Shadow Woman

By: Linda Howard

Prologue


San Francisco, Four years earlier


Eleven p.m. The President and First Lady, Eli and Natalie Thorndike, had retired to their hotel suite for the evening. It had been a long day, beginning with the President’s cross-country flight, then going straight into a flurry of campaign speeches—supposedly not campaign speeches, but all of them really were—then culminating in a huge fund-raising dinner where each plate was ten thousand dollars. The First Lady had been by his side the entire time, so she had not only logged the same number of hours, she’d done it wearing three-inch heels.

Laurel Rose, an eleven-year veteran currently assigned to the First Lady’s detail, was so tired she could barely see straight, but at last her shift was over. She hadn’t been wearing heels, but her feet were killing her anyway. She tried her best not to limp as she made her way to her assigned room, down the hall but on the same floor as the President’s suite, so she would be swiftly available if needed. The on-duty agents were in two rooms, one directly across the hall, another with a connecting door to the suite, though that door was locked from the suite side. She didn’t envy them the graveyard shift, but at least now, with POTUS and FLOTUS in for the night, they could relax somewhat.

Three entire floors of the hotel had been taken over, with the President and First Lady on the middle floor. Guests who lived in the hotel had been relocated to other rooms, the stairways and elevators were secured, the hotel staff had been investigated and cleared, and the buildings across the street had been secured; all known risks in the area had been contacted to let them know the Secret Service was watching them, though most had been judged incapable of carrying through on their threats. The First Couple was as safe as the Service could make them.

That didn’t mean nothing could go wrong; it just meant they had made it as difficult as possible for anything to happen. There was always an uneasy feeling deep inside Laurel’s gut that reminded her anything could happen, keeping some small part of her perpetually on edge.

“You’re limping,” observed her fellow agent, Tyrone Ebert, as he fell in beside her on his way to his own room. So much for hiding how much her feet hurt, she thought wryly. She didn’t bother denying it, because he’d just look down at her with one of those see-through-you-like-glass looks of his. There was something a bit spooky about him, his dark eyes seeing everything while he himself revealed nothing, but Laurel trusted his razor-sharp instincts. So far he wasn’t showing any signs of burnout, something she deeply appreciated, because she herself was hanging on by a thread.

“Yeah, it’s been a long day.”

Nothing new about that. The days were all long. Since the Service had been moved from Treasury to Homeland Security, in her opinion things had pretty much gone to shit. Not that they’d ever been great—Secret Service management was an oxymoron; mismanagement was more like it. But now the long hours were longer, morale was in the crapper, their equipment was shit, and on another subject entirely, her mother, who lived in Indianapolis, was getting old and less able to do things for herself. Laurel had put in for a transfer to the Indianapolis area, but she had little hope of getting transferred even though there was a position open. That wasn’t the way things worked; unless you had some juice and knew someone who could pull strings, you weren’t likely to get what you requested.

Laurel didn’t have the needed juice. She hated office politics, so she’d never played the games, and now she was seeing far too clearly that her career with the Secret Service was nearing an end. That was another big problem with the Service: they couldn’t keep good people because of their asinine policies. And, damn it, Laurel knew she was a good agent, despite the underfunding, understaffing, outdated weaponry, and increasingly long hours. She just couldn’t take it any longer. Well, for not much longer, anyway. She hadn’t quite brought herself to the quitting point.

It was such a cool job, in some ways. Not great pay, but cool. She loved what they did, and was able to compartmentalize her emotions so it didn’t matter who sat in the Oval Office: the job was what mattered. She didn’t have to like the First Lady; she just had to protect her. The job would have been easier if the Thorndikes had been more personable, but at least they weren’t as horrendous as some of the previous First Families, if you believed some of the tales she’d heard. Natalie Thorndike wasn’t rude, or a lush, or hateful. It was more as if she didn’t see the agents protecting her as people; she was proud and cool and remote. Sometimes Laurel wished Mrs. Thorndike was a lush, which would at least have made for more interesting detail work.