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It was McMurtrie who grabbed me. He wrapped his gorilla arms around my shoulders. Otherwise I would've gone right down to the floor.

"It's not him," he whispered fiercely. "It's a copy, a duplicate . . ."

I was having trouble breathing. Everything seemed to be out of focus, blurred. I couldn't get air into my lungs.

Next thing I knew I was sitting down and gulping at a plastic cup's worth of water. McMurtrie was looming over me. But I was still looking past him, at the body lying in the cryonics chamber. Cold. Dead.

"It's not the President," McMurtrie said at me. "He's on the plane, on his way back to Washington. I talked to him ten minutes ago." He jerked a thumb toward the picture-phone on the desk.

"Then who . . ." My voice sounded weak and cracked, as if it were coming from someone else, somebody old and badly scared.

McMurtrie shook his head, like a buffalo getting rid of gnats. "Damned if I know. But we'll find out. Believe it."

I was beginning to register normally again. Taking a deep breath, I straightened up in the chair and looked around the glareless white room. Four of McMurtrie's men were standing around. They had nothing to do, but they looked alert and ready. One of them, closest to the door, had his pistol out and was minutely examining the action, clicking it back and forth. The ammo clip was tucked into his jacket's breast pocket.

"Somebody's made a double for the President," I said to McMurtrie, with some strength in my voice now, "and your men killed him."

He glared at me. "No such thing. We found this . . . man . . . in the alley. Just where you saw him. He was dead when those two cops stumbled over him. No identification. No marks of violence."

I thought about that for a moment. "Just lying there stretched out in the alley."

"The cops thought he was a drunk, except he was dressed too well. Then when they saw his face . . ."

"No bullet wounds or needle marks or anything?"

McMurtrie said, "Go in there and examine him yourself, if you want to."

"No, thanks." But I found myself staring at the corpse in the misty cold chamber. He looked exactly like Halliday.

"Are you in good enough shape to walk?" McMurtrie asked me.

"I guess so."

"And talk?"

It was my turn to glare at him. "What do you think I'm doing now?"

He grinned. It was what he did instead of laughing. "There're a few reporters out at the front desk. The local police and two of my people are keeping them there. Somebody's going to have to talk to them."

I knew who somebody was. "What do I tell them? Disneyland's made a copy of the President?"

"You don't tell them a damned thing," McMurtrie said. "But you send them home satisfied that they know why we're here. Got it?"

I nodded. "Give 'em the old Ziegler shuffle. Sure. I'll walk on water, too. Just to impress them."

He leaned over so that his face was close enough for me to smell his mouth freshener. "Listen to me. This is important. We cannot have the media finding out that there was an exact duplicate of the President running loose in Boston tonight."

"He wasn't exactly running loose," I said.

"Not one word about it."

"What'd he die of?"

He shrugged massively. "Don't know. Our own medical people gave him a quick going over, but there's no way to tell yet. We're going to freeze him and ship him down to Klienerman at Walter Reed."

"Before I talk to the reporters," I said, "I want to check with The Man."

McMurtrie grumbled just enough to stay in character, then let me use the phone. It took only a few moments to get through on the special code to the President in Air Force One. They were circling Andrews AFB, about to land. But one thing the President insists on is instant communications, wherever he is. He's never farther away from any of his staff than the speed of light.

In the tiny screen of the desk-top phone, he looked a little drawn. Not tired or worried so much as nettled, almost angry. I reviewed the situation with him very quickly.

"And McMurtrie thinks I ought to stonewall the reporters," I concluded.

His public smile was gone. His mouth was tight. "What do you think?" he asked me.

One of Halliday's tenets of faith had been total honesty with the press. He was damned fair to the working news people, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to him in the first place. Completely aside from Laura.

"I'm afraid he's right, Mr. President," I answered. "We can't let this out . . . not right now."

"Why not?"

It was a question he always asked. Working for him was a constant exercise in thinking clearly. "Because"—I thought as clearly and fast as I could—"a disclosure now would raise more questions than answers. Who is this . . . this double? How'd he get to look like you? And why? How did he die? And . . ." I hesitated.

He caught it. "And is it really James J. Halliday you've got cooling down in there, while I'm an imposter replacing him? Right?"

I had to agree. "That's the biggie. And if you're an imposter, who're you working for?"

He grinned. "The Republicans."

Seriously, he asked, "Meric . . . do you think I'm an imposter?"

"Not for a microsecond."

"Why not?"

"You wouldn't be challenging me like this if you were. Besides, you're behaving exactly the way you always behave."

He cocked his head to one side slightly, which is another of his personal little pieces of action. I had never paid much attention to it until that moment.

"All right," he said at last. "I don't like hiding things from the press unless there's a damned vital reason for it."

"This is very vital," I said.

He agreed and then asked to speak with McMurtrie. I got up from the desk and stared again into the cold chamber. The team of green-gowned meditechs was starting to slide the corpse into the stainless-steel cylinder that would be his cryonic sarcophagus. Liquid nitrogen boil-off filled the chamber with whitish vapor. Each of the meditechs wore a face mask; I'd never be able to identify them again.

Then that one word struck me. Exactly. The man I had just spoken to on the picture-phone acted exactly like the James J. Halliday I'd known and worked for since he first started campaigning. The corpse they were sliding into that cold metal cylinder looked exactly like James J. Halliday. My knees got fluttery again.

McMurtrie came over beside me. I could see our two reflections in the glass that separated us from the cold chamber. He looked as grim as vengeance. I looked scared as shit.

"Okay, kid," he told me. "You're in the big leagues now. Put on a straight face and get those newsmen out of here while we ship the casket out the back way."

One of his men walked with me up to the waiting room near the hospital's main entrance. He was a typical McMurtrie trooper: neatly dressed, quiet and colorless to the point of invisibility. And perfectly capable of quietly, colorlessly, maybe even bloodlessly, killing a man. It was something to think about.

Len Ryan was among the news people in the waiting room. There were eleven of them, a modern baker's dozen, sitting on the worn and tired-looking plastic chairs, talking and joking with one another when I walked in. Ryan was off in a corner by himself, writing in a thick notebook. He threw me a look that was halfway between suspicion and contempt.

"Don't any of the news chicks in this town work late anymore?" I cracked, putting on my professional smile.

"They were all at the airport interviewing the First Lady," said the guy nearest me. He was grossly overweight, not the type you'd expect to chase ambulances. I hadn't known him when I'd worked for the Globe, but he looked older than I. New in town, I figured.

It was a small room. I stepped into it a few paces and they all stood up expectantly. The floor tiles had been patterned once, but now the colors were all but obliterated from years of people's frightened, weary pacing. The lights were too bright. The heat was up too high. Through the two sealed windows I could see cars whizzing by on Storrow Drive, and the river beyond them, and MIT beyond the river. I wished I could be out there someplace, anyplace, away from here.

"What's going on, Meric?" asked Max Freid of UPI. We used to call him "Hotdog Max," because he was always shooting for the spectacular story. "Why all the hustle with the Secret Service? Who's the stiff?"

"Take it easy," I said, making slowdown motions with my hands. "Don't get yourselves excited. Apparently some wino staggered into the alley behind Faneuil Hall tonight and keeled over from a heart attack." McMurtrie can arrange with the local FBI office to slip a real wino who really died tonight into the Mass General files. "The police patrolling the area found him and alerted the President's security team. They are very protective guys, as you may have noticed, and they had the body shipped here immediately. Just routine precaution, that's all." Better get those two Boston patrolmen sent to Washington or otherwise put on ice. If these wiseasses get their hands on them, the story'll pop out in fifteen minutes. The meditechs were Army people, from what McMurtrie said. Check on it.

"Seems like a helluva lot of overreaction for one dead wino."

I nodded at them. "Yeah. I suppose so. But that's the way these security people react. Nobody's hit a President—or even a candidate—in a lot of years. Right?" What about tonight? Was it an attempt? Did it succeed?

They muttered reluctant agreement.

"Listen, fellas." Now I had to throw the strikeout pitch. "I spoke to the President on the phone just before I came over here. I suggested, and he agreed, that I ask you guys not to print anything about this little incident . . ."

"I knew it!"

"Come on, Meric. For Chri . . ."

"Hear me out!" I raised my voice. When they stopped grumbling, I went on. "I don't like to ask you to do this, and the President was even more hesitant . . ."

"Then why ask?" It came from Len Ryan.

"Simply because it was just a harmless incident that shouldn't be blown up out of proportion. And because everytime there's been a news story that even hints at an assassination attempt, every kook in the country turns violent. You know that. I don't have to tell you about it."

"What about the President's terrific security team? Are they scared of a little exercise?"

"Wise up!" I snapped. "The Man's got the best protection in the world. But why invite trouble? Why put the idea in some nut's head? Because a drunk dropped dead in an alley? Come off it."

"How'd he get back there? Wasn't there a police net around the Hall?"

That's right, I realized. How the hell did he get into that alley? But my mouth was getting very clever. "That's just my point. No security system is perfect. Thank God it was just a harmless drunk."

"I'll have to ask my city editor about this," said one of the men in the back of the room. "We can't guarantee not to print it."

"Listen! Remember the attempt on Jackson's life, back in the eighties?"

"The poor slob never got within a hundred yards of Jackson . . ."

"Sure," I said. "But the following week that mental patient killed eleven people in Sacramento, right? And the sniper in Dayton, right after that?"

"You can't prove that a news story made them go berserk."

"I don't have to prove it," I said. "I just want you guys, and your editors, to understand what's at stake here. You make a story out of this incident and you might set off a new Boston Strangler."

"Jesus Christ!" somebody muttered. "Might as well blame us for Jack the Ripper."

It took a lot more talk. And phone calls to a half-dozen sleepy, short-tempered editors. I called right from the hospital's main switchboard, while they clustered around me. It was past two in the morning when the last one of them agreed to sit on the story.

I was dead tired. The reporters filed out of the hospital, too frustrated to complain about spending the night for nothing.

"Still going to the airport in an official limousine?"

It was Ryan. He was the last one left, as I stood in the hospital's entrance corridor. Nobody else there except him and me, and the near-invisible security man leaning his back against the wall.

"I stalled you," I admitted. "I'm sorry about it. They found a corpse in the alley and everybody got a little fidgety."

He nodded, a compact little jerk of his head. He had a bull neck and looked as if he could be very stubborn when he wanted to be. And idealistic. He reminded me of myself at that age. Maybe that's why I didn't like him.

"I can still drive you to the airport," he said.

"No. Thanks, anyway. I wouldn't want to take you out of your way. I've asked enough of you for one night."

That brought a smile out of him. "It's on my way. My pad's in Winthrop. Come on . . . you look beat."

Reluctantly, I let him lead me out to the parking lot and I got into his car. Ryan didn't say a word while we drove to the airport. I must have dozed for a few minutes. The next thing I remember is pulling up in front of the terminal building where the staff jet was still parked.

"Thanks for the lift," I said as I started to haul myself out of the Toyota Electric.

"Any time."

Being careful not to bump my head, I finally squeezed out onto the sidewalk, like the last drop of toothpaste coming out of a rolled-up tube. Ducking back inside, I shook Ryan's extended hand.

"I'll call you in a couple of days," he said. "I think I'd like to come to Washington to interview you. Now."

I banged my head on the door top as I pulled away from him.

There were several strange men trying to look inconspicuous as they guarded the terminal entrances, the corridor, and the ramp gate near the staff plane. FBI, I assumed. They didn't have the air of McMurtrie's people.

The plane was warm and comfortable and filled with sleeping people. Most of the staff had been inside all night, since The Man's speech ended. The lights were so dim I could barely make out their sleeping forms, curled up or stretched out in the plush swivel seats.

McMurtrie wasn't asleep, though. He was sitting up forward, with a tiny worklight making his seat and folding table an island of wakefulness in the darkened plane. I went up to him and saw that he was doing nothing, just sitting there and staring off into infinity.

The engines began to whine into life. The seat-belt sign flashed on. I took the chair next to McMurtrie, leaned across the space separating us, and asked, "Anything new?"

He shook his head silently.

"Do they"—I hooked a thumb back toward the rest of the staff—"know about it?"

It was obvious that I was breaking into his private chain of thought. He turned slowly toward me and rumbled, "So far we've been able to keep it from them. There's no sense spreading this any further than it has to go."

I agreed. "Where's the, uh, capsule? The cryonic container?"

"On a separate plane, heading for Minnesota."

I blinked at him. "Where?"

"A special laboratory in Minnesota. The President's orders. We're flying Dr. Klienerman out there tomorrow. Be easier to maintain security that way."

By security he meant secrecy.

"The President told you to do that?"

McMurtrie nodded.


He nodded again, but with growing impatience.

"It wasn't Wyatt or one of the other staffers? It was The Man himself, personally?"

McMurtrie never loses his self-control. He thinks. But he's not accustomed to being interrogated. "Yes, it was the President himself," he said, keeping his voice so low that I could barely hear it over the rising roar of the plane's engines. "Exactly the same procedure as before."

Even through my sleepy, foggy brain that last word hit me. "Before? What before?"

For just a flash of a second he realized he'd said something he shouldn't have. He reached out and clamped a heavy hand around my arm. "Keep your voice down, damn you!"

"This has happened before?" I insisted. "This isn't the first time?"

His face contorted with barely suppressed rage, McMurtrie answered, "Ask the President about it. Not me."

"I will," I snapped at him. "I sure as hell will!"

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