Malcolm was happier than a horned toad at a mayfly festival.
And when his English springer spaniel was happy, Jim was happy.
It was one of those impossibly clear days that Washington, DC, dished out like dog treats in February. The chill winter days were probably behind them. In another month, even the occasional below-freezing nights would be nothing but a memory. Now it was an hour past sunrise, the temperature was already above forty, and the maples and beeches along the White House fence line looked as if the tips of their branches had been dusted with just the tiniest bit of bright green. The ornamental cherry trees were already glowing bright pink with the promise of the spring to come.
The air smelled fresh and vibrant with possibility. He loved the way that every city had its own smell. He’d now been in DC long enough that each season wrapped about him like fireflies on a summer evening with its own special particulars. Most of his life had been lived on the road in one way or another, but three years here just might be enough to anchor him in place for a lifetime.
He often wondered what Malcolm smelled on such days. The freshening grass? The latest civilian dog pee-o-gram on a tree trunk? The track of the other US Secret Service PSCO explosives-sniffing dog currently on patrol?
Handling a USSS Personnel Screening Canine—Open Area, also known as a friendly or floppy-eared dog, around the White House perimeter was the best duty there ever was. He and Malcolm had been walking this beat for three years now, putting even the mailmen to shame. Just because a blizzard and a hurricane had ripped through last year, each shutting down the city, didn’t mean the security at the White House put its feet up—at least not these six paws. The only things that had been moving in the whole area during either event were emergency services, the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier out at Arlington Cemetery, and White House security.
The snowstorm had been a doozy by DC standards, almost as deep as Malcolm’s legs were long. The next morning had been a surprisingly busy day at the fence line as tourists had trudged through a foot of heavy, wet snow to get photos of the White House under a thick, white blanket. Most of the crazies had the good sense to stay warm in their beds that day.
Not even the worst of the crazies came out during the hurricane.
Today it was the sunshine and the madness that drew people to his patrol zone along the White House fence. Delineating the two before Malcolm picked out the madness-motivated ones had become one of his favorite games to occupy the time. He figured the visitors to the fence fell into five distinct categories, only two of which Malcolm was trained to give a hoot about.
The True Tourist. They would just stand and stare though the steel fence. It had been formed to look like the old wrought iron one, but was far stronger—a Humvee that hit this fence would just bounce off. These people were often the older set. They were easily marked at a distance by taking pictures of the White House rather than taking selfies of them at the White House.
The Clickbait Tourist. They’d barely glance at the magnificent building. But even if they never actually looked at it, everyone inundated by their social media feeds probably more than made up for the lack.
The Squared-away Vet. The ex-military who arrived to see the representation of everything they had given. Whether standing tall or rolling along in a wheelchair, they came to see, to try and understand. He liked talking to them when he could. Jim had done his dance. Nothing fancy—a “heavy” driver for three tours hauling everything from pallets of Coca-Cola to Abrams tanks.
The Mad Vets and the Crazies. These guys were damaged. The less toxic ones just wanted to tell their story to the President so that he “really” understood. But there was a sliding scale right up to the ones who wanted retribution. These were the fence jumpers. They might have a protest sign, an aluminum foil hat, a .45 tucked in their pocket, or a load of righteous wrath strapped to their bodies. No real plot or plan, they were solo actors and had to be stopped one at a time. He and Malcolm caught their fair share of those—maybe more because Malcolm was such an awesome explosives detection dog. These were the main target of the fence patrol.
The Terrorist. Bottom line, that’s why his team and all of the others were here even with them all knowing they were, at best, no more than an early warning of any concerted attack. They’d all seen the movies White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. It was amazing how much Hollywood could get wrong and still scare the crap out of you—definitely not entertainment to anyone who worked guarding the White House. They discussed worst-case scenarios all the time. And he sure prayed that it didn’t happen until after he was dead and buried—though he’d wager that he could be pissed just fine from the grave if someone attacked his White House. Three years of walking around its perimeter, keeping it safe, made it at least partly his.
It was still early enough in the day that the fence line was almost exclusively the top three categories. The Mad Vets and the Crazies category typically didn’t kick in hard until later in the day when their morning meds wore off.
He saw a Squared-away Vet standing at the fence. The officers were particularly easy to pick out. They liked everything in order and would instinctively find the exact centerline—at either Lafayette Square to the north or the curving line of the President’s Park to the south like this one. As predictable as sunshine on a clear day, they would come to a halt at precisely the twelve or six o’clock positions and simply stare.
Normally they didn’t notice him or react if they did. This one stared at him…no, at Malcolm, with eyes so wide it was a wonder that they remained in his head.
“Gute Hund,” he instructed Malcolm—training him in German avoided confusion with an alert word accidentally spoken in a sentence. He’d met a dog once trained with the numbers in Japanese: Ichi—sit. Ni—stay. San—down. Shi—heel… Pretty darn slick. He’d thought about retraining Malcolm to be bilingual for the fun of it, but it seemed a dirty trick to play on a perfectly nice dog.
Gute Hund—good dog—told Malcolm he was off duty and could relax and be a dog for a moment rather than a sniffing magician.
It also gave Jim an excuse to let Malcolm approach and really check out the veteran up close just in case he was a Crazy-in-disguise. Even “off duty” Malcolm would respond if he smelled something dangerous.
Nope, guy was clean.
Jim glanced back at his patrol partner and nodded to indicate he’d be stopping for a moment. PSCO dogs never worked the fence line alone. Sergeant Mickey Claremont followed five to ten meters behind him. He was a big guy, looking even more so because of the bulletproof vest over his warm coat clearly labeled USSS Police. The AR-15 automatic rifle that he carried across his chest was part of his primary duty of being backup in case Malcolm did alert to someone. His second job included making sure that nothing slowed Jim’s and Malcolm’s progress. But Claremont had learned that there were certain types of guys that Jim always stopped for.
“You handled dogs?” He asked the wide-eyed vet hovering uncertainly at the fence.
All he managed was a nod back.
“Been out long?”
Head shake…then a grimace.
“Don’t worry about it, brother. The words will come back eventually.”
“You sure?” Barely a whisper and now the guy was watching him.
“Three tours in the Dustbowl. Nothing fancy. A heavy driver on the Kandahar and Kabul run.” A fellow soldier would know what that meant. Hauling heavy loads, desperately needed by the in-country teams, from the port at Karachi, Pakistan, across a thousand kilometers to Kandahar, Afghanistan, or another five hundred klicks to Kabul. And every millimeter past the southern Wesh-Chaman border crossing or the Torkham one to the north had been run in constant fear of being a giant target on a known road. They’d lost a lot of guys, but he’d made it out in one piece.
“Two tours in Baghdad. One in Mosul,” the guy at the fence was back to staring at Malcolm. He reached out a tentative hand as if he was seeing a ghost, but pulled it back before he could test the theory.
“That’s some hard s**t, brother,” Jim wouldn’t have wanted that tour any day. “Just give yourself some time.”
The guy nodded, almost desperately.
“Hit the support groups,” Jim dug out a card from the stack he always carried and handed it over. “These guys saved my ass. Gotta get back to work now. Good luck, buddy. Such!” Like soock with a guttural German ck—Seek! And Malcolm went back to sniffing his way along the fence line. Even letting the guy know that there was such a thing as “getting back to work” would help.
Claremont folded in behind him and worked the second part of his job as they passed more tourists.
“Yes, he’s a bomb-sniffing dog.” “No, you can’t pet him because he’s working right now.” “Yes, it’s okay to take his picture but, no, he can’t pose for a picture because he’s working right now.” And so on in an unending litany.
Jim was so used to it that the silence always seemed wrong after the crowds thinned out at night but the patrols continued.
They were nearing their one-hour limit. A dog’s nose only went so long without a break. One hour on, half-hour off. Which was good, that gave him enough time to do the paperwork that was part of being a PSCO handler: patrol reports, daily security briefing, studying the faces of known risk agents and recent threats. A letter writer was usually just that, someone dumb enough to threaten the President’s life. Some even put their return address on the envelope. A single visit from the Secret Service was usually enough to scare those dummies back under the wire. But it didn’t hurt to have studied their faces in case they transitioned to The Crazies category.
That’s when he spotted the sixth type of visitor to the White House fence—The Newbie.
Reese Carver stood at the White House fence and tried to figure out what had changed.
Actually, she knew exactly what had changed, but she couldn’t reconcile how different it felt. Two years driving for the Secret Service—mostly in San Francisco, LA, and New York. Six months ago she’d grabbed the brass ring and been accepted for the Presidential Motorcade.
When she first came aboard, she’d waited outside the gate in one of the escort vehicles.
Then they’d started bouncing her around: press corps van, support vehicles for carrying the staff who didn’t rate a ride in the President’s car or one of the spares, then Command and Control while the guys in the back handled route logistics on the fly, and even the front Sweep Car that checked the route out ahead of the Motorcade.
Hazmat had been hard on her nerves because she knew nothing about what those guys actually did.
Watchtower—the ECM or electronic countermeasures vehicle—was capable of suppressing remote explosive triggers. It could also detect incoming threats that used radar or ones that used laser-targeting and jam those as well. It had made her feel like she was constantly the precise target of the attack—even if there’d never been one. Roadrunner was also a mobile cell tower, satellite uplink, and everything else communications oriented, which convinced her she was being constantly irradiated. When she asked, the guys manning the vehicle hadn’t said the feeling was completely wrong.
She’d even driven Halfback—the lethal Chevy Suburban that carried the Presidential Protection Detail immediately behind the President’s limo. She’d liked that one. The agents were armed to the gills, including a pop-up-through-the-roof M134 Dillon Aero Minigun. Could have used that back on the NASCAR racetracks a few times on some of the assholes who thought ganging up to shut out a female driver was good sport.
With all these different assignments, it had gotten to the point where she’d driven every vehicle except for Stagecoach—the Presidential monster itself, also nicknamed The Beast for a reason—and the ambulance that always trailed along behind.