Number One Observatory Circle was in chaos. A small army of black-suited men raced about, hand-to-ear, trying to hear the rapid-fire updates coming through their earpieces. They barked orders or gathered grimfaced in groups of two or three in the foyer, murmuring in low tones about the necessary next steps. Lights blazed throughout the house, mocking the hour displayed on the nearby atomically synchronized clock: 3:32 a.m.
In the midst of the madness Vice President John B. Sepeida struggled to get himself dressed, while just outside the door a roomful of people demanded his attention. Each had a matter of great urgency to communicate to him through the fog of interrupted sleep that still clouded his consciousness.
None of the competing communiqués, however, could match the gravity of the phone message that had ignited the situation just fourteen minutes earlier. Air Force One had disappeared from radar just minutes out of Vienna en route to the European Union capital in Brussels. The simultaneous loss of communications with all those on board, and corroborating eyewitness accounts of a midair explosion near Regensburg, Germany, left little doubt that the President of the United States had been killed. Whether it was an act of terrorism or an untimely accident would be determined in the coming hours. At the moment, Sepeida needed to get to the White House Situation Room to assume the reins of government.
As his motorcade sped toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Sepeida strove to get his head around the barrage of data and instructions that flowed ceaselessly from the aides, Secret Service personnel, and legal advisor-six people, in all-who accompanied him in the limo.
That he might soon be the President of the United States was difficult enough to grasp. But the sheer amount of instant knowledge required to assume that job was mindboggling. As Vice President, Sepeida always knew that such a day could come without warning. He wondered now if anyone could truly be prepared for that moment. Especially when it came in the middle of the night.
The streets of the capital were almost empty at this hour. The lead police vehicles were able to change the traffic signals to green ahead of their arrival, keeping the motorcade moving at a continuous clip of nearly sixty miles per hour down the wide, straight extent of Massachusetts Avenue NW.
The only interruption of that pace was at two roundabouts, the first of which they had just passed. The second came just six hundred yards later at Dupont Circle, where they would swing southward down Connecticut Avenue to the White House.
Now, as the Vice President's vehicle slowed, entering the second traffic circle, he turned to his legal counsel and asked her opinion on a constitutional matter.
Her answer was cut short by the sudden roar of an engine to their right. A large truck with headlights dark was barreling up New Hampshire toward them. The limo driver tried to react, but was hemmed in by the lead and trailing vehicles.
The truck slammed into the Vice President's car so hard that, after flipping two and half times, it came to rest upside down in the Dupont Circle Fountain.
One week earlier.
The 21-year-old redhead felt like he was being watched. But after almost two years as a missionary in Austria, he was used to it. He was well aware that, in business suits far too conservative for their ages, and with their prominent plastic nametags, he and his companion stuck out like sore thumbs. This, of course, was by design. The Church prided itself on its missionary program and wanted its "elders" to be instantly recognized anywhere in the world. They were repeatedly reminded that emissaries of the Lord did not hide themselves "under a bushel."
Today Elders Davis and Pearson were hosting an informational display on the broad sidewalk outside Humanic, a five-story behemoth that touted itself as Europe's largest shoe store. The spot was ideal for their purpose. Mariahilferstraße was the heart of Vienna's shopping district. Here, boutiques, department stores, and restaurants stretched for a full kilometer, nestled among two centuries of architectural style, from baroque to minimalist modern.
It was Saturday, the boulevard's busiest day. Because Vienna's blue laws required shops to close at 1 p.m. and stay closed on Sunday, these were the only few hours in which working Viennese could get their shopping done, presenting the missionaries an opportunity too good to pass up.
Like fishermen wading among spawning salmon, Davis and Pearson trawled the teeming sidewalks for an easy catch, having cast their lines from a small piece of the pedestrian zone they had staked out earlier in the day. Courtesy of their visual aids, beaming Mormon families smiled from posters promising "Families Are Forever," glistening temples symbolized eternal glory, and a selection of pamphlets explained how to achieve both.
Davis knew that hooking one of the locals was a difficult proposition. Vienna was the erstwhile capital of the Holy Roman Empire. As countless Austrians liked to remind him, this country had been staunchly Roman Catholic since the Fall of Rome. While most Austrians were outwardly polite to a fault, they were intensely private when it came to religion. Airing one's personal faith in the public square was distasteful to them.
Vienna was nevertheless a cosmopolitan city, home to myriad transplants and refugees from less hopeful places. Twenty percent of the city's population was said to be of foreign origin. From what Davis had seen during his time here, dozens of nations were represented just within the core districts of the city. Immigrants from invariably poorer-and often less free-countries were ideal candidates for the message he and his companion had to share. People who took the initiative to leave their homeland in search of a better life were, by nature, seekers; exactly who the missionaries were looking for.
At length Davis traced the gaze he had been sensing for some time. It emanated from a swarthy young man leaning against the glass façade of the shoe store, some twenty meters away. He judged the observer to be about his own age, definitely not Austrian; both of which qualified him as a good prospect. Older immigrants tended to be too set in lifelong traditions to consider changing their religion; younger and better-educated generations, on the other hand, usually had broader interests and greater exposure to diversity, making them more receptive to the ideas in which the missionaries trafficked.
Davis met the young man's gaze and gave him a polite nod and a smile. He was encouraged when the smile was returned. But when the guy began making his way through the crowd directly toward him, his manner seemed oddly deliberate. A typical visitor would look around a bit first, maybe stop to check out the display materials before making direct eye contact.
Davis wondered if this particular visitor wasn't just a tad too enthusiastic. But before he could consider it any further, he found himself face to face with the strikingly handsome stranger, who stood a few inches shorter than Davis's own nearly six-foot stature. His mocha skin was movie-star smooth and framed in a full head of close-cropped dark hair and three-day growth of facial hair. His intense brown eyes were softened by an effusive grin as he stretched a hand toward Davis. "Hi. I'm Jassim," he said in English. His manner was matter of fact, as though he'd been expected.
Davis wondered if the guy had mistaken him for someone else. It was usually the gregarious missionary who cornered the timid passerby, not the other way around.
"Elder Davis," he said, returning the introduction and shaking the proffered hand.
The stranger laughed goodnaturedly. "So is that the 'younger Davis'?" he asked, cocking his head toward Pearson who, oblivious to them, was attempting to corner an ambivalent elderly woman.
After nearly two years in the mission field, Davis found this joke tedious. Nevertheless he had grown accustomed to the question and answered with practiced patience. "Elder is just a title," he explained, as he had a hundred times before.
He stopped short of mentioning the priesthood to which the title pertained. He had already surmised that the man was Middle Eastern, and therefore likely also a Muslim. The missionaries were prohibited from overtly proselytizing Muslims, in which case his guest would have to be explicit in his request for information before a religious discussion could be initiated.
"That's my companion, Elder Pearson," Davis added by way of explanation. "We're missionaries."
"Ah," replied the stranger. "Your companion." A raised eyebrow suggested that he may have misunderstood the use of the term.
"My assigned missionary partner," Davis clarified.
"I see." Jassim's tone suggested that he saw more than had been intended. "Well, then if you are not elder, you must be about twenty, no?"
"Close. Twenty-one," Davis corrected. It was a strangely personal question for a first encounter. Not comfortable being the topic of conversation, he changed the subject. "Feel free to browse the information here." He gestured toward the nearby display. "And don't hesitate to ask any questions you may have."
Jassim declined to look in the direction that Davis was pointing. "Thank you. I do have a question."
Davis smiled. "Sure. What is it?"
"Do you do this all day?"
Another odd query. Davis wasn't sure how to answer. "Well, not exactly. But we do spend the majority of our time talking to people, if that's what you mean."
"You must be good at conversation, then." There was no hint of sarcasm in the stranger's reply and Davis couldn't help but laugh, despite some apprehension.
"I don't know about that," he said.
"Well I would enjoy conversing with you," Jassim said. "When do you rest from your labors?"
"Uh…," Davis hesitated, again unsure, of both the stranger and the intent of his question. "We get Mondays off."
"Surely you will eat before then!" Jassim said with mock astonishment, making a show of looking at his watch.
"Uh, yeah," Davis laughed, "but we usually-"
"Then you will join me for lunch," the stranger interrupted. It was a simple declaration rather than a question.
Davis balked. Caught off guard by the invitation, he found himself speechless. It took him a second or two to realize that he was standing slackjawed. "Uh, well-"
Jassim cut him off. "It is your job to talk to people, no?"
"Well, yes, but-"
"Then you will be my guest for lunch," Jassim declared, not allowing a rebuttal. "You can talk to me," he said with a cheerful grin, "and you will be doing your job."
"Really, it's very nice of you to ask," Davis said, doing his best to reject the offer without offending. "But we're working right now." In most circumstances he would welcome such eagerness in a prospective convert, but this guy's invitation was all a bit sudden and more than a little strange.
"Yes. It is rude of me to interrupt," Jassim apologized. "How long will you be here?"
"A couple of hours, but-"
"Perfect," replied Jassim with a satisfied grin. "I prefer a late lunch. I will come again at one-thirty," he declared. He waved goodbye and slipped into the crowd before Davis could formulate a response. He could only stare after the enigmatic stranger. What was that all about?
* * *
"That's just weird," Elder Pearson said when Davis described the encounter to him. "What did he want?"
"No clue. He didn't give me a chance to ask."
"Well, if he comes back, we're not going anywhere with him," Pearson declared, despite his junior status. When he saw that Davis didn't agree immediately, he added more emphatically, "Don't be stupid, dude! The guy's a weirdo. Who just walks up to a stranger and invites him to lunch? He's probably an axe-murderer or something."
"He wasn't that bad," Davis disagreed. "I mean, he was totally friendly," then added, before Pearson could go off again, "Relax. We'll still blow off the invite."
"Any way you want, dude. You're the senior," Pearson said with a wry smile.