off his reading glasses and tossed them on the desk. "The water in Lake Kaindy is so cold that is has preserved the spruce trees, even after nearly 100 years."
She smiled with genuine amusement. "Is there anything you need, sir?"
"Other than a staff who appreciates fascinating and informative facts of nature?" He returned her smile. "No, C.J., that's all."
"Thank you, Mr. President." She turned to leave, but stopped and faced him. "Sir? Why aren't you speaking to the press at Andrews? They were asking me earlier."
A shadow fell over his face, and he seemed to age ten years before her eyes. "It's been a long day, C.J. I just want to go home."
"Yes, sir." How well she understood. "Thank you, sir." She opened the door to find Charlie standing guard, and stepped into the corridor. She laid a hand on his arm. "Thanks, Charlie."
He just nodded, slipped into the President's office and closed the door.
She headed back to her seat, but somehow, her dark corner of the plane didn't seem so inviting anymore. Up ahead of her, she could hear Toby and Sam chatting lively in the senior staff section, and she slowed her step. They stopped talking as she entered, and she stopped walking.
Toby looked at her for a long moment, and then slid across to the adjoining seat to make room for her. "Would you care to join us?" He gestured to a salad on the table that stood between him and Sam. "We thought you might be hungry."
Sam offered her a small smile.
She returned it, and sat down. "Thanks. I'm starving."
As she attacked the salad, Toby and Sam picked up their conversation where they'd left off, as animated as before, and the weight in her soul lightened, and she was glad she wasn't alone.