Bikini Beach: The Coup (two alternate endings)

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Bikini Beach — The Coup
ElrodW

A secret service agent comes to the park with a very serious problem that will take Bikini Beach's special magic to solve. The problem is that it's very high-level politics, where the big boys play for keeps. Does Grandmother want to get involved, or can she afford not to?

(Note — the character Michelle Thompson has an oblique reference to "Bikini Beach: The Senator", but never appeared in that story. There is potentially another story to tie the two together. Some minor hints are given as to the reason this character knows Bikini Beach. Rachel Warren and Brett Williams are both directly from "The Senator".)

This is a new, never-before-published Bikini Beach story. It is a little different than any stories I've written in the past. I hope you enjoy.

Based on significant and STRONG reader feedback, I have restored this original version, but added a new alternate ending. Take your pick.

**********


Bikini Beach — The Coup


This story is copyright by the author. It is protected by licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The man strolled along the park, following the meandering path in a leisurely fashion. He looked like a normal man walking through the park on a normal Sunday afternoon, at least at first glance. However, there was a certain something about the man that seemed to be slightly out of place. Even though he appeared to be glancing about him casually, further study would reveal that his eyes were definitely _not_ casually looking about, but were carefully scrutinizing his surroundings. His pace was a little too deliberate, his smile a little too false.

Larry Hollister was a man on a mission. A tad over six feet tall, he looked like he was a professional athlete instead of a casual businessman. His features were strong and masculine, and he wore his hair cut short, like a Marine crew cut.

He walked unhurriedly down the path, occasionally greeting others who were walking dogs or pushing strollers or jogging, but he kept glancing at a small picnic table off the pathway near a small pond. He passed the picnic table, and without any further glances, strolled down the path another fifty meters.

At the first convenient bench, he lifted his leg and began to fumble with his shoelace. As he did so, Larry glanced around himself easily, professionally examining the path he'd come down and the surroundings. After another jogger had passed him, he slowly turned and strolled back toward the picnic table.

The table was about twenty meters off the path, under a wide-spreading tree that offered shade from the July sun. Three people sat at the table — two women and one man. They _looked_ casual enough, but they weren't interacting in the manner one would expect for a casual Sunday afternoon. They, too, seemed on guard, alert, watchful. All had noticed him coming; all had studied him surreptitiously, and all were very pointedly not looking directly at him. Larry knew the game well.

As he sat down, Larry studied the three people. The man he knew well; Dick Rawlins had been a partner long ago. They'd shared many interesting assignments, and the two used to trust each other with their very lives. A few years younger than Larry's thirty-five, Dick looked a bit like a roguish playboy, with deep blue eyes and a stylish haircut. His looks had been compared, more than once, to a movie star’s, which made him all the more attractive to ladies.

The first lady — Larry started when he recognized her. He _knew_ her quite well. Too well, in fact. Tanya Smith and he had shared many romantic evenings, dating steadily for over a year before they split up. Lewis knew that she'd blamed him, while he thought she was inflexible and demanding. He wondered what _she_ was doing here.

The second woman was a mystery. He thought she looked familiar, but he couldn't quite place her face. She was, outwardly, the most reserved of the three, and the least inconspicuous. Where others wore casual clothes, she looked less casual, and a bit more businesslike. She looked serious and focused, whereas the others managed to appear casual and relaxed. She was totally out of place in this setting.

As Larry approached, the second woman stood and blocked his path, producing what looked like a cell phone. She swept it up and down his body, and, satisfied at what the instrument was telling her, nodded. "He's clean." She pocketed the device.

Larry knew that the second woman had swept him for electronics. He remembered the odd request that he leave his cell phone at home. The whole thing was getting scarier by the moment. Despite years of experience and training, he felt a chill run down his spine. He'd never known his old partner to act so ... paranoid.

Dick stood and grasped Larry's hand. "Glad you could make it. I was starting to think that you didn't remember the code."

Larry laughed. "A scrap here, a note there, a text somewhere else - and assembling them in a Fibonacci series. Yeah," he laughed, "I remembered. The tough thing was to translate them into the proper coordinate reference frame."

The second woman nodded. "Dick said that you'd figure it out." She glanced around. "Are you sure you weren't tailed?"

Larry shook his head. "If they did, they're a lot better than I am." He looked at Dick, his curiosity taking over. "What the heck is going on here? You're making this feel like some type of secret meeting of the people's revolutionary cabal!"

“Larry, this is Michelle Thompson.” He smiled. “That’s about all you need to know.”

“Good afternoon.” Larry shook Michelle’s hand, using the opportunity to size her up. From the firmness of her handclasp and the look in her eyes, Larry knew that she was not to be underestimated. “I’m ….”

“Larry Hollister,” Michelle answered with a smile. “Yes, I know.”

Larry felt uncomfortable that she obviously knew about him, but he didn’t know anything about her. It added to the mystery.

Once the introductions were done, Dick produced a tablet PC from his backpack. He held it out toward Larry, but didn't let Larry take it. "Did you ever watch the old TV series, 'Mission Impossible'?"

Larry frowned. "No. Why?"

Dick laughed. "I did. My dad loved that show, and I must have watched every re-run at least ten times."

Larry's frown deepened. "What does an old TV series have to do with ... this?"

"At the start of each episode, the leader would get info at a secret dead-drop location. The information was always pretty explicit, but was on a tape that would 'self-destruct in fifteen seconds.'" He glanced at the tablet.

Tanya looked evenly at him. "Right now, you can turn and walk away, and you'll know nothing. Once you look at the information on that tablet, though, you're committed to something that's much bigger than anything you've ever dealt with in your life."

"And that would be ...?"

Michelle shook her head. "We can't tell you. It's _that_ sensitive."

Larry gulped. This _was_ real cloak-and-dagger stuff. Not the usual day-at-the-office, but potentially deadly-serious. "As the Brits say, 'in for a penny, in for a pound."

Dick nodded. "Once you turn on the tablet, you have precisely fifteen minutes before a chemical reaction irrevocably obliterates every piece of silicon in that tablet. Not even the NSA boys would be able to recover data from what will be left."

Larry felt the hairs on the nape of his neck rise, trying to alert him to danger. This sounded like some type of Hollywood action-movie about a plot to overthrow the government or assassinate some key leader. He nodded. "I trust you," he said slowly. "The others ...." He shook his head. "Let's just say that if it was anyone else, I'd walk away."

"But you're in?"

Larry nodded and reached for the tablet. "Yeah, I'm in."

**********

Larry gulped as he handed the tablet back to Dick, who set it on the table. As they watched, thin wisps of chemical smoke began to seep from the case; the system was destroying itself, just as Dick had said. More critically, it was destroying all evidence of what Larry had learned.

"You're kidding, right?" he asked Dick hopefully.

Tonya shook her head sadly. "I _wish_ we were kidding."

"So let's see if I've got this right. President Falk is dying of inoperable brain cancer, and no-one apart from a small inner circle knows?"

Dick nodded grimly.

"And you are very certain that the veep is highly compromised and will sell out the US to the Chinese as soon as he takes office?" Larry continued.

"You saw the details of the discussions," Tonya answered. "He's planning some deals to sell several mothballed aircraft carriers and some of our retired submarines to the Chinese military. It'll completely change the balance of power in the Pacific. Hell," she sighed and continued, "it'll change the balance of power in the whole world!"

"And he's publicly pledged, several times in the past, to share any secrets of missile defense, to reduce tensions."

Michelle nodded. "He's already announced his desire to repudiate the national debt, which will wipe out our credit rating and make us a banana republic. That’s practically begging the Chinese to attack us! And if he waits until he shifts the balance of power, ..." She didn't need to continue.

“Why?” Larry asked the obvious question. “Those seem counter to each other."

Dick nodded. "It would seem so," he agreed. "But think of the order of doing things. Think of strategy. He sacrifices rooks and bishops — the carriers and subs — and strengthens the enemy by doing so. Then he makes a bold move that invites a counterattack when they're strong enough to succeed and we aren't strong enough to defend ourselves."

"Why would he be willing to sell out the country like that?” He shook his head. “Without some solid motive, this just seems so … speculative.”

“Why do dictators act in ways that most people consider irrational?” Michelle countered. “Mostly, it’s love of power above all else.”

Dick nodded. “We strongly suspect, because not even the Secret Service was in the room during the last US-Chinese bilateral meeting, that there’s some … deal in the works. Some kind of power for him. How are you on your Latin?"

"I didn't study Latin," Larry said slowly. He wondered about this curious puzzle piece as well.

"Look up the term 'praefectus' when you get a chance."

"That's one word I _don't_ need to look up," Larry countered. He rubbed his eyes lightly with his thumb and forefinger as he considered what he’d learned so far. It all sounded so … incredible. After a few long seconds, he looked back at Dick. “So your plan is to get enough information on the Veep to publicly discredit him — before the president resigns for health reasons in a few months?" He shook his head. "Do you know that this is _treason_?" he asked, almost stupefied.

Dick nodded, his expression as grim as the reaper. "If we don't, the country is going to be in very deep shit."

Larry sighed, shaking his head slowly. This was a _lot_ more than he'd counted on for a Sunday afternoon, even after Dick's cryptic messages and hidden clues. In retrospect, Dick had never before acted so suspiciously and shared so little information. This was _very_ serious. He gulped. "Okay," he said finally, resigned to the fact that he'd committed to this. "Who can we trust?"

Dick shook his head. "No-one. A lot of Secret Service agents are pretty compromised. A few, who I can't name, aren't — some of them risked their lives and broke their oaths of silence to get this information out!"

"Shit," Larry swore softly. "So how do we go about trying to get past the best executive security service in the world?"

**********

Larry sighed as the car drove through the city. He didn't understand what they were doing, and he really didn't like having to work with Tonya again. She was still visibly pissed at how their relationship had ended. And he didn't like working with Michelle, Thompson, an unknown who hadn't earned his trust. She seemed just a little too self-confident and arrogant.

"Would you tell me what are we doing _here_?" he asked for the seventh or eighth time. So far, the answers had been enigmatic at best.

"It's part of the plan," Michelle answered with a smug smile.

Larry shook his head. "It's just odd that we're wasting our time here, while the ... action is in DC."

Michelle and Tonya exchanged a knowing glance, and then shut up. They both knew that what they were about to do was one hell of a gamble.

Shortly, after more silence and mounting frustration for Larry, the car pulled into the parking lot of a water park, of all things. Larry frowned. "What the hell is this?" he demanded.

Tonya parked the car, and then got out. "You'll understand in a few minutes."

With nothing better to do, Larry exited the car and joined the two women walking toward the park's ticket booth. Tonya grasped his arm to hold him back, while Michelle walked to the ticket booth. Her conversation was a bit animated, but finally, she procured something and rejoined the group. She handed a ticket to Larry.

Larry was baffled by now. "Okay, what's _this_ about?"

"Just go into the park and change," Michelle explained simply. "They have guest suits in the men's locker room. We'll see you in the park in a couple of minutes."

"No," Larry said firmly. "Look, this is stupid. We've got some real work to do, and you've got me going to a water park?" He scowled. "What the hell is going on?"

Michelle shook her head. "I'm not sure that this is the best place ...." she began.

In his peripheral vision, Larry noticed an older woman approaching. He was _trained_ to notice such things. "Quiet," he hissed.

The old woman smiled as she approached. "Oh, no need for that," she said pleasantly, as if she'd heard him. She gave Michelle a warm hug. “It’s nice to see you again. Has everything worked out like you were hoping?”

Michelle returned the embrace. She _knew_ this old woman somehow. “Better than I’d hoped.”

The old woman looked at Larry. "Do go on. Pretend I'm not here."

"I'm just trying to understand what's going on here," Larry explained, trying to persuade the old gal to either explain things or leave.

The old woman smiled. "At least you didn't call me an 'old bat'," she said with a grin.

Larry flinched at her words. In his extreme frustration, he _had_ thought of saying those very words. He started to reassess the old woman; clearly, his first impression had been wrong. "Uh, how ...?"

The old woman looked at him. Larry instantly was intimidated; in her eyes, he saw a raw power that cowed and scared him, but there was also compassion and understanding.

"Just do as they suggest," the old woman said soothingly. "You'll understand in a few moments."

Larry gulped, and then he nodded slowly. "Okay, I'll play along." Still not understanding, and reluctant to waste time, he trudged through the turnstile, pausing to swipe the pass, and disappeared into the men's locker room.

The old woman watched him go, and then turned to the two women. "I'd suggest you go to the office. Anya is waiting for you." She smiled. "It'll be easier if I handle things when he comes out of the locker room."

As the two walked toward the office, the old woman overheard Tonya's question. She, too, was confused about what, exactly, was happening.

**********

Larry shook his head in disbelief as he stuffed his clothing into the locker. This was unreal — he was involved in perhaps the most clandestine, dangerous plan in the history of the country, and somehow, he'd ended up in this coastal city, in a water park, changing into swim trunks. Surreal wasn't exactly a strong enough word.

Even though he was concerned about his work, Larry paused to admire himself. Despite the time he spent behind a desk and not in the field, he worked hard to keep himself in shape. His abs — perfect six-pack. He had no extra fat; if one were to guess, one might suppose him to be an athlete instead of a government agent. Lean, trim — all a result of diligence to fitness.

He pocketed the key, and remembering the signs, stepped to a shower. Shaking his head, not quite believing what he was doing, he pulled back the curtain and twisted the shower knob, turning on the stream of water. Not wanting to waste any more precious time, he stepped into the steady stream of water.

Larry was very surprised at the warmth of the water; he'd expected a blast of lukewarm or cool water at best. He was also stunned at just how good the shower felt; it was some type of shower massage, and its pulsing jets seemed to melt the tension from his entire body. He closed his eyes, relaxing for a moment, and thus failed to immediately notice that the mist had turned light pink.

When he opened his eyes, Larry was baffled. He glanced around, and _did_ notice, now, that the wisps of steam and mist about him didn’t seem quite normal. Further, his scalp was tingling a tiny bit, and it seemed that something wet was slapping his shoulders. He ignored the odd sensation and reached up to shut off the shower.

As he walked toward the exit, Larry’s brow wrinkled; something didn’t seem quite right. The sensation of walking was … odd, as if his balance was altered a bit. And there was some swaying on his chest that was out of place. He knew how his body was supposed to feel — that was a consequence of his daily workouts. He thus knew that the sensations he was feeling were highly unusual.

As Larry rounded the corner to the exit, he came face-to-face with a semi-nude woman coming his way. Larry flinched, and saw the woman react in the same startled manner.

Years of being a trained situational observer served Larry well. He’d seen the reaction in the woman that mirrored his. Every motion he made was echoed. And he noticed a small frame around the door, which meant it wasn’t a door. In a fraction of a second, Larry knew he was staring into a mirror. That conclusion, no matter how illogical, led him to look down, to see if the odd sensations he’d felt had anything to do with the image he saw.

Larry gasped, a tiny feminine sound, as he beheld the breasts on his chest. They were perfect specimens of female curves, round and full and capped by large dark nipples. Between the valley on his chest, Larry could see that his toned abs were gone, replaced by a smooth, perfectly flat woman’s stomach. Below that — Larry craned his neck forward to get a better view over the mounds hanging on his chest — he could see that his swim suit had changed into a delicate and alluring bikini bottom, with no obvious bulge of manhood.

Feeling a bit of panic, Larry looked up at the mirror again. The face he saw was only faintly like his own. The woman was a beauty; her light brown hair, cut in a shoulder-length bob and swept across her forehead, contrasted with her soft, inviting hazel eyes. She had a dainty nose, high cheeks, and her lips were full and alluring. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties. She was an icon of beauty.

At that moment, the door opened, and the mirror was replaced by the old woman framed in the doorway. “Ah, I see you’re done changing,” she said with an enigmatic smile.

Larry frowned. “This … this is impossible,” he said softly, again marveling at the sultry contralto voice that came from his lips. He thought he detected a faint Southern accent in how he was speaking. “What have you done to me?”

The old woman produced a bikini top, seemingly from nowhere. “First things first. I don’t like topless sunbathing in my park.” She handed it to Larry. “Put this on, please.”

Confronted as he was with a situation he couldn’t explain, Larry simply followed his instructions. He took the top, and with a skill that he didn’t know he possessed, fastened the top on. Not surprisingly, he noted, it matched the bottom perfectly, even if the cups were a bit small for his … chest. While covering his breasts, it nonetheless left an inviting image.

“How … how did I do that?” he asked, even more baffled.

“Magic.”

“Magic? Yeah, right! This has got to be one hell of an illusion,” he rebutted.

“And yet, you know it isn’t, correct?” the old woman asked with a smile. “I built my park to give women a place of sanctuary from leering eyes and lustful stares. The magic changes men into women, so they don’t interrupt the privacy of my patrons. Now, if you’ll follow me, your colleagues are waiting in the office. We have some very serious matters to discuss, I believe.”

With no other options, Larry elected to follow the woman. They walked across the entrance plaza, past a much larger woman’s changing room, and into a low office building that bordered the high privacy fence.

Inside the building, three other ladies were seated. Larry recognized the two who’d accompanied him to the park, but the third was a mystery.

“Don’t worry about my grand-daughter Anya,” the old woman interrupted his train of thought. “She’s essential to my operations here, and she’s as trustworthy as I am.”

Larry sat down, and without realizing it, crossed his legs in a proper lady-like fashion. Tonya watched, her eyes wide with surprise at what she was seeing.

Larry noticed Tonya’s expression, and he _also_ noted the rather bemused look on Michelle’s face. At the same time, the old woman and the younger woman, Anya, seemed bored by the entire spectacle, as if men changed into women every day. Given what the old woman had said in the shower, Larry realized, men probably _did_ change into women every day at this park. He had a sudden terrifying thought. “Is this … permanent?”

Michelle smiled and spoke before either the old woman or Anya could. “No,” she assured him, “the magic lasts for the duration of the pass — plus a few hours. You’ll be a woman until your pass expires.”

Larry glanced at Tonya, and saw her staring wide-eyed at him. “Are you jealous?” he taunted her.

Tonya frowned. “No,” she snapped quickly. Instantly, she realized that she’d answered too quickly, and that she’d betrayed the fact that she _was_ a little jealous. Larry’s body was an absolute knockout, and she felt, in some ways, inadequate by comparison.

“Okay, Michelle, now that we’re done with pleasantries, I’d like to know why you’ve come to me.” The old woman was speaking to the second female agent.

Michelle, smiled, but it was not a genuine smile. “We … need your help.”

“Again,” Anya added.

Larry glanced at Anya. Despite looking about twenty-three, she was very perceptive - very much like her grandmother. He was starting to doubt Michelle’s judgment; he didn’t know if he could trust these two with this magnitude of secret.

“Yeah, again.” She paused, wondering how to word her request in a way that didn’t betray national security secrets. “We’re, um, working on a special project,” she began.

The old woman smiled. “Come on, Michelle,” she interrupted. “You know that we can read your thoughts. We _know_ what’s going on.” She glanced at Larry. “And just to settle your doubts, we _can_ be trusted. It’s our country, too.”

Michelle seemed relaxed by the news; the telepathy meant that she didn’t have to speak aloud about their concerns and plot. “Yeah.”

“I presume that you haven’t yet told Larry what his role will be?” Anya prompted.

Michelle looked at her, then dropped her gaze. “No, not yet.”

“Don’t you think you’d better,” the old woman prompted softly. “It’s _his_ decision to make, not yours.”

Tonya piped up. “I wish _I_ knew what this was all about, too!”

Michelle swallowed, still staring at the floor, and then she looked directly into Larry’s eyes. “We have to get someone close to Collins,” she said matter-of-factly. “Someone intimately close, someone who can spy, and get notes, and collect the data that we need.”

Tonya’s eyes widened, as did Larry’s, as they both realized the implications of her words. Vice President Roger Collins, never married, was known to be a ladies’ man, a smooth-talking romancer of younger, attractive girls.

“You’re not suggesting …?” Larry stammered.

Michelle nodded. “You’re the only one.”

“But …” Tonya started to voice her objections as well.

Michelle shook her head. “He’s the only one. The secret service agents we trust that are on his detail — they’re both married. If they were to change, they’d be female versions of themselves, still on the security detail, and thus known to Collins. And the only other man that we can absolutely trust is also married.” She sighed. “I’m too well known, both from my earlier time in the Secret Service, and my work on Senator Warren’s staff, and Tonya is a known agent.”

“I worked on his security detail a few years ago,” Larry objected. “Surely …”

Tonya realized the truth of what Michelle had said. “I’m afraid she’s right,” she admitted grudgingly. “You’re the only one. You have the most knowledge of his … tomcat … ways and tastes of any of us.”

Larry knew it was a losing battle. Logic and appeal to patriotism were on the women’s side. “So that’s why you brought me here and tricked me into changing — so I would be the patsy.”

Michelle and Tonya winced at the accusatory tone of his voice. They knew that he was right. “It’s still your choice,” Michelle said simply. “This was a … demonstration. You have to admit that if I’d told you two about magic and such, you would have never believed me.”

Larry stared at her for a moment, and then nodded. “You’re right,” he said with an air of resignation. “On both counts. I _wouldn’t_ have believed you, and it seems that I’m the lucky one.” He sighed heavily. “So when you say that I would have to get close to Collins, how _close_ are you talking?”

He saw the embarrassed look on Michelle’s face. “That’s what I was afraid of.” Everyone know that Collins was a randy old goat and with a reputation for his adventuresome peccadillos. He took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly as he stared at a light fixture. When he looked back at Michelle, he looked weary. “So now I get the speech about duty to country and all of that?”

Tonya laughed. “I don’t think that’d be fitting.”

Larry looked at the old woman. “So what’s going to happen? How long? I’ll need ….”

“If — when — you check, you’ll find that your identification is Laura O’Donnell. Anya’s magic has made a complete background for you. To everyone outside this room, you’ll have always been Laura, a widowed young woman who happens to enjoy the DC social scene.”

“How long?” Larry asked simply. “How long is this … assignment going to last?”

“Right now, the pass you have expires at midnight,” the old woman answered. “We had a … discussion. I wouldn’t sell a longer pass unless _you_ made the decision. This is a … test drive.”

“Okay, so this ends at midnight. I assume that I’ll have to change again if I agree to this assignment? How long will _that_ pass last?”

Michelle and Tonya exchanged looks of unease. “Six months at the outside.”

“Six _months_?”

Michelle nodded, her expression grim. “That’s the longest the doctors think the president can go before he’s forced to resign. And that’s only _if_ he lasts that long.”

“Six months?” Larry shook his head. “That’s a long time.”

“Can you think of another way?”

Larry shook his head, a resigned expression on his face. “No.”

**********

Laura, Tonya, and Michelle started out the door. It hadn't taken a day for Larry to decide — he knew where his duty lay.

Grandmother, however, interrupted them. "Michelle, can I have a word with you in private before you leave?"

Anya had already gotten the hint from Grandmother through her magic senses. She was half-way to the door by the time the old woman had spoken.

Michelle nodded, already suspecting what the old woman was going to say to her. "Wait in the car. This shouldn't take but a moment."

When the door had closed, Michelle turned toward the old woman.

"You broke your promise," Grandmother said simply.

Michelle nodded, a grim expression on her face. "I know. But I didn't have a choice!"

"Yes, you did!" the old woman snapped. "There are always choices. I made a choice when I decided to help you."

Michelle nodded, humbled a bit by the old woman's frustration. "I know. And I appreciate it more than I can say. You helped me become the real me, the person I'd been inside for years. You saved my life from the depression that my ... condition and conflict was causing."

"Senator Michaels is the one who saved your life," Grandmother reminded Michelle.

"And I still owe him — and his memory. It's a debt that I can't repay."

"He wouldn't have broken his vow," the old woman said, stinging Michelle with her words.

"Do you think I don't know that?" Michelle asked, her eyes watering. "We tried! We couldn't find any other way!"

"You haven't told Rachel, have you?"

Michelle shook her head. "She's too upright and honest. She wouldn't understand my breaking a promise, either. It would ... disappoint her. It would hurt her that a trusted aide would do such a thing."

"I know,"

Michelle lowered her eyes. "You won't tell her, will you?"

"No. That's for you."

Michelle nodded her understanding. "I can't tell her. Not yet. This is far too ... dangerous for her to be involved. She needs to be kept clean from the whole mess, in case this blows up in our faces."

"It's political," Grandmother reminded her. "It probably _will_ blow up."

Michelle sighed. "I know," she said sadly. "I know."

**********

After Michelle had left, Anya re-entered the office. “I noticed that you were a lot less … verbal … than normal. What are you thinking?”

“I can’t fool you, can I?” the old woman asked with a sad smile. “I’m very concerned about getting involved in … politics.” She spoke the word as if it were distasteful. “You realize that if we help, we could be held as accomplices to treason.”

Anya’s usual cheery expression was somber. “Yes.” It wasn't like Anya to give simple, one-word answers to anything.

“Do you think we have a choice?”

Anya needed no time to think. “No. Not unless you’re willing to ignore the data they’ve seen, magically wipe their memories of this place, and then hope that they’re wrong.”

"What do you think?”

Anya shook her head. “They’re not wrong," she said with certainty.

“That’s my assessment, too.” The old woman sighed. “We really don’t have a choice. With the type of actors in politics, do you think you could protect yourself — and everyone around you — every second of every day? There's someone behind those three — and they are desperate. One never corners a rat, because that's when they get dangerous. That's why _I_ had to leave a place, once." She shook her head. But there’s another complication.”

“Oh?”

The old woman nodded. “You know what kind of sentence I’m under from the Wizards’ Council. I’ve told you about the rules for non-interference.” She shook her head. “I can’t help any more than I’ve already done.”

“What you’re trying to tell me is that if Laura needs any more help, I’m going to have to do it, right?”

The old woman nodded. “You aren’t of age to travel to the ‘otherworld’, so the non-interference rules don’t apply to you — yet.”

“This might be a stretch,” Anya said nervously. “I’m not sure I can handle it.”

Grandmother smiled. “You’re more than capable enough. Your powers are strong. You did great work with Senator Michaels, and with Melanie Lewis. And with Alison. I _know_ you can do what’s needed.”

Anya blushed. She wasn’t used to being complimented on her magic abilities. “Do you think I’ll have to give Laura a little extra … something,” she asked, “to help her attract men?” She already knew the answer. Larry’s task was already difficult enough without having to deal with a good dose of sexual magnetism that drew men’s attention, but in order to ensure that she attracted that one man's attention, she'd need every bit of extra allure that Anya could give her.

**********
Laura O'Donnell grimaced inwardly, even as she pasted on a phony smile. She was at the social gathering with Tonya, supposedly her best friend from college. As Anya had warned her, due to the enhanced sexual magnetism she'd received, she was getting a _lot_ of attention from men, ranging from interns to lobbyists to House and Senate members.

Laura had been forewarned by Anya that she’d have all the memories and mannerisms to play her role, but she’d been shocked at how extensive those memories and habits were. She felt like she was caught between two worlds — the artificial memories of Laura, and the real memories of Larry. More than once, she’d awakened in a sweat with the feeling that she was actually Laura, and was just dreaming of being Larry.

Laura tried to put on an expression that was discouraging. “Why, no, General,” she said with her Southern-belle accent, “my dear Todd never told me about those missions. I knew better than to ask, because I knew he wouldn’t tell me things that were classified.”

She was poised, graceful, and displayed all the politeness and manners of a proper Southern lady. Her accent was charming without sounding overdone or stereotypical. More importantly, since Larry had served on Vice-President Collins’ security detail, he knew exactly what characteristics caught Collins’ eye, and Laura matched all of those details — in spades. What’s more, the special, almost magical, aura about her was an added lure to entice Collins.

So far, however, the plan to get close to Collins had failed. Twice, scheduling conflicts had kept him away from social events, and a third time, he arrived with a perky blonde on his arm, making it impossible to get close enough for Laura to turn on her charms.

Laura was left trying to fend off interested men. She’d known how common affairs were in the capitol, but she was shocked by how blatant some of the men were. At the moment, she was trying to deflect the attention of a general. She knew he was married, but like many in DC, he was almost eager to have an affair with a lovely young lady. Given the numbers of eligible, lonely women in the city, such affairs were very commonplace. “Besides,” she added, “I still miss him so, and even though he’s gone, I still feel like I shouldn’t give improper … appearances.”

He took the hint, made some cordial excuse, and went elsewhere to prowl for companionship. Laura breathed a sigh of relief, but jumped when she felt a hand on her arm. Her heartbeat slowed again when she saw that it was Tonya that had touched her.

“A little jumpy tonight?” Tonya asked with sweet smile.

Laura kept the smile on her face, despite her inner emotions. “We’ll talk later. Any word on Collins?”

“He’s not going to make it. Schedule change.”

Laura frowned. “Which means that he found some sweet young thing for the evening, right?” She shook her head. “This is _not_ working.”

Tonya continued to smile. “Make your excuses so we can go. I’ve got some information for you.”

After some cordial “thank you’s” and excuses, Laura left with Tonya.

As soon as they were in Laura’s car, out of earshot of anyone nearby, Laura sighed out of frustration. “This isn’t working,” she repeated.

Tonya shrugged. “You just hate having to dress up and flirt,” she countered playfully.

“Would you get serious?”

“Okay.” Tonya decided that she’d ribbed Laura enough for one night. “At the reception the other night, Collins noticed you.”

“How? He had that blonde bimbo hanging all over him?”

Tonya laughed. Laura didn’t realize just how competitively female she sounded. “Maybe, but there have been some queries in the office to find out more about you.”

“Finally!” Laura sighed with relief. “It’s taken long enough.”

Tonya frowned, but her expression was unseen in the darkness. “That was the good news.”

“Oh?” Laura was alert again.

“Someone is getting suspicious,” Tonya reported. “You’ve got a tail.”

“I noticed.”

“Which might mean that someone from Collin’s security detail is checking you out.”

Laura nodded her agreement. “I hope so. That would mean he’s taking the bait.”

“And it’s not safe to contact Dick. He thinks his phone is tapped, and his e-mail is getting extra scrutiny. .”

“Shit.” The cursing from Laura was completely out of character with her appearance

“You can’t contact me, either.” She sighed. “I’m just a field agent, so it’s very unusual for me to go to your social events. It’s getting attention. A lot of people in the office are starting to feel that they're not ... trusted, and that they're under scrutiny. Someone's getting edgy”

“But … you’re supposed to be my best friend from college!” Laura and Tonya both knew the way Anya’s magic had rewritten their lives.

“Yeah, well that may be, but we move in totally different social circles, and it’s not … appropriate … for us to be seen together. At least not frequently.”

Laura winced. “That means … I’m on my own.”

Tonya nodded. “We’ll set up some dead drops.”

Laura shook her head. “Not if I’ve got a tail. That’ll arouse suspicion, especially if you and Dick start attracting interest, too.”

“Shit,” Tonya swore. “How the hell are we going to pull this off now?” She sighed heavily. “You know that Collins came from a … rough city. If he starts to get suspicious, well, you know it wouldn’t be the first time that someone _inconvenient_ had problems or disappeared.”

Laura bit her lip as she thought. “No. We _have_ to stop the son of a bitch.” She shook her head. “There _has_ to be ….” She suddenly thought. “You don’t suppose that girl, Anya, could help us out … again?”

Tonya’s face brightened. “Maybe using her magic? Like, every time you needed to get something, you could do a dead-drop, and she’d be able to tell us where to pick it up?” She nodded. “That would make it less predictable, and it wouldn’t attract attention.”

“We hope.”

“Yeah,”

“I’ll talk to Michelle and see what we can arrange.”

**********

“I don’t like it, Anya,” Grandmother said with a frown. “We’re getting dragged deeper and deeper into this ... conspiracy.”

Michelle nodded grimly. "I don't see how we can help it."

"At least you have an excuse to visit us. You and Senator Warren are both long-time patrons of our park," Anya noted wryly. "But we're not in Washington, DC, and Laura doesn't have an excuse to drop in any time she needs."

"Can you do anything?" Michelle asked.

Anya thought a moment. She looked at Grandmother. "Some type of amulet or jewelry that alerts me, and lets me monitor her thoughts if I need?"

Grandmother nodded. She would have smiled at Anya's creative solution, except for the grave nature of the task. "I've got two concerns. First, it'll distract you a lot from your work. Second, I'm worried that you might not be able to cast that spell."

Anya nodded. "I think I can manage the spell." She glanced at Michelle. "If the two of you are arousing suspicion, then you'll probably need something, too."

"That makes sense," Michelle agreed.

"Something you normally wear. A class ring, a pair of earrings, a necklace. Anything that wouldn't seem out of the ordinary."

"I'll tell Dick."

Anya shook her head. "If you're both being followed, that's too risky. I'll have to just ... visit ... magically, and cast the spell."

Michelle laughed. "I forgot that you can do that." She smiled. "How many times did you do that trick with the Senator — during the time he was changing?"

Anya and Grandmother both flinched. "No-one was supposed to know anything about that," Grandmother said warily.

A wry smile crept over Michelle's face. "Did you forget who _I_ was? How I came to be on Senator Warren's staff — after I'd been on Senator Michaels' staff? It wasn't that hard to figure out what you'd done."

"How many other people know — or suspect — what happened?"

"Just me, and I'll take the secret to my grave," Michelle said solemnly.

Anya winced. "Are you going to tell the Senator about this?"

Michelle shook her head. "No. She needs ... plausible deniability — if something goes wrong."

"You really have a strong sense of loyalty," the old woman said with admiration.

Michelle nodded. "I put my life on the line for Senator Michaels. I put my life on the line for Senator Warren. I did it for my country, too. Yeah, I take my duties seriously."

"If this all works out," Anya said softly, "you're going to have to tell her — someday."

"Yeah, I know."

**********

Laura grimaced inwardly as she shook one more hand. She was at a formal State Department reception, for another wanna-be dictator from another third-world country. She was bored with the whole process, she hated the time and fuss of getting her hair and makeup done, she hated the need to find "just the right" dress, and she hated how her feet hurt in her heels. She reminded herself, for perhaps the twentieth time so far that evening, that it was "just a job," like all the crap jobs she'd had while Larry had served in the military.

Laura's frown straightened when she saw the Vice President slowly making his way toward her. She sighed — maybe _this_ would be the time that he finally noticed her, and she would be able to move to the next phase of her task. At the same time, she shuddered at the knowledge of what the "next phase" would be — getting close enough to the Vice President to gather hard information, including getting intimate if necessary.

A older woman who was known to be a friend of the Veep lightly touched Laura's elbow. "There's a friend of mine that I know you'd love to meet," she said warmly. In the current reality, the woman was also a friend of Laura.

Laura knew the game. She couldn't just walk up to an important man and start talking. That just wasn't how things were done in polite society. Someone had to introduce her, and that, in political circles, generally meant that both sides needed an intermediary, someone who would do the polite introductions and then, if needed, retreat when conversations turned private.

"I'd be delighted to meet any of your friends," Laura responded. Her misgivings about the 'friend' and the assignment were relegated to the background. She had a job to do.

As they crossed the few yards that separated her from the Veep, Laura saw that he was watching them. Clearly, _he_ had initiated the contact through the mutual friend. She felt, for a moment, like a bird flying into a snare. At the same time, she felt a little relief that, after a few weeks of frustration, she might be making her first contact with him.

She glanced to the side, to where she knew that Tonya was keeping her post as part of the Secret Service detail. She gave a brief nod when she caught Tonya's eye, indicating that this might be the first real progress.

"Mister Vice President," the woman said with her own charm turned on full, "this is my dear friend, Laura O'Donnell, that I was telling you about."

"I've heard so much about you, Ms. O'Donnell," the Vice-President said, as he bent forward to kiss her outstretched hand.

"Oh?" Laura asked, trying to sound interested by not obvious. "I trust it's all good."

Collins smiled. "You have a reputation as being one of the finest hostesses in DC. And you are considered, by many, to be one of the most charming ladies in the city."

Laura feigned modesty. "You're going to make me blush," she said with all the Southern charm she could muster.

"Then perhaps I shouldn't add that, in my opinion, you are perhaps the most beautiful as well."

Laura _did_ blush at the compliment. "Why, Mr Vice President, it's been said that you could charm the morning dew right off the honeysuckle. It appears that was an understatement."

Despite his official duties, the Vice President lingered to talk with Laura, and whenever he was called away for another formal introduction or greeting, he managed to find his way back to continue his conversation.

As the reception was ending, Collins came back to Laura. "I was wondering, " he said, oozing charm, "if your social calendar was free tomorrow evening. There is a reception at the Russian embassy, and it would not be as pleasant for me to go without a suitable ... partner."

Laura felt a surge of excitement to accompany her growing sense of dread. "Why, Mister Vice President, ..."

Collins smiled and interrupted. "Please, call me Roger. I'd prefer not to dwell on titles. It's a little too ... formal."

"Then I insist that you call me Laura," she replied. "And I'd be honored to be your guest at the reception." Laura felt her heart flutter in a strange way; she was finding him as charming as his reputation suggested, and she found his attention caused a slight thrill. She forced the strange feeling from herself. She needed to focus on her job.

"Then I'll send a limo to pick you up. Shall we say, about six?"

Laura smiled. "That will barely give me time to find a suitable dress and to get my hair done," she said coyly. "But I'll manage, somehow."

"And you needn't explain the 'rules' about a woman not being seen twice in the same dress," Collins added with a polite smile.

"I'm so glad you understand. Most men don't."

"I'm not 'most men'," Collins had a peculiarly naughty expression.

"So I've heard," Laura answered, trying to sound interested but not desperate.

"Until tomorrow evening, then," Collins kissed her hand again, then turned and, with his security team taking their places, departed the reception.

**********

The second reception resulted in an invitation to a private movie screening at the White House.

As she put on her makeup for the 'date,' Laura found herself feeling both delighted and horrified by the prospect. Shopping for a dress had been too easy; in fact, it had been, to her shock and dismay, downright fun. Putting on her makeup was too easy. She wondered if she wasn't enjoying the role a bit too much.

As they chatted before the movie screening, Laura wondered when Collins was going to make his move. He was obviously interested, but so far, he'd been a lot more reserved than his reputation would suggest.

Finally, Collins hinted about the subject. "You know, never having been married, I find life in this city to be ... lonely, at times." He had a wistful, seductive quality to his voice.

Laura nodded knowingly. "I know the feeling," she said. "It's ... difficult ... at times, being a widow at my age." She wiped at a tear that had appeared; she blamed Anya's magic and skills for the overdone sentimentality. "Very few women my age can relate, and at times, I feel alone and isolated."

"In a way, then," Collins continued, "we're kindred spirits. Two people, alone in this hub of power."

"Oh?" Laura was relying on one of Anya's lessons, "I thought you had plenty of opportunity for ... companionship."

Collins laughed. "When one is in a position of power," he explained lightly, "one finds many ... companions, who are interested only because of the power or celebrity status." He smiled warmly. "One seldom meets a companion who _isn't_ interested in those things"

"Oh? So I take it you don't categorize me as a groupie who merely wants to seduce the Vice President?"

"Hardly," Collins answered with a smile. "If you had been, you'd have been rather insistent on 'hooking up' at the reception where we first met. No, I find you charming company of a more ... sophisticated nature."

"And I find you pleasant to talk with," Laura replied, trying to sound both encouraging and at the same time, demure.

"Perhaps," Collins suggested, "if you haven't yet dined, after the movie we could enjoy dinner and a glass of wine together?"

"That would be very nice," Laura said with a smile. "But there aren't many places that you won't be recognized and mobbed by ... your admirers."

"If you wouldn't think it too forward of me, we could dine privately at my residence. The staff chef is excellent."

Laura knew that he was falling for the bait. "I think that would be very nice," she answered, trying to sound demure and sweet.

Inwardly, Laura was thankful for the coaching that Anya had given her, as well as the enhanced 'charm'. She'd been playing 'hard to get', precisely as Anya had advised, but it had only taken three days for Collins to become irresistibly enthralled by her. The plan was working. Collins was falling for her, and soon, hopefully, she would get the information that they so desperately needed. She also knew better than to get her hopes up too soon; Anya had warned her that Collins was a cagy political master, and it would probably take time to get to the point that she had access to what she needed. Patience was the name of the game, but the problem was, with a dying President, patience was something that they couldn't afford.

**********

Laura sighed, trying her best to sound sexually satisfied. She lay in bed with Collins, her head resting on his shoulder, and his arm around her. He was reveling in the afterglow of sex. Laura was just glad he was done.

"There's something very special about you," Collins said with a smile. "You know how to make an old man feel young."

Laura wanted to vomit. Instead, she forced herself to turn on her charm. "You know how to make a woman feel like a complete woman," she purred. Inwardly, however, she felt completely different. Collins was clumsy, rough, and in a hurry to satisfy his own carnal needs. She _knew_ that she was going to have to pleasure herself when he was done — just to avoid the sexual frustration that had been building in her — much to her chagrin. She found that she wanted to feel pleasure — and Collins had just denied that to her because of his own egotistical nature. And that need made her angry at herself, and frightened that she was becoming too much Laura, and forgetting Larry.

"You know, I should be leaving," Laura continued. "You don't want the press starting any rumors, do you?"

Collins laughed. "Sometimes when we're together, I don't care if they did. It might actually help my reputation to be involved romantically with such a lovely woman, as opposed to the ... other ways the press describes me."

Laura turned to sit on the edge of the bed, but Collins wrapped his arms around her from behind and began to kiss her neck. "You really _don't_ want me to go," she purred.

"No. But you do have a point ... about the press, I mean."

It was already three in the morning. "Will I be seeing you tonight?" Laura asked.

"Absolutely," Collins answered. "But then I've got that trip to China for a few days."

"I wish I could come along," Laura said wistfully. Inside, she realized, to her shock, that she actually _meant_ what she'd said. She was finding it harder and harder to focus on her job. Roger Collins had _that_ effect on women, and Laura wasn't immune.

Collins nodded, continuing his ministrations on her neck. "So do I." He sounded genuine, like he would truly miss her company.

As Laura drove from the Veep's residence, she sighed heavily. She felt _dirty_ at what she was doing. She was doing things with Collins that, a couple of months ago, she'd have never imagined herself doing. Despite that, though, she felt successful. Collins' barriers to her were lowering quickly, as he was so obviously smitten with her.

At home, she took a quick shower, then went to bed. She felt exhausted from the late hours she'd been spending with Collins. Late in the morning, she rose and dressed, then ate a light brunch. Suspecting that she was being watched, she drove to the Pentagon City Mall, and began browsing through the department stores for a suitable dress. Part of her knew it was a cover — not blowing a routine day with activities that might alert a trailing agent, but part of it was a genuine need to have appropriate — and attractive — attire. She flinched at the thought that she was actually concerned about being attractive, but convinced herself quickly that it was a necessary part of her role.

Once she'd found a new dress, Laura stopped at a coffee shop and Internet café. As she sipped her coffee, she used the laptop to send a message to Tonya. She noted that Collins was highly interested, and that things were going smoothly. She informed Tonya that the two had another rendezvous set up for that evening. Satisfied with the message, she quickly and professionally accessed the computer's history files, deleted her entries, and then did a little web surfing for dresses and jewelry. If she was being followed, there was no sense in leaving any but the most routine, boring crumbs of information. Smiling to herself, she left the café.

*********

"I'm so glad you could come," the woman said with enthusiasm as she performed the air-kiss-near-the-cheeks greeting ritual expected of the in crowd, whether they be socialites or stars. It was a warm evening in the early summer — not too hot, yet, although in a few weeks, it would be oppressively hot and humid. The crowd was gathered in a large, neat yard, surrounded by immaculately-tended gardens and shrubs, and a large patio with wrought-iron tables and chairs and a large bar serving drinks. It was a typical socialite's gathering in the nation's capital.

"I wouldn't miss your party for the world," Laura replied easily. "You must be very busy these days."

Rachel Warren laughed, a pleasant, delightful sound. "I knew what I was getting into," she said. "I guess it comes with my father's territory."

Laura laughed, pausing to clasp the hand of Rachel's husband and give him a quick kiss. "You need to remember to schedule time so work can't intrude."

"As do you," Rachel countered. "You've been spending a lot of time with Roger."

Laura smiled outwardly, but on the inside, she was carefully measuring Rachel Warren's words, her tone, her expression, every facet of the young senator. "He's pleasant company."

Rachel laughed aloud. "He's a political shark."

Laura shrugged, feigning innocence. "I hadn't noticed."

"I'm sure you hadn't," Rachel countered, her tone conveying her doubt about Laura's word. "But everyone has noticed that he's very smitten with you."

"Oh, really?" Laura was actually surprised at Rachel's words.

"And it's no secret that your friendship is ... more than casual."

Laura frowned. "It's ... a personal matter," she said defensively.

Rachel laughed. "At least you didn't say it was a personal _affair_!"

Laura decided that it was time to change the subject. The topic of her romance with the vice president was still embarrassing. Despite the help from the old woman, she was still having difficulty coping with the change. "I'll be having a party in three weeks," she said, trying to sound charming. "I do hope you won't be tied up and can attend."

"I don't think I have anything planned," Rachel replied, "but please check with my staff to make sure it's on my calendar." Without warning, a flicker of concern crossed her features, and an eyebrow rose a millimeter or two. She stared into Laura's eyes with a gaze that was unsettling. After a second or two, however, the look passed, and the smile returned. "I hope we can talk later," she said to Laura. "I have a sudden feeling that we have much more in common than you realize. And I have a special friend visiting that you really _must_ meet." She turned to greet other guests.

A few minutes later, she saw Rachel approaching. With her was .... Laura's heart raced, as she felt an icy chill down her spine. "Laura," Rachel called warmly. "I want you to meet my very special friend."

Laura tried, desperately, to act casual, but she was truly startled, and even a bit frightened. "I'm ...." she started to say as she leaned to hug Rachel's guest.

"... Laura O'Donnell," the old woman answered, her face warm and friendly. "Everyone who's anyone knows who you are, my dear."

Laura felt her head spinning. "I'm pleased to meet you."

"Again, you mean," the old woman said softly. She turned her head slightly to glance at Rachel. "Please stop grinning like the cat that ate the canary, dear," she chided the Senator. "It's not very becoming."

Rachel looked chastised, as if she was a misbehaving toddler that had been caught. "Yes, ma'am," she replied humbly, but still with a smile.

"I think Laura and I would like to chat a bit," the old woman continued.

Rachel took the hint and turned toward other guests.

Laura felt her knees wobble. "What are you doing here?" she asked when her nerves calmed enough for her to speak.

"Visiting a friend," the old woman said casually. "The Senator is a friend, and she was kind enough to invite me to visit."

Laura's eyes narrowed. "Is she ...."

The old woman laughed. "She's a dear old friend of the family. Nothing more."

"Then why did I get the impression that she ... knew ... my secret?" Laura asked hesitantly. "She was staring at me with the same look that you and Anya have."

"Rachel is a very perceptive young lady," Grandmother replied, still smiling.

"Why ... are you here? Something tells me that you didn't just pop up here to visit Senator Warren."

"Why, dear, I don't know what you are implying," the old woman laughed. She patted Laura on the arm. "By the way, I _love_ that dress. It really flatters your figure, and the color really works with your skin tone and hair."

"Thank you," Laura replied automatically. "It's hard to find ...." She frowned. "Would you stop that! I need a break from this socialite stuff."

"Sorry, but the play is not over. In fact, it's only begun the second act. There's still a lot for you to do."

"Great," Laura said heavily. "So what now?"

Grandmother began to fumble through her purse, and produced a plastic card, which looked like an average credit card. She handed it to Laura. "You need to extend your pass by at least another three months," she said as if reporting the weather.

"You know this is very difficult," Laura said, glad to at least have a moment to let down her guard and not act like an ultra-feminine DC socialite. She sighed. "So do I need to travel so I can visit the park again?"

"Oh, no, dear," Grandmother said with a smile. "That was done when you accepted the new pass. After all, my park is like magic."

"Enough with the bad puns," Laura said plainly. "You're here for a reason."

"Two reasons, actually," Grandmother reported. "First, as I said, I wanted a chance to visit my dear friend, Rachel. I haven't seen her in quite a while."

"And second?"

"Second is to warn you." She glanced around quickly, although Laura knew that the old woman's magic senses would know when she could talk. "Do you know that you're being recorded by some gentlemen with some rather sophisticated eavesdropping devices?"

Laura sighed. "I suspected as much."

"Well," the old woman said with a grin as she chanted a few foreign-sounding words, "they're going to be so very surprised when they find that their equipment has malfunctioned — just as we were about to discuss the 'juicy bits'."

Laura glanced around, noting where the van was parked with the eavesdropping equipment. She saw a bit of activity.

"You're safe for the moment," Grandmother said. "But I must warn you — you are now on your own. Your ... partners ... have attracted enough attention that they can't risk trying to contact you."

"Collins?"

The old woman nodded, her expression grim. "And more. Much more, and much more dangerous."

"So it's not enough to be ... close ... to Collins?" Laura shook her head. "I get hints every now and then, but I haven't gotten any solid evidence."

"You need to be much closer."

"Closer than ...?" Laura blushed at the implication of what she was saying.

The old woman smiled, understanding perfectly. "You need to become his most trusted advisor, an aide with keen political instincts that he trusts more than anyone else."

Laura sighed. "I can do that."

Grandmother shook her head. "It means that you're going to have to give up secrets that you once swore to keep, and possibly to let Collins hurt a few people's careers, in order to win his trust."

Laura shook her head. "This is way above and beyond," she said. "It's also very demeaning, and even humiliating."

**********

Laura snuggled on Roger's arm as they lay in bed. As usual, he had wanted sex, and now that he was satisfied, he was conversant.

"I wasn't aware that you knew Rachel Warren," he said casually.

Laura winced. "I knew her father, and naturally, I was curious as to whether she was anything like her old man."

"And is she?"

Laura shrugged. "If you mean, is she sharp? Yes. Has she got good political instincts? She's quickly developing them. And she's just as charming as he was."

"What else do you know?" Collins prompted.

"Not a lot. Not like some other people." Laura had to distract him from Rachel Warren. Rachel had seemed to know her secret, and Laura felt threatened by that.

"Oh?"

"I bumped into Sarah Rafferty in the store the other day. Talk about a mess!" Inwardly, Laura was cringing — she was about to betray a secret, something that the service had sworn never to do.

"What's going on with Representative Rafferty?" Collins' interest was piqued.

"Sarah's about ready to leave him."

"Really. Why would she do that?"

Laura hoped that Collins didn't see through her act. She was trying to appear nonchalant, but also calculated in divulging the information. "Isn't he the chair of the committee that's got your proposal locked up?"

"I think so," Collins lied, but his lie was transparent. He knew all of the actors on the stage that was DC political life.

"He's got a very serious gambling problem," Laura noted. "It's been almost completely hushed up, because his brother-in-law controls two television stations in his district, and the brother-in-law is well connected."

"How bad? It can't be anything ... scandalous, could it?"

"Yes. Sara said that they had to sell their vacation home in Colorado, and they're about to lose their house here. She's taking the kids home, and plans to file for divorce so she can at least keep her house back home."

"How has _that_ been kept under wraps?"

Laura smiled up at him. "You do realize, that with his 'Bible Belt' district, news of his ... problem ... would cause a big stir. A divorce wouldn't help him, either. A little suggestion might help get your proposal to the House floor for a vote."

Collins' grin turned almost evil. He kissed Laura. "I'm glad you're on my side, my dear. You're special enough that I could see you as First Lady."

Laura's eyes snapped open. He couldn't see, of course, from how she lay, but she _knew_ that he'd just said something that bespoke his ambition.

"First Lady? But ... the President ..." She tried her best to sound confused. In fact, it took a moment for her to realize that he'd all but proposed, and when she _did_ note what he'd said, she felt a strange, exciting tingle run through her. At the same time, she became frightened of the power of his ambition, and his apparent and reputed willingness to do anything to achieve his goals. She realized how precarious her position truly was.

"I have ambition, my dear," Collins said with the sweetness of a siren song. "I have ways to get you _anything_ you might desire."

"But ... First Lady?" If there had been an academy award for acting by a special agent magically transformed into a woman, she'd have been a shoe-in.

"The President won't be in office forever, my dear," Collins said with certainty. "And when he leaves ...." There was no doubt that he meant to succeed the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Laura glanced up at his face, acting surprised. "There are a _lot_ of men who want to run for that office. Some of them are very well positioned politically," she said, feigning confusion. "You sound awfully sure that you'll win."

"Who says I'll have to run to occupy the office?" Collins was starting to sound sinister.

"But ...."

Collins lifted his finger to her lips. "Shh, dear," he purred. "If things happen the way I want, you'll never be wanting for anything that your heart desires."

Laura forced herself to laugh, to sound light-hearted. "You make it sound like you're going to become emperor or something."

"Or something." Collins kissed her. "If things go the way I plan, my friends will make sure that I never have to run for office again, and you'll be by my side as an inspiration to a grateful nation."

"It sounds so ... attractive. But how can you be so sure?"

Collins grinned wickedly. "The President is dying." He saw Laura's startled look. "Oh, yes, he's dying — of brain cancer. I'll be sworn in as new President within the month."

Laura felt a chill run down her spine. Though she'd known about the plot, it was a different matter to have Collins hint strongly about the scope of his ambitions. If she'd had any doubts up to that point, she knew, from his tone and words, that she was doing the right thing. Collins was a megalomaniac, a man so twisted by his own ambition that anything — or anyone — who got in his way would be sacrificed.

When Collins had fallen asleep, Laura slipped out of the bed. She was, by now, no stranger to the layout and workings of Number One Observatory Circle, the official residence of the Vice President. From her purse, she took her cell phone, and then carefully extracted the SIM card, which she set on the dresser. She then carefully rubbed the ring on her right hand, her "grandmother's ring" that was so precious to her family, or so the story went. The ring glowed briefly, and she touched it to the cell phone.

The cell phone vanished from her hand. One minute it was there, and then it was gone. Seconds later, an exact duplicate appeared magically to take its place. With a quick glance to ensure that Collins was sleeping, she inserted her SIM card and placed the cell phone back in her purse. Then she went to the bathroom and freshened up.

She crawled back in bed with much fuss, deliberately waking Collins. Groggy at first, he regained his senses remarkably quickly. "I didn't hear you get up," he said as he leaned forward to kiss her.

Laura let him kiss her, long and hard. Then she smiled. "Unless you want to start rumors, I should be going." She knew how to play Collins like a fiddle. He couldn't afford any scandal until after his plans were sufficiently far along.

Slowly, almost provocatively, she pulled on her clothing, knowing that Collins was enjoying her show.

"Oh, by the way," Collins said as he lay on the bed watching her, "I'm hosting a delegation from China next week. I would very much like it if you could attend, as my hostess, to help charm the vice-premier and some of the senior military officials."

Laura felt her heart skip a few beats. This could be the big chance. "You make it sound like I'm already First Lady," she said with a gentle laugh. "You know I'll help in any way I can to make the social events go smoothly, but the executive staff is far more efficient and experienced than I ever will be."

Collins was smooth. "Perhaps," he said without committing — or insulting Laura. "But they don't have a charming 'public face' like you bring. They're mostly anonymous, behind-the-scenes worker bees. Occasionally, it's important to see the queen."

Laura let herself out, and, as expected, her cell phone was examined by the Secret Service. She _knew_ what they were doing — every bit of the phone's memory was being copied, and would be thoroughly examined. The only thing she didn't know was by whom — the Secret Service, or by Collin's personal political operatives. She also knew that, as she stepped through the doorway of the service entrance, that she was being scanned for electronics. She smiled and waited patiently, until her phone was returned to her moments later. She was also glad that Anya had arranged to use the magic to swap phones so her phone was always perfectly clean, while the evidence was collected.

Laura was perplexed by the fact that there seemed to be much more activity at four in the morning than she would have expected. The Secret Service agents seemed a bit ... tense. She drove home, tired enough to not really care.

When she got home, she was startled to see Anya sitting in her living room. "How'd you ...?" she started to ask, stupefied, but then she remembered. "Oh, yeah. You just blinked in."

Anya smiled. "I don't 'blink' in like Jeannie on that old show." She had a grim expression, despite her attempted smile.

"Something's up," Laura knew immediately.

"Have you listened to the news?"

Laura shook her head. "You should know that I haven't. I've been ... occupied."

Anya turned on the television. Twenty minutes later, an ashen Laura switched it off. Triggered by the pressure from the growing tumor, the President had suffered a major stroke only an hour earlier — while Laura was leaving the Veep's residence. He wouldn't live to resign. Laura swore. "We were so damned close!"

"How so?"

Laura sank into a large stuffed chair, feeling defeated. "Collins — hinted strongly tonight that he's making a power move that will ensure he can be in office without ever having to run again. He hinted that he has some strong 'friends' that can do that." She shook her head. "All of this ... for nothing!"

"It's not over yet," Anya said simply. "You've got enough hard data to start an investigation, if the data is fed out to someone sympathetic in the press."

"But we don't have enough to put the last nail in his coffin." Laura shook her head. "You know what they say — you only get one chance to kill the king."

"True."

"Next week's meeting with the Chinese delegation," Laura said suddenly, her eyes wide open. "If we can get something — anything — then the press can't ignore it."

Anya's expression was somber. "I can't think of another way."

Laura sighed. "Okay, what's the plan? I won't be able to get anything in or out of that meeting. No evidence, no crime. No crime, he gets away with it."

Anya shook her head. "There's got to be a way."

An idea popped into Laura's head. "If I had a bug ...."

"No good. You'd never get it into the meeting."

"Not unless it was magically switched with a duplicate _after_ I was already inside."

A broad grin crept onto Anya's features. "That'll work. You can just use your ring to signal me, like you've been doing."

Laura grabbed a pen. "There's a guy I trust who can make a super-miniature recorder." She thought for a moment, then ran upstairs and fetched a necklace with a small reproduction Faberge egg that was perfect to wear as a pendant. "This should be perfect."

Anya winced. "This is going to be tricky, though. I might have to switch the pendant while you're wearing it. You have to be certain that the ring is touching _only_ the pendant."

Laura nodded. "I can do that."

**********

Tonya sighed as she slumped in her chair. "Laura's in big trouble," she reported to Anya.

"I know."

"Collins proposed. He gave her an heirloom family ring as an engagement ring."

"And it's a bug, isn't it?" Anya's question had no doubt.

Tonya nodded. "She can't do anything without someone knowing." She shook her head. "I guess we underestimated how ambitious and powerful Collins really is."

"She knows, doesn't she?"

"She's not dumb," Tonya said with a scowl. "So now what do we do? Get her out of there?"

"No. She's got a plan."

"I hope it's a good one. You know that Dick was reassigned. The top layer of the Secret Service is now more loyal to Collins than the Constitution. They're acting more and more like a Praetorian Guard," Tonya sneered.

"Laura said to tell you that you need to start leaking the information to the press."

Tonya frowned. "That's not going to help. Collins is playing this one masterfully for sympathy. The press is going to go easy on him."

"Some won't."

"When some of this gets leaked, it's going to make life very dangerous for Laura."

"She knows. She also knows that you've got to move now, before it's too late. Collins has the sympathy vote, and he knows where enough bodies are buried, that he can ram his wishes through Congress. If you don't move quickly, you may never have the chance."

**********

Laura ran her fingers through Collins' chest hair. "You know, honey," she purred, "I'm not sure that Governor Jennings would be your best choice."

Collins kissed her forehead. "Why not?" he asked.

"He's an idiot," Laura said simply.

Collins laughed. "Of course, he's an idiot. That's what I like — he isn't bright enough to do something I don't want."

"But you're going to have to run for re-election in just over a year. He won't help much, except with one small, insignificant western state."

Collins' expression fell. "That's true," he said as he considered her words. "So far, you've been a better advisor than those morons in the national committee," he added.

"I'm just looking out for my fiancé," Laura said with a false smile.

He kissed her again. "There aren't very many other choices."

"What about Senator Warren?" Laura suggested.

"Rachel Warren?" Collins' eyebrows shot up. "She's ...."

"She's young, which will help with the youth vote. She's Southern, which will help there. Her life-story is a real tear-jerker, with her being Senator Michaels' daughter, and his tragic death. And as a woman, she'll really help get women's vote. I could see her turning a small victory into a landslide."

"And she's popular enough that the opposition in the Senate wouldn't oppose her, either," Collins said. "Hmmm, it might just work." Collins wrinkled his nose. "She's bright, and ambitious, though. That's a dangerous mix. And she's a member of ... the other side."

Laura kissed him. "You know the old proverb — keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. If she's your VP, she can't hurt you. In fact, it takes one more opponent in the Senate out of your way."

Collins pondered her words. "True. If I win with a big enough landslide to retake the Senate, I can get things moving faster than I'd originally planned. Even if I can't get a filibuster-proof majority, getting her as VP would get her out of my way." He gave her another kiss on the forehead.

"And it would appear as a huge step in bipartisan cooperation," Laura added.

"You're my best aide," he complimented. He slid his hand down to her breast. "Now, enough talk about work. Let's talk about something more ... fun."

**********

Laura bowed to the short man, a pleasant smile on her face. "Ni hao," she said in Mandarin Chinese with a hint of Southern belle.

The man nodded. "Ni hao," he replied.

Laura could tell, from his demeanor, that her presence upset him. Though he tried to smile, it was obviously forced, and one eyebrow was arched a tiny bit higher. She and Collins were at the residence of the Chinese ambassador for a reception, or at least, that was the cover. There was to be held a much more important private meeting.

Collins extended his hand toward the Chinese Vice-Premier. "You honor us with your presence," he said, exuding charm even with the corny greeting.

"I thought you said that this would be a private meeting," the Vice Premier scolded Collins, dispensing with pleasantries. He had his eyes on Laura.

Collins laughed. "Permit me to introduce my fiancé, and most trusted political advisor," he said with a smile. "This is Laura O'Donnell."

"Soon to be Laura Collins," Laura said as she turned on her charm. "But I do believe Roger is being generous in how he describes me."

The Vice-Premier lowered his raised eyebrow, and exchanged a quick glance with the two men in military uniforms. They, too, seemed unhappy at Laura's presence, but the elder one shrugged.

"I think that our security details should wait outside, do you not agree?"

Collins laughed. "It's hard to have a private discussion with them always hovering about." He turned and whispered something to an aide, whose face clouded. However, the aide knew better than to argue.

"Let us retire to the study, to talk about the future," the Vice-Premier directed.

As they walked through the doors to the private study, one of the ambassador's aides stopped Laura. Wordlessly, he scanned around her body with a small hand-held black box. It was precisely as she'd predicted — the Chinese were taking no chances. With not another word, the aide stepped out of her way, and out the door, closing it behind him.

"So, you are interested in ... exploring a future relationship between our countries?" one of the generals prompted Laura.

Laura smiled. "Tensions have a tendency to interrupt the finer things in life," she said. "I prefer the life of luxury to which I've become accustomed."

The general frowned. "But you were married to a military man, a member of your Air Force."

Laura frowned. "Those are ... memories ... that are still rather painful." She made a show of composing herself. Unseen to her hosts, she tapped and rubbed the ring on her right hand, and then, feigning distress, lifted her hand to her chest. "I hope you understand that I find that reminder unpleasant." She carefully touched the ring to the pendant she wore on her necklace. "His ... death was a result of the very tensions of which I spoke."

"I did not wish to cause you distress." The general nodded, and turned awkwardly away.

"Does she know of the plan?" the Vice-Premier asked Collins in an insistent whisper.

"No," Collins shot back.

Laura turned with a sly smile. "Perhaps not directly, but it isn't too hard to figure out," she baited the men.

"If you are so insightful, then, please tell us."

Laura stepped to Collins side and wrapped her arm around him. "It's not too difficult to see that the tensions between our nations are detrimental — to all of us. Part of that is the tremendous imbalance in our militaries. More ... equity ... would allow a more peaceful state."

She saw the man's eyebrows rise. "That sounds logical. It doesn't take brilliant insight to come to that conclusion."

"But it does take either insight or a tremendous leap of imagination to conclude that the best way to ease tensions, and a growing trade deficit, would be for the government to correct the inequality by trading our excess resources to your country, perhaps under the pretense of reducing the trade deficit."

The generals exchanged an alarmed look, and then turned to stare at her.

Collins was startled by her insight, but he couldn't help smiling admiringly. "I told you that her political instincts are very sharp."

"Indeed," the Vice Premier complimented. "A most interesting theory."

"But that doesn't solve the long-term problem," Laura continued unbidden. "A future Congress or President could easily reverse that, leading to renewed friction." She smiled. "The only way to prevent that would be to ensure that someone ... friendly ... to China was running the government in a way that would ensure long-term stability."

"That sounds like a difficult scenario to accomplish," noted one general.

Laura smiled. "You tell me. I could imagine that, after balancing power, it could be arranged for a tension that would turn world opinion against the United States. Perhaps a debt crisis or other world-wide friction. Under such circumstances, a significant change in our form of government would be easily accomplished, in order to avoid, perhaps, a significant military or economic conflict. I believe the old term from the Roman Empire was 'praefectus', or prefect. A local governor answering to the Empire."

The Vice Premier slowly smiled, and he turned toward Collins. "You are correct — her insight is indeed keen."

"So, how did I do?" Laura asked with feigned confidence. Inwardly, Laura was trembling and fighting to control her fear. She was inside a plot that was seeking to destroy the country, and the men who could do it were in the room with her.

"Apart from a few details," Collins said with a wicked grin, "you're right, as usual." He sat down in a chair. "Let us discuss what we can do in the next few months."

Almost an hour later, the group left the room, but not before Laura had a chance to rub her ring and deftly arrange to touch her necklace again in a way that wouldn't be noticed.

The premier did notice, though. "That is an interesting necklace that you wear."

Collins noticed the underlying mistrust and threat in the man's tone. "I believe your lovely wife would find such a pendant most attractive."

Laura understood the implication of his words. The pendant was suspicious to the Chinese premier, and he wanted to get his hands on it. It wouldn't be for his wife; it would be to check to ensure that their conversation stayed secret. "I hope that the next time you visit, you can bring her. I think we can arrange a gift like this for her."

"Perhaps a gift now would be more appropriate," Collins suggested. There was a menacing tone in his voice that didn't go unnoticed.

Laura let her eyebrows rise, as if surprised. "Why, I do believe that is a wonderful idea, Roger," she said with a pleasant smile. She reached behind her neck and unclasped the chain. She looked at the pendant, and then smiled as she extended it to the Premier. "I really would like to see how this looks on your wife. Perhaps with a blue silk blouse? The gold and blue enamel of the egg would be beautiful with silk."

The premier accepted the pendant, smiling. "I will ensure that, the next time we visit, she is wearing a blue silk dress and your lovely gift."

A bit later, as they were driving back to White House, Laura leaned lovingly against Collins. "You do know that he threatened me," she said as if reporting the weather.

"Yes, I know."

"I don't trust him."

Collins smiled. "Neither do I. That's why I'm keeping a trump card."

Laura's eyebrows rose. "How can you keep a large nation like China in check? If it isn't this Premier, it will be another. It has long been their belief that the 'middle kingdom' should be pre-eminent on the world stage."

"And that's why we play the Bear against the Dragon," Collins said confidently.

"Shrewd," Laura complimented him. "But be careful. Sometimes, when you play one side against the other, both figure out the game, and together, turn on you."

"That's why I have you."

Inwardly Laura was trembling with fright. She _hoped_ that Anya had been able to make the second switch. If she hadn't managed it in time, Laura was dead as soon as the Chinese discovered the bug.

**********

Laura had just crawled in bed, weary after a long day with Collins, when her cell phone buzzed. It wasn't her regular phone, but a prepaid, no-contract phone. There were no records that she had the phone, and only three people knew the number. The plan was to use the phone for emergency contacts only. She felt a lump rise in her throat; if she was getting messages on the number, it couldn't be good news.

As Laura keyed through the message, she saw that there had been three other messages, from two different numbers. All were a series of letters and numbers that seemed like random gibberish — the so-called butt-dialed messages. She wrote down the information, and then erased the messages.

After decoding the messages, Laura leaned back, sighing. She'd been right — it wasn't good news. Dick had some information that he _had_ to get to her — ASAP. Through the old coding schemes they'd used in the past, she was able to decode his instructions for making the pickup.

Mid-morning, after breakfast, Laura took some of her clothing and got in her car. Feeling like James Bond, she went first to the mall; after visiting a few stores, she had recovered two halves of a laundry ticket. Next, she went to the dry cleaner that had been identified in the message. She dropped off her clothes, making a big fuss, for show, about a stain that just _had_ to be removed, and then she presented the ticket, claiming some cleaning that had already been done. She noted, with grim satisfaction, that the drop had been precisely planned; the cleaning she picked up was all women's garments, and in her size.

To be on the safe side, Laura stopped for lunch, and then made a visit to a jewelry store and browsed. Having convinced herself that her day had been routine enough to bore anyone following her, she drove home to prepare for what would be, to outside appearances, a quiet evening.

At home, Laura forced herself to remain calm. Whatever had caused Dick to use the emergency contact was big. She went through the dresses one by one. It was in the third garment, a neatly-tailored ladies' suit, hidden inside the collar, that Laura found what she'd been looking for. The object she recovered was a tiny computer memory card, which had been sealed in shrink-wrap plastic for good measure, and then sewn into the collar. She inserted the micro-SD card into a card reader in her laptop.

Much later that evening, Laura sat back. She was shocked by the data. Collins _was_ playing Russia against China, to get the best deal for himself, and the country be damned. The deal for Russia was a bit more complex, but essentially sold out US interests in order for Collins to gain political power as virtually an emperor of the country. As part of a massive military wind-down, NATO would be abandoned, as would any bases which constrained Russian expansion and aggression. Europe was being sold down the river. The forces in Korea, however, would be bolstered, as a means to keep China occupied long enough for Russia to take advantage of their position vis-á -vis Europe and the US. Provocation of Russia would result in threats, and the US backing down — under terms. The end result would be the same — the loss of representative government in the US and the accession of Collins to being a dictator, serving under a foreign power, even though his ambition and ego blinded him to the fact that he'd be a puppet.

The second set of data concerned Laura even more, however. Someone in the CIA, probably trusted by Dick, had leaked to him intelligence data about Russia and China. The CIA assessment was that the two powers trusted Collins and the US even less than they trusted each other. They were playing both sides against the middle; it appeared that they had a mutual pact to lead Collins down the path of destruction of the US, and then spring a trap to squeeze him — and the US — off the world stage. In the end, Laura figured that Russia was playing to get Europe, and China was playing to take control of US interests and dominate the Far East. The US would be ruined, both economically and militarily. Collins' plan was being played by the other side for the death of the US, not the installation of a puppet prefect.

Laura knew that Collins was too blinded by his ego and his ambition to understand the enormity of the threat. To Russia and China, he was a pawn, a disposable extra on their stage. She'd tried to warn him already, and she knew that she would have to continue trying, for the good of the country. If China and Russia succeeded, the country was finished. But if they could be thwarted, even if it meant Collins remained in office, there was hope.

Her priorities, she knew, were now slightly altered. Until China or Russia started to move, she could focus on removing Collins. Once events started, however, she'd have to do her very best to protect him, and by implication, the nation, even if it meant going against every principle she'd tried to live by. She realized that her assignment might be extended indefinitely, and that she might even have to stay as Collin's wife, First Lady, to try to protect the US.

**********

"I still don't trust them," Laura said softly. She was with Collins, watching a movie in the White House residence.

"I don’t either," Roger answered. He was more interested in being romantic than in talking politics.

"It's true that they've been rivals for a long time," Laura continued. She felt a need to get more information from Collins, to see if she couldn't entice a few tidbits of data about his views.

"Their rivalry goes back further than our existence," he said with a laugh.

"I just get the feeling that they're both playing against us."

"Don't worry," Roger reassured her. "I've already taken some precautions to keep them from double-dealing."

"I would hope so," Laura tried to sound complimentary. "You're always pretty careful politically."

"Flattery will get you everywhere, my dear," Roger said as he kissed her neck again.

"Are you sure you can control them? They're both pretty greedy for world power."

"How long could Russia survive without the revenue from their oil and gas exports?" Roger asked with a wicked grin.

"Their pipelines ...." Laura's mouth dropped open as she realized what he was implying. Attacks on the vital oil and gas pipelines, whether directly or, more likely, through intermediaries, would halt Russia's exports, and thus, their income. They would be very quickly financially paralyzed.

"Exactly," Roger confirmed.

"And China?"

"They've got a very restless population," Roger noted casually. "How restless do you think it would be if, say, they had a failure in their rice or wheat crops, to add to the already significant internal strife? Do you think the ruling government could control _that_ situation?"

Laura shuddered inwardly. Collins was mad, of that she was now totally certain. He was casually talking about measures that were blatant acts of war — terrorist acts against one, and biological acts against the other - and all in the interest of his own power. If she had been harboring doubts about her mission, his few words had steeled her resolve.

"Why the sudden concern?" Roger asked. He sounded a bit ... uneasy.

Laura tried to laugh. "Let's just say that I'm concerned about the man I'm going to marry," she replied. The words sounded strange in her mouth after he had mentioned his threats against the foreign powers. His obviously insane lust for power, though, made visible in his reckless threats against two world powers, had disenchanted her from his considerable charm — at least for the moment.

"Well, then, how about we turn off the television. I'm feeling a little more like cuddling than talking."

**********

The tech representative at the Apple store shrugged as he retrieved a new phone. "The phone is durable, but every once in a while, the glass breaks."

"Can you fix it?" Laura asked innocently.

The technician smiled. "Since you're covered under warranty, we'll just replace the phone with a new one. I'll have to transfer your contacts and software to the new phone."

"Will that take very long?"

"Ten or fifteen minutes at the most," the technician answered confidently. "If you'd like, you can go shopping or just wait in the store."

"Maybe I'll look at the iPads," Laura answered. "A friend said that I'd really find one handy."

"Okay. I'll call your name when I'm done." He strode to the back of the store to repair her 'failed' phone.

Laura went to an iPad and began to browse the web. She knew exactly what she needed to do, even though she was, to outward appearances, randomly playing with the features of the tablet. Two anonymizing hops later, she sent a message.

"Important that I get you some documents ASAP."

The response was almost immediate. "I don’t work anonymous tips. Who are you?"

Laura felt her gut knot. She couldn't alert him before the meeting — with the Secret Service, Chinese intelligence, and who-knows-who else shadowing her, she couldn't take any chances. "Someone very, very close to the President," she answered.

"Not without more information."

"Meet me this evening at seven." She named a restaurant. "You'll know who I am."

"Why?" The man was, understandably, dubious. In the modern information age, it wasn't common to have clandestine meetings to exchange data.

She was starting to get desperate. If he wouldn't make contact with her, then she didn't know of another outlet. "You break hot stories that others won't touch. This one is radioactive." She needed to play on his ego.

It worked. "Seven o'clock. Okay."

"It HAS to look casual. Please. And I cannot let it appear that we're meeting." Laura signed off the site, did a quick cleanup of the tablet's browsing history, and moved to a second tablet of a slightly different model. Again, she perused the web, and then repeated on a third tablet. Finally, her name was called, and she retrieved her phone.

After a stop for a manicure, another expected part of her routine, Laura went home again, and carefully copied all the electronic files onto several memory sticks. She'd kept the files encrypted, hidden as regular office documents, just in case. Right at that moment, as the files were temporarily unencrypted while being copied, she felt particularly vulnerable. If someone decided to 'visit' her then, they'd have everything. The tension didn't leave until she'd copied all the files onto all the sticks, leaving each one encrypted with its own unique password.

Next, she reached for her special ring, the one Anya had enchanted. Laura's eyes popped wide open when she discovered that the ring was no longer on her finger. She ran to her bathroom and searched, then again in her bedroom, more frantically this time. Not having found it, Laura sat down to think, trying to fight the rising panic. She had no other way to contact Anya. She sank into a chair, feeling helpless. With a sinking feeling, Laura realized that she must have accidentally left it when she was getting her manicure. She glanced at the clock, and her heart sank further. The manicurist closed at noon on Saturdays, and it was after two. There was no hope of retrieving the ring. She'd lost her last lifeline, and was now truly isolated, and events had already been set in motion. She had only this one chance to get the data to McGinnis. If she failed to show, he'd never trust her with a second chance to pass along the data.

Laura knew that she was on very thin ice as she made one final copy of everything, and put it, unencrypted, on a mini-SD card. This was the most dangerous part of the entire plan — the time when she had to get the data to the reporter, convince him of its veracity, and not have it intercepted by others. The data was on the memory card, unencrypted. If anyone got the memory card, they'd find out just _what_ she had. If that happened, well, she knew that she wouldn't be the first person in DC to have a mysterious 'accident.'

As she worked, she tried to figure out the best way to deliver the data to the contact. As cover, she was having an early dinner with Donna Worthem, an "old friend" and also a member of the elite DC social crowd. She would have to pass the microchip to the reporter, while under the watchful eyes of the Secret Service, probably Chinese intelligence, and her friend. She had to figure out a way to slip him the card in a way that he knew, but no-one else did.

The journalist she was meeting was Rob McGinnis, a well-known, and, as far as politicians were concerned, annoying, 'journalist' who had a reputation for breaking stories, finding leads, and reporting whatever facts he could, and letting the chips fall where they may. He had no political affiliations that anyone could detect, being an equal-opportunity politician-offender. Among the 'schooled' and 'professional' journalists, he was a gadfly, a little pest they had tried to ignore, but he had staying power. With the Internet, he had an instant audience and didn't need the up-front investment of traditional media. Laura _knew_ that if McGinnis saw the data, he'd run with it further and faster than others, who would be hesitant. She knew of no other reporter who'd be willing to take a chance publishing the type of data she had.

Laura carefully packaged the memory sticks into envelopes, each envelope a different color and size to hide them from each other, addressing each one with no return address, and sealing them. One went to her lawyer. A second went to the directly to McGinnis. The others went to people who she absolutely trusted, and who would know that if something happened to Laura, the data had to be gotten out to the public. She took care to note which memory stick went to whom, so she could get each person the appropriate decrypting key. She hoped that, by dropping off the packages directly at the post office with a routine batch of bill payments, she would keep the intelligence officers and Secret Service from snooping. Once that task was completed, she took out her emergency cell phone. Each of the intended recipients got a very short cryptic message, package, followed by a garbled phrase — the password for the encrypted files. She hoped it would be enough.

Laura's only remaining problem was in getting the data card to McGinnis without being noticed. She had no clues how to perform the task as she dropped off her mail, going into the post office to drop the letters directly into the mail slot, so they'd be mixed up with all the other outgoing mail that was in the bin - anything to make the job more difficult for those shadowing her. She was still mulling how to get the card to McGinnis when she parked her car at the restaurant.

As she stepped into the restaurant, the maá®tre de recognized her and greeted her warmly. "Ms. O'Donnell, we're so glad to have you visit." He was used to sucking up to the rich and socially-connected. "Is your party here yet?"
Laura shrugged. "I'm not sure. I'm dining with Ms. Worthem."

"Ah, she's already here, then. If you'll follow me..." He turned and scooted to a small table nestled in one corner of the restaurant.

Donna Worthem rose and gave Laura a warm hug, doing the air-kiss routine, to which Laura reciprocated. "So glad to be able to meet you, dear," Donna said warmly.

"It's been too long since we've had a private dinner, without either of us having to entertain," Laura said as she sat down. The maá®tre de, still working his charms, held the chair for her like a gentleman.

"Your waiter will be with you momentarily," he said as he turned and scurried away.

"So, what's new, besides your engagement?" Donna asked. "Have you started to plan the wedding, or is _that_ why you called me, so I can work my magic on the planning?"

Laura laughed. "I don't think the staff would be happy if I let you run the event."

"It's going to be _the_ event of the decade," Donna beamed. "We haven't had a Presidential wedding — ever! This is positively historical!" She sounded almost as excited as she imagined Laura would feel.

"Well, to be honest," Laura said, playing her role to the hilt, "I want a nice private wedding, but Roger wants to pull out all the stops."

"As well he should," Donna said strongly. "I'm so tired of hearing all the hoopla over the royal weddings in England! It's time _we_ had a chance to show that we can have a world-class wedding in _our_ capital!"

Laura groaned, another part of the act. "The last thing I want is for _my_ wedding to be a show!"

Donna smiled pleasantly. "I'm afraid you don't have a choice, dear. When you accepted the President's proposal, you accepted everything that comes with it, including being on the world stage."

At that moment, a figure approached their table. Donna looked up, and the disdain on her face was immediate when she recognized the man.

Laura saw Donna's expression, and she, too looked up at the man. Her heart raced — it was Rob McGinnis. "Why, Mister McGinnis, what a surprise to see you here!"

"I could say the same," McGinnis replied.

"I suppose you're hoping to find some _new_ sensational gossip or rumors to spread about the nation," Donna said, her voice dripping with acid.

McGinnis was used to such treatment. "I don't deal in gossip, Ms. Worthem," he replied, his voice cool and controlled.

"Why Donna," Laura said in a scolding tone, "Southern manners require that we be polite, even if we don't like a person." She stood, and clasped Rob's hands, then gave him an air-kiss. Unseen to Donna, her index finger of her right hand slipped under McGinnis' watchband for a brief moment. "I can't say that I'm pleased to see you, but I will wish you well." Laura said graciously.

McGinnis felt something under his watch band, and his eyebrows raised a fraction, but only for a moment. "Since the person I'm to meet isn't here, and is apparently not coming," McGinnis said, staring directly into Laura's eyes, "perhaps I could be so bold as to invite myself to join you ladies? My treat?"

"We were having a private dinner, for a change," Laura said insistently. "That's something that seems so rare these days."

Donna scowled. "I'm afraid that we are quite busy discussing social planning," she said, trying her best to sound genteel, when in fact, she wanted to throttle what she considered to be an example of vermin.

"Anything in particular?" McGinnis ignored her slight. "Like perhaps a wedding?" He glanced at Laura, smiling knowingly, as if he should be privy to the early stage of planning.

"Whether we're planning a wedding or a social gathering," Donna sneered, "it doesn't concern you, nor your penchant for reporting gossip and rumors. We do _not_ engage in, nor approve of, tabloid journalism!"

McGinnis just smiled. "We all have to make a living. Some of us, though, aren't afraid of finding the truth." He nodded. "Ladies," he said, before backing a step and then turning from the table and walking from the restaurant.

Laura's heart was racing. She was privately grateful for Donna's snobbery — it would certainly make it difficult to believe that she'd even attempted conversation with McGinnis, and it made enough of a scene to make observers believe that their meeting was nothing more than an unpleasant encounter. Now, it was all up to McGinnis. He had the memory card. All that was left was for him to peruse the data, and then believe it enough to publish it.

**********

It was difficult to keep track of all the guests, but Laura was doing her best. Her memories suggested that she'd dealt with larger gatherings, and more people, but, with jittery nerves about the past few days' events, she was having some difficulty focusing. Still, she had to play her role, until, as the old woman had said, "the final curtain closes."

"You must be looking forward to your wedding," the wife of yet another foreign ambassador tried to be conversational.

Laura pasted on her fake smile, and turned up her charm. "I think both Roger and I are," she said confidently.

"Have you picked a date yet?" the woman asked.

"Not yet," Laura said with a smile. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a very agitated Chief of Staff approaching the President, with a paper in his hand. "I thought planning a normal wedding was difficult, but now, I also have to worry about schedules of so many dignitaries, and the timing to not conflict with so many more events. The longer I try to work, the more it seems that we won't get married until after Roger leaves office!"

"I'm sure you'll find a way," the woman said confidently, patting Laura's arm in a friendly gesture.

"I know we will." Laura's answer was half-hearted at best; she was trying to focus on Roger and his Chief of Staff. Whatever was on that paper was making the President very agitated. He turned, and glanced at Laura; in that brief moment, she saw how truly upset he was. "If you would excuse me," she said to the dignitary's wife, "I believe Roger wants to talk to me."

As she wended her way through the crowd, trying to avoid being drawn into conversations, she saw Roger duck through the doors that led to the private residence. She moved in that direction, knowing that her role mandated that she follow him.

Rachel Warren, the newly-confirmed Vice President, noticed that Roger had left, upset about something, and that Laura was following him, concern also on her face. She moved to cut off Laura.

"What's going on?" she whispered to Laura, bending close to her so that others couldn't hear.

"I don't know," Laura said, shaking her head. "I just saw him get some news from his staff, and he didn't look happy. He left, after he looked at me."

"The 'Football'?" Rachel asked, implying the briefcase of encrypted orders and comm gear to distribute the cipher orders to the military. If the football had left with the President, it meant something really big was happening.

Laura glanced around and noted the two officers, one carrying a briefcase, and the other a little bulky around the waist from his concealed guns, standing near the entrance to the residence. They were trying to look casual, but no succeeding. Still, their presence outside the residence suggested that the matter wasn't about an attack. "Still outside the residence," Laura commented.

"You'll have to take over, I guess," Rachel suggested.

Laura shook her head. "I'm not the First Lady yet, and order dictates that _you_ should be the dignitary in charge."

Rachel sighed. "I got sworn in last week, and I'm now hosting the opening reception of the G-20 trade meeting! And I haven't even got moved into my office yet!"

Laura darted through an opening in the crowd to the door separating the party from the private residence. Even though the Secret Service had orders to guard against uninvited guests, they also knew that Roger had personally okayed Laura as an invited guest wherever he went. They let her pass without even the thought of questioning her.

Laura tracked Roger down to his private study. "Is something wrong, hun," she continued to act, putting her arms on his shoulders and rubbing. "You seemed tense when you left in such a hurry."

"Read this!" Collins ordered, shoving the paper in Laura's face.

Laura took the paper hesitantly, and after another puzzled glance at Roger, she began to read. Her eyes widened as she read. "This is ... this is impossible!" Laura exclaimed. "How did the press get this information?"

"That's what I'd like to know, too," Roger said as he turned toward her. His face was a mask of grim determination and anger, a thoroughly unpleasant spectacle.

"They swept us — we were clean," Laura protested. "It has to be a leak from inside the Chinese conspirators."

"Not possible!" Collins snapped. "Look what they're losing."

"Look what they're winning! If they get the US tied up in internal political strife, China could take Taiwan and the northern islands claimed by the Philippines. And if we're knotted up, Russia can reclaim the Baltic States, as well as some of the less cooperative states in the Caucuses."

"They gain so much more if we can keep working the deal!" Collins screamed. He was, Laura realized, on the edge of rage. "It doesn't make sense for them to leak."

"Roger, dear," Laura tried to inject some calm into the discussion, "You assume that what you offer China is what they want. They might have been using the last few months to let us _think_ we know what the deal will be, when in fact, they have a different end-game that they are waiting to play — against us!"

"That doesn't make sense — to me, or to the Chinese!" Roger hissed. "The only other way that the information could have gotten out of the meetings was _you_!" He spun, inches from Laura, his face a mask of hatred. "It _had_ to be you! There's no other way! You met with McGinnis the other night, too!" Roger lashed out in his intense anger, slapping Laura hard. "You betrayed me!" he screamed. "You! You're the only one who had access to all the data."

Laura was genuinely afraid of the raging monster that Collins had become. Her hand on the already-bruising cheek, she backed away from Collins. She could taste blood, and realized that his slap had cut the corner of her lip. "I've been helping you to succeed!!" she protested, her voice trembling as she realized how vulnerable she was physically.

"You met with McGinnis, didn't you?" he said threateningly.

"He bumped into us — me and Donna Worthem — at dinner the other night. Donna made sure that he didn't stay long."

"But you said, 'Southern manners require that we be polite, even if we don't like a person.' Weren't you polite enough to greet him with less distaste than Donna Worthem exhibited?" He was firmly grasping her arm, hard enough that she knew she'd have a bruise the next day.

Laura's eyes widened. "How do you know exactly what was said?" Slowly, her eyes widened, and then she looked at the heirloom ring on her finger. "Is that what you've done? Put a bug on me, so you could know my every word?" She grasped the ring and practically tore it from her finger. "How could you?" she screamed at him. "I _loved_ you! I gave myself, heart and soul, to helping you, and to being what I thought was your special lover, and even your fiancé and eventual wife!" She felt her eyes watering. "And that's how you reward me — by having spies listen to my conversations, and follow me around. What's next? Snooping in my mail? Copying my cell phone data after meetings? Opening my packages and letters?"

Roger stood, stunned by Laura's reaction. His mouth hung agape as she slapped the ring onto the table beside them. "If that's what you think of me, if you can ignore how I've proven my loyalty by helping you, then I don't think we need to get married." She stormed out of the room, heading down to the back entrance where her car was parked.

Behind her, Roger was too stunned by her words and her extreme reaction to _his_ accusation and over-reaction, to do or say anything for several seconds, long enough for her to leave.

A few minutes later, she pulled into her driveway, her hands still shaking at what had transpired. Knowing she was being followed, and probably listened to, she walked slowly toward the house. It would be too easy for certain bad guys to be lying in wait, to remove another inconvenient obstacle. Her imagination was soaring with wild possibilities as she opened the kitchen door and stepped inside. She flipped on the light, hoping the sudden brightness would disrupt any intruder.

"The light's a little bright, don't you think?" The voice was familiar, even though Laura's own eyes were adjusting to the new light.

As soon as her brain processed enough information, Laura almost collapsed with relief. "Oh, God, I'm glad to see you, Anya," she said, her voice dripping with relief. "I ... lost the contact ring. And everything ... blew up tonight."

"I know," Anya noted. "I would have been here some time ago, but I got some more ... disturbing ... information from Michelle."

"I'd rather have good news," Laura said dryly. "I've already had enough trouble for one night."

"Okay, I'll change order. Tonya and Michelle are safe under our care and protection."

"And the bad news ... Dick is missing, right?" Laura's voice grew heavy, weary by the thought of losing a friend. And yet, somehow, she'd known that it was going to happen. "Any leads?"

Anya shook her head sadly. "Only what my senses tell me, and that's that he has been disposed of." She stepped to Laura's side and grasped her hand. "Now, it's time to get you to a safe location."

Laura's eyes widened. "Does that mean ... it's over?" she asked hesitantly.

Anya shook her head. "You'll still have to give a deposition. But first, let's get you someplace safe." She held Laura's hand tightly, and chanted some foreign words.

In less time that Laura could imagine, Laura and Anya appeared in the office of Bikini Beach. It was late, and the park was closed, but the office was busy. Both Michelle and Tonya were there as well, having been themselves rescued.

**********

The woman stood behind a forest of microphones as so many cameras clicked often that it sounded almost like the buzz of an engine. Rachel Warren sighed to herself, steeling herself for the questions she knew were coming.

"Madam Vice President," the first reporter practically shouted to be heard above the others, "Can you comment on the leak?"

Rachel held up her hands, indicating silence among the reporters. She knew that she had to tame the reporters or the press conference would devolve into anarchy. "One at a time, please," she indicated in a firm but gentle voice. "I recall how Senator Michaels would take turns, making sure all the pertinent questions were answered. I intend to do the same."

As soon as a hush descended over the room, Rachel turned to the reporter who'd asked the question. "I'll get to your question in a moment. First, though, I'd like to make a statement as to the rumors and stories." She glanced at her notes. Unlike some politicians, she, like Senator Michaels, preferred to work from brief notes. She found it much easier and more natural than trying to work from a teleprompter.

"Bear with me please. After all," she said with a sad smile, "this _is_ my first press conference as Vice President, and I'm a bit new to the job." Given the serious subject of the press briefing, she wasn't surprised that her attempt to lighten the mood failed. She shook her head. "I wish it weren't such a ... scurrilous event, however." She looked over her notes. "The President is very clear that rumors and stories about trade deals are just that — rumors and stories. Such gossip seems to be the stock and trade of some so-called reporters these days, but the press should carefully weigh the facts before passing on malicious innuendo. Currently, the President is working with his trade advisors in preparation for a trip to Europe next week. It should be clear to the American people that his dedication to his duties must take precedence over defending himself from baseless lies and political hatchet jobs, no matter how deeply they might offend or personally injure him."

Rachel looked up from her notes. "Now, as to the first question, the 'unnamed source, close to the President' is a standard disclaimer that some elements of the press have used for a generation to hide behind when their stories are shaky." She shook her head. "Personally, I prefer the stance of my father, which is to deal in facts and let others deal with gossip."

Many reporters raised their hands. Rachel called on one.

"Is it the President's contention that these rumors are an attempt by his opposition to weaken him before next year's election?"

Rachel shook her head. "For all I know," she countered, "it could be foreign intelligence attempting to discredit the President. It could be the opposition party, although, again, personally, I would find it hard to remain in a party that would resort to such ... distasteful innuendo. As toxic as the political environment is, I find it hard to believe that these types of accusations would be bandied about so lightly, even by the most ruthless politician."

"Is it true that the Russians are uncomfortable with the upcoming trade deal with China, and might use such a tactic to delay or cancel the deal?"

Rachel shrugged. "I suppose that anything is possible, until we know the source of the rumors."

"The stories suggest that so-called 'surplus' military assets will be transferred to China as part of the deal. Any comment?"

Rachel shook her head. "I can't comment on that which I don't know. As you know, the President has called for some deep reductions in our military forces. The standard has always been that any assets that are retired are held in reserve, in case they would be needed, so I find that rumor unbelievable."

"European press is reacting quite strongly to the suggestion that the US will leave NATO, and effectively turn over the Western powers to a resurgent Russia. Is the President committed to a strong NATO as a deterrent?"

"The United States does not welch on its obligations or treaties," Rachel replied, a bit scornfully. "The President has stated often his commitment to NATO. I would find it hard to believe that such a public commitment has changed."

"British sources say that MI-6 has intelligence suggesting that the press release is accurate. It's also reported in the Israeli press that the Mossad also believes the stories to be true."

"I can't comment about the accuracy, or lack thereof, of foreign intelligence."

"How is the administration going to address the comments of the British and other foreign intelligence sources?"

Rachel shook her head. This was turning into a circus. The media seemed to have pre-judged the President as guilty of the accusations in the stories. "I can't speak for the President, or what the administration will or will not do to respond to stories from foreign intelligence sources. I don't think I need remind you of some of the past failures of foreign intelligence. They have been known to miss reality by a wide margin in the past."

"Have you had a chance to talk to the President on this specific matter?"

Rachel shook her head. "I haven't met with the President. He's been busy with his advisors the past few days."

"Is there a reason that his personal and presidential lawyers have been seen at the White House for the past few days?"

"I can't comment, and I refuse to speculate," Rachel admitted, again. "I don't keep the President's schedule. As I noted earlier, the President is preparing for trade meetings in Europe."

The pool of reporters was getting anxious. Several tried to call out questions.

Rachel interrupted the noise. "I cannot speak further on what the administration is or is not doing. As you well know, I only recently took office, and I'm a little pre-occupied even trying to fill my staff." She let the uproar of the reporters die down. "I don't believe there is anything more I can add that would be factual," she said. "And I am certainly not going to contribute to rumors and speculation." With that, she turned and strode purposefully from behind the podium to off-stage.

Her husband, Brett Williams, former aide to Senator Michaels, was waiting in the adjoining prep room. "That was about as well handled as you could have managed," he said as he gave her a quick hug and kissed her cheek.

Rachel shook her head. "That was a no-win situation. I can see why Collins didn't want to face it."

Brett shook his head. "You handled it very well. No rumors, just facts, and you tried to defuse speculation. But you also didn't directly defend the President. And since you've only held the office for a few weeks, you're pretty clean on this if the rumors turn out to be true."

Rachel's jaw was set, and her eyes narrowed. "If even one fourth of the rumors are true," she said through clenched teeth, "I'll personally see that the bastard is hanged for treason."

Brett and nearby advisors grimaced at her vehemence. They knew how firmly she was committed to the constitution and the country, so it wasn't surprising that she was upset by even the rumors. It was just how she was like her father, the late Senator Michaels.

**********

Anya and Grandmother sat on the sofa in Grandmother's office, watching the news. With them were Tonya, Michelle, and Laura. Laura still had three weeks on her pass before she'd return to being Larry.

"And in the latest chapter in this political drama that makes Watergate look like the amateur hour, we go live to Capitol Hill, where Rachel Warren is about to be sworn in as the new President."

"Talk about a rags-to-riches, fairy-tale life, Jim," the reporter echoed with a staged smile. "It was only a few short years ago that she discovered that she was the daughter of the late Senator Michaels, the old Southern legend, considered by many to be a voice of unyielding principle. On that very day, the Senator perished in a tragic plane wreck, turning her joy to grief. But, like a Phoenix, she rose from the ashes of that tragedy, and in a stunning upset landslide, captured Senator Michaels' seat. Now, barely a month after she was confirmed as President Collins new Vice President, she's taking the oath of office to succeed the disgraced President, and to become, historically, the first woman to take over as our Chief Executive."

"She'll also be the youngest President in our history, right, Donna?"

"That's right, Jim. She's just old enough to meet the Constitutional age requirement for that office, but after only a few years in the Senate, she's become legendary on the Hill. No one who knows her doubts her integrity, skill, or resolve, or thinks that she can't do the job."

"The country has been through a lot in the last two months, hasn't it Donna?"

"Yes, Jim, it has. President Falk passed on tragically only a few short months ago from a brain tumor, and Vice President Collins took the oath of office. In what many political strategists consider a brilliant masterstroke to ensure his re-election, Collins nominated Senator Warren to be his Vice President, following the Constitutional guidelines laid down after the Watergate debacle. Her integrity, legacy, and popularity made her confirmation a certainty."

"Who would have believed that we'd have our third President in three short months?"

"And while her star has been rising, Collins' star has been plummeting! The revelations of a secret deal to trade our debt for some of our best military technology have soured even his staunchest supporters, as they sense a scandal brewing that could wipe out anyone even remotely connected to it."

"That's right. Let's go back to yesterday, when the Articles of Impeachment were passed by the house and carried to the Senate. "

"And it's been stunning how quickly the Senate began to act on the impeachment. Every Senator had been briefed ahead of time, and every Senator could read the public sentiment. Opinion is definitely running against President Collins."

"That's right," the on-the-spot reporter noted. "The overnight tracking poll had his approval at a record-low six percent. More notably, over sixty percent of the people believe his actions were treasonous, and that he should be impeached."

The talking head in the studio interrupted. "We have Dr. Dennis Taylor, professor of law at Yale University and Constitutional scholar. Thank you for joining us, Professor. Could you explain to our viewers the process of impeaching a public official, such as the President?"

"Certainly, Jim. The first step in impeaching an official is to get articles of impeachment detailing the reasons. This is like bringing charges against someone. If they are passed out of the House committee, those articles must be brought to the full House for debate and vote. The House is acting like a grand jury, deciding whether to formally charge the official with, in the words of the founders, 'high crimes and misdemeanors.' If the House votes to accept the articles of impeachment, the official is charged, and the Senate sits as jury to determine if the official is guilty and should be removed. Unlike a crime, where the verdict must be unanimous, the Senate convicts an official with only a two-thirds vote. If the Senate votes 'guilty', the official is convicted, and is removed from office."

The on-the-spot reporter chimed in. "In this case, it was President Collins, who was impeached, but like President Nixon, resigned before he could be tried by the Senate. The charges were pretty serious, Jim. The word 'treason' was used twice in the articles of impeachment. Giving aid and comfort to our enemies was listed. Plotting to debase our currency. Plotting to overthrow the Constitutional Republic and replace it with a local 'prince' who rules on behalf of the real controlling power."

"Sort of like King Herod as a figurehead, while the real ruler was Pontius Pilate."

"That's a good analogy."

"The evidence against him has been staggering. Apparently, Collins' bid for power was supported by some so-called foreign 'friends'. The question is, 'which foreign power'. Everyone is trying to figure out whether it was China or Russia."

"Speculation is that it was the Chinese, even though they deny the rumors. They hold a massive amount of our national debt. If they were to suddenly dump those assets on the world market, the tidal wave of ink would ruin the country. They're running out of places to invest their money, so they've been pressuring the US in trade concessions, and even pressuring the President to alter our defense treaties and further downsize our military."

"The secret trade deal is said to include some of the US's best military assets, including finished F-35 and F-22 fighters and production rights, seven aircraft carriers, including three nuclear carriers that are still in active service. In other combat vessels, the foreign power was reportedly to get two nuclear guided missile cruisers, and a mix of fast attack submarines, and Ohio-class guided missile submarines. As icing on the cake, it was revealed that the administration intended to sell twelve-hundred M1A3 tanks, the best in our arsenal, and all the research data associated with our Ballistic Missile Defense systems."

"Right, Jim. Even his staunchest allies in Congress were crying 'foul' when those details became public. With no public or political support, President Collins ended up with no chance. "

"All this, reportedly, in exchange for cancelling one half of our total debt held by China."

"Some say that China is pushing to the front of the world's stage, and they intended to push us off that very stage."

"And apparently, Collins was helping them achieve that goal. This has been almost unbelievable in what Collins was trying to achieve."

"The blow to Collins led him to resign, but Congress almost didn't let him. They insisted on a full impeachment and conviction. Last night, former-President Collins left the White House for the last time, and is now at an undisclosed location under guard, awaiting arraignment on charges of treason."

"Yes, Jim. Apparently, his fiancé, Laura O'Donnell, disappeared as well." A picture of Laura flashed up on the screen. "She's a young socialite, who caught the eye of Collins. They'd only recently announced their engagement. Mysteriously, she's nowhere to be found. Did she go into hiding, for fear of Collins' less-reputable aides, or did she already meet an unfortunate accident to prevent her testimony? Or was she a part of the conspiracy, and has fled?"

"Well, Jim," Donna interjected, "she could have simply realized that Collins' boat was sinking, and it was time to look for a new boat. Or she's in hiding writing a book on the whole sordid affair."

"What has been most intriguing about her is the fierce debate about whether, as his fiancée and not his wife, she could have been forced to testify against him. Her testimony could have been very damaging."

"Fortunately for her, it wasn't necessary in the impeachment. The impeachment vote in the house was 385 to 43, with 7 abstentions. In the Senate, the vote was expected to be equally lopsided."

Grandmother had had enough of the blabbering heads on the TV. She shut it off with the remote. "Well," she said solemnly, "it looks like we pulled it off."

Anya glanced at Michelle. "What are you going to do now?" she asked.

Michelle smiled. "I've already been asked to be her Chief of Staff."

"Tough job," Grandmother observed. "I don't know of one who's lasted more than four years in the job."

"I'm up to it," Michelle grinned.

"And you?" The question was directed at Tonya.

"I'll stay in field work," she said sadly. "The service has to be rebuilt, practically from the ground up. I can't give up on the service."

"Larry? What about you?"

Laura laughed softly. "I'm still Laura for another few weeks. But after that," she sounded wistful, "I think I'd like to take a vacation for a few months. Maybe go sailing around the Caribbean."

Ending A

"You've earned it." Anya prompted, "Anything else?"

Laura smiled. "I guess I've learned a few things during these past few months, too. Maybe I need to settle down."

Grandmother stood up, signifying the end of the meeting. "I have a park to run," she announced. "But why don't you stay here and visit with Anya for a bit? I think she has something ... special ... cooked up for you."

Ten minutes later, Grandmother came back in the office. She glanced around, and saw only Anya. "Well?" she asked simply.

"I did exactly as you asked. I read Michelle's thoughts to see if anyone else knew about our magic. Fortunately, they didn't tell anyone else."

Grandmother simply nodded.

"And then I erased memories of the place. I altered the reality around Laura, as well, so she'll never remember," Anya continued.

"Good," Grandmother answered.

"Why?" She seemed to be asking not for new information or opinion, but to confirm what she knew already.

Grandmother smiled. "The more people in government know about our magic, the more they _will_ be tempted to use it for their own immoral purposes. Magic — and knowledge of magic — do _not_ belong in the hands of politicians."

Anya pondered for a moment. "Grandmother, did we do the right thing?"

Grandmother smiled. "What do you think, child?"

Anya closed her eyes and focused her attention. "Yeah, we did the right thing."

"But?" Grandmother could read Anya well.

"But, I had to wipe their memories. They don't remember Bikini Beach, or our magic, or that they changed Larry to snare Collins. They'll never, ever come back to seek our help again. It's too dangerous to let them remember. I'm worried about Rachel. She still knows our secret."

"Michelle never told her of our involvement. I trust her to keep her word."

Anya looked like she was about to cry. "I ... hate myself ... for what I had to do to Larry."

"Anya, there was no other way."

Anya closed her eyes, shaking her head sadly. "I had to wipe out Larry. He'll never return to being Larry, and _she'll_ always believe she was Laura O'Donnell. I feel like I ... killed someone."

"We do what we have to do." She tried to smile, but failed. "I'll buy you an ice cream," Grandmother said with a smile as she patted Anya's arm with affection. "And then you and I will forget that this ever happened."

Anya shook her head. "This whole thing made me feel — dirty." She shuddered at the memories. "I had to do ... things ... that I used to accuse you of doing out of spite."

"The world isn't black and white, dear," Grandmother tried to comfort her.

"I know," Anya said sadly. She shook her head. "Forget the ice cream. I feel like I need to go out and get really drunk."

Grandmother nodded sympathetically. "So do I, dear. So do I." She rose and extended her hand to help Anya up. "How about if we go to your condo and open a bottle of Scotch?"

Anya nodded. "Yeah." She sighed heavily. "If one bottle will be enough ...."

FIN

Ending B:

"You've earned a vacation." Anya replied. "But we have more complicated issues. First is what to do about Laura."

Laura's eyebrows shot up. "About me? What do you mean?"

Grandmother closed her eyes for the briefest of moments, which punctuated what she had to say. "If reality shifts back when Laura changes back to Larry, then all the evidence disappears with her."

"And Collins would still be in power," Michelle noted, her expression grim.

"Everything we've done would be for nothing," Laura agreed.

Tonya sighed. "There _has_ to be another way."

Anya and Grandmother shook their heads. "I'm sorry, but I can't think of any," Anya said sadly.

Laura gulped. "So — it comes down to me not changing back, or Collins being in power?"

Grandmother nodded, her expression sad.

The silence in the room was palpable. Finally, Laura spoke softly. "Okay. I'll do what I have to do."

Tonya turned toward her. "You ... can't!"

"You'd give up ever returning to being Larry," Grandmother said softly. "That's a huge step."

Laura shook her head. "I've been Laura for almost eight months. It wasn't so bad. It's worth the price." She glanced at Grandmother, a wry smile on her face. "Maybe you could give me a few ... magic enhancements, so I'd be more comfortable?"

Grandmother nodded slowly. "I can do that." She sighed. "I wish you didn't all know about this place's magic, though. It's too dangerous for the government to know. Someone will be tempted to extort our help."

"Again," Michelle noted. She sounded like she'd betrayed them, and hated herself for it.

Grandmother nodded. "Yes, again."

"Let's just get this over with," Laura said insistently. "I know what you have to do, so go ahead and do it."

Grandmother lowered her gaze to her desk, her expression heavy with sadness. When she looked up, she seemed to have aged. "Okay." She started to wave her hands while she incanted something.

"Stop!" Anya said sharply, interrupting Grandmother's spell.

"What?"

"Melani," Anya said, her eyes wide with surprise.

Grandmother was confused. "What about Melani?"

"Don't you see? With Melani, and with the Senator, we had to create a dual past — a new one for Melani, ..."

"And for Senator Michaels," Michelle piped in.

"Yeah. And preserve the past of the old person." She looked at Laura, her eyes brimming with hope, and then at Grandmother. "I know it's a complicated spell, but I can do it!"

Grandmother looked at Laura. "Do you want to try? Because if she misses the spell in the slightest bit, Larry might be lost forever, and you'll be Laura — forever."

Laura glanced at Michelle and at Tonya. "I'd be lying if I said that I hadn't enjoyed parts of the assignment," she said softly. "But ..." She bit her lip. "I'm not sure if I want my old life back. I don't know if I'd be happier as Laura or as Larry." She sighed. "I think I've gotten used to being Laura over these past few months."

Grandmother smiled. "You have about three weeks to think it over. Anya would have to make the change when your current pass expires." She stood up, signifying the end of the meeting. "I have a park to run," she announced. "But why don't you stay here and visit with Anya for a bit? I think she has something ... special ... cooked up for you."

Ten minutes later, Grandmother came back in the office. She glanced around, and saw only Anya. "Well?" she asked simply.

"I did exactly as you asked. I read Michelle's thoughts to see if anyone else knew about our magic. Fortunately, they didn't tell anyone else."

Grandmother simply nodded.

"And then I erased memories of the place. I altered the reality around Laura, as well, so she'll never remember," Anya continued.

"Good," Grandmother answered.

"Why?" She seemed to be asking not for new information or opinion, but to confirm what she knew already.

Grandmother smiled. "The more people in government know about our magic, the more they _will_ be tempted to use it for their own immoral purposes. Magic — and knowledge of magic — do _not_ belong in the hands of politicians."

"But, I had to wipe their memories. They don't remember Bikini Beach, or our magic, or that they changed Larry to snare Collins. They'll never, ever come back to seek our help again. It's too dangerous to let them remember. I'm worried about Rachel. She still knows our secret."

"Michelle never told her of our involvement. I trust her to keep her word."

Anya shook her head. "This whole thing made me feel — dirty." She shuddered at the memories. "I had to do ... things ... that I used to accuse you of doing out of spite."

"The world isn't black and white, dear," Grandmother tried to comfort her. "At least you figured out a way to not force Larry to be stuck as Laura. It's her choice now."

"I know," Anya said sadly. She shook her head. " I feel like I need to go out and get really drunk to try to forget this whole sordid mess."

Grandmother nodded sympathetically. "So do I, dear. So do I." She rose and extended her hand to help Anya up. "How about if we go to your condo and open a bottle of Scotch?"

Anya nodded. "Yeah." She sighed heavily. "If one bottle will be enough ...."

FIN



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