Rachel Sextons thoughts were lost in the mornings bizarre developments as her PaveHawk transport tore across the morning sky, and it was not until the helicopter rocketed out across Chesapeake Bay that she realized they were heading in entirely the wrong direction. The initial flash of confusion instantly gave way to trepidation.
Hey! she yelled to the pilot. What are you doing? Her voice was barely audible over the rotors. Youre supposed to be taking me to the White House!
The pilot shook his head. Sorry, maam. The President is not at the White House this morning.
Rachel tried to remember if Pickering had specifically mentioned the White House or whether she had simply assumed. So where is the President?
Your meeting with him is elsewhere.
No shit. Where elsewhere?
Not far now.
Thats not what I asked.
Sixteen more miles.
Rachel scowled at him. This guy should be a politician. Do you dodge bullets as well as you dodge questions?
The pilot did not answer.
It took less than seven minutes for the chopper to cross the Chesapeake. When land was in sight again, the pilot banked north and skirted a narrow peninsula, where Rachel saw a series of runways and military‑looking buildings. The pilot dropped down toward them, and Rachel then realized what this place was. The six launchpads and charred rocket towers were a good clue, but if that was not enough, the roof of one of the buildings had been painted with two enormous words: WALLOPS ISLAND .
Wallops Island was one of NASAs oldest launch sites. Still used today for satellite launches and testing of experimental aircraft, Wallops was NASAs base away from the spotlight.
The President is at Wallops Island? It made no sense.
The chopper pilot aligned his trajectory with a series of three runways that ran the length of the narrow peninsula. They seemed to be heading for the far end of the center runway.
The pilot began to slow. You will be meeting the President in his office.
Rachel turned, wondering if the guy was joking. The President of the United States has an office on Wallops Island?
The pilot looked dead serious. The President of the United States has an office wherever he likes, maam.
He pointed toward the end of the runway. Rachel saw the mammoth shape glistening in the distance, and her heart almost stopped. Even at three hundred yards, she recognized the light blue hull of the modified 747.
Im meeting him aboard the . . .
Yes, maam. His home away from home.
Rachel stared out at the massive aircraft. The militarys cryptic designation for this prestigious plane was VC‑25‑A, although the rest of the world knew it by another name: Air Force One.
Looks like youre in the new one this morning, the pilot said, motioning to the numbers on the planes tail fin.
Rachel nodded blankly. Few Americans knew that there were actually two Air Force Ones in servicea pair of identical, specially configured 747‑200‑Bs, one with the tail number 28000 and the other 29000. Both planes had cruising speeds of 600 mph and had been modified for in‑flight refueling, giving them virtually unlimited range.
As the PaveHawk settled onto the runway beside the Presidents plane, Rachel now understood the references to Air Force One being the commander‑in‑chiefs portable home court advantage. The machine was an intimidating sight.
When the President flew to other countries to meet heads of state, he often requestedfor security purposesthat the meeting take place on the runway aboard his jet. Although some of the motives were security, certainly another incentive was to gain a negotiating edge through raw intimidation. A visit to Air Force One was far more intimidating than any trip to the White House. The six‑foot‑high letters along the fuselage trumpeted UNITED STATES OF AMERICA . A female English cabinet member had once accused President Nixon of waving his manhood in her face when he asked her to join him aboard Air Force One. Later the crew jokingly nicknamed the plane Big Dick.
Ms. Sexton? A blazer‑clad Secret Serviceman materialized outside the chopper and opened the door for her. The President is waiting for you.
Rachel got out of the chopper and gazed up the steep gangway at the bulging hull. Into the flying phallus. She had once heard the flying Oval Office had over four thousand square feet of interior floor space, including four separate private sleeping quarters, berths for a twenty‑six‑member flight crew, and two galleys capable of providing food for fifty people.
Climbing the stairway, Rachel felt the Secret Serviceman on her heels, urging her upward. High above, the cabin door stood open like a tiny puncture wound on the side of a gargantuan silver whale. She moved toward the darkened entryway and felt her confidence starting to ebb.
Easy, Rachel. Its just a plane.
On the landing, the Secret Serviceman politely took her arm and guided her into a surprisingly narrow corridor. They turned right, walked a short distance, and emerged into a luxurious and spacious cabin. Rachel immediately recognized it from photographs.
Wait here, the serviceman said, and he disappeared.
Rachel stood alone in Air Force Ones famous wood‑paneled fore cabin. This was the room used for meetings, entertaining dignitaries, and, apparently, for scaring the hell out of first‑time passengers. The room spanned the entire width of the plane, as did its thick tan carpeting. The furnishings were impeccablecordovan leather armchairs around a birds‑eye maple meeting table, burnished brass floor lamps beside a continental sofa, and hand‑etched crystal glassware on a mahogany wet bar.
Supposedly, Boeing designers had carefully laid out this fore cabin to provide passengers with a sense of order mixed with tranquility. Tranquility, however, was the last thing Rachel Sexton was feeling at the moment. The only thing she could think of was the number of world leaders who had sat in this very room and made decisions that shaped the world.
Everything about this room said power, from the faint aroma of fine pipe tobacco to the ubiquitous presidential seal. The eagle clasping the arrows and olive branches was embroidered on throw pillows, carved into the ice bucket, and even printed on the cork coasters on the bar. Rachel picked up a coaster and examined it.
Stealing souvenirs already? a deep voice asked behind her.
Startled, Rachel wheeled, dropping the coaster on the floor. She knelt awkwardly to retrieve it. As she grasped the coaster, she turned to see the President of the United States gazing down at her with an amused grin.
Im not royalty, Ms. Sexton. Theres really no need to kneel.