The Last Ballot Cast – Part 1 — excerpt

Chapter 1
Saturday, August 20, 2011
George Washington University Hospital

James J. McGill stood outside the operating room — he couldn’t go inside without breaking the sterile field — where his wife Patti, the President of the United States, lay anesthetized.
Artemus Nicolaides, the White House physician, had told him he had to decide quickly whether to allow the procedure to harvest the president’s bone marrow cells to continue.

Artemus Nicolaides, the White House physician, had told him he had to decide quickly whether to allow the procedure to harvest the president’s bone marrow cells to continue.

McGill’s son, Kenny, was suffering from acute myelogenous leukemia. He’d already received the chemotherapy and radiation treatments needed to destroy all the diseased bone marrow cells in his body. Now, Kenny had to have the infusion of healthy cells from Patti that would keep him alive — and he had to have it fast.


McGill’s son, Kenny, was suffering from acute myelogenous leukemia. He’d already received the chemotherapy and radiation treatments needed to destroy all the diseased bone marrow cells in his body. Now, Kenny had to have the infusion of healthy cells from Patti that would keep him alive — and he had to have it fast.

Patti was the only donor available with compatible cells.

But Nick had just told McGill there was a problem with the president.

“It’s called mitral valve prolapse,” Nick said. “The president had no history of this condition, had been completely asymptomatic until her heart began to beat irregularly as she entered the second stage of anesthesia. We were fortunate that —”

“Nick, just get to it,” McGill ordered. “Tell me what the risks are for Patti and Kenny.”

The physician nodded. “For the president, the risk is that a reflux of blood from the left ventricle could enter the atrium and possibly cause a stroke. The stroke might be either disabling or fatal.”

McGill felt his own heart turn to stone.

“But without the infusion from Patti —”

“Kenny will surely die,” Nick said with a mournful look.

“What are the chances Patti will suffer a stroke?”

“We can’t say precisely.”

That left McGill with no real choice. There was only one way that the lives of both the people he loved might be saved.

He told Nick, “Tell the doctors to harvest the cells for Kenny.”

“You’re sure?” He didn’t remind McGill it was the president’s life he was risking.

“I am. Do it. Don’t let anyone decide otherwise.”

The grim expression on McGill’s face made clear that anyone refusing to follow his wishes would be placing his own life in jeopardy.

Looking through a window in one of the doors to the OR, the White House physician tapped an intercom button on the wall twice, producing two buzzes.

Someone inside the OR must have looked questioningly at Nick.

As if to say: You’re sure about that?

Nick nodded.

McGill put his face next to Nick’s to make sure the message was received.

But everybody in the operating room already had their eyes back on Patti.

Except for the capped-and-gowned Secret Service agents standing guard.

Maybe they had been the ones to second-guess McGill’s decision.

Too damn bad. It was his choice alone to make.

Having done so, McGill was now too numb to either hope or pray.

All he could do was wait.


Northern Virginia
The place, appropriate to its purposes, had many names. Officially, it was referred to as a military reservation known as the Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity (AFETA). In a more colloquial fashion, it was called Camp Peary. Its nickname was simply The Farm.

As foreign intelligence agencies and fans of popular culture all knew, the nine-thousand acre, enclosed woodland was the developmental facility for “career trainees,” some of whom would graduate to become CIA spies. Less well known was the cluster of rehabilitated buildings on the site that dated back to Colonial times. This hub was surrounded by its own security features and housed a number of “inpatients,” former agents who had suffered “cognitive impairment.” That was, as a result of stress, post-traumatic or simply job related, they’d suffered mental breakdowns. They could no longer be trusted not to reveal the secrets they’d sworn to take to their graves with them.

The facilities for these damaged agents were known collectively as The Funny Farm.

Of the inpatients, there was only one who had never been on the Company payroll. He had been a wannabe, a psychiatrist who had aspired to work for the CIA. The man had developed a technique for resisting interrogations called crafted personalities. It had aroused genuine interest from the people at the top of the national security food chain. Before the shrink could be brought into the fold, though, he had gone off the deep end and had tried to kill the president’s husband, James J. McGill.

The wannabe’s name was Damon Todd.

He currently presented himself as a ten-year-old boy, Danny Templeton.

Most of the staff at The Funny Farm called him Twitch.

The docs and the interrogators at The Funny Farm had been trying for almost three years to coax or coerce Dr. Todd into abandoning his assumed persona as ten-year-old Danny without a hint of success. The irony was that the longer Todd resisted their efforts the more they wanted to succeed. If he would only come forward and share his secret with the agency, it would give the United States a huge advantage in the field of human intelligence gathering.

A spy who couldn’t be made to reveal secrets would be a wish come true.

From what the agency had learned first hand from working on Todd, he had found the holy grail, a way to make operatives interrogation resistant, if not for a lifetime at least long enough to render time-sensitive intelligence obsolete.

The bastard had been truly cunning in conceiving his cover identity. Danny Templeton, to around-the-clock observation, believed he was a young boy from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He thought he lived on a family farm with his mother, Lorraine, known as Lori, his father, Chester, known as Chet, his older brother, Michael, known as Chill, and younger brother, Charles, known as Chucky. He was a student in the fifth grade at Lakeshore Elementary School. He went to church at Grace Lutheran. He was a member of Cub Scout den 175.

The cover identity was so detailed and so consistently repeated in dozens of interrogations that the agency sent a team to Eau Claire to check Todd’s story for accuracy. Damn, if he didn’t have things exactly right. There was a farm family named Templeton there. The school, church and Cub Scout den were real, too. The only thing missing was any documentary evidence that Danny Templeton had ever existed. Reading the investigators’ report produced a great sense of respect for Todd’s craftsmanship.

Until one deep thinker suggested that maybe Danny Templeton had been part of a sleeper cell, and Damon Todd had been his cover identity. Maybe the Russians had left the Templetons in place and one or both of the other sons or even Mom and Dad would be activated for some nefarious purpose in the future.

Speculative paranoia was one of the primary mindsets at the CIA.

Another team was sent to Wisconsin to investigate the farm family, going back at least as far as either Mom or Dad had been alive.

Meanwhile, the interrogation teams continued to deal with a subject who presented himself as a young boy. His emotional vulnerability, senses of terror and despair were spot on. Techniques such as sleep deprivation, minimal calorie diets and enforced exercise were met with cries for “Mom,” tears and pathetic pleadings to stop.

Danny Templeton wound up screwing with his interrogators’ sense of self-worth.

The more strategies they tried to open him up, the less they thought of themselves as decent human beings. In desperation, a plan was hatched to use drugs. Nothing exotic or extreme. Simple sedative-hypnotics. Sleeping pills. The thought was if Todd got a long period of deep sleep, his consciousness might reboot to its root personality.

The sleeping pill trial would not last so long as to form a state of dependency.

As such drugs were contraindicated for young children, there was a debate whether they should be given to Todd at all, and if they were whether the usual strength should be mitigated. The conclusion was that Todd, whatever his real identity, was a physically mature adult and for the purposes of the drug trial he would be given full doses for four consecutive nights.

That idea was cut short by half when on the third morning Todd woke up still presenting as Danny Templeton and showing repetitive twitches and tics. The medical staff was at a loss to understand that as the drugs they’d used had never produced tardive dyskenisia before. Even so, Danny now moaned through the day as his body jerked uncontrollably at irregular intervals.

Twitch was born.

In frustration, the team assigned to break Damon Todd called in Daryl

Cheveyo, the shrink who had been the agency’s initial contact with Todd and who had been in on his capture after Todd had attempted to kill James J. McGill.

Cheveyo read the reports detailing Todd’s time at The Funny Farm and watched hours of surreptitiously shot video of the subject.

His conclusion was, “You’ve been up in his face the whole time he’s been here.

Give him some room. Feed him a normal diet. Let him wake up and go to sleep when he wants. Allow him to interact with other patients and, without crowding him, see if he strikes up any conversations.”

“See if we can find a jailhouse snitch?” the chief interrogator asked.

Cheveyo said, “Or maybe after the years of constant pressure letting him relax will feel so good he’ll even start talking with you. But whatever you do, do not let the SOB get away.”

The warning received a chorus of laughter.

“I’m telling you,” Cheveyo said. “He’s not the kid he’s pretending to be. He’s smart and dangerous.”

Everybody conceded that point, but Cheveyo was assured nobody ever got away from The Funny Farm.

Famous last words.


GWU Hospital
McGill sat alone in the lounge down the hall from the room where Kenny had stayed while waiting for his transplant. He didn’t know whether Kenny would be returned to the same room or even if … Dear God, he thought, please don’t let my son die. Don’t let Patti die.

He tried desperately to find some handhold of faith to grasp, but —

McGill looked up. He saw Deke Ky, his personal Secret Service bodyguard, and Leo Levy, his driver, standing at the entrance to the lounge. Both men had been given the day off; the plan had been for McGill to use the president’s protection detail at the wedding of Welborn Yates and Kira Fahey. Deke and Leo must have heard that Congressman Zachary Garner and Speaker Derek Geiger had died at Vice President Wyman’s home and had sought him out.

Were there for him now. Ready to do anything they could.

“Company coming,” Deke said.

“Family and friends,” Leo elaborated.

The two men stepped aside as McGill’s daughters, Abbie and Caitie, ran to embrace him as he got to his feet. They were both crying, but McGill hadn’t been able to discern the emotion that lay behind the tears in their eyes. He saw his ex-wife Carolyn and her husband Lars approach.

He didn’t have to ask. Carolyn wore a brave smile.

“Kenny’s infusion was successful,” she said.

“And Patti?” McGill asked.

Artemus Nicolaides stepped forward. “The president continues to be monitored closely, but her heartbeat has returned to a normal rhythm and she has suffered no adverse consequences.”

McGill might have collapsed if his daughters hadn’t been holding him up.

That was when he noticed that SAC Crogher was present and he remembered that another life had hung in the balance. In his preoccupation with his wife and son, he had forgotten that. He felt ashamed.

Special Agent August Latz had taken a bullet that Speaker Geiger had intended for McGill.

“Celsus?” he asked. “Special Agent Latz?”

The SAC showed the president’s henchman the first genuine smile he’d ever seen from the man. He gave McGill a thumbs-up. “He’s going to make it. Probably won’t look too pretty, but he’ll live.”

Dr. Divya Sahir Jones, Kenny’s chief oncologist, moved to the head of the line with two other doctors. She looked at McGill and all the others present. Her expression was guarded.

She said, “So far, so good. But for Kenny — and the president and Special Agent Latz — this is still Day Zero. They will all face many challenges. My colleagues and I will tell —”

Crogher interrupted Dr. Jones.

He said, “Kenny McGill’s condition is a matter for his family to discuss. The president’s prognosis is for Mr. McGill’s ears only. Special Agent Latz is my concern.”

Caitie McGill wasn’t about to have Crogher tell her who could hear what.

“Patti is my stepmother,” she said. “My concern. Just like Kenny.”

McGill kissed the top of his daughter’s head.

“SAC Crogher is right, sweetheart. We have to do things a certain way.” He looked Caitie in the eye. “We’re not the only ones interested in Patti. People all over the country and around the world want to know how the president is doing and will make decisions based on what they learn. Not all of those people have our country’s best interests at heart.”

Crogher nodded. He was glad Holmes understood the situation.

McGill looked at the White House physician.

“We’ll say the president is resting comfortably and will resume her office …”

He gestured to Nick to complete the sentence.

Nick had a moment of quiet consultation with one of the doctors who had accompanied Dr. Jones. What he heard was, “There’s no telling.” What he said was, “The moment she gives the word.”

Tough to argue with that, McGill thought.

Nick was playing along with Crogher; specifics were for him alone.

But Caitie seemed to be satisfied, and no one else pressed for details.

“We’ll work it out so everybody’s happy,” McGill told his family.

Dr. Jones asked to have the room for Kenny’s immediate family. They needed to understand he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Him or the president. Both of them were going to need a lot of help.