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The Beirut Conspiracy

John R. Childress

Chapter One

Washington, D.C., Early January

The target was in plain sight. The short figure, notebook in hand, elbowed towards the front. The brightly colored press badge lay clearly visible against a dark wool overcoat. While necessary for the chilly January air, the bulky coat’s main task was not warmth. It concealed a vest of tightly packed steel ball bearings imbedded in a matrix of plastic explosives. What looked like another eager news reporter was a human bomb waiting to unleash holy terror.

The button of the detonating device was moist from the perspiring hand that reverently cradled it. A practiced smile masked a racing heart and morbid fear that something would go wrong after all the years of preparation, all the sacrifices. On the outside the illusion was perfect. Inside burned an all-consuming hatred. The harbinger of death in Allah’s just cause was in place.

President Roswell Clayton Pierce respectfully shook the hand of his friend and personal physician, Dr. Andrew Norman. They then turned to the press, a perfect photo opportunity. The first of the New Year. The two men smiled as they stood in front of the luxury brownstone, waving to the crowd and television cameras below. Turning up the collar of his overcoat against the chill, President Clayton flashed his charismatic boyish smile, then moved athletically down the steps. A jostling mass of reporters, cameramen, D.C. police and Secret Service agents pressed up against the tall iron fence, keeping everyone at a respectful and safe distance.

“How was the medical checkup, Mr. President?”

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” The 58-year old first term President quipped. “I believe that’s how Dr. Norman describes my fitness level.”

“Dr. Norman? Dr. Norman? Can you give us an official statement concerning the health and well-being of the President?” called an attractive correspondent from Fox News. “Was this just a routine checkup, or is there some sort of health problem?”

President Pierce stepped back and gave the spotlight of the nation to his friend. “You’re up, Andrew.” A ripple of laughter spread through the crowd. Not since John F. Kennedy had a US President enjoyed such an easy relationship with the press.

The elderly physician moved toward the fence, eager to field questions about the health of the President of the United States.

“ In the name of Allah, Most Beneficent, Most Merciful!” A high-pitched voice screamed loudly, but the explosion was even louder.

The black overcoat disintegrated, along with bone, flesh, blood and viscera. 7,000 4mm round steel projectiles rushed outward in all directions at a velocity of 7,100 meters per second. Those closest to the assassin were instantly torn to shreds. The deadly spheres hurtled outwards in an ever-expanding circle of death and carnage. Slamming into the metal casing of a shoulder-held television camera, they effortlessly decapitated the young cameraman. In seconds the tree-lined street was littered with corpses and screaming bodies, fallen as if stalks of wheat before an invisible scythe. Bright red rivers of blood formed into steaming pools in the frigid air.

The first suicide bomber on American soil killed fifty-seven people that cold January morning. Seventy-five were seriously wounded. The pain and anger unleashed that day in Washington, D.C. erased all hopes for peace in the Middle East.

***

Sweet Briar College, Virginia

“Matt, Matt, wake up. Something terrible has just happened in Washington.” Kelly Stevens dashed from the kitchen, her plate of toast falling to the tile floor. Bare feet slapped as she ran into the bedroom of the modest wooden house on faculty row.

Matt Richards lay still, seemingly paralyzed, his nerves and muscles bound tight in an all too familiar alcohol induced haze. He listened. The sound of a press interview. President Pierce at his most ingratiating. Then the detonation. The sound of it shook his clogged brain. The memory, the fear, the terrible sorrow rose up again. The past, suppressed and locked away, kept in check with ample quantities of scotch, broke through the surface. He gripped the pillow. Oh God, not again, please!

She sprang onto the rumpled sheets of the wrought-iron bed, tangled blond hair cascading into the face of her secret lover.

“Wake up,” she pleaded, shaking him. “There’s been a suicide bomb attack on the President.”

“Score one for the ragheads.” Dr. Matthew Richards, assistant professor of anatomy and human biology rolled over and slowly sat up, legs dangling, head in hands covering blood-shot eyes. “And close those god-damned curtains. It’s uncivilized for any decent human being to see the sun before noon.”

“You only say that because you drink yourself into a stupor every night.” Kelly smiled, somehow enjoying the unique opportunity to reprimand one of her teachers.

He watched her close the curtains, this lithe coed from his anatomy class, reaching, stretching, buttocks round and taut, a nymph in the slanting sunlight. Then the memories crowded in. She was Kelly’s age when she died.

“Here, have a puff of this. It’ll keep your liver from shutting down.” She exhaled and held out a thin wrinkled joint.

Never again. Matt shook his head. He reached for the remnants of his scotch. Miraculously, one swallow was left. A quick gulp and slowly the world came into focus. He looked down at his slim body, contoured with hard sinewy muscles, his skin tanned and weathered as a result of a lifetime of distance running, the last real vestige of an attempt at self preservation. He had the gaunt look of a wrangler, old and youthful at the same time.

“I’ll stick with my liquid gold. I tried marijuana once, in Beirut. Actually it was hashish and it nearly killed me. Gave me hallucinations for two days straight. Now turn off that damned noise-box and climb in bed.”

“But something important is happening. Don’t you even care anymore?” She left the darkened bedroom for the kitchen and the blaring news.

Matt stared into the empty glass, his empty life. The excited words of an anchorman floated in from the kitchen, hesitant, seemingly free of the teleprompter and the blandness of politically correct broadcasting.

“We can now confirm that the President of the United States is alive. I repeat, President Roswell Clayton Pierce is alive, having sustained only superficial wounds as a result of a suicide bomber attack this morning outside the Washington, D.C. residence of Dr. Andrew Norman, his personal physician. The President, at this moment, is at Walter Reed Hospital, where he will remain under tight security as military doctors tend to him. At this time, all indications are that the President of the United States has escaped a suicide bomber attack in Washington, D.C. with only minor injuries.”

Matt propped his trembling frame against the kitchen doorway. The empty scotch glass was warm in his hand.

“Oh My God, look at this. Can you believe it?”

He reached for the pinch-shaped Scotch container and half-filled the tumbler. It hadn’t just been Samir. There was Bedouina. Intense, eager to right injustices, passionately in love with Samir. And of course Maha. Ravishing red-hair, alabaster skin, beckoning green eyes. Drop dead figure, totally in love with, melt your heart for. Maha. Beirut. 1968. A magical year abroad. Study. Debate the world’s problems. Party hardy. Stare into Maha’s eyes. Run fingers through that soft red hair. Three young lives wiped away by a terrible explosion. Another reduced to a drunken zombie

“While we now know for certain that the President of the United States is alive and safe, his personal safety

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